Arguably, he could be called the number one Hindi film-maker right now. As Rajkumar Hirani’s latest film continues to pull in the crowds, the shy man opens up about his life, films, influences, his idea of cinema, and more.
Your films are devoid of all the commercial trappings — item numbers or an extra song. Yet, they are huge successes commercially. How do you manage that?
I am fortunate that whatever films I’ve made have had a little ‘off the road’ stories, like Munnabhai MBBS (2003) or Lage Raho Munnabhai (2006). When such films work, it gives you the confidence that whatever is liked by your heart will be loved by the audience. Abhijat (Joshi; co-writer) and I have made certain rules for ourselves. One of them is to always hunt for a unique story. That’s difficult, because, through 100 years of Indian cinema, whatever you want to try, you feel that it has happened before. Most importantly, when people believe that ‘this’ works, it’s the most unsafe thing. Their belief comes from seeing it in some other film, but that worked because it was unique in nature then. The second time, it isn’t new anymore. I tread the safe path because I don’t follow what has already succeeded.
How important is commercial success and critical appreciation for you?
For me, a film should be loved by audiences, and a film’s communication must reach them. I can’t say commercial success is not important, but it’s a distant second. We want a film to recover money, but the prime reason is that the film should communicate. That’s why I make one film in five years. I get very uneasy if I don’t have a script that I believe in.
Everybody is obsessed with numbers these days. Do you keep a track of them too?
Of course; I want to know how much my film has made, but I am not obsessive about it. We were in Delhi the day our latest film released. At night, distributors said they were getting the figures. But I went and slept. I got to know them from Vidhu (Vinod Chopra; producer) only the next morning.
You have just four films to your name, yet you are a ‘brand’ to reckon with.
I have made films and people have liked them. It’s awkward to be called a brand. I don’t put any such effort to make or keep alive my ‘brand’. I am not socially active. I neither go for shows nor earn money from my so called ‘brand name’. I don’t care if I make only six-seven films in my lifetime. I’d rather be quality conscious.
Your films are believed to be like the person you are. Aamir says you can’t even hurt a fly. Karan Johar calls you ‘bhala manas’. Will you ever attempt a full-on violent or a gangster film, just to shatter the notion?
I can’t do a gangster film for the sake of it. If the script demands it, I would. I am not that good a person as people say. I do get angry, but that is more of irritation when things don’t fall in place the way I want them to. But it’s never personal. And I have hurt a lot of flies and cockroaches too (laughs).
Did you always want to be in films? Is it true that you wanted to be an actor?
No, I never wanted to be an actor, but I would do a lot of theatre in Nagpur, where I was born and grew up. My father, who owned a typing institute there, realised that I wasn’t cut out to sit and run his business. That’s when I decided to enrol in the Film And Television Institute Of India (FTII), Pune. But I didn’t get admission. So the next year, I applied again in the editing course and got through. I was very excited. We were told that Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri and Shabana Azmi, among others, have studied here. But when I reached, within two days there was a strike at the institute. Since we were juniors, we were asked to sit for dharnas. We didn’t even know what was the issue, but we had to be active part of it. I didn’t like it and came back home. Then I got a telegram saying that strike was about to end, so I went back. But the protests continued and we were all locked up. So, in my first month at the institute, I was in a lock-up. When classes began, I started getting interested. Luckily, I met some like-minded people like Sriram Raghavan. At the institute, they showed lots of European cinema while we were all Hindi cinema lovers. I remember those years vividly.
Your films have a very simple look. They are never stylised or technically over the top…
It’s very easy to stylise a film. I can do all that too, since I know the techniques. My belief is that when a person sits to see a film he shouldn’t get to see anything between him and the character. If he gets to see sharp cuts and hears background music, then you haven’t succeeded. These are just tools in our hand to communicate a story. I don’t think I need such tools in the kind of films I make. Tomorrow, if I do such a film, I will definitely use them.
Are you influenced by film-makers who believed in the same school of thought?
Yes, in a way. I used to see lots of Hindi cinema in Nagpur, when I was growing up. I watched everyone from Manmohan Desai to Hrishikesh Mukherjee, then when I entered FTII, I got exposed to Guru Dutt, Bimal Roy and Raj Kapoor.
In the day-and-age of multi-crore deals, you have stayed away from it. Why?
I started getting offers to sign such deals right after my first film. Obviously, I didn’t take them up. Now, no one approaches me, knowing that I won’t accept them. I tell everyone that if you have to offer something, offer me a script. I am ready to work with anyone, I have no problems. But if I am writing my own script, I can produce it on my own too. My greed is always and only for a good script.
How does your family react to your success?
My father is no more, but my mother stays with me. He had watched the Munnabhai films and was very happy. In fact, he told Abhijat one day, ‘who would have thought that after partition, I will come from Pakistan as a 14-year-old boy – he came with a family of 20 members and supported them – and sell ice cream, run a typewriting institute and then one day see my son making good films.’ My mom saw the first (technical) print of PK and started crying. She is a very strong woman, I have never seen a reaction like that from her. So that meant a lot.
So, what’s Raju Hirani’s recipe for attracting audiences?
Audiences are intelligent. They don’t take sides while watching a film. If you make an entertaining and good film, they will lap it up. I don’t agree with the thinking that our audiences only like saas-bahu sagas on TV or item songs in films. Unlike 3 Idiots (2009), PK has a very unpopular sentiment as backdrop. But if it’s still filtering in people’s minds, it means they are sharp.
How difficult is to make simple films? Does coming from a small town like Nagpur help?
Simplicity requires a lot of effort. You write the way you think. Everyone will tell stories from their experiences and from their backgrounds. I think that in small towns you have more experiences. In Mumbai, I see that my children’s day is over with going to school and returning home. They don’t have time to experience life. On the other hand, Imtiaz (Ali) or Anurag (Kashyap) come from small towns and have more stories to tell.
Your next is a biopic on Sanjay Dutt…
Yes. Manyata (Sanjay’s wife) told me that I should make a biopic on him. But honestly, I wasn’t interested because I wasn’t sure what I could show that was not known about Sanju. Then she narrated a couple of incidents that are rare insights and I found them very interesting and fascinating. When Sanju came [out of jail on parole] for some time, he told me a few things without the intention of having a film made. When he started narrating, I was like, ‘I know only one per cent about his life despite having worked so much with him.’ I sat with him for eight hours daily, for 25 days. It’s an unbelievable story. We aren’t going to glorify anything about him, but just tell a fantastic story. And since script-wise the work is less, I should be able to make my next film faster.
Flying start (Report by Dibyojyoti Baksi )
Rajkumar Hirani’s PK is set to be among the fastest Rs 200 crore grossers in Bollywood. The makers claim that till Friday (December 26), the film had made Rs 197.02 crore. Figures in Box Office Indian Magazine state the Thursday figure to be Rs 171.23 crore, with Rs 13.30 crore added on Friday. Another Rs 15 crore was expected to be added to the total on Saturday, thereby taking the film past the Rs 200 crore mark. As trade analyst Amod Mehra puts it, "The film will cross Rs 200 cr on Saturday. I’m sure it will cross Rs 300 crore soon as well."