He is one of the most successful and revered directors in Bollywood at the moment. But Rajkumar Hirani still refrains from calling himself a “brand”. Here, he talks about what keeps him inspired, why public attention is essential, and more.
Karan Johar calls you ‘bhala manas’ (good man). Aamir Khan says you can’t even hurt a fly. Now, Shahid Kapoor takes your name in the context of being a ‘simpleton’ in his film’s dialogue. How did you develop this image?
I know such a perception has been created. At parties, waiters go to my fellow film-makers and ask them, “Sir, will you have a beer, whisky or vodka?” But when they approach me, they ask me, “Sir, what juice will you have? Orange or apple (laughs)?” I think people pick things from your work, and correlate them with your personality. People create stories in their heads.
Do you wish to break this image?
Yes. Maybe, I will have to make a sex comedy someday (laughs). Anyway, Sanju’s film (the biopic on actor Sanjay Dutt) is very different from what I have done till now. It will be entertaining, but it’s very different from what I have done in the past.
Were you surprised when you got to know that your name has been used in film-maker Vikas Bahl’s next?
Vikas sent me a message a day before the trailer of the film was supposed to release. He said, “Our trailer is coming out, and we have used your name. But it is in good context. We hope you have no problem.” I was like, “Kya problem ho sakti hai (what problem could I have)?”
Is your son, Vir, also interested in film-making?
He has an inclination, but he is still in school, and it’s too early for him. He has already started editing films and making short films. I have told him that after completing his 12th standard, he should take a year off just to explore himself. He should work for one or two months in different fields, and then decide what he wants to take up. In school, you don’t understand what you want from life.
How do you keep yourself inspired?
For me, the joy comes from the creation of a film or any of its other elements. It could be a funny line, a shot, a sequence or even a song. I have discovered that there are many non-creative and creative activities in life that we go through, like meeting people socially or watching films. But, I feel good only when I create something.
Your name has been used in a film’s dialogue. Do you consider yourself a brand?
I have made ad films, so I understand what being a brand means. The moment you say one has become a brand, you will start selling yourself and making money out of it. I don’t think I am selling myself to make money. People may call me whatever they want to, but I can’t call myself a brand.
Being such a private person, do you feel comfortable with all the public attention?
All I can say is that it comes with the territory (laughs). At some point, you do feel that you are losing your privacy. But I have to admit that if you don’t get the attention at all, that too, will make you feel bad. You will think, “Are people not liking my films?”
How do you strike a balance between a film’s commercial aspect and its creative side?
I am not sure I can analyse that. Some people even ask me if there is a formula. But if there was a formula, then everyone would follow it. Actually, I make films for myself. I am like, ‘I shouldn’t look at doing things that would get a bigger audience.’ I don’t think anyone can do that. You have to make films for yourself. So, while writing, Abhijat (Joshi; co-writer) and I consciously ask ourselves, ‘Are we having fun? Are we laughing or crying, or reacting emotionally to the story?’ But the moment we start becoming manipulative, and think, ‘Will the story connect with the audience in Bihar? Or will it work for single screen or multiplex audiences?’, then we know we are trying to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and see our work, and that’s a recipe for disaster. Whatever you do, do it for yourself.
You have made four films now. Do you feel you’re on the right track?
I am making films about subjects I feel attracted to. I never defined my life so much (smiles). Honestly, when I had come to Bombay from Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), my only dream was, ‘I wish I can make one film in this city, and my life will be a success.’ I feel blessed that I have been able to make four, and people have appreciated them. It has never been a planned journey at all.
Your films look so simple, unlike other film-makers’ over-the-top ventures...
Making things look simple is a difficult task. Simplicity is the result of a lot of hard work. Ultimately, you are saying so many things, and there are so many layers of communication, but you understand everything, because everything is simplified. If you have to make it (a film) complex, leave it midway, it will look complex on its own, as half the things will be understood and half won’t (smiles).
All your films have been big hits. Do box office numbers play on your mind while making a new film now?
I can’t deny that. It (the box office aspect of a film) does come to mind because you want your film to be appreciated. But what comes more to my mind is: will I get appreciated for my work? That always takes prominence over money for me. So when PK (2014) released, I was thinking, ‘Will people like it as much as they liked 3 Idiots (2009) or not?’ When I look back, if you ask me, I realise now that people liked 3 Idiots more than they liked PK, even though the latter made more money. So, somewhere I feel that what I wanted, somehow, didn’t happen.
What’s your film-making process like?
You have to disconnect from the outside world. Some people might not agree, but I personally feel that the moment I disconnect from the outside world, the world of the story starts opening up for me. For example, when you are writing a story, your phone might ring and you might take that call, or read a joke on WhatsApp and get distracted. I find it easier to disconnect. It’s better, if you go outside the city. Earlier, you could write sitting in Mumbai, but there are too many distractions nowadays.
Is it difficult to make real friends in the industry?
Forget success, real friends will always be few and far between. Rest will be acquaintances. The great thing about success is there will be many acquaintances. That’s the way life is. That’s also a great advantage of being ‘successful’… people meet you nicely (laughs). If one or two films won’t work, then you find out what’s real.
What is the status of the Sanjay Dutt biopic?
I have finished one draft of the script, which I bounced off Sanjay as well, when he was out [on parole] recently. I took into consideration all his inputs, as to where we are wrong or right. In another month, we will be close to finishing the second draft. Then, hopefully, we should start [shooting] it next year.
Your films are devoid of all ‘commercial’ trappings. Yet, they make so much money…
Whatever we consider formulas, when it comes to making a successful film, are what I call ‘trappings’. I believe that every time you make a film, you have to work hard to find something unique. I don’t think an item song or two extra action scenes can make a film work. Those are bizarre beliefs. If that was the case, we should make three hours of item songs. People go to the theatre for a story experience. You need to engage them in whatever way. Make them laugh, or scare them.
The industry has praised your for simple personality. Does this image reflect in your films?
When we write a script, we dig into our own lives to pick up scenes, anecdotes and happenings, and then, we convert them into scenes. So, when R Madhavan’s character [in 3 Idiots] goes to his father and tells him he doesn’t want to be an engineer… that happened to me. Then, the spitting scene from Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006) happened with someone I know. Somewhere, films do reflect your life.
What do you seek more — critical acclaim or success?
Whatever people might say, as a film-maker, you want both. Whoever says otherwise is lying. Having said that, I feel better when I get appreciation, and I feel sad when I don’t get it.
Do you keep track of numbers?
Honestly, there are times when I also find out from the newspapers and the media.Even if I do, I do it maybe for the first week or so. But I am not much into it. It took me a while to understand it, but abhi thoda samajh mein aane laga hai (now I have started understanding a bit).
His thoughts on:
He has a pure heart. What you see is what you get. He is emotional and very helpful. I have never seen him manipulate people. As an actor, his strength is that he has a tremendous memory. During Munnabhai films, he would take one good look at his dialogues while getting his make-up done, and he would be ready.
As opposed to Sanjay, Aamir needs a proper rehearsal. He starts preparing for his roles three months in advance. If he is speaking Bhojpuri in a film, a tutor will sit with him for weeks. As a director, I prefer that route, as then I am clear about what I am stepping on to the sets with. Aamir is all about the details and preparation.
I worked very little with him, only for one day in PK. He is an actor I can’t take my eyes off. He is very intense, and a fantastic actor. I don’t think anything will stop him. We shouldn’t harp on the one or two flops he has had. He can’t be blamed for a film’s failure. For the next generation, he is the undoubted star.
When I was growing up in Nagpur, I would watch a lot of films by Hrishikesh Mukherjee. I can still watch Anand (1971), Abhimaan (1973), Chupke Chupke (1975) and Golmaal (1979). So, he was an influence. Manmohan Desai was also someone whose films I followed keenly. Then I went to FTII and saw older stuff, and became a fan of Guru Dutt. Pyaasa (1957) made me cry like crazy when I saw it. Others like Raj Kapoor, K Asif and Bimal Roy are also on my list.
On being over connected:
‘The mobile phone has become a drug’
I have to be very careful. WhatsApp groups get made and without asking, people put you in them. Now, I have quit all WhatsApp groups, because your attention span and focus go for a toss the more you use your phone. I am seriously considering getting back to using the landline. We used to live so peacefully earlier; the mobile phone has become a drug, it’s like an addiction. It’s worse than doing drugs.
Starting small Like you, there are several film-makers in Bollywood who also come from small towns. Does that background help broaden your horizon as a film-maker?
When you grow up in a small town, or at least when I was growing up [in Nagpur], I think we were more exposed to the world. In big cities, you spend half your life travelling. In small towns, you are constantly dealing with people. You have more friends to spend more time with. Today, you have friends in the digital world. So, somehow, there is limited exposure to life, people and incidents in big cities. I feel small towns will produce more storywriters now. Also, when you come to a big city from a small town, you have this hunger to make a mark for yourself. So, you strive harder. Look at Vishal (Bhardwaj), Anurag (Kashyap) or Imtiaz (Ali). They are all bringing in different kinds of stories. Vishal’s world is from Meerut, as opposed to Imtiaz’s love stories.