Back in the mid-seventies, a 19-year-old with dreams of Bollywood sets out to enrol in the Film And Television Institute (FTI), Pune. He is armed with a first class first in Economics, and has alternative plans to pursue a PhD at Cambridge.
Filmmaker Hrishikesh Mukherjee, on the the selection panel, can’t help asking: “What kind of a person gives up a chance to do a doctorate at Cambridge for a course in a government-run film school?” “A madman,” replies the teenager.
Three decades, an Oscar nomination, several National Awards and box-office hits later, Vidhu Vinod Chopra is still a madman sold on the movies. "My love for cinema keeps me going," he says. "I strive to achieve excellence in the medium. That is my only motivation."
The streak of madness was obvious in his recent showdown with multiplex owners over revenue sharing on the Rajkumar Hirani-directed Lage Raho Munna Bhai, his latest production that he has also co-scripted. The wrangle saw the film releasing only in single screens on the first day, with the multiplex release being deferred for two days. "I lost a few crores, but I gained respect," he says. "It is sad that a handful of multiplex owners try to dictate terms to an industry with hundreds of filmmakers. Multiplexes must realise they cannot exist without our movies."
Chopra shouldn't be sorry for long over the few lost crores. The Munna Bhai sequel has opened to phenomenal response - he had to release 42 extra prints on the first day itself. If the global success of Munna Bhai 2 has fans asking for more, Chopra and Hirani are already in the middle of scripting a third film. Does he plan a Munna Bhai franchise? "I am not much of a franchise man," he says. "I just hope Munna and Circuit never die. But everything depends on how many interesting stories we can come up with. I cannot make a movie just for the sake of raking in money."
That last line could perhaps sum up Chopra's career. Right after film school, where he made a diploma film called Murder At Monkey Hill that won the National Award for Best Short Experimental Film, he had offers from big producers like NN Sippy - who reportedly offered him Rs 21 lakh back in the 70s - and Gaffarbhai Nadiadwala. He rejected both. “My view on filmmaking was different from theirs,” he says. Tell him that in Bollywood, ‘choosy’ is often dismissed as eccentric and can hamper success, and he retorts, “I have always been successful. Success is a state of mind.”
And the choosy trait won’t leave the 'madman' even after all these years. Chopra last directed a film half a decade ago - Mission Kashmir in 2001. He would rather produce Parineeta or Munna Bhai for budding filmmakers than direct a film that fails to convince him. His next directorial feature, Eklavya (starring Amitabh Bachchan, Sanjay Dutt, Saif Ali Khan and Vidya Balan) opens around January 2007. “It is my best work yet,” he says. “I have got positive feedback from the likes of Michael Linton, head of Sony Pictures. The film took me five years to write, but then I am never in a hurry.” Perhaps that is the cautious side of a genius. Chopra has, after all, spent three years simply scripting his Hollywood dream, The Last Square. “I will start work on it only after Eklavya releases,” is all that he will say for now.
Also coming up is Mira Nair’s Gangsta MD, which Chopra has executive produced for Fox studios. It is a Hollywood remake of Munnabhai MBBS, with Chris Tucker in the lead. May be, he is not far from another go at the Oscars, then? "Lage Raho Munna Bhai has the calibre to go to the Oscars," he says. Chopra should know - his 1980 docu-film An Encounter With Faces, which he made for the Films Division for Rs 6,000, was nominated in the Best Short Film category. And his 1989 feature Parinda was India’s official entry at the Oscars. His contemporaries say the Oscars could be a different ballgame. "I have known Vinod as an audacious man who does not hesitate to chase his dreams," says filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt. "I don’t know if Lage Raho... will make it to the Oscars. The Oscars after all have their own yardstick to gauge what it considers quality entertainment in cinema."
Adds Rang de Basanti director Rakeysh Mehra, "Any movie that has the quality to touch you emotionally stands a chance for an Oscar nomination. Lage Raho Munna Bhai looks good enough in this context. But it is too early to pitch the film as an Oscar contender. Finally, it is up to the jury to decide, and not the filmmaker.”
From Pune to the Oscars has been a long journey for the boy from Srinagar’s Vir Bagh colony. Ask him about his dream film, and Chopra returns to his roots - a film based on the Kashmir he knew, one where he grew up in. When? "I hope to make the film before I die. And I hope not to die soon."