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"During Lage Raho Munna Bhai distributors came and said, 'Item to apne daala hoga? Item kaafi hit tha MBBS mein.' I told them, item to hai - Mahatma Gandhi.
That's filmmaker Vidhu Vinod Chopra for you, reminiscing after the announcement of four National Awards for his production Lage Raho... which bagged the honours for wholesome entertainment, best screenplay, best lyrics and best supporting actor. We meet at his charming office complete with a waterfall, where he is taking stock before-airdashing to "Amrika" for his next directorial venture Broken Horses, a complete Hollywood film.
Broken Horses, with a screenplay based on an original story by Chopra has several impressive names attached to it--writers Abhijat Joshi (Lage Raho Munna Bhai, Eklavya and 64 Squares) and Jason Richman (Bangkok Dangerous, Swing Vote) and BAFTA winner and Academy Award-nominated screenwriter and executive producer Nick Pileggi as script consultant (Goodfellas, Casino and American Gangster). The film is being co-produced by Big Entertainment with rumours of Brad Pitt and Bachchan co-starring in the film though Chopra clarifies that it is an out and out Hollywood film that will have Hollywood actors.
Though anxious about his Hollywood foray, he is not daunted by the challenge that he's taken on--of proving himself all over again. "Why do I want to get up and make Broken Horses? For the simple reason that I find it far more challenging. Here who will you compare my work with? There my work will be compared with that of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. That's a scary thing. But that's also challenging. They will judge me not by who I am, but by my work."
He's got off to a good start for Nicholas Pilegi, his script consultant, has been complimentary even to the work in progress. "It was a big surprise because for me it was unfinished. I am going back now and am going to work on the script for six weeks, polish it further and then it will go for casting three months from now. If all goes well, then in mid- next year, we should start rolling."
Chopra's excitement is understandable-after making a name for himself with movies like Parinda, 1942 A Love Story and Mission Kashmir which he directed and Parineeta, besides the two Munna Bhai movies that he's produced, he's stepping out to prove himself all over again. His last outing Eklavya, India's entry for the Academy Awards, did not impress the audiences back home but earned critical acclaim "A Shakespearen Tragedy" is how Variety International described it.
The difference is not lost on the filmmaker who tries to put the myriad views in perspective. "In literature they would say Shakespeare is tough (to understand). Hamlet samajh nahin aa raha hain. But for movies that people don't understand they say it was rubbish. So for me the critical thing is who are the people seeing my work. You've to choose the audience."
Considering it's a cliche that directors often use in their defence-Sanjay Leela Bhansali who trained under Chopra being a recent example - I prod some more about the argument. Did he then like Bhansali's Saawariya?
"I liked Saawariya upto a point-the first 15 minutes were outstanding and then I think the film lost it. I must say that it was a brave attempt and it was very sad to see how mediocrity pounced on it… because mediocrity really thrives by stifling excellence," he says.
The director, however, does agree that creativity could sometimes turn into an excuse. "It's a scary defence, and how do you distinguish a real work of art that's not understood and a work of art that has failed? Frankly, I don't know. When you are making a film for the Indian audience, then it is your job to understand the level of your audience. It's like when we did Lage Raho Munna Bhai, we were very careful with Mahatma Gandhi because he was Bapu, the Father of our Nation. I don't say that for Eklavya. If I have made it for India, I should have made the concept of Dharmah Matibhya Udghrutah even simpler."
That's quite candid acknowledgement in the film industry where criticism of any kind is a cardinal sin. As a thinking filmmaker, how does he react to criticism?
"I don't," he replies without even a second's pause adding, "Unless there is a writer or critic that I respect and I want to see or read his opinion of my work," avers Chopra. He continues, "Saif Ali Khan sent me a message, "We're doing a Ken Knightly sort of comedy show for this award function, so could we please make fun?"
I said, "Just tell them that you're grateful to me for Parineeta and Eklavya and take more money and just do it. My sister saw the show and got very upset and so did my wife. And finally both Saif and Shahrukh Khan came home and apologised. Frankly, I don't give a damn. If I'm going to judge myself by what two people trying to make some money from a stage-show say, it will be the end of me."
Chopra, however, is uncompromising of his art giving opportunities to those he thinks talented. He has given to Bollywood directors such as Rajkumar Hirani (who Chopra says is a more successful director than he is) and Bhansali. People such as music director Shantanu Moitra, lyricist Swanand Kirkire and Abhijat Joshi are his core-team and he's soon launching yet another-- Rajesh Mapuskar with a film titled Ferrari Ki Sawari. There's also Ram Madhvani (of Let's Talk fame) directing Taalismaan, a love story. But it's not just that he's managed to create a talent hub around him as that they are willing to stay beyond pack-up time. It's this abiding loyalty that's remarkable in an industry notorious for its professional adultery. Abhijat Joshi when he got a lucrative offer from outside turned it down with a quote from Godfather. "I have only one client," he said.
Chopra puts it down to his efforts at making outstanding cinema and enabling others to do so. "It's not the money that keeps them here it's the strife for excellence," he says In the world of commercial cinema, that's indeed good news.