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Often tagged as a soft-porn filmmaker for the erotic content in his thrillers, Jagmohan Mundhra has often been misinterpreted in the film world. In a no-holds-barred interview with us, the filmmaker opens his heart about his film Provoked and how his so-called 'unsavoury' image in the industry had many so called well-wishers warn Aishwarya against signing the film. But with all the acclaim the film has received across the world, Mundhra comes out of the battle, unscathed.
At many instances, you have been wrongly tagged as a soft-porn filmmaker in the media. How do you react to it?
It is difficult to constantly react to myths which are wrongfully perpetuated. I guess it makes a better headline to an article if it is salacious. I have repeatedly pointed out that I am not apologizing for the films I have made in the US belonging to a very legitimate and commercially popular genre called 'Erotic Thrillers'. Most respected Hollywood actors from Angelina Jolie to Michael Douglas to Sharon Stone to Richard Gere to Diane Lane to Antonio Banderas to Kim Basinger to Glen Close to Jeff Bridges and many other A-listers have done this genre of films. Respected film-makers such as Paul Verhoven, Adrian Lyne, Joel Schumaker and many others have directed them. Since there is no other director of Indian origin who has done this genre in Hollywood and since the films I directed had smaller budgets and lesser known actors; the tendency of us Indians to pull down the achievements of our own can only be the reason I can think of, for this kind of condescending attitude of Indian media towards these films which I directed for famous producers such as Ashok Amritraj and Roger Corman.
Erotica has always been an underlining theme of your films. Why such a fascination?
My films Suraag, Kamla, Bawandar and Provoked have no erotic theme. Open House and Death Mask were horror films. ,Eyewitness to Murder and Jigsaw Murders were police dramas. It was the unprecedented success of Night Eyes (my first film with an Erotic theme) which got me brand recognition and therefore most of the films that were offered to me after that had those elements in it as nobody wanted to temper with a successful formula. It is the fascination of the producer with the box-office and their belief that I could deliver (e.g. Night Eyes) was the reason I got twenty films of that genre without ever having an agent in Hollywood. Having said that, I think sex, fame and greed are three temptations which drive human behaviour and are great motivators for conflict which is essential to good drama. As story tellers, we are always on the look out for compelling dramatic stories which people will be fascinated to watch. It is their fascination which we cater to, not our own.
Also your films from Monsoon, Bawandar, Perfumed Gardens to Provoked have been woman-centric. What makes you choose on the subject?
My trilogy of strong women centric films are Kamla, Bawandar and Provoked. Since all good cinema must have a protagonist the audience can root for, and since more the hurdles in the path of the protagonist, more the triumph of victory in the end; journey of a woman protagonist in a male dominated society often makes a compelling story. Ideally, I would like my films to be fast paced, gripping, heart touching and with a message for social reform. I want to dispel the notion once for all that realistic cinema can't be entertaining. Using the medium of cinema, I want to tell stories that expose the hypocrisy of the so called civilized society. Creating an awareness is the beginning of initiating change. This need not be done in a ponderous, boring, self-important manner. It can be done in a comedy (e.g Munna Bhai), drama (e.g Rang De Basanti) and it can even be done in a song and dance flick (e.g. Naya Daur, Guide). I, as a moviegoer like films which have something to say.
Post Vishkanya, you hardly made any film in India and almost shifted your base to US. Did you think your kind of cinema would not be accepted in India?
There were other considerations. My daughter's education was most important. My sensibilities were somewhat different than prevailing cinema of the time in India. When I tried to push aside my sensibilities to accommodate the dictates of the box-office, I made bad films because they were without conviction. I was still trying to find at that time what my strength as a filmmaker was. I learned my craft by practicing it through trial and error.
When did the idea of making Provoked first strike you?
In 2001, I was in London to screen my film Bawandar (Sandstorm) at the film festival. After the screening, a couple of women came to see me and presented me with a book called Circle of Light. They were social workers from Southall Black Sisters. On my flight back to Los Angeles, I read the book. Kiranjit's life story gave me goose bumps. I wanted to develop a screenplay based on the book but it took four years to acquire the rights as it was already optioned to some other filmmaker who couldn't make it happen. In 2004, rights were offered to me, but I couldn't find a producer to put money in it. Once Aishwarya heard the story and gave her consent, funding came through.
Did you meet Kiranjit Ahluwalia personally, on whom the film is based? Did she have any inputs for the film?
Yes, I did meet her personally. The film is based on her book as she narrated her story to co-author Rahila Gupta while she was in prison. That was all the input I needed.
Which of these reasons made you choose Aishwarya Rai for the film?
- because she was a perfect fit for the character
- to attract in the global audience since she is more popular internationally, or
- because Aishwarya is a fabulous actress.
All of the above.
Initially, she was chosen because her globally recognized brand-name made the project financially viable. Her desire to breakaway from the image of her iconic beauty and play a real character was very important. She proved herself to be a fabulous actress as all acclaimed actors need the right vehicle, right director and right role to show their talent and be called fabulous. No actor can rise above that. When your beauty which is your boon also becomes your bane as no one can see beyond that; such opportunities don't come often and as an actor you have to be smart enough to grab it when it comes. Aishwarya grabbed the opportunity and did full justice to the role and her very expressive eyes brought out the pain, the love, the hurt, the anger, the fear, the gratitude, the joy and the triumph of Kiranjit's character.