We are in the age of remakes. Bollywood consistently looks at the South films for inspiration. TV and OTT shows are born as spin-offs from already established movie franchises. Even contemporary music – whether it’s for films or from the indie circuit – is a rehash of the golden melodies and tunes. But one man was pioneering the trend of remakes, adaptations and inspiration two decades ago and that was Sanjay Gupta. Whether it was Kaante, Zinda or Jazbaa – every inspiration and adaptation had the originality of treatment and conviction. The stylized presentation, edgy characters and memorable dialogue made Sanjay Gupta’s movies the ideal commercial fare. In this week’s Big Interview, the maverick director looks back at his films, choices and convictions and offers a candid appraisal. Check out the confessions and revelations in this breezy read.
Be it Kaante, or the Shootout series, one thing common to all your films is the powerful dialogues. Do you prefer your heroes like Amitabh Bachchan or Sanjay Dutt to have an inherent machismo?
I’m in my early 50s. I started directing when I was 21, I was 22 when I made Aatish and looking back, I have grown up on a certain cinema. Whether it was Deewaar, Trishul, Sholay, Parinda, or let me name the filmmakers – Ramesh Sippy, JP Dutta, Vinod Chopra, Manmohan Desai, Raj Khosla etc. I’ve grown up on the cinema of these directors and these are stalwarts, they knew how to present their heroes, they knew how to mount stories and mount characters, so that is my learning ground. I come from that school. You cannot recall a classic Amitabh Bachchan movie and not recall his dialogues. Same is the case with music, too. That is why music plays a very important role in my films, because I enjoy the process, apart from the fact that your films are only remembered by their music.
Today there are so many RD Burman songs which I love listening to, but I don’t remember the films they’re from. Likewise, when you are doing drama, dialogues stay on. My characters are larger than life, so their dialogues will also be a little larger than life, they’ll be cool, basically they have to say things which are about everyday life but put in a way that you and me don’t say in normal life. That makes us marvel and exclaim, ‘Wow well said!’ It is a part of our cinematic culture, and somewhere along the line we have forgotten or stopped paying attention to that. Then you have a Pushpa, which has a dialogue ‘Pushpa naam sunke flower samjhi kya? Fire hai main’ or KGF which has a dialogue ‘Violence violence violence, I hate violence, but violence loves me’. We remember these lines. Hindi movies started this trend and but now, somehow over the years, filmmakers haven’t forgotten or ignored the importance of great punchlines.
Interesting that you’ve mentioned South films like Pushpa and KGF. Do you think Bollywood needs to return to its roots?
Of course, 110 per cent we need to. The thing is that, the reason I took those dialogues cause it’s very recent, where are the recent films which have had great lines, where are the recent scripts which had a character saying something really cool, or impactful, it’s just not happening. We have, over the course of time, sidetracked a very integral part of our filmmaking, which is spoken words, lines of dialogue. You remember actors because of their dialogues. Mr Bachchan is the living embodiment, he’s a living legend, he’s God. We wait for him to come out in his full bass and deliver a great line.
What steered you towards a love story like Kaabil? At the crux of it, it was a love-revenge drama with Hrithik Roshan playing the protagonist. Did you have any apprehensions?
There were no apprehensions whatsoever. Again with Kaabil, the conflict was very interesting. When the writer came to me and narrated the idea – here is a couple blind by birth, they cannot see, and they fall in love. Right there, I said ‘Wait, hold on! Let me process this’. You meet somebody, its love at first sight, right? There is no sight here. You like somebody, the way they look, but when two people are blind, what is the connection? What is it that they like about each other? That fascinated me to begin with. And then the fact that tragedy happens to this wonderful couple and the husband is left behind and he wants to take revenge. Just before that, I made a film called Jazbaa, which was a courtroom drama and a kidnapping thriller. But I didn’t go thinking I’m going to do this film with Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and she is making her comeback. That’s never been a criteria for me to do a film. If I feel excited about a story I want to tell, then I go right ahead.
Did Jazbaa put pressure on you because it was Aishwarya’s comeback? To be honest, the film didn’t do well at the box office.
I was very happy with Jazbaa. Even today, I completely support and stand by that film. We did everything right. Jazbaa was a case of very bad marketing. The team that was marketing the film suddenly put out these posters and banners of a very glamorous Aishwarya Rai running in a leather jacket. That was not my film. They put out these posters of Irrfan posing in sunglasses and a leather jacket. That was not my film. My film was about a mother who was desperate and I think I was the first or second person who stripped Aishwarya of hair and makeup completely. She was there in the mud and dust, screaming, shouting, wanting her child. That first poster that we put out got so much traction. If only we had stuck to that. A lot of the audience got alienated before the release of the film. People thought, ‘Arre! She’s just trying to be a shadow of her former self’, which was not the case. I feel somewhere, I have let her down, I let Irrfan down, I let my team down by not fighting hard enough with the ridiculous studio heads deciding on the campaign of the film. They were selling the wrong film.
As the director, the captain of the ship, couldn’t you have steered them back on the right path?
I did the best I could, but I could only do so much. But I predicted the outcome. I told them you are selling the wrong film. You are making people see what it is not. Some will come expecting that and others won’t come. And that’s what happened.
Would you ever be interested in making a mythological drama or a fantasy film, since that is the current trend?
I don’t like to follow trends. I wouldn’t be interested in doing a Ramayana takeoff or Mahabharata, or the story of Valmiki. I’m not interested in that. But if there is a book like the Harappa series, written by Vineet Bajpayee, which is set 3000 years back in a certain age, with a contemporary story today, which is intercut, it will give me a chance to create an alternative universe, the way SS Rajamouli did with Baahubali. That was a whole different world. He did not commit that it was 1500 BC. KGF is nothing but a gangster film set in the 80s in Mumbai. That story we have seen a million times before, I have told that exact story before, but we haven’t said it the way the director (Prashant Neel) told that story. He created a world that you get immersed into, and that is extremely important with filmmaking today. We cannot give the audience our regular reality. You see that all the time, you see it on your OTT platform. If you are going to call me to the theatre, you better give me something that I feel I wouldn’t enjoy at home.
People and groups are very sensitive towards mythological dramas. Do you think that is also why its better to create your own world? An alternative world, so no one can point fingers?
Going by current scenario, I would agree 100 percent. There are certain people who are just sitting on the fence, waiting to take offence, or looking for an excuse to take offence. We are living in trying times, in difficult times, so if you ask me, I’d say – steer clear. As it is, we go through so much to make a film, you don’t need extra bans. If it’s avoidable then definitely it should be avoided.
What’s the update on Krissh 4?
Krissh is Rakesh Roshan’s baby, it’s his child literally and figuratively. I’m not in a position to comment much about Krissh 4. Yes, I worked on the script along with a team of writers, Rakesh ji and Hrithik. We worked on the basic blueprint. I wouldn’t call it the final bound screenplay, we worked on a story idea, but then we stopped midway because of some personal reasons. Since then we haven’t resumed, although I would really look forward to it. If that happens, it’ll be a godsend.
What can we expect from the third instalment of the Shootout series, and what was the inspiration behind this gangster series?
Shootout At Lokhandwala happened by accident. What happened was that I was travelling, it was 2002 and one of the in-flight magazines had an article about the Lokhandwala shootout completing 10 years. I realised, ‘wow this is a movie, this a film over here’, so it was never intentional or planned. Those weren’t the days of Google, where you could go online and research, so I came back and I read up a lot. I did some research, met some people from the police. I got to read the FIR of the case and that’s how we got started. It was very fascinating because that was the first time in the Hindi film industry, you had a non fiction story which was fictionalised and given the trappings of a commercial, masala film. We did an elaborate casting, we did songs, dances, action and dialoguebazi. But at its core Shootout At Wadala was a shocking true story and basically telling people, look this really happened. While children were playing and housewives were cooking, around three hundred policemen surrounded a building and opened fire.
There was a gap of 7 years between Shootout at Lokhandwala and Shootout at Wadala because both Ekta and I did not want to jump into it and make the next film in the franchise. We wanted to do another one but we were not able to find the story, because frankly, when you have done the Lokhandwala story there is no other shootout in Bombay which was bigger than that. And years later, someone told us that the first shoot out was of a guy called Manya Surve. The first encounter got me thinking. It happened in 1982 and I wanted to know what happened. When we got into the whole story, it turned out like a prequel, and the big play was – what made the cops think, ‘kill not catch’, ‘play judge, jury and executioner’. And since then, on and off, Ekta and I have been in touch. We’ve discussed – let’s do a next one in the series, it’s a highly successful franchise, it has a very solid and loyal fanbase. We were not really getting an idea per-se and it was only during the first lockdown that I was in my farmhouse in Khandala and I read an article and realised there’s a story here. I called my writer Rajat Arora, I said, ‘You are sitting in your house, I am sitting in mine, none of us can step out, we might as well work’, and that’s how the third installment happened.
You’ve also done films like Mumbai Saga, what is your fasincation with gangster dramas?
For me filmmaking and storytelling need to have a conflict, so whether it was my first film Aatish, or Kaante where there are 6 guys and one of them is a cop, that conflict is always there. And once I did Lokhandwala and Wadala, I enjoyed the genre, there are so many shocking stories. I always joke about it that I’ve been born, brought up and spoilt in Bombay. Yet, being in Bombay we don’t know so much that has happened, and that’s where Mumbai Saga came in. Because Bombay was a city of mills and it was how the mills shut down and made way for the skyline that we have today. So what happened to the mill owners, the nexus with the underworld, nexus with the builders, the nexus with the cops? Those questions were fascinating. It was telling a bit of the Bombay history, it was about how Bombay became Mumbai. To put it simply, I find these stories a lot more interesting than subjects of scientists who made a breakthrough or invented or something like that.
When Shootout At Wadala released there was a lot of chatter about Vivek Oberoi’s absence. You then had a blow-hot-blow-cold relationship with him, do we see him back in the third instalment of the Shootout series?
I’m dying to work with Vivek. We were both immature, we were both kids, it was just a completely uncalled for episode, that happened between us. I just blew my mouth off, and he retaliated, and rightly so. Why would he keep quiet? That’s best forgotten. Going forward I definitely want to work with Vivek, John, Sanju, Anil Kapoor and all the people I worked with in the past.