Critics should never interview filmmakers. Everybody knows what filmmakers have to say about people who rip their work apart. And that kind of language will never make it to print.
Also, critics often go soft on a person they’ve met when they have to review.
Having written a few nasty reviews, I am a little anxious on how Ram Gopal Varma would deal with me, considering he launched personal attacks on other critics on his otherwise fascinating blog that’s candid to the point of being confessional.
And here he was to promote Phoonk at Sathyam Cinemas, the place he used to religiously visit every evening to catch a movie when he worked on the script for his first film Shiva, staying at Nagarjuna’s Alwarpet guest house.
Phoonk is supposed to be his scariest film till date because it wants to shake your belief system.
And given that I may have to review that film, I decide not to talk to him about Phoonk. As a critic, I prefer the film talking to me directly.
So waiting for my turn to meet him at Ecstasy, I draw up a list of questions I’ve always wanted to ask the man.
I introduce myself as someone who has said nasty things about his films. You are among the many, he laughs. Just the ice-breaker I needed.
RGV is only as good as his screenplays, I had observed in my review of Contract. “My films are only as good as decisions I made at that point of time,” he clarifies along the lines of a dialogue from his Contract: “Decisions aren’t wrong. The results are.”
And here he was bragging how he spent only four days in writing Phoonk. Kaun was written in two days before shoot.
“Films are about decisions. Time and quality are not inter-related. I am teeming with so many ideas. Not necessarily good. They may be good, bad or ugly but I am in a rush to make films. I wrote Shiva in 20 minutes and Satya never had the script,” he explains.
“Either you can endlessly discuss an idea and the story can go in hundred different ways. Or, you take a decision based on your temperament. One fine day, I decided to give up my engineering and started a video library. And then, I gave it up and became a director and then I packed my bags and came to Bombay. That’s my temperament.”
But doesn’t great power translate to great responsibility. How many people can get the first family of Hindi cinema on board at will?
“If I take all these things into consideration, I cannot make a film. Filmmaking for me is like having a conversation, it depends on my mood. While making Contract, I might have thought let me make a Rambo in a realistic setting. It may not have been a good enough idea to begin with but that’s me.”
But people repeatedly expect him to click again, film after film.
“The audience is not an animal that you can study its behaviour and characteristics and then feed it. I do various kinds of things. It’s my personality that comes across my films.”
Will he be able to afford this passion for cinema if his films flop?
“I am able to afford it. If I need 40 lakh people to recover money for Sarkar Raj, let’s say I need only two lakh people to watch Contract. If I have to see if they like it or not, I wouldn’t have had made any movies.”
RGV has been a master of spook and crime stories but hasn’t quite found himself at home with masala if Aag was any indication.
“What went wrong with Aag is there was a multiplicity of objectives. I got caught up trying to translate the audio-video bytes in a new setting that I lost the point of the larger story. But if I want to make a masala film, I can really make it…”
With his factory-approach to making films, his assembly-line sometimes repeats ideas, making his films look repetitive, I point out. “Ek Pal Ki Zindagi” from D becoming “Do Pal Ki” in Aag or the type of the nagging housewife of the gangster from Satya put back in Contract.
“With regard to ‘Ek Pal Ki,’ I liked the song very much but nobody had heard that song. I only used it again with intention of popularising it… Similarly, Govinda Govinda is a track from a Telugu film. It’s not because I don’t have an idea but it’s because I think it’s an idea that didn’t realise its potential. So I keep on remaking everything.”
Is that why he’s keen to remake Aag and try his hand at masala films again?
“Maybe. The day I gave an interview, I felt like it but today I don’t. Tomorrow, I may feel like remaking it. I think I can make a masala film really well but in Aag what went wrong was there was a multiplicity of objectives. If I want to make a masala film, I can really make it.”
It’s only of late that people have begun to fully understand Ram Gopal Varma, thanks to his blog.
“I think it is fantastic. Blogging is helping me in two ways. For the first time, I have one place where I can put across what I feel without the fear of it being distorted. More important than that I am getting feedback from people who have no fear of me or not be obligated to be loyal. That’s helping me a lot.”
But he’s also used it to unleash personal attacks on critics, I point out.
“In fact, I changed that approach… When I was very new to the internet, I was not net savvy at all. But today I realise why should I give specific importance to Khalid? I read a review of Sarkar Raj on a site called Passionforcinema. I was thrilled that somebody could hate me so much and I mean it. It takes a great deal to hate someone so much. It was incredible. There were so many things that were far more bitchier than people who are employed to do criticise. As a filmmaker, I am collecting thoughts.”
But did that warrant getting personal? Wasn’t he mixing business and personal?
“That’s what they were doing. If they are talking about me as a person, I would like to know about that person’s background.”
Talking of backgrounds, Varma shares one with Quentin Tarantino. It won’t be wrong to call RGV, Quentin in a maddening rush. They even have similar video-store origins.
But he clarifies: “I stopped watching films after I started video library… It wasn’t for education. A video library guy will never watch films like a bar owner will never drink.”
But like Tarantino, isn’t his cinema derived from cinema too?
“I would say yes and no. My first film Shiva was pretty much derived from my personal experiences… From the college atmosphere to characters but my taking style has been derived from cinema. Every film has a scene I’ve taken from another movie.”
Like Tarantino famously said: “I steal from every movie.”
Varma laughs. “Even when I saw his recent movies… like Grindhouse. That’s pretty much what I like. I can be as mad as that too.”
You get a feeling he’s a little hurt that people talk down at him as ‘Ramu,’ like he was their pet boy. But isn’t that because he’s given them the room to talk about his work giving them films – good, bad and ugly – when he could be working on each with great amount of homework that the masters of cinema are known to do.
“No, No, I love it. I hate to compared to people like Mani Ratnam and Bhansali. I remember Revathy would say, “In Mani Sir’s film this worked and this didn’t” but when my film flops, she would send me a message saying she will kick me in the a**. I love that. I want to be in the position so that I can get more freedom. I can talk about the psychology of an underworld character and Isha Koppikar’s thighs with equal intensity. So I might not be taken as seriously as them but I’ll have more fun in life.”
“I saw this incredible visual the other day. It was dark and I was going for a walk and I saw a ghostly kind of an image late in the evening. About 12-15 couples scattered around the stretch in almost identical poses – holding each other. I didn’t understand and then, suddenly, I realised it was parting time. So though they were different people, they were doing the same thing… Now, I’ve explained this shot to you because we are talking face to face.”
He moves on for a self-diagnosis, trying to explain how he makes his films.
“Now, Aag, the whole country knew how horrible it was, but the 100 people working on the film were taken in by what I told them.
I psyched them with my vision, I couldn’t do that to the whole country. A lot of times, I take it for granted that my thought process will come through when I start making the film… What is in my head does not translate and come out the same way. I had a rogue friend who used to wear dirty chappals who liked this really good-looking girl. One day he came in Nike shoes because he wanted to impress her. And suddenly one day, he choked and said she deserves someone better. The emotion with which he said it served as the benchmark and Nike shoes became the yellow shirt Munnabhai wears in Rangeela. I think in a rush. On the basis of the first excitement, I make a decision to make a film. It is the same wackiness and eccentricity that is also responsible for whatever good work I may have done in the last 20 years.”
It’s that spirit that keeps his alive. As new ideas hit him day after day, like life itself.
“I always wake up in the morning with an idea, not necessarily a good one. I am always eager to wake up with a new idea. I have a ball all the time. It’s a myth that I am callous but I am very intense. I made it with a lot of seriousness. In fact, I had never been more serious all my life like when I made Aag. I was not careless, I seriously did the wrong thing.”
The maverick filmmaker is a cynic when it comes to love. In his own words: “Love and hate take equal amount of effort and energy that it’s not worth it. Love is a self-induced drug to feel high. You like the feeling of being in love more than the person you are in love with. So your imagination takes over when you are courting and in your mind you put your best foot forward, you say the best lines all the time. When you get married, your true colours come out… What happens is the picture you imagined your head is no longer there and love starts disappearing.
The greatest romantic visual I see is in Mumbai. It’s around noon, it’s a dirty beach with and rocks and dirt all around. It’s ugly but the feel of lovers sitting together in that hot sun is so strong, that for me, it is far more a greater visual than an exotic song in Switzerland.”