In the film industry, who do you consider as your teacher or a mentor? You too must have learnt from somebody over the course of your illustrious career.
Oh it’s always a learning process. I think I learnt a lot from Shyam Benegal, Shashi Kapoor, Jennifer Kapoor and it’s a continuous learning process. If you were an artist who doesn’t want to become smug and complacent and therefore diminish, you have to keep growing and keep becoming aware and keep learning. So I learn everyday from everybody I interact.
Does it irate you or amuse you when people majorly remember you for your off beat films and less for the commercial hits?
Not really and you will be surprised to know that so many people talk to me about Parvarish and Amar Akbar Anthony more than they do about my art films. This happens also because these films keep playing on television a lot more than other films of mine.
After so many stellar performances in these many years, do you now specifically look for roles that give you an option to take back home something?
Actually, now I have the freedom to just do what I want to do. I don’t need the money, I don’t need to be in the business and I don’t have to prove anything to anybody. So, I have the freedom to say that I will only do one scene. Now you may ask me, why would you do one scene? But I feel I should do that one scene because there is something that needs to be said. Or I may do it to encourage a young director. Or, if I feel that my being in the film would help the film or maybe the money is very good. I am not in the game or I don’t have to be in the market and all that. There is no other consideration except that the role catches my fancy. I am keen to work with the younger lot of people and I feel very frustrated when they all say that they don’t dare offer me a script. Even Jayant (director of Chalk N Duster) went up to Juhi and said that he doesn’t have the courage to approach me and offer the role. So Juhi brought him to my house. Now this is completely crazy because I am not an ogre who is going to eat him. At the most, I will say no.
But does that irate you when younger filmmakers find you intimidating and are scared to approach you?
Actually lot of younger people know me well because they are Zoya and Farhan’s friends and they are not intimidated by me but they do feel that they have to offer me something substantial which in itself is a back-handed compliment.
But why do Zoya and Farhan don’t cast you in their films. They have been making some really good films.
But there was no ‘right part’ for me in those films. (Laughs) Well it’s easy to convince Steven Spielberg to cast me in his film rather than my own children because they keep saying that they are waiting for ‘that’ role and ‘that’ part which would do justice to me and which I would suit the best. I think that will go on forever!
One of your films, Libaas, directed by Gulzar couldn’t see the light of day. Isn’t it disheartening? Gulzar feels that even if it had released 10 years later, it would have been a golden film of that decade.
It’s extremely sad and disheartening. The film is complete but it didn’t release because of some differences with the producer. I think it has been the most painful for Gulzar Sahab because he had made that film with lot of love and if you see the film even today, it looks so fresh and relevant. It had Naseeruddin Shah, Raj Babbar and I and its very nice film. It’s sad that it didn’t release. It’s a part of the game, what to do?
Don’t you ever tell Gulzar to come back and wield the megaphone again?
Not really. But the one person who I kept telling to direct a film and chew off his brains is Mahesh Bhatt. I constantly keep telling him that he must direct a film and he says he is a spent force and he can’t do it. But I think he is being unjust because he is not a spent force at all. But for some reason, he has decided to take a back seat when it comes to direction. Any actor who has worked with him will tell you how he challenges the actor and makes him/her rise up to the part. Marlon Brando once said, ‘I am not willing to churn my guts inside out if my director is not willing to churn his own.’ And he was so right because the director is the captain of the ship. Mahesh would really drive you in raising the bar of your performance.
But you did convince him back then to cast him in Lahoo Ke Do Rang which was one of the biggest films of that year. It’s learnt that you asked him to make a film with you that would have great songs.
Not at all; bilkul bhi nahi. This is not true at all. When he came to me for Lahoo Ke Do Rang, I felt he was crazy. I had already done Vishwasghaat with him. I asked him why he wanted me to do Lahoo Ke… and he said he would make me look beautiful in one song, Muskuraata hua gul khilaata hua mera yaar. And he actually did that. He styled me so beautifully in that song. I had done that film only for that song!
There was a trend of multi star cast films in the 70s and it sort of diminished in the 80s and the 90s. However, we see the trend coming back and Zoya too is extremely good at making multi-starrers…
Well a film has to be dictated by a story. You can set up your mind and say that today I am going to make an ensemble film. It’s about what story excites you and whether you want more actors in it or whether the film demands an ensemble cast. But the best thing today is that even big actors are very secure in their own space where they don’t bother if they have a dialogue more or less or a scene more or less than his/her co-actor. If you see Dil Dhadakne Do, Anushka Sharma had a smaller role than Priyanka Chopra but the fact is that Anushka did it extremely well. You sense no insecurity in her and she has given it all and that I think is a very healthy sign in our industry today. A director should be able to inspire that in an actor and built that trust factor.
But as an actor, do you feel an ensemble film is a less comfortable and secured space to be in?
No, not at all. Making an ensemble film is a very happy state of affairs for the actors. With Shyam Benegal, we have done many ensemble films and nothing could beat Mandi that had even the smallest of actor from the art cinema. It’s an ultimate ensemble film. Every single person who is anybody in art cinema could be seen in that film. Spending time on the sets, waiting for your co-stars could be very tiring in terms of ensemble films, but when we were doing Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd, but we were playing games, antakshari and dumb charades so much so that Zoya had to tell us that we were not here to play games but to shoot the film.
Has there been any film where you felt that it wasn’t going anywhere and you thought of walking out on the first day of the shoot?
I did a film called Gajagimini, directed by late MF Hussain Sahab. I couldn’t understand a single word of what he was saying and I would just nod. Firstly, he would speak very softly, and he said things which made no sense to me at all and I was doing what he wanted me to do. So Madhuri came on the sets and she saw me doing that and said, ‘Ma’am you are letting me down very badly. I can’t understand anything of what Hussain Sahab is saying and I thought you would understand and be able to guide all of us.’ I told her, ‘The only thing you can do while working with Hussain Sahab is just do what he asks us to do and don’t ask for logic!’
If you had to debut as an actor now, you think this is the most interesting time for actors in our industry to make a debut or was it back then when you had started your career?
It’s definitely an interesting time and there is much more going for an actor. You have to remember that today the advent of the casting director is a very important addition to Hindi cinema. Unfortunately, not much is talked about it, but that has changed the milieu of films. We were used to seeing stock characters who would always play certain parts and that would bring in the element of staleness in films. Today, even if a character has to speak one line, the casting director takes hundreds of auditions and that’s how it happens in the west too. When I first started working in Hollywood, I was absolutely taken aback because I remember there was a role of a lady who had to say just one line, ‘The boss is asking for you.’ But for that one-line character, they had auditioned more than 30 female actors in front of me. In Bollywood, we would not even bother to take audition of even person; we would just catch hold of some junior artiste on the set and make her do it. But because the casting directors coming into picture, a lot of effort is being put to cast actors.
Do you feel originality is missing in today’s time? Earlier we had directors who would not copy or ape west and had their own style of cinema. You think filmmaking has become proposal making, especially the mainstream commercial entertainers?
No I don’t think so and I don’t think we are aping the west. For example, you cannot say that a film like Masaan is aping the west. And there are many such examples that are original in nature. Art cinema itself has taken a new avatar and that avatar is independent cinema which is trying to tell stories differently.
Mahesh Bhatt is one of the boldest and the most audacious filmmaker who has never had any qualms about making films even on his own life. Today, we don’t see such audacity in filmmakers.
They don’t have to because there are no givens; there are no rules in the game. It’s not written anywhere that a filmmaker would be considered bold or audacious if he makes a film on his own life. If you set a norm, you would take away the freedom of filmmakers. I grew up in an atmosphere where people believed that art should be used as an instrument to bring in a social change, but I don’t insist that everybody should make only meaningful films. It’s perfectly valid if somebody wants to make a film that serves the purpose of entertainment. But I would say let’s redefine entertainment. Why does the entertainment have to be crude or vulgar or violent? But let everybody make what they want to make.
Agree, but in the process, Mahesh Bhatt gave some brilliant and path breaking movies. So what I meant is that we don’t see filmmakers picking up bold subjects or taking a slice of their life if the need be.
That’s because others probably don’t have as interesting a life as Mahesh Bhatt! So it would be very boring if you have had a boring life and you think of making a film out of it, no? But having said that, so many biopics are being made today and they too are real-life stories. They may not necessarily be the real life stories of the directors but they are somebody’s life stories.
Who do you attribute your success and achievements to?
I really owe my career to being at the right place at the right time. I am grateful that there were writers and directors at that time who gave me roles that gave me a chance to exhibit any talent at all if I had. I could have the same amount of talent but it would be a closely guarded secret if I hadn’t got those roles. So the fact that today’s actresses are getting those roles is also because they are realizing the worth of doing something that is substantial and not doing something where they only have to play a second fiddle to the hero. All of them are working hard. It was absolutely incredible what Vidya (Balan) did in Dirty Picture. The amount of weight she had put on and the way she showed her belly fat was very courageous of her to do it.
When people refer to certain films as women-centric or women-oriented films, does that irk you at all?
No, not at all. Why should it irk me? And I find it very strange that it would be irksome to anybody. When you see our films, most of them are being told from a male point of view. Women are 50 per cent of the world and we want to tell the stories in the way we tell it. So I think it’s about time that we get some female gaze in our cinema and I am not saying feminist gaze; I am saying female gaze. I hear women filmmakers saying why are they referred to as women filmmakers. I hope that the fact that you are a woman will reflect in the film you make. It doesn’t mean you have to make women-centric or women-oriented films. You can make comedy, action, thriller, murder mystery or drama; but surely you would see things differently from how a man sees them. And that difference needs to be conveyed. If these films become successful commercially, more such films will be made and more women filmmakers would be encouraged to tell the stories they want to tell and the way they want to tell.
Lastly, when do we see you directing a film?
Not in the near future for sure! It’s very cushy being an actor and being in the centre of everybody’s attention rather than becoming the production manager and a peon and a carpenter and running helter-skelter. I like to be pampered. Who doesn’t?
The interview was taken just before the release of the film ‘Chalk N Duster’