Ashutosh Gowariker on choosing historical war film Panipat as his next directorial: Tragic stories also need to be told

Seema Sinha

Dec 07, 2019 07:56:56 IST

Having made two films dealing with eras from modern and medieval history, Ashutosh Gowariker is back with yet another visual spectacle on ancient history – PanipatThe Great Betrayal, recreating one of the most epic battles of the 18th century.

Known as one of the most revered filmmakers ever since he made the ultimate coloniser versus colonised saga Lagaan (2001), that earned itself a nomination at the Academy Awards, followed by the cult classic Swades, and the mesmerising Jodhaa Akbar, Gowariker has not stopped at taking risks even after the debacle of his last two period films, Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey and   Mohenjo Daro.

 Ashutosh Gowariker on choosing historical war film Panipat as his next directorial: Tragic stories also need to be told

Arjun Kapoor and Sanjay Dutt in stills from Panipat

Just a few days before the unveiling of his next period extravaganza, the maverick director sits down to chat on what made him choose the ‘tragic battle story’, comparisons drawn with Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Bajirao Mastani, choosing Arjun Kapoor and Kriti Sanon, where he erred with Mohenjo Daro, and memories from Swades as the film completes 15 years. Excerpts from the chat below.

What made you go for this story?

It is a very intriguing and interesting storyline which if not told… because the battle was lost, and, of course, all of us like victories. But tragedies also need to be told otherwise how do you explain so many tragic love stories being successful? This is a tragic battle story. This army consisted of Hindus, Muslims, Marathas, farmers... it was just a blend and unification of a different kind. I found that very interesting.

We have read about the Battle of Panipat in our history lessons but how do you made it look contemporary in modern times so that you generate interest and draw people to theatres?

This is the very first question I asked myself when I was choosing the theme that I wanted to work on, in which it can be a modern film or it can be a contemporary film. But if it is a historical then selecting that right one becomes most time consuming. Then the theme becomes very important. What is the theme that can today connect to the audience? We have reduced from five-day cricket test matches to one day international, to Twenty20. Next, we will just have umpires coming and doing toss, and that’s it (laughs). When I go to see a film in theatre, every minute, there are at least 10 people checking their mobile phone. In this situation, how do you tell a screenplay which is fast moving, which is interesting all the time, has action, music. This was constantly playing on my mind.

Similarities have been drawn not just between Arjun’s Sadashivrao Bhau and Ranveer’s Bajirao, Sanjay Dutt’s Abdali and Ranveer’s Khilji but also with your own work, Jodha Akbar. What is new in your latest work?

That newness is coming out of the theme, or the script, or the period that I am choosing. If I made Jodha Akbar I know I will not make anything on Jehangir or Shahjahan because the Mughal period aspect is done. When I am talking about British Raj, if I made Lagaan, I am not interested anymore on anything after 1857. So making those choices is very important. Comparisons will always happen, and if you are compared with yourself, that’s great. But if you are compared to previous big hit films that is a natural thing, and you have to always welcome that. If you are doing a battle film, it will be compared to the previous battle film. Now I am doing Peshwa period, one compares it to Bajirao Mastani. But the fact is that they are Bajirao’s kids. It is the next generation after 20 years. So the clothes, the house Shaniwarwada has to be the same. But the story is what really defines, and that is what is different in Panipat.

Arjun Kapoor in character poster of Panipat. Twitter

Arjun Kapoor in character poster of Panipat

When I cast Hrithik (Roshan) in Jodhaa Akbar, his comparison happened with Prithviraj Kapoor, who was seen 40 years ago in Mughal-E-Azam. There is absolutely no connect. It was set apart by four generations but questions were raised: ‘Is Hrithik like Prithviraj Kapoor?’ I don’t think much about all that. The characters that I have selected here, Sadashivrao Bhau Peshwa, he was very stubborn, someone large like a warrior, and only Arjun (Kapoor) would have fitted in that character. He looks fresh as he hasn’t been seen as a warrior. Kriti (Sanon) is a superb actress. She plays a Maharastrian, and she hasn’t done a historical either. Sanjay has gone to some other level of persona, and even he hasn’t done any historical. So all three coming together brings a lot of freshness, and I wanted to capture that. I wasn’t thinking that Sanjay has earlier played Kancha Cheena in Agneepath, and whether I should cast him as a villain or not.

You said there was certain freshness in the actors you cast. But how did you work upon them? What did they have to unlearn to play the parts?

First of all, I watched all their films. I studied them and tried to understand what qualities they have in which they excel. I wanted to use those qualities that got them stardom and popularity. Then what do I have in mind about Sadashiv? I wanted to blend that with the qualities that have made them stars. Kriti has a certain contemporary quality in her. I am creating Parvatibai, my regal, royal character but it also has Kriti’s chatpata quality. Sanjay also has his own persona but I have made his behaviour emperor-like. So it is a blend. I have taken star persona and infused with the character, and somewhere, they start blending. We did a lot of readings to arrive on that.

What makes you create these worlds which nobody has seen but only read in history books? And how difficult it is?

Whenever I complete my historical films, I have this thought about my next film that it will only have two characters, it will be one night story, shot in just one room. We will shoot in Switzerland, and there won’t be any stress, and I will wrap it in 18 days flat (laughs). Usually, I shoot for about 100 to 120 days. When I start thinking what should I do next, I don’t think about doing a historical again. It is always the theme that I try to look for, what is inspiring me, and that theme turns out to be a historical.

After Jodha Akbar, I made What’s Your Raashee, and then I made television series, Everest, and of course, Swades. So those are contemporary cinema. I got excited to make these in between. But the Panipat story is quite authentic on a different level. My treatment is much more authentic. Like what happened between Jodha and Akbar in their palace, nobody knows. I could take liberties there but for Panipat, I had to keep in mind the realistic and authentic portrayal of what all things happened in their entire journey. It becomes a task, and in the language of cookery, if you have to make dal, bhindi, rice, you will do it in a jiffy. But if you are told to make pasta or puran poli, there needs to be a preparation from the previous night. But yes, it is very difficult to make period dramas, and hence, I make one film in three years. It's like building an army.

When people accuse you of distorting facts after you have worked so hard on your project, how do you deal with it?

Every 10 to 15 years, a new historian comes, and they are also accused. There are doubts about their writings, or their approach, and point of view. I am not a historian. Mine is cinematic history. I am a filmmaker who is trying to tell a chapter of history on screen. It is like doing an audio-visual of what is there in the books. Every history book has 400 to 500 pages but all can’t be adapted on screen, so one has to edit. Now what chapters do I keep, and what do I omit? Questions are raised over both, what is edited out, and what is retained. It is a never-ending thing so I am prepared to face whatever questions or objections are raised. I have answers to all the questions, and I don’t feel bad about giving explanations because history belongs to everyone.

What perception or imagination people had about Mohenjo Daro and Harappa civilization since their childhood, perhaps my film didn’t fulfill that, and hence the film didn’t work. Everyone felt that the film was good but they had not imagined it in that way. Why do Jodhaa Akbar and Lagaan appeal to us? That’s because these films match our imagination.

You recently said that you want to make a film on Gautam Buddha, on how Prince Siddhartha became Gautam Buddha. Is there any progress on that?

Actually I was supposed to make this film in 2010 but I didn’t get the right casting. I still haven’t decided what I want to do next.

You have collaborated with AR Rahman on four films – LagaanSwadesJodhaa Akbar, and Mohenjo Daro. How come you decided to go for Ajay-Atul for Panipat?

Rahman is great, and if he had to compose for Panipat, he would have extensively researched and studied the Marathi milieu, and music required for it. But this time, I needed the Marathi-ness, which was very natural, and hence, I went to Ajay-Atul. I have never got the chance to work with them, and I have been a great admirer of all their work for past 10 years. Whatever they have created is absolutely stunning and original compositions. But I first spoke to Rahman, and told him that I have called you for my next film but can you allow me to have another composer this time. He asked that why did I need his permission, and I told him it was because of our long association. He told me to go ahead but he wanted to know who was the composer (laughs). Rahman is also a great admirer of Ajay-Atul. Javed Akhtar has written the lyrics, and it has been such an enriching experience for me.

Your film Swades completes 15 years this year (17 December). What memories do you have from the film?

The sadness, that I felt at the release of Swades obviously because the film wasn’t accepted by the audience, has been covered up in the last 15 years because the kind of love the film has got over the years. It has been tremendous. Of course, film working at the box office is important because you recover the cost but at that time, we didn’t even get the pat on the back. But the kind of appreciation that I have been getting over the years, I am very indebted to the audience for that. I wish we could have re-released the film now.

All images from Twitter.

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Updated Date: Dec 07, 2019 09:05:20 IST

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