Vidhu Vinod Chopra on returning to direction with Shikara, and why it's taking so long to make Munna Bhai 3
Vidhu Vinod Chopra talks state apathy for the plight of Kashmiri Pandits, and why he started making Shikara after the death of his mother.
With Shikara, a film on Kashmiri Pandit exodus, writer-director Vidhu Vinod Chopra is back with his first Hindi directorial venture after Eklavya: The Royal Guard (2007). In the backdrop of a 'timeless love story,' the film that has taken 12 years in the making, features two young debutantes – Aadil Khan and Sadia – in lead roles of a Kashmiri Pandit couple who are forced to leave their beautiful house named Shikara, with the rise of militancy in the valley in 1990.
Excerpts from a chat with the filmmaker below.
There has been a lot of buzz around Shikara. Also, you seem to be very confident about the film as you have already shown a small portion (to the critics) prior to its release. What is your state of mind right now?
I have been eager to show Shikara for quite some time now even as people have been advising me not to. I have traveled with the film to many countries, and some big important people called it India’s Gone With the Wind. Titanic and Avatar director James Cameron saw it, and he came up to me to say that it reminded him of his favourite film. I was wondering what he would say, and to my delight, he said Dr Zhivago. He sent me a letter saying it is a masterpiece. Then what is left to not have confidence in the film?
You have said the film is your own life. How much did you borrow from your personal life, family and friends, for Shikara? And what took you so long, almost 12 years, to make it?
This movie required significant research so that we could tell an engaging story. What I have shown in the film is exactly what happened to me and many other families. My brother was attacked, and he had to run overnight from Kashmir. Just imagine that one day, you wake up, and find a note put on your door asking you to leave or else you will be shot dead. What will you do? Just think about the scale of this tragedy. It is unbelievable to me that we have let it happen. The pain cannot be explained when people had to leave everything, and run for their lives within minutes. And the way I have told the story, I couldn’t have made a documentary. To make a love story that spans over 30 years has taken me 12 years, and when they called it Gone with the Wind, it was a great compliment. It was at one of the first screenings, and I was in a state of shock.
My mother (Shanti Devi Chopra) came to Bombay in 1989 for the premiere of my film Parinda but couldn’t go back to Kashmir. Shikara is about how we lost that home. So it’s a deeply personal story. She said she will go back to Kashmir in a week or so, then she decided to go after a month, month became years and then she couldn’t go back at all, and that smile slowly vanished. I started work on Shikara after her demise in 2007. It’s a tribute to her. I started working on the film in 2008. Within a few months of her death, I wrote my first draft. She didn’t have any wish but like how my main character keeps saying, 'Ho sake toh mujhe le jana.' She never says that you do it for me. She says if possible, and that is what my mother used to say that make the film if possible.
What challenges did you face during the making of the film?
It was quite difficult. There were two to three obstacles. Firstly, I shot on actual locations. I shot in Kashmir for one year – in winter, summer, and spring. Secondly, shooting on real locations where real incidents had happened. Which other maker will do this? It hasn’t been heard before.
Also, writing this film was very difficult. It is very easy to make a documentary but to make a feature film, for which people spend money and say, "Wah, mazaa aa gaya," is difficult. To present a story of real people is very difficult. I had to create a fictional love story, and then weave the events of reality around these people, and those people are also real. I was really touched with what Abhijat Joshi (one of the writers of Shikara) said that Richard Attenborough had taken 18 years to make Gandhi but I took only 11 years. Or what Irshad Kamil (lyricist) said that many good films get made but honest films are rarely made. The film was an emotional journey for me. I got so emotional during the screening in Delhi that I was choked, and could barely speak.
How did you go about selecting your cast?
I spent two years finding them, and two years training them. I must have met hundreds of young actors for this. There is a Shikara diary that will come out after release on how they were trained. I was looking for the finest actors of India. I have introduced a lot of talent, from Sanjay Leela Bhansali, to Raju Hirani to Vidya Balan and more. But this is my best talent that I have spotted I think.
Whenever I spot a talent... Sanjay Bhansali was an editing student. He had made a song in the institute, and I asked him who choreographed it and he said he did. He choreographed a song in 1942: A Love Story. He had the talent in him.
I wanted Amitabh Bachchan-kind of voice in the male lead because the character is a poet. I was searching for Nargis or Nutan for the female lead because I needed a certain purity. The problem today is that the faces of aspiring actors lack purity because our cinema has become such. That innocence is missing. There is no innocence left in young boys and girls. Now they do all kinds of things to their faces, bodies. It is all fake. There is nothing real now. I was looking for that real thing.
And when I was writing, I was hoping that I get Muslims to lead the cast because I believe that a very strong message is going out in a country that is getting increasingly divided, message that we are one, finally we are one. There may be nothing common between people from different states when it comes to culture, language, food but we are all Indians, we are all the same. If we keep getting divided this way, well, there is no end to it.
A lot of people in the supporting cast are the real refugees of the Kashmiri Pandit exodus. Did you find it difficult to convince them to relive the trauma?
Not really. They are actually my inspiration. For 28 days and nights, they were with me. It was the greatest inspiration of my life. Anil Kapoor saw and said that he has never in his life seen such brilliant 4,000 actors. He said he was watching expressions of each person, and all were performing great. I told him that they were not performing but living their life. Have you ever seen 4,000 people standing in one frame, and also performing so well? I had shot with so many people even in 1942:A Love Story but it was quite a challenge.
What do you think about the current situation in Kashmir? Do you think that the government has failed Kashmiri Pandits?
It is very sad that the successive governments, media, civil society, intellectuals have turned a blind eye to the Kashmiri Pandit issue.
You have always given a message through your films. What is your message in Shikara?
Yes, in 3 Idiots, I said ‘Kaabil bano kamyabi tumhare kadam choomegi’. In Gandhigiri, I said, ‘Get well soon,' and the message in this film is very simple, ‘Todo nahi jodo (unite, don't divide). The world needs to take this message, and so does India. I am happy that we delayed the film. It was supposed to release in November but there was trouble in Kashmir and I am happy that this film is coming now because people should see the film, and write on blackboards, ‘todo nahi jodo.'
Munna Bhai (says hastily). I want to make Munna Bhai. Shikara was a very tiring film because it is very close to my heart, and it is very, very tiring. After this I want to make some fun films, actually not fun films. I have been wanting to make Munna Bhai for a very long time, and now, finally we have something that we want to make. Actually, we took some time in finding the right story for Munna Bhai 3.
There is a lot of curiosity around Munna Bhai 3 pertaining to the cast and crew. Will it be with Rajkumar Hirani, SanjayDutt, and Arshad Warsi?
Yes, with Sanjay for sure, and hopefully, with all of them – Arshad Warsi, Raju Hirani. But I can’t tell when it will happen. We have the idea but we have to work on it. Yes, there is a lot of curiosity around the film. People stop me at airport to ask when it will come out.
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