'I need to change my approach to films'
Gopal Varma has had saturation press recently. Here he tells
SHOMA CHAUDHURY all the things he hasn’t said
Photographs by ANAY MANN
the question everyone’s asking you. Why did you think of remaking
Sholay is the reason I became a director, in a sense, it is
the catalyst for everything I am today. I have watched Sholay
25 times. This was my tribute to it.
But why risk something like this?
Your own first film Shiva was a big hit. You remade it in Hindi
recently, it flopped badly. I made a lot of mistakes with Shiva.
I didn’t think seriously about it. When I had made it almost 20
years ago, it rang true. But times have changed. I changed the look
of the film, but didn’t think enough about how the psychology
and scale of crime has shifted since then. With Aag, that is
not the case.
You had no affinities with your parents. They did not understand
your desire to work in films. Was that a source of stress?
No, they had good reason. I was a very bad student, I used to bunk school,
and fail quite frequently. My father was concerned about my future —
we weren’t from a rich family. So when out of the blue I said,
I want to be director, it seemed like just another mad idea. He wasn’t
in my top hundred stumbling blocks though. Even when my first film Shiva
was a huge hit, my father wasn’t happy. He was convinced the next
would flop. It did. He was very happy that at least he was right —
this guy can’t do anything. I’m not saying this as a defence,
but ever since I’ve been conscious, the only thing I’ve
wanted is to just live life the way I want to. I didn’t like norms
— go to school, get a degree, etc. We educate ourselves because
our parents tell us; we by-heart things rather than learn. I find this
fundamentally very stupid. The whole concept of education goes for a
toss. So I just did what I felt like doing. Want to watch a film, watch
a film. Go to school — but just have a conversation with friends.
From my parents’ perspective, I looked like a useless bum. It
was the truth. I had no objective. I was just fascinated by people,
so I used to study their behaviour. I was most fascinated by the bullies
in my classroom. They were like gangsters for me. They had the guts
to push around people, do things I couldn’t— perhaps did
not even want to do myself. But I’d want a friend like that (laughs).
I used to adulate them like heroes. That was my first touch with anti-socialism.
Over a period of time, I developed a low-angle fascination for larger
than life people. I was always a loner — not because I was unhappy,
but because I live away from myself, not just others. I like to study
myself — the way I am talking, behaving. My constant obsession
with studying myself and other people is perhaps the primary motivation
for me to be a filmmaker.
You seem to have an almost schizophrenic approach to cinema.
On the one hand, there’s great passion and drive. You create sheer
magic like Satya. On the other hand, you call your production house
The Factory, and it really has a factory approach. It churns out films
that do not bear your stamp. What explains this?
There are two reasons. One, basically I am anideas guy. That does not
mean I can’t execute my ideas, but what contradicts the passion
or intensity I feel for things is my casualness towards life. I think
it’s no big deal if something goes wrong, let’s just try
it out. See, films take a long time. There are various factors that
might be influencing you at each point in time. Your interest can wane,
you get diverted to something else, or maybe you didn’t think
of the right way of doing something, and you realise the mistake when
you can’t do anything about it. At times like that, I have an
attitude that says, okay, it’s a mistake, let the mistake go.
I don’t want to spend time repairing the mistake because my time
is valuable, or my interest has gone off to something else. I don’t
mind people ridiculing me about this because I live slightly away from
myself in every sense of the word. Having said this, I want to say that
I know this is wrong. The very fact that you are making a film says
you are doing it for someone else to enjoy. That has to be your primary
target. If you don’t take it seriously, you might as well not
make a film. Don’t waste so many people’s energy and time
If you are so aware, why don’t you change?
I am changing.
I need to change my approach to cinema. I think I went a little haywire
in the past. I am conscious about it now.
would your new approach be?
The only thing limited in life is time. Money and talent come and go.
Time is the only thing that is definitely going away. I want to spend
every minute of my energy or talent to tell quality stories. That’s
what I want to do. I don’t want to get into the business aspects.
I just want to come up with as many ideas as possible, and get others
to execute it in a systematic way. I want various quality checks —
is something being completely destroyed en route by me or others concerned?
A lot of young people have trusted you. But few ever come
back to you. Why? Is it that you’ve not been a guardian to their
work? Will your new approach change that?
Yes. I have a daredevil attitude. Some will call it madness, some call
it my courage. Because I’m willing to — see, success for
me is basically getting up in the morning and being able to do exactly
what you want to do all day, and even more than that, to bear the consequences
when things go wrong. That for me is success. But when I take an actor
who’s not of the same mindset, they’re scared. They are
constantly worried about making a living, being secure. I’m not
like that. So when they come to the Factory without understanding my
mindset, and a film fails, they feel betrayed. In all this, I am at
fault. My mistake is in not understanding that what applies to me doesn’t
apply for everybody else. So they speak against me with good reason.
But that,I think, will change. I have a primary responsibility toward
people who put in time and money into my projects. I’ll serve
ever - yone’s purpose, including mine, better, if I take my responsibility
What’s triggered this change of heart?
The failure of my remake, Shiva. It shook me up. I felt I had
just not thought about it enough. I didn’t take it seriously.
There is a common perception that you have no space for
emotion. You have functional relationships. You use and throw people.
How fair is this view?
I really think I am a very non-emotional person, but I understand emotions
more than anyone else I know. I study emotions like a biologist studies
species. Emotions almost are like drugs — they make you feel high
or low — they come from a certain source you cannot identify,
so they control you. The moment you understand the source, you can’t
let it affect you. In that sense, I’m very non-emotional. People
who are close to me are scared to believe this.
That you are so detached —
Yeah. To give you a bad example, it’s like sometimes on National
Geographic, you see this leopard chasing a deer. You feel so concerned
for the deer, you wish it will escape and then the leopard kills it
and you feel really sad for the deer. Minutes later, a pack of hyenas
comes and drives the leopard away, then you feel sad for the leopard.
When you understand everything in that zoom out mode, nothing seems
very important. There is a counterpoint to everything. So I think for
people to feel hurt or low is highly egoistical. The world doesn’t
owe anything to anyone. It’s up to you to just go forward. So
anybody with a negative emotion — no matter how justified —
doesn’t interest me. If an employee tells me his mother is not
well, I tell him, “How much money do you want? I don’t want
to know about your mother because I’m in no way connected to her.
I’m doing it for you. You want the money for your mother or a
party, it’s immaterial.” I speak like that. To an outsider
it might appear I’m a really cruel guy, and that might be true.
If you are always so ironically aware of yourself, how do
you have relationships?
We do not live in a realm of knowledge or intelligence. In a sense,
what can make you truly happy is a feeling. What goes wrong is when
there’s a non co-ordination between two people. That’s when
you start designing or editing the person in your mind. But in real
life, people are unedited rushes; they are not edited films.
You’ve been associated with many women. What draws you to women?
Basically I love someone who has a strong — see, everyone has
a wish. Very few people have a will. The wish to be successful, become
something, do something, is the nature of every human being. But most
stop at a wish, they don’t have the will. They don’t go
ahead, practically applying all the things that should be done with
it. So most of the women I get attracted to, I feel there is a will
there. But the point is, even in the application of will, you have to
have understanding and intelligence. You can’t take it for granted,
because every human being has limitations. So when people complain –
that turns me off completely. I never do that. It’s worse with
people I’m close to. I feel very strongly that the onus is on
us to make something out of life.
No one knows who your friends are.
I have no friends. I find it very strange when anybody says, this is
a friend of mine. I can’t understand the word. I don’t have
a need to open myself up, talk about problems — I don’t
feel vulnerable at all, I don’t feel a sense of weakness at all.
My relationships with people are only with those who interest me, entertain
me, can hold a conversation. Beyond that, I don’t have a need.
With every film, the people I interact with change. I don’t remember
them — not in the sense of memory loss, just that they don’t
matter in the scheme of things.
So have you ever met someone who challenged and matched
I would have imagined it — I think imagination is the right word.
I think I imagined I’d met someone and because of that you psyche
yourself into believing you can’t be in a relationship with someone
lesser. When you are telling someone something and she nods her head,
you think she understands. Much later, you realise she never understood
anything, or never heard anything. She was enamoured by the way you
talk — it had nothing to do with what you were talking about.
When that initial high goes away, and you actually start to listen,
you are bored. The moment she stops listening it defeats my purpose.
But I think, they were never wrong, I think it was I who was wrong.
I imagined them. They never said, this is me. We keep drawing pictures
in our head — about everything in life, actually.
To return to your films, you said sometimes you don’t
figure the right way of doing something; there are creative riddles.
In which films did you face this?
Every film starts off with one basic idea. For example, the origin of
Rangeela was this guy I knew in college. He was a street tough
who was in love with a girl. But she was seeing another guy who had
a car and better looks. We used to provoke him to do something. One
day, he said, Ramu she deserves someone better than me. I thought it
an incredible sacrifice, and that was the birth of Rangeela
in a way. After that, I saw Mani Ratnam's Roja. I was fascinated by
the way he shot songs; for the first time, I wanted to shoot songs well.
Then one day, I was watching Singing in the Rain with my mom.
She’s quite conservative, so I thought the girls dancing with
naked thighs would turn her off, but she was super-thrilled. I realised
that because the girls were so proud and happy doing what they were
doing, they looked completely natural. Because of that, my mother could
connect. In those days, in the David Dhawan brand of films, the heroines
never liked doing the songs the way they were done. Because they had
no choice, a certain hardness came into their expression. Rangeela
was created out of a combination of all this — a gali ka dada,
Roja, and my analysis of my mother enjoying Singing in
In the worst of my films, things don’t fall together like this.
I may not have a strong enough idea driving the film. After the success
of Rangeela, for example, I began to put too much emphasis
on just shooting songs — thinking that would land me hits. Obviously
it didn’t. In a film like Mast, I think I fell between
two stools. I didn’t know whether to approach it as a caper or
a dream sequence. In Naach also, I made mistakes. But something
like Drohi, which was a huge flop, is in many ways my most
important film. I met Urmila in that; I also learnt from its mistakes,
and remade it later as Company. But a lot of things happen by pure chance.
Satya, for instance — a very famous man had been shot dead
by the underworld. I was in a producer’s office and he was recounting
the details of what had happened. He woke up at 7, called me at 8, at
nine he went out... Funnily enough, because I think cinematically all
the time, I began to wonder what the killer was doing in the inter-cuts.
What time did he wake up? Did he tell his mother or sister to wake him?
Did he have breakfast before killing or after killing? Then it came
to me with a shock. We always hear about gangsters only when they kill
or die. What do they do in between? That became the seed of Satya.
What about Nishabd? You’re never coy about sexuality. If it wasn’t
for Bachchan, if it was a new actor, would you have pushed the boundaries
Nishabd was a big flop, but there is something about the film
which is personal and which I do not regret. But to answer your question,
yes, I’m not shy about sexuality, but an overtly sexual image
would’ve eaten into the primary intention of the film. Mr Bachchan’s
character has nothing to complain about, he’s just bored. Suddenly
someone came into their life who made him feel silly, happy, made him
laugh, feel emotion. He got confused at that the time and said, yes,
I love you. I’m not very sure he meant it. If the sexual angle
had been too overt, it would’ve killed this primary mood.
Sarkar was rivetting. But you created a scary empathy for
the character based on Thackeray. How do you view him?
I don’t know politics but I understand the psychology of politics.
The Godfather was a defining book in my life. When I read it, I’d
never heard the word mafia, never heard of the American underworld.
But the reason it struck a huge resonance across the world is that a
godfather exists everywhere — be it a Thakur in UP, a big industrialist,
a dictator or a political leader. They might use violence to get their
way, but how did they reach that position? Obviously there are x
number of people who trust him and think he’s good. The closest
example I had for an adaptation was Bal Thackeray — a man who
seems almost feudal, existing in the middle of a cosmopolitan city like
Mumbai, in a democratic country like India. He has a huge say in how
the city should run its life, some people want to kill him, at the same
time, the people who love him are willing to die for him. This phenomenon
became the basis of my film. But I don’t have a direct knowledge
of him. My film avoids presenting Sarkar’s men as a political
party, which the Shiv Sena is.
You say you’re a careful observer of life. But your
films are mostly about crime. What else catches your eye?
I don’t understand politics at all, I have no interest in it.
But one thing I find extremely fascinating are news channels —
their ability to make something out of nothing, make your emotion rush.
It’s the height of manipulation. I saw this story on one of the
channels about somebody claiming Aishwarya would bring bad luck to Amitabh
Bachchan’s house. They had this very worried looking picture of
Amitabh and a smiling one of Aishwarya. And they put horror music on
it. I find that genius. I know them both, I know it’s all humbug,
but in spite of that, for one second they made me scared of Aishwarya.
Two video clips, and one piece of music. If they can do it to me who
has first hand knowledge, what effect will it have on others? So news
channels catch my eye.
You’re often accused of objectifying women’s
bodies. Is that fair?
No, for me there are various aspects. When I am having a conversation
— for example, just now with you — whether it’s a
woman or man makes no difference. But sex is a strong aspect. As a man
I’m attracted to a woman’s sexuality, which as a normal
man I should be. So I love to show her sexuality openly. Because I talk
so openly, people laugh and joke about me. They say, oh, Ramu likes
to show women's butts. But if you look at my women characters, they’re
much stronger than any other director’s. I never make them bubbly,
cute, jumping around and giggling like the others. I feel sexuality
is one of the strongest things about a woman. I like to capture it in
the best way I can. It may be demeaning for others, for me it’s
an art form. I take it very seriously.
You present yourself as a hard man. Would you admit to any crises of
No. And I think the reason for this is that I truly believe nothing
and nobody owes anything to you. Thousands of people and animals keep
on perishing. You should feel lucky to be in any state of life. It’s
up to you and you alone to do something about it. I’ll give you
an extreme example. Some people will call it mad. When the Gujarat earthquake
happened, even Mumbai shook. I used to live on the 9th floor on Yari
Road. I woke up, the building was swaying. My first thought was to run,
but by the time I got down, the building would’ve collapsed. That’s
what it felt like. So I just sat down. I was curious to know what kind
of sound the building would make when it broke. I waited for that without
fear. I got scared of myself at that moment, to tell you the truth,
but that’s how I am basically.