Ashutosh Gowariker’s oeuvre as a filmmaker shows a distinct propensity to go back in time. Whether it was the historic blockbusters Lagaan and Jodhaa Akbar or the less well-received Khelenge Hum Jee Jaan Se , cinematic history will remember Ashutosh as the visionary who reclaimed India’s hoary heritage and placed it cinema that flatters, but never to deceive. As he readies his new historical Mohenjo Daro Ashutosh speaks to Subhash K Jha about what it means to go back to history time and time again.
How does Mohenjo Daro look to you? Are you satisfied with what you’ve achieved?
Oh yes, completely satisfied. When you start out you have your own targets as to what you want to achieve. In this case, in spite of all the help that I could get from the archaeologists, I had to rely on my imagination, mixed and matched with fiction.
That’s where the criticism has seeped in with academicians and amateurs questioning the authenticity of the period created by you?
You know, I have faced these charges of inaccuracy during Jodhaa Akbar. During the making of Jodhaa Akbar I had two historians on board, one for the Rajput period and the other for the Mughal era. And still I had to face so much scepticism.
Lagaan also must have been tough to get across the academicians?
I didn’t have to encounter these hurdles during Lagaan. My vision of the British Raj and rural India were largely accepted. But during Jodhaa Akbar I learnt there was dissent and disagreement within the historical community. When I went to Aligarh to meet Irfan Habib Saab who is the leading historian on Emperor Akbar, he said one thing to me, and that statement of Habib Saab has stayed with me during the making of Mohenjo Daro. ‘We are historians. You are a filmmaker. You go make your film the way you want to. I won’t object to anything you show. For at the end of the day it is a film.’
So you’ve taken cinematic liberties in Mohenjo Daro?
Yes, because I am a filmmaker, not an archaeologist or a historian. I am not putting forth a paper on findings made by me. I am recreating era out of my imagination with the help of a creative crew to showcase a window into the era. This is my interpretation and I am inviting the audience to come see my make-believe interpretation of the Bronze Age. Whatever the criticism about accuracy I won’t say they are wrong. They are just following another line of thought from me. But since I made the film I had to follow my own instincts and not those of several experts.
So is this your semi-fictional interpretation of Mohenjo Daro?
I like the word semi-fictional. All that you can see in the film– including the town-planning and the layout of the bricks, the interiors of the homes or the Great Bath-all these are identical to what you’ll find at the Mohenjo Daro site in Pakistan. All the pottery jewellery and houses are authentic. The fiction comes in with the story of Hrithik Roshan that I’ve added. Through him I explore the trade, worship and technological advancement of the times.
This sounds much tougher than doing a straightforward historical like Khelenge Hum Jee Jaan Se?
That was almost like a documentary where I went completely by facts. It’s a choice that I had to make. For instance I could’ve shown a full blown romance between Abhishek Bachchan and Deepika Padukone. But that would have been a challenge to facts as the attraction between the two characters was said to be unspoken. So I left it at that. Mohenjo Daro is more in the Lagaan space.
Mohenjo Daro brings you and A R Rahman together again?
He couldn’t do my last two films. He was busy with Slumdog Millionaire. What’s Your Rashi required 13 songs. I didn’t want him to hold him back from pursuing a new dream in Hollywood. We mutually decided that I’d work with another composer. To his credit Sohail Sen gave me the music I wanted.
Your last two films were failures. How did you react to failure?
When I look at the Khele Hum Jee Jaan Se and What’s Your Rashi I feel I’ve achieved what I set out to achieve. People give me various reasons for their failure. I accept all of them.
The length of your film has always been seen as a problem?
It’s the genre that dictates the length of the film. A thriller cannot be more than 120 minutes. An animation film can’t be more than 90 minutes. When you make a drama like Lord Of The Rings or Lagaan, audiences are willing to be more patient. Mohenjo Daro is 2 hours and 30 minutes long.
It’s believed that the young audiences are not interested in history. Yet you keep going back into the past?
It’s not about the period. It’s about the relevance of the theme. There are so many contemporary films that don’t work because they are irrelevant. My Khelen Hum Jee Jaan Se was rejected not because it was set in the past but because the audience just didn’t want to see another film on the Freedom Movement. They just didn’t show up for the film.
Now you’ve gone so far back in Mohenjo Daro?
There are innumerable periods to go back to. And from different parts of India. There are many, many stories to tell.
Hrithik Roshan and you come together for the second time. Was there a deeper comfort level this time?
This time it was a very different experience working with him. There was an unspoken understanding between us. There would be times when we would approach an emotional scene. And we instinctively knew what to do and what not to do and how to discover new ways of putting across familiar feelings. I had the same experience with Aamir Khan. After directing him in Baazi I shared an even more joyful collaboration with him during Lagaan.
Are you as close to Hrithik as you were to Aamir?
It started in a professional level during Jodhaa Akbar. Now during Mohenjo Daro we struck a more personal friendship. What I like about Hrithik is that he’s as intensely involved with the process of shooting as Aamir. Hrithik is very conscious of the aesthetics of his physicality and how to use it on camera to the optimum. His growth as an actor in his last 4-5 films had to be kept in mind. His persona is changing and the audiences’ perceptions of his talent is changing.
But I hardly saw any growth in Hrithik in Bang Bang?
You mustn’t confuse an actor’s growth with a filmmaker’s vision. The film offered an intense romance between two very good looking people. And it worked.
Hrithik went through a lot of physical and emotional hardship during the making of Mohenjo Daro. How much did those contribute to his performance?
I wouldn’t know whether the hardships helped him give a better performance. But I could see him absorbing his pain, whether physical or emotional. Hrithik’s physical pain must have been excruciating. He tore three ligaments in his leg. We had to take a 45-day break. Leave aside shoot, he couldn’t put any weight on his foot.
How did you make up for lost time?
We had kept space for any eventuality. We had locked in a release date much ahead of the shooting schedules. Not that we anticipated any accident. But we kept a margin in our shooting schedule.
Do you cast newcomers opposite superstars to balance out the box office?
It’s more for creative reasons than for the box office. Sometimes when you’re writing you’ve a certain vision in mind. For example when I was writing Khele Hum Jee Jaan Se I knew I wanted Deepika for Kalpana Dutta’s part. What’s Your Rashi needed Priyanka Chopra. In the case of Mohenjo Daro I needed a leading lady who would come into the picture without the baggage of stardom.
You are releasing on the same day as the Akshay Kumar starrer Rustom. Is that necessary?
This situation cannot be avoided. When your film stars a huge star the producers and distributor will try to find the best weekend to maximize the revenues. All big stars reserve a festival or a National holiday weekend. So the clash is inevitable. And it’s not just Hindi films clashing any more. It could be a Hindi film against a Marathi film or a big-ticket Hollywood film.
So what’s the solution?
What we need is more theatres. And it’s not about corporate houses muscling in to reserve optimum theatres. The local distributor and the audience which buys tickets knows what it wants to see. Theatres are booked accordingly.