Larger THAN LIFE

Bazaar speaks to ASHUTOSH GOWARIKER and KARAN JO­HAR on the large-scale ex­e­cu­tion and vis­ual splen­dour of their films

Harper's Bazaar (India) - - HOT LIST - By Udita Jhun­jhun­wala

In 2001, writer-di­rec­tor Ashutosh Gowariker recre­ated the Vic­to­rian Bri­tish Raj in the epic La­gaan. In 2008, he brought the Mughal era to life in Jod­haa Ak­bar , and in 2010, he took us to the be­gin­ning of In­dia’s free­dom strug­gle circa 1930, with Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey. “Strength of char­ac­ter, a sense of bravado, and f ight­ing against in­sur­mount­able odds at­tract me to a story. I have never made a con­scious ef­fort to make some­thing big or grand. I seem to have a nat­u­ral at­trac­tion for grand themes,” says Gowariker.

Gowariker of­ten spends up to two years read­ing and re­search­ing be­fore even mov­ing to the script­ing stage. “When you choose a theme in which your pro­tag­o­nist is go­ing to bring about a change in the life of the com­mon man, like in Swades, where Mo­han wants to cre­ate electricity for the vil­lage, then the theme au­to­mat­i­cally be­comes big. He is striv­ing not only for his sat­is­fac­tion or his love, but also for change, and that is much big­ger,” says Gowariker who be­lieves the right time and space set­ting are cru­cial. “It takes me a long time to zero in on a par­tic­u­lar pe­riod. Once I have done so, then I be­gin to re­search that pe­riod, the cul­ture, eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion, val­ues etc.”

Re­call the bazaar scene in Jod­haa Ak­bar, which opens with the shot of a horse walk­ing past. Gowariker de­scribes the im­por­tance of that shot. “Mar­kets then and now are sim­i­lar, but the dif­fer­ence is that now you do not see horses with horse­men ca­su­ally pass­ing by. You need to in­fuse the

190 script with these lit­tle de­tails, which give it a sense of time. A lit­tle em­bel­lish­ment can make a big dif­fer­ence to the film.” By cre­at­ing a vast vil­lage set for La­gaan, or build­ing Agra Fort for Jod­haa

Ak­bar or recre­at­ing a Bri­tish can­ton­ment for Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey, he may be able to of­fer scale, but some­times bud­getary re­straints get in the way of achiev­ing au­then­tic­ity. “It would not be fea­si­ble to make red sand­stone walls, so Agra Fort is built with as­bestos sheets. Also, when try­ing to keep within bud­getary lim­its, Ak­bar had to lose five cos­tume op­tions and make do with 20. “We had to bring out the dif­fer­ence be­tween the em­peror’s clothes and what the courtiers and com­mon­ers were wear­ing. We could re­duce quan­tity but we could not com­pro­mise on qual­ity, and in turn the grandeur,” says the film­maker.

Cricket matches, bat­tle scenes, and a si­mul­ta­ne­ous at­tack on five lo­ca­tions on the same night are part of the chal­lenges faced by Gowariker. In Jod­haa

Ak­bar he di­rected 2,000 ex­tras for 20 days for the war scenes, con­vert­ing them to 15,000 us­ing vis­ual ef­fects. Dur­ing La­gaan, he di­rected 10,000 ex­tras in a sin­gle day. “You have to de­cide ex­actly what you want while scriptwrit­ing. I knew that I needed three bat­tle se­quences and one ele­phant­tam­ing se­quence in Jod­haa Ak­bar. I also knew that for the ti­tle song in Jod­haa

Ak­bar I needed a larger scale. We used 1,000 dancers in that song.” Prepa­ra­tion, he says, is cru­cial. This in­cludes script read­ings with ac­tors, story board­ing a com­plex scene, and set­ting achiev­able tar­gets for the day in con­sul­ta­tion with the cin­e­matog­ra­pher, so that af­ter get­ting on the set, only ex­e­cu­tion re­mains. He re­counts the enor­mous task, “The hel­mets and chest plates of the 2,000 ex­tras on the Jod­haa set would heat up be­cause of the sun, so ev­ery half hour we had to al­low them to re­move their hel­mets and rest. It would take an­other half hour to get them ready. So I knew I had to shoot in limited win­dows,” he says.

Ac­cord­ing to Gowariker the au­di­ence looks for three es­sen­tial el­e­ments in a grand film—sets, cos­tumes, and props. “You com­pro­mise on the de­tails and you lose your viewer.” So what draws him to such am­bi­tious projects? “I find it chal­leng­ing. I get great joy from cre­at­ing an­other world. And I do feel these films are the best way to show­case my creativ­ity. I hope I al­ways find an au­di­ence who ap­pre­ci­ates it,” says Gowariker.

TKal Ho Naa Ho he char­ac­ters in Karan Jo­har’s 1998 de­but film Kuch Kuch

Hota Hai wore Tommy Hil­figer and Polo Sport, played bas­ket­ball, and stuffed their be­long­ings in blue and yel­low lock­ers be­fore en­ter­ing class­rooms with check­ered floor­ing. This col­lege was un­like any seen in In­dia. In Kabhi Khushi Kab­hie Gham, he pulled off a coup by cast­ing six of the big­gest names in the In­dian film in­dus­try, dressed them in de­signer saris and suits, and housed them in a Bri­tish stately home that mas­quer­aded as a Delhi house. Shah Rukh Khan’s in­tro­duc­tion scene—step­ping out of a he­li­copter—was shot from an­other he­li­copter hov­er­ing above. “For Kabhi Khushi… I just wanted the big­gest house. And Wad­des­don Manor was the big­gest. Peo­ple said it does not look like Delhi, but I didn’t care. That was my con­vic­tion of that world,” says Jo­har.

Jo­har does not be­lieve in do­ing things by half mea­sures. For him, small is not beau­ti­ful—large, ex­pan­sive, sweep­ing cinema is. Multi-star­rers like

Kab­hie Kab­hie, Sho­lay, Mughal-e-azam, and Mother In­dia are true cinema to him. As Jo­har says, “I like a big can­vas, big mak­ing, and big cin­e­matog­ra­phy. Mon­strous wide shots with a mon­strous star cast are my thing. This is what I have grown up lov­ing about In­dian cinema. For me cinema is a large medium made to take you into an­other world. We live in re­al­ity so for me cinema is es­capism. I am en­am­oured and awed by big vi­su­als. Even when I have tried to cre­ate more in­ti­mate set­tings it has as­sumed large pro­por­tions.”

So when it came to plac­ing Hrithik Roshan and Ka­reena Kapoor in a col­lege in Kabhi Khushi Kab­hie Gham, no or­di­nary cam­pus would do. The Bri­tish stately home, Blen­heim Palace, built in the early 1700s, be­came the set­ting for the col­lege and 500 ex­tras were called in to pose as stu­dents. One can be sure that even though his next film, Stu­dent of the Year, does not have a big star cast, it will have a grand pro­duc­tion de­sign. “My next film is es­sen­tially a high school film, but I don’t see that school like any in In­dia or in Mum­bai. I see a dif­fer­ent zone,” says Jo­har, and then adds,

192 “Big­ness comes from how you vi­su­alise things and your aes­thetic sense, while con­nec­tion comes from the char­ac­ters and their di­a­logues. At times I am wrong. At times my sweep­ing saga feel­ing works against the core emo­tion of the mo­ment and therein likes a di­chotomy be­cause as a f ilm­maker, I am talk­ing about real peo­ple in a real world in real cir­cum­stances, but I am putting them in this epic zone. So when you put the char­ac­ters into these glo­ri­ous clothes and set them in posh Man­hat­tan, and take these wide, ex­trav­a­gant shots of the city land­scape, some­times the au­di­ence will stop be­liev­ing they are real.”

How­ever, even when stick­ing close to the mi­lieu of the char­ac­ters, as Jo­har did in My Name is Khan, he sneaks in a few cheats. Shah Rukh might have looked like an av­er­age NRI, but he was cos­tumed in Prada shirts and sweaters. “I feel a Prada white shirt fits so much bet­ter than a reg­u­lar white one, and the Prada black jumper has a cer­tain stretch which fits fan­tas­ti­cally and looks re­ally good on cam­era.” He then added a sense of scale by shoot­ing wide he­li­copter shots over the desert and gath­er­ing 2,000 ex­tras to rep­re­sent the crowd in the cli­max scene.

It’s not sur­pris­ing then that Jo­har be­lieves that cinema is the best show­case for his creativ­ity. He has of­ten said, and re­it­er­ates it here, that he feels blessed to be a film­maker. “Where else can you sing, dance, laugh and cry, and still be at work? Yes, it’s tough and stress­ful at times but it’s not drain­ing be­cause it’s what we love do­ing.”

Grandeur is a lux­ury that Jo­har suc­ceeds in con­vert­ing into a ne­ces­sity for his movies. “Pulling off scale has been a daunt­ing task, but noth­ing ven­tured, noth­ing gained.” And now, he ad­mits, noth­ing seems too large. “My first ques­tion is al­ways: how big is the set? I used to think the big­ger the set the big­ger the scale. Only re­cently have I be­come savvier about my lens­ing and us­ing the same space through block­ing. At Dharma Pro­duc­tions, we don’t see things small. It’s an im­ped­i­ment. We are in­dul­gent and that stems from the head of or­gan­i­sa­tion—mean­ing me! I do not like things that don’t look lovely and large,” he says.

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