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