Thursday, November 22, 2007

'I never felt equipped to be a director'

Cinematographer Anil Mehta, who turns director with Aaja Nachle, speaks to Sandhya Iyer about how all his initial nervousness vanished the moment he saw Madhuri Dixit’s class act

You’ve done the cinematography for films like Lagaan, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Veer Zaara, Kal Ho Na Ho, Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna etc. Was direction always on your mind?

Not at all. I was honestly very happy with what I was doing and moreover, I never felt equipped to be a director. When I was shooting for Veer Zaara, Aditya (Chopra) made me hear an outline of a story he had written and asked me if I could direct it. I will still hesitant to take it up. Then, Jaideep Sahni, who has been an old friend of mine came into the picture and the story was fleshed out. Slowly, I felt more reassured about directing the film.

Since you say that you were diffident about your directorial debut, did you feel the constant urge to seek Aditya's approval?

Actually, I was a part of the writing process before we went into the production of the film. So all the discussions and consultations happened at that stage itsef. But once the film went on floors, as a matter of principal, Aditya doesn't come on the sets. And I hardly had any breathing room, since we were working on a bound script and it was a continous shoot.

Was the script written entirely with Madhuri Dixit in mind?

Yes, we had not got the script ready until Madhuri consented to do the film. Until then, it was just a story idea but once we knew she would be the lead, the script grew.
Is Aaja Nachle a period film?

No, it’s very much a contemporary film. It’s set in a small town, a place where this girl grows up and then quite abruptly has to leave it and move to America all by herself. Here, she becomes a successful choreographer. Then one day, she gets a phone call, informing her that her guru has taken sick. She returns to India and learns that her teacher has passed on his legacy to her -a theatre academy (Ajanta). It’s then left to her to resurrect the place.

You said you were hesitant to take on direction. How easy was it for Madhuri to trust herself with a first-time director?

I never asked her and she never told me, so I wouldn’t know her feelings in this regard. Madhuri is actually one actress I have never worked with even as a cinematographer. I’ve always seen her as an iconic figure and quite frankly was overwhelmed by her experience. Yes, there was a great deal of anxiousness I felt before shooting with her. But once she came on the sets, all that nervousness just disappeared. She’s such a simple, warm-hearted person and thorough professional. Also, when you see that your actor delivers the scenes so well, is receptive to your cues and adds so much value to a scene, it is very reassuring.

How have you reacted to media reports that Madhuri is unhappy with the film and promos?

How can Madhuri be unhappy with the film when she has not even seen it? And it was only one newspaper which carried that story and they did so without quoting any sources whatsoever. We even offered to give them a clarification from Madhuri, but they weren’t interested because they had already gone ahead with the story. And of course, then this kind of stuff is replicated without control everywhere. What purpose does it serve to trash a film before its release? This really mars genuine interaction with the media and gives rise to mutual suspicion.

But could there be truth in the stories that Madhuri is miffed at the promos and the marketing strategy?

The whole marketing plan could be made only after Madhuri came down to India and what do you think she’s doing from the past 3-4 days? Endlessly doing press, barely sleeping. As for the promos, I have made them myself, so the responsibility lies on my shoulders. And who is to decide how the publicity should be done? With Chak De India, the marketing was low-key and that worked in favour of the film. On the other hand, with Jhoon Barabar Jhoom, the banner went all out to publicise it. So every film has its own identity and it must be allowed to live its life. But I will say here, that I have absolutely no clue about marketing and other things, I leave it to Yash Raj’s experience completely.

Will you be directing another film?

I’m not sure what I will do next. I always do one thing at a time but I’m not shutting any option. But right now, I want to take a long break.