Bollywood has its fair share of newcomers and mentors. What makes the jodi of Nikkhil Advani and Ranjit Tiwari hatke is that while they play the producer and director, respectively, of 'Lucknow Central', there's a deep sense of paternity that runs beneath. For Nikkhil, Ranjit is his ghar ka baccha. He has proudly backed him and taught him for eight years before gearing up to display his talent as a debutant director. Here are excerpts from BT's conversation with the duo...
Five years ago, Nikkhil had promised to back your debut film without even knowing its concept. Do you feel that with 'Lucknow Central', you've lived up to his expectations?
RT: I've learnt the ropes of filmmaking from Nikkhil; I don't have any formal training to back me. It was the last day of 'D-Day''s edit on December 31, 2012, when he casually told me that he will back my first film. It's a gift that I will always cherish. So, I just hope that I haven't let him down. This film will decide where my career heads. I just want people to come out feeling happy after watching it.
NA: He's basically putting the blame on me. So, catch hold of him if something goes wrong (laughs!). It hasn't taken us five years to make Lucknow Central. I just saw the potential in Ranjit as a filmmaker then, as he was hugely responsible for the way 'D-Day' shaped up. Post that too, Ranjit took his time to find a story and flesh it out while assisting me on 'Hero' and 'Katti Batti'.
Ranjit, don't you think that a lighter subject would have been a safer bet for your debut?
RT: There were several subjects that interested me, but this one kept playing on my mind. The general notion is that jails are dark and tough, but if you blend in music with that idea, you can talk about hope at the end of the tunnel. I was fascinated by the idea that there were inmates who were hopeful about their lives because of the reformation work in prisons. Nikkhil, too, loved the storyline because it wasn't a dark film that we were setting out to make.
Nikkhil, your debut ('Kal Ho Naa Ho') as a director was a light, romantic film. Why didn't you suggest that route to Ranjit?
NA: I attract people who are looking to struggle, like I have been doing for 25 years. I don't believe in making safe projects. People thought Airlift was a documentary till we cast Akshay Kumar. We've made films like 'Delhi Safari', which took seven years to be completed. It took me a while before I could make 'D-Day', which I'm now told is my calling. So, I'm proud of Ranjit's choice for his debut. It's a beautiful journey from hopelessness to hope. It's about second chances. If he had told me that he wants to debut with a frothy romcom, I would have shown him the door. There's no point in making a film that doesn't have a compelling story. We love mainstream work, but there has to be substance.
Your film revolves around lending hope and meaning to a few prisoners' lives. In reality, how far do you think our jails have succeeded in reforming the inmates?
RT: There's room for more work. Having said that, I must applaud jails like the Yerwada that are working hard to reform inmates with vocational training and computer education. Not every prisoner is a hardened criminal; many fall prey to circumstances which they repent. As a society, the onus is on us to give them a second chance at life.
Do you think that it's easy to accept criminals? It's a utopian thought — would you employ someone with a criminal record?
RT: I would and without any regrets.
NA: Why go that far? I employed Ranjit, who has also been jailed. He had a case against him.
RT: I was 19 then, and at that age, you do things in a fit of rage. You get into a street fight, and then get arrested and jailed till you secure a bail. It's a day-long ordeal, but that's also an experience. These are the kind of experiences that you'll put into your films. The richer the experience, the better it is.
NA: Also, the jail inmates are as human as you and me. It's just that they have been in a situation that we haven't been in. Disgruntlement, unemployment and abuse provoke you to lash out. My wife Suparna, who works for an NGO, shares so many cases that she encounters. I believe that once they've faced the consequences of their actions, they must get a second chance. Our idea with Lucknow Central is that bande qaid hote hain, sapne nahin.
Do you think somewhere, even the film industry now wants to liberate itself from the constant pressure to make big buks, and instead back more content-driven projects, however small they might be?
NA: I beg to differ. This change had set in around 2009 with 'Wake Up Sid'. Ayan Mukerji's debut film could have been something safe and easy, but he made a film which I think is seminal in terms of content getting precedence. There are a lot of filmmakers who back small, content-heavy films, but when the big daddies of Bollywood do that, people take note. In the years after 'Wake Up Sid', so many filmmakers attempted out-of-the-box, out-of-comfort-zone films, which brought us where we are today. Sadly, it's an industry, so profit-and-loss matter. But this is not generic to India. It also happens abroad.
Ranjit, with multi-faceted people like Nikkhil and Farhan Akhtar on board, did you have to try hard to keep them from interfering with your job?
RT: Filmmaking is a team effort and you have to make informed decisions. Nikkhil's point of view and experience always help me; ditto with Farhan. Before starting the film, we discussed in detail about how we will take this forward. Their presence only enhanced my experience of helming this film.
NA: It's a question of implicit trust. I went over to the 'Lucknow Central' set four times. It was my duty to support Ranjit. Since music plays a pivotal role in the film, I thought the film deserved a good choreographer, too. I got Bosco on board and went to the set to ensure that their interpersonal dynamics fell into place. However, once the bullet has left the gun, you don't start imagining its impact. It would have been ridiculous if I had started monitoring the footage he has shot. I find that idea extremely insulting. It never happened to me, so why would I do that to him?
In his interview to us, Farhan said that he never felt the need to direct a scene while acting in a film, although stories about his interfering ways often make the rounds. What's your take?<
NA: Farhan set the parameter of his relationship with Ranjit in their very first meeting. I had gone for the narration with him. After the narration, Farhan started discussing the modalities with me. Then, he paused and told Ranjit, 'Man, I'm doing your film. It's fantastic.' He dissociated me with the film after that, though we have known each other socially and professionally for years. After a point, they didn't involve me in their meetings and discussions. I know how Farhan went door to door, narrating 'Dil Chahta Hai' to so many actors. He knows the anxiety of a first-timer; so, he respects a director's space and never oversteps.
RT: Farhan would often ask questions, but never dictate. It was left to me to take it or leave it.
NA: In fact, we relied on Farhan to guide us with the music. His productions have great scores. Not involving him would be like having Sachin Tendulkar in your team and not letting him open, or telling him to not advice other players on how to face the ball.