LONDON: Ashutosh Gowariker, the reputed filmmaker assessed his exceptional career as he conversed with writer, TV producer, director, Nasreen Munni Kabir at the 8th London Indian Film Festival.

“My regret has been that in all these years I have never been to the British Film Institute”, admitted Gowariker ruefully, “But I am here now”.

He was the sole filmmaker to be highlighted at the London Indian Film Festival, which concluded its week long run recently. In a riveting 90-minute talkathon, he spoke of his life, his influences, his career and his cinematic mindset. There were no fanciful or high minded frills to his candid hindsight of what spurred him to be where he is now.

Gowariker is one of India’s most distinct individual filmmakers, who tackles big themes on a big screen but with a meaning and message attached.

What follows are extracts that contain the gist and meaning of what he said in his free-wheeling overview of himself as a self-propelled adventurer in life and as a man of cinema.

On being the director with an individual stamp who few know started as an actor, most noticeably in Ketan Mehta’s ‘Holi’ (1985) which also starred Shah Rukh Khan and Deepak Tijori at a time when the two barely knew where they were headed:

I never had any great ambitions since my childhood that when I grew up I would be in the movie business or be an actor. My college was known for its extra-curricular activities. I had no idea what I was doing but I would audition for every play, folk dance, singing contest. To my surprise, I was selected for all of them. Being on stage brought me a lot of attention, which too was an experience but tinged with fear. In one dance, I was paired with a girl called Sunita and adjudged the best couple. She is now my wife and the producer of all my films. She is here with me. I spent five years as an actor. In one of my plays, Ketan Mehta spotted me and asked if I would act in his film. I said yes in an instant. And that’s how the paths of my exploration began.

The difference in being on stage and in cinema?

Acting on stage, one feels empowered, and the cynosure of all eyes. You stand there saying, “Just watch me”. Acting for film is different – it does not have that kind of focus. There are too many things to deal with, a camera close to your face, 300 people milling around and delivering for just one shot of a few minutes. Screen acting is fragmented and that makes it difficult to stay within your character.

The directors you admired for whom you acted?

There are many. Kundan Shah, Sayeed Mirza Akhtar and Mahesh Bhatt come to mind, each with a different style. For an emotional shot that I was unable to deliver, Kundan Shah would explain how it should be addressed, how to view it through the lens and the overall impact through the camera. Whereas Sayeed would explain nothing but urge you to let the catharsis of the character come to you, and I would then struggle to work out that sense of catharsis. And Bhatt Saab would say “When you do this scene your intestines should churn!” Besides, I had no training in cinema and so the adjustment was not easy. I wanted to go to the Film and Television Institute in Pune but it was on strike. I felt I had no time to waste. As a stage actor, one observes the director and the sets. As a director, you call the shots. You must have the answers to everything.

On making films with Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan

At the time we were all part of the same process, struggling to get into films. When I asked Aamir to act in my first film, he agreed. I questioned him saying he could get a better start with others he knew. He shrugged saying no-one would launch him. At the time, we belonged to the same boarding school. So, I directed ‘Baazi’ (1995) with Aamir Khan and ‘Swades’ (2004) with Shah Rukh.

On both acting and directing a film as some greats do

I cannot manage both acting and directing in the way our masters, Raj Kapoor and V Shantaram did with their extraordinary films. My first film, ‘Pehla Nasha’ (1993) unfortunately just sank without a bubble. I thought the public did not understand my film and that it was a work of art. Then later I realised it was the script – and that the audience is always right. My second, ‘Baazi’ recovered its money, that’s all. I made Aamir an action hero and that was not easy. I now make films on scripts that I absolutely believe in.

Does a film take its final shape in its editing process?

A film develops in its entirety not just at the editing stage but further in its post-production evolvement. The sound used in a film and its music can enhance a film, give it a special mood. Ideally, one should keep a six-month post production leeway but that rarely happens.

What did ‘Lagaan’ (2001) being nominated for the Oscar mean to you? It was the second Indian film in 44 years to have this honour after Mother India in 1954. Mother India lost by one vote to Federico Fellini's ‘Nights of Cabiria’ and ‘Lagaan’ did likewise to Danis Tanović’s ‘No Man’s Land’?

The film had done well already on so many levels. We were in Aamir’s house when we got the news of its Oscar nomination and we all burst into any form of dance and song that we knew – we were so elated. On the spur of the moment, Aamir and I decided to go to Los Angeles to campaign for the film. We had no idea of what to do and we knew no one. We decided just to talk about the film to each and every person we met – even the hotel staff. We had three screenings allotted to us prior to the big three allotted to the Academy. We were not allowed near the theatre. We later asked later how many attended the first screening. Just three, we were told. The second? 17 – and we felt better. The third? 120 people in a theatre that seated 120. Full house. Aiming for the Oscar was a new experience, another world.

Did you consider reducing the film in its length as ‘Mother India’ did (it screened there minus all its songs)

No, I wanted the film to be representative of its theme of sports, romance, musical, nationalism — all the nuances and theme it conveyed

‘Lagaan’ became a turning point, did it not, in making popular Indian cinema appreciated in the west?

Well, it opened up our films to countries such as Germany, France, Switzerland … and it also encouraged filmmakers in India to try something new with an out-of-the-box story telling

How did Shah Rukh Khan react to being cast in ‘Swades’? Did you narrate the film or show him the bound script? The film is seen as one of his most sincere and natural performances

I showed Shah Rukh the bound script first and then the narration. I like to narrate my script to actors. I act out each role as I narrate. Shah Rukh had other commitments as most stars do but he liked the script and took it on. My challenge here was to de-mystify him of all his stardom. He had to become a normal person who reacts to the India he sees around him. The scene in the train when he is touched to the core seeing a boy selling water is symbolic of purification by water – of a seminal change in his inner being.

‘Jodhaa Akbar’ (2008) is the London Indian Film Festival’s tribute to your work with a screening at the BFI on a Sunday morning.

This is the film that is the most seen of all my films abroad – even more than ‘Lagaan’. But the crowds came anyway to see the film and talk to me about it.

Without any planning, how did you make your way to filmmaking so successfully?

I think it came from being adventurous in spirit from the start. I did everything I could — taking a diploma course in Touring; another in Hotel Management and Catering; learning Chau dance. I have always leapt headlong into challenges and then looked at what I was doing – not the other way around. These experiences stayed with me and have found their way into my scripts and my filming.

How do you see success and failure?

I like to see success for what it is and when there is failure – I want to study the causes, see what the reasons are, learn by them, move on and not brood about it.

(Written by Uma da Cunha as recollections of the Bagri Foundation London Indian Film Festival highlight, Ashutosh Gowariker in Conversation, held on June 23, 2017 at BFI Southbank, London. Uma da Cunha has been LIFF’s Programme Advisor since its inception.)