Ashutosh Gowariker: We feel good about the emotion of being united, but are we really united?
With each movie, walk a difficult path and make difficult decisions. Go back in time, dust off the thick pages of the story, review untold stories and then create a movie show. But each issue, however challenging, has a driving force. As for the next historical war drama 'Panipat', which intrigued Ashutosh Gowariker It was that the Marathas were defeated in battle, but there was a certain spirit throughout the trip, which cannot be ignored. Yes, his films have often been involved in controversy, but it is his unbridled passion and honest intention. towards the story in question that helped him fight against external forces. Finally, he believes that what matters is that a movie must go down in history and stand the test of time. Excerpts from a conversation with the nuanced narrator ...
His films are clearly driven by a deep-rooted belief, for example, 'Jodhaa Akbar' (2008) shed light on the theme of religious harmony, and 'Swades' (2004) provoked the feeling of nationalism. What is the inspiration behind making a movie based on the Third Battle of Panipat, one of the most important battles of the 18th century?
The idea arose from the fact that at that time, we were not united, and centuries later, today, we still wonder: Are we united? This battle occurred in the 18th century, but it is relevant even in today's times. We feel united and we feel good with the emotion of being united. We join when there is a cricket match against neighboring countries, but, honestly, are we really united? Panipat was the battle we lost, but what exactly happened then and why did we lose? When I started polling, I realized that there is a great story here. The Peshwas traveled 1,000 km north (from Pune) to stop the invaders. They were not going to Panipat, but then there was a chase of cats and mice along the Yamuna River, they climbed north through Mathura, Agra and other cities and finally to Delhi. And then, while going to Punjab, they were intercepted and the battle happened. So what was this trip about and how were they going to build up such a huge army? Every time we look at a defeat story, we are not so interested. When do we want to watch a cricket match we have lost? We like to talk about our victories. Therefore, this story intrigued me because even if we were defeated, there was a certain spirit throughout the battle and the journey, which cannot be ignored. My motivation came from that place; I wanted to capture that spirit. He wanted the public to obtain a cinematic version of the most important battle of the 18th century.
There are so many layers in such an epic story and so many characters. The dynamics of that time was also complex, that's a lot to incorporate into a movie ...
Yes, there are a lot of characters involved in the story. They were the engines and agitators of those times. In addition, it consisted of people of all backgrounds: Hindus, Muslims, people of different castes, farmers and others. So, who gave support and who didn't, was all the result of the political situation and the geographical location of who was placed in what territory. Relations between the kingdoms were fragile and depended on many of those factors. I've also explored that in the movie.
While the audience is often divided over the way in which the story is portrayed in the cinema, I am sure that if you interact with several historians on a particular subject, you would also face a dilemma. Does your film take opinions from several experts in the field, or have you derived and relied on information and facts from a single source?
I still have to meet two historians who agree on something. They write an account, analyze each other's work and disagree on several things. Here, I'm just a filmmaker, trying to show a historical story on the screen. I am not creating another account from another perspective. I feel the need to extract my information from the first account that is available to us. In this case, my reference point was the historian TS Shejwalkar, who wrote the book 'Panipat 1761'. He wrote specifically about this battle. I created my script from the way it has been narrated in his book. There is another historian based in Pune, Pandurang Balkawade. I took it officially on board for the movie, to get input on various issues.
Your casting choice is always well thought out, like Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan for 'Jodhaa Akbar' — they both looked gorgeous and regal. How did you zero in on the cast of 'Panipat' — Arjun as Sadashivrao Bhau, Sanjay Dutt as Ahmad Shah Abdali and Kriti as Parvatibai?
They were absolutely my first choice, and this is the first time I got my first choice of cast (laughs!). When you get your first choice, it cuts down your waiting period, because when you don’t get an actor you want, you have to pitch it to someone else, and then, it’s a long wait for many months. For Sadashivrao Bhau, I wanted someone with a big built and someone who can make you believe that he has great force and strength. I zeroed in on Kriti as she looked so Maharashtrian and is such a detailed actress. Sanjay Dutt is someone who has gone into another league, and sometimes, just his presence is enough. You put him in a specific look and make him stand there – you feel this is the character. It was great that all three of them consented right away when I offered them this film. I always think that as a writer or director, I can create only 50% of a character, it is the blend of my character sketch and the persona of the actor that finally comes alive on screen.
' Lagaan ' (2001) changed the course of your career. After that, has there always been immense pressure to raise the bar higher and higher?
I have not thought about a previous film as a burden. I’d like to think that every new film that I do comes with challenges of its own. I have to de-strap myself from other trappings and approach every film with new vigour. If I have the attitude of having been there and done that, I think I might lose a certain charm of making every film with a fresh approach. In 'Jodhaa Akbar', I shot two battles, but 'Panipat' demands something else. Unless I detach myself from my previous work, I can’t move on to take on the next challenge.
How often do you go back and view your films scene by scene? How critical are you of your work?
I am very critical of my work and I like to keep revisiting my films. If I look at my film after five years and feel embarrassed about it, that means the film hasn’t stood the test of time. I think a good film is one that stands the test of time.
You have given us some fine and unforgettable films like ' Lagaan ', 'Swades' and 'Jodhaa Akbar', but when an ambitious film like 'Mohenjo Daro' (2016) goes unappreciated, and the audience does not connect with your vision, does it throw you off? What do you tell yourself?
I tell myself, ‘What were you thinking??? (Laughs!). When a film does not work, there could be many, many reasons for it. Everyone could cite a different reason, but the truth is, in this case, it was the script. Everything emanates from the script — every decision you make, and every character motivation comes from it. If the audience has not engaged with the film, it is because the script failed to engage them. There are so many times we see a film that has been made shoddily, but it turns out to be a big hit. The reason is, technique was unimportant in that film, the audience connected with the storytelling and felt for the characters. For me, 'Mohenjo Daro' is still a nice film where we created a different world, but the script could have been emotionally more powerful and that is what it lacked.
So, you do believe in the audience’s opinion, point of view and feedback, and take it seriously as a filmmaker?
For me, the audience is always right. It is also because I am always right. When I watch a film as an audience, I am ruthless. The filmmaker must have spent 200 days shooting it and a lot of money in putting it together, but if the film does not work for me, I will say that I didn’t like it. If I can react like that, even the audience has the right to do it. They are not concerned about my hardships, or how many days of hunger I went through, all they want to know is, film acchi hai ki nahin.
Talking about battles, your films have had their own share of battles. You have got flak from some quarters for apparent misrepresentation of facts in 'Jodhaa Akbar' and then again, in 'Mohenjo Daro'. It is always a tightrope walk when you are making a film based on historical facts, right?
Let’s look at Sir Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi (made in 1982). Ben Kingsley, who played the titular role, resembles Mahatma Gandhi in no way. But we have no trouble with that because of the way it is addressed and the way the story is narrated. After a point, we start believing that he is the Mahatma. If you compare him with the pictures of Gandhi, it’s not slightly different, it is starkly different. Another example is the film 'Sanju' (2018). It did not matter to us that Paresh Rawal was playing Dutt saab, because Raju (director Raj Kumar Hirani) was capturing the essence of Dutt saab through Paresh Rawal and the essence of Sanjay Dutt through Ranbir Kapoor . In a historical film, too, I feel that you have to capture the essence of that period and recreate it in the most authentic way possible.
How much margin does a filmmaker give for creative interpretation in a story-based movie?
Every filmmaker has his own censor, his own degree of variants of what he wants to show, where he wants to jump, and where he wants to be more stringent with facts. These are the choices that you have to make while writing the screenplay. For me, authenticity and realism are very important. Yes, I have some drama in my films, like I will have a scene like ‘namak kum hai’ in Jodhaa Abkar, which is not part of history. Those embellishments are important as that will keep the audience entertained, but authenticity still remains important.
In response to several trolls after the launch of the 'Panipat' trailer, Arjun said: It is unfair to make jokes about historical figures, about martyrs. We must not forget the sacrifice these men made. ” How do you react to these trolls?
I believe that trolling is an art form. I feel that the trolls are thrown artistically at you; they use choicest of words and abuses, and draw sharpest of parallels with something or the other. Trolling is like a full-time job, and so, we have to take it in our stride. I wonder how some people can have so much venom, anger and hatred in them, and they purge all that through their trolls.
Reportedly, the Afghan Embassy to India, in a letter to the MEA (Ministry of External Affairs), expressed concerns over the contents of your movie with regards to the portrayal of Ahmad Shah Abdali, who led the Afghan army in the Battle of Panipat. Have they reached out to you and what is your response to it?
I think that Abdali was a great military strategist, and he is the father of the nation for Afghanistan. But this period in history is also the same time when he invaded India eight times, and when this particular battle of Panipat happened, it was his fifth invasion. If I have to show the story of why this battle happened, then I can’t escape from the fact that he was invading India at that point. So, it is not about maligning or trying to show someone in a bad light, but what I have shown is based on facts.
He was seen after a long time in front of the camera in 2016 for the Marathi movie, 'Ventilator'. What made you return to acting, which was once a professional option for you?
I don’t have the energy to pursue acting now. If a director comes to me and tells me that there is a part that he wants me to play, I will do it, provided I am available during that time. I have some time after this film, so if something comes my way, it will be great. It is not that acting is easy; for me, it is therapeutic.
Historical romance, period drama, epic war movie ... what's next? Can we expect something like a contemporary story, with characters from the period in which we currently live?
I don’t know what is next, but do I think of a story where my hero is dressed in jeans? Yes, I think in that zone, too (laughs!). It is just that sometimes you get a theme which is so great in terms of its period setting that it takes precedence over everything else. Otherwise, why would I make a 'Panipat' after 'Mohenjo Daro'? I had no fears. If you get motivated by the theme, then your reasons for making the new film is different. I think everything is a mix of your effort, hard-work and your luck. You need dollops of luck. After Mohenjo Daro, for me to get this kind of cast, was great. In that sense, I must say that I have been fortunate.