When Vidhu Vinod Chopra asked for cash on the National Film Awards stage
Vidhu Vinod Chopra had received the National Film Award for the Best Short Experimental Film for his first film, Murder At Monkey Hill (1976). But when he went on the stage and was handed over the award by the then President Neelam Sanjiva Reddy and the then Minister for Information and Broadcasting LK Advani, the filmmaker realised that the award wasn’t a cash prize but was in the form of a bond (which award recipients can encash after years).
An upcoming filmmaker then, who was struggling to make ends meet, Vidhu was disappointed and kept arguing with the minister, who promised him to hand over the cash the next day. But Vidhu couldn’t be convinced and the President had to intervene. While finally after the filmmaker exited the stage, he was later told that the entire interaction was telecast live on Doordarshan! Vani admitted to Vidhu that she was flabbergasted when she read about it.
Vidhu explained, “You have to try and imagine that kid who went to Vigyan Bhawan (where the award ceremony is organised) with nothing in his pocket. All the money which I had borrowed was used up. So you have to understand that it (what he said) didn’t come from grit or some madness or courage, but it had to do with necessity. It came from the need, and I needed that money to have my dinner and my breakfast the next day.”
‘The moment you spend beyond a point to make a film, you start making compromises in your head’
During the virtual session of the Jaipur Literature Festival, Vidhu pointed out to Vani that if a filmmaker spends beyond a point to make his movie, there are creative compromises he has to make to ensure the film makes enough money to recover the over-expense.
He said, “I don’t have great needs, I don’t throw parties. I don’t have many friends. Most people don’t like me, and I don’t like most people, so it works beautifully. But what happens in movies is that unlike a painter or a writer, you (filmmakers) invest a lot of money. But the moment you invest, let’s say, beyond Rs 200 crore, you start thinking of making compromises in your head. Because then you’ll say, ‘I need to put a song here, I need to do this scene there.’ So you actually sell your freedom as a filmmaker and as an artiste by spending more money on your movie.”
But whatever be the expense, Vidhu says he always wants to give the audience an authentic experience. Giving an example of his film Shikara (2020) – a love story of a Kashmiri couple in the backdrop of the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the valley in the 1990s – he said, “For a film like Shikara, which I knew would not earn Rs 500 crore, I spent almost as much as I spent on Three Idiots because that film needed that. I was showing on screen thousands and thousands of refugee Kashmiri Pandits and I also had thousands of buses that came to Patnitop (to take the refugees away). I went to the exact location where that had happened.”
Vidhu’s large-scale shoot even surprised renowned Hollywood filmmaker James Cameron, who’s known for his big budget movies. “Cameron is a great filmmaker and he saw the film in New Zealand. The first thing he told me was, ‘All those buses were real Vinod, how did you do that? Why did you get so many? I would have got three and digitally created the rest.’ I told him, ‘James, I really wanted it to be authentic’,” said Vidhu. He added, “So it’s not about how much money you spend. Spend as much as you have to. But be careful. If you spend beyond a point, you will have to dumb down and make a rubbish film so you can make money enough to recover your loss.”
Following Ingmar Bergman’s three commandments of filmmaking
During the conversation, Vani asked Vidhu about a particular section in his book, Unscripted, which they were discussing at the lit fest. Vani asked, “In the book, you have said that ‘I haven’t sold my soul then why should somebody else?’ What is that conversation all about?” Then Vidhu explained to Vani about filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s three commandments of filmmaking that he also swears by. Not just when it comes to making films, but also as a way of life.
Vidhu, who studied Bergman at the film institute FTII, said about the commandments, “The first commandment is: ‘Thou shall entertain’, which is amazing because the job of the filmmaker is to entertain and not to preach. The second commandment is: ‘Thou shall entertain without selling your soul’, and third is: ‘Make every film as if that is your last because it easily could be’.”
He added, “Today, you can project any image on social media. You see, on Instagram, everybody is projecting their finest moments in the Maldives. There seems to be no sorrow. So I can project an image here (at the session), and even if you like the image, once the screen is off, I will be very unhappy because I will know that is not who I am. I know the truth. But if I am speaking the truth, and even if everybody says this guy is nonsense, the session is rubbish, that’s fine. I will be happy because I have spoken the truth.”
‘I don’t belong to that industry’
Vani pointed out how Vidhu’s films, starting from Parinda, Munnabhai movies, Three Idiots to Shikara, belong to different genres. Vidhu replied, “Life becomes very boring for me if I start following a certain path. After Shikara, I have written a crazy thriller, Baarish, about a couple in the middle of nowhere who want to kill each other. It is completely different. When you will see Baarish, you will think, ‘Is this the same guy who directed Shikara?’ That is the fun of it. Try different cuisine, try different cinema. To me, life is greater than cinema, far greater than cinema, and therefore I enjoy my life.”
When Vani observed, “But Vidhuji, we belong to a film industry which is so ‘familiar-driven’,” Vidhu laughed and replied, “I must tell you that I don’t belong to that industry.”