With two diverse films releasing in a single week, National Award-winning director Hansal Mehta is having a hectic time. In between the promotions of Kangana Ranaut-starrer Simran (releasing on 15 September), Mehta made a quick trip to Toronto for the world premiere of Omerta (loosely based on the life of British-born terrorist Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh) at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it was screened for an appreciative audience.
Mehta started his career in 1993 by directing the TV show Khana Khazana, and after a series of indifferently received films — including Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar!! (2000), Chhal (2002) and Woodstock Villa (2008) — he came into the limelight with his critically acclaimed Shahid (2013). The film was followed by CityLights (2014) and Aligarh (2015).
In a chat with Firstpost, the writer-producer-director spoke about Simran — which he calls his most entertaining and most expensive film till date — working with three time National Award-winning actress Kangana Ranaut, and why he has always been against box office numbers being made public.
How did Simran evolve from being a thriller to a slice-of-life comedy?
I was in the US attending a film festival and I read about these petty crimes and thefts committed by very ordinary migrants. I shared these articles with Kangana and she said, ‘Let’s do it’ but when we started writing and shooting, the film took a different turn. It was always a migrant story but then we added humour and took an intimate look at migrant life.
I strongly felt that I wanted to make a film about the Gujarati community in the US. Simran is about a young divorcee’s adventure. The crime is part of the character graph. It’s a slightly crazy film… When we were kids we would look at these relatives coming from the US in awe. The Big Apple, Hollywood, Los Angeles… that was the only image of the US (we had). But when I started visiting my relatives in the US, I realised they led a different life. It was lot of hard work, jobs were not (matched to their) stature; their value system and lifestyle was different and sometimes they were caught in a time warp. Also, the second generation was trying to break free.
Simran is an observation of this life through a very entertaining and unique story. It is a mixture of that life with an adventure drama. It’s a story of crime, love and redemption. Kangana’s character is lovable and quirky. I wanted the story to be appealing and entertaining, catering to the large mass of audience (sic).
For once, I have made an entertainer where my protagonist is not dying! People will leave the theatre with a smile. It is my most entertaining film till date.
This is your first film with Kangana…
I have been talking to Kangana since 2014. I wanted to work with her since I saw Fashion. She is phenomenal. She’s well prepared and also quite spontaneous. There is a scene that is on paper, there is a scene that you have discussed and then there is a scene you see coming alive, when it comes alive with the actor surprising you, it’s a different feeling altogether. The character’s arc and those sparkling one-liners are entirely her input. That’s why I credited her with additional story and dialogue. Actually I have been spoilt when it comes to actors. I have worked with some of the true talents — Rajkummar Rao, Irrfan Khan, and now Kangana. She’s an actor of that calibre and I am proud to work with her. She is a director’s dream. We met in 2014 for another script, which didn’t materialise. Then we met for yet another script which again didn’t work out.
Which were these two films that you and Kangana couldn’t collaborate for?
There was a biopic that couldn’t be made because we couldn’t get the rights. The other was Sarbjit. I was supposed to make that with Kangana but things changed and as we all know somebody else directed and produced it. But I am glad that happened because Simran is a very fresh idea. As a director, you have to break out of that safety net, you have to challenge yourself.
There have been too many controversies around Kangana during Simran’s promotions. Does that affect you?
I don’t think of those things. As a filmmaker, my job is to focus on the film. Post-Friday it’s all about relationship between the audience and the film. Nothing else matters. Kangana is somebody who speaks her mind, how can you stop her from doing so? She is a fearless soul and somebody who will answer tough questions with tough answers. It can at times get uncomfortable and you may be taken by surprise with her bluntness but that is the person who she is. You either love her for it or go somewhere else [laughs].
How do you think Simran affects people’s perspectives on feminism?
Actually Simran was compared to Queen. But the character doesn’t really preach feminism. She is just herself, strong and self-sufficient. She is feminist by choice. You are free to make your choices however you want so that you are responsible for how you end up. If you chose that path, you can also fail.
Are box office numbers crucial for you?
If I say it doesn’t bother me at all, I will be lying but I am slightly dyslexic about box office numbers and I have never fallen in the trap. You are fed with that stress but eventually it is all about audience reaction. Every film has a different equation with audiences. People still write to me about Shahid. Box office collections are only connected to the budget of a film. A film must recover its cost. Beyond that, the box office doesn’t measure success. A lot of non-theatrical rights for Simran have already been secured. We are in a safe zone and whatever we make at the box office will be because it is a good film.
But box office numbers are business indicators which are meant for the industry to analyse — it is not meant for public consumption. I was always against sharing box office numbers with the public. It’s irresponsible to do so. Which other business shares its profit figures? I have been saying this at various forums. Why is it becoming a barometer for the public? The barometer for the audience should be the film, not its numbers. Does anyone tell people what is the budget, what is the break-even point, what is the profitability? It is all vague. It is a wrong precedent and a bit unfair with all these self-appointed critics predicting films’ business.
According to reports, the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) didn’t appreciate Kangana’s ‘colourful language’ and you were told to delete certain cuss words…
It is not true. If the CBFC does something, I will be the first person to protest. I spoke out when the Aligarh trailer got an ‘Adult’ certificate. I cannot complain about that because they are bound by outdated guidelines. It’s early days, it’s unfair to put too much pressure on Prasoon (Joshi) at this stage.
Not many know about your career before Shahid happened…
I made Jayate, Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar!! and Chhal, three very interesting films and all ahead of their times. But there was no audience and no right platform to promote these films at that time.
You seem to be quite excited about Omerta which again has your muse Rajummar Rao…
It’s an explosive film. Rajkummar shocks you, he surprises you all the time. The film raises some difficult and uneasy questions. The film has violence which is not physical, it is the inner violence which will scare you.