Whistling Woods International, sprawled over about 10 acres of undulating land on the periphery of Film City, is Mumbai’s only film school. Started by director Subhash Ghai in 2006, it has just produced its first batch of students— a motley group of would-be actors, directors, and as Ghai later tells me, “very few writers”. The new batch is yet to enrol.
Star power: Ghai says Yuvvraaj will appeal to NRIs as well as small-town India. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
It’s the day after Ghai is through with his finishing touches to Yuvvraaj, his new film. In the foyer of the dome-like structure, some second-year students operate a film camera perched on an artificial track. Some mill around the green campus, smoking and talking. I catch snatches of their conversations while waiting for Ghai to come out of a long meeting—the topics range from intricacies of the Ariflex camera to Salman Khan to Barack Obama.
This place should be a wellspring of talent, a launch pad for new faces. After all, the man at the helm, labelled Bollywood’s “showman” decades ago, has a seasoned eye—he catapulted Madhuri Dixit, Manisha Koirala, Mahima Chowdhury and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan to superstardom, a fact he still carefully reiterates.
On the top-most floor of Whistling Woods, Ghai has an office and a lounge with an attached room for his personal use. The door simply says “SG”. And he is surrounded by young men and women, his assistants and students, purposefully going about their business with “SG”.
The pre-release euphoria around Yuvvraaj is not palpable among his retinue of young office assistants. The director himself, who turned 69 in October, qualifies the film in carefully chosen words. It might well be a part of his publicity strategy this time around, since Ghai’s last successful film was Taal (1999). “I am a man in need of a hit,” he says. “I’ve kept my earlier mistakes in mind and have unlearnt certain things. This is a film that should appeal to the young and old, NRIs and small-town India.” He adds at the end of a long introduction to Yuvvraaj—where he also says, “Look for the presentation rather than the story, as you should in most of my films”—that this Salman Khan-starrer may not become a big hit, but it will be a “big film”.
An assessment of Ghai’s work, spanning 38 years and 17 films, 13 of which have been box office hits, can’t ignore his obsession with “big”. A lover of outdoor locales, grand shots and big stars, Ghai has never shied away from exploring the thrilling scale and sweep of a 35mm camera.
Karz (1980), Hero (1983), Ram Lakhan (1989), Saudagar (1991), Khalnayak (1993), Pardes (1997) and Taal (1999)—all these films bear the unmistakable Subhash Ghai stamp. Stylistic eloquence over strong storylines and tight scripts—a norm that most Hindi commercial films pretty much followed during the 1980s upto the early 2000s. In that sense, Ghai is one of the biggest catalysts of the way “Bollywood” is perceived by the world. The director considers that a compliment. “I am from a generation of film-makers that made films for posterity, to shape film ethos and sensibility. I just can’t relate to the makers of, say, Welcome or Singh is Kinng, where the goal is to make as much money as possible in two weeks. Tell me, who is going to remember Singh is Kinng 10 years from now?” Going by another logic, who, indeed, will remember Jackie Shroff and Meenakshi Sheshadri in Hero, prancing around hilly shrubs, singing “Ding dong, Oh baby sing a song”? Absurd setting, incredulous situation, even today’s film-lovers would say. But Ghai does manage to convince me that Hero is indeed a “big” film. “That’s why you remember the song,” he says.
Yuvvraaj, made with a budget of more than Rs30 crore, is set in Prague and Vienna. It is the story of a musician in a symphony orchestra, in love with a cello player (Katrina Kaif). He has to marry her in 40 days, and he has to become a millionaire before that. His brothers refuse to help him. The film rides on the protagonists’s struggles, which he overcomes to marry his lover and live happily ever after. This could be any Bollywood staple, except that here, A.R. Rahman collaborates with Gulzar for its music, recorded live with orchestra musicians. “Look what Subhash Ghai did with Taal. It is one of my favourite albums. I was very happy to write for a Ghai film,” Gulzar says.
A man somewhat at odds with the turn of the tide in Indian cinema in the last 10 years, Ghai says he has explored his strengths in Yuvvraaj and yet not lost sight of the zeitgeist. “When I first came in the early 1970s, I had to match the standards of senior film-makers. Now, I have to match that of the young sensibility. That’s where I went wrong with Kisna (2005). I told the story of a young man of the 1920s and expected his predicament to be understood by today’s generation.” In Black and White (2008), Ghai’s last film, set in old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk, he took up the story of a fidayeen terrorist. The film is a comment on the nature of modern day terrorism. A flop at the box office, the best part of this small-budget film is the way Ghai captures Chandni Chowk—the multitude of people, colour and history, shot in many hues and breathtaking top-angle shots. Expect a similar cinematic flourish in Yuvvraaj.
The film’s promotions began airing on TV earlier this month and picked up momentum in the last two weeks, as with most films today. But Ghai says that modern-day promotional aggression is a part of showbiz that he is not yet comfortable with. “We are in the game, so we have to be aggressive,” says Ghai, “but Mukta Arts is run on a safe business model. We don’t take risks or pay inflated fees to stars. I will never bend over to market dynamics to promote a film.” In 2000, Mukta Arts became the first Indian film production company to go public. One more reason Ghai is desperate for Yuvvraaj to work—“You know what it’s like to be a public listed company these days.”
Meanwhile, he has hired 14 graduates from Whistling Woods’ first batch, and waits for a talent pool to emerge out of Mukta Arts. Last year, Ghai announced that he is ready to pay Rs1 crore to anyone who comes to him with a good script. That perfect story is yet to come his way.
Yuvvraaj releases in theatres on 21 November
GHAI’S BIG FIVE
Karz (1980) Echoing Bimal Roy’s ‘Madhumati’ (1958), adapted in 2007 as ‘Om Shanti Om’ and remade in 2008 as ‘Karzzz’ , this was Subhash Ghai’s first big hit. Who can forget that electronic- disco hit ‘Om Shanti Om’, performed on a stage resembling a giant gramaphone record?
Hero (1983) This love story was Jackie Shroff’s launch film. The violent climax, hummable and very successful music made it a box office success. Ghai also promoted Shroff’s launch through teaser ads on TV, unheard of then.
Saudagar (1991) Ghai’s first and only successful saga film starred legend Dilip Kumar and spanned three generations. The painfully long film was a kitschy brew of friendship, revenge, love, murder and scandal.
Khalnayak (1993) Ghai’s only controversial film. First, he portrayed a gangster and political criminal as “today’s youth”. Lead actor Sanjay Dutt’s real life became its epilogue when he was arrested for involvement in the Mumbai serial blasts of 1993. Second, an obscenity case was filed against the song, ‘Choli ke peeche kya hai’ , which BBC called the song that “had all of India hot under the collar”.
Taal (1999) Ghai’s last hit was a love triangle with Aishwarya Rai. It had over-the-top costumes, stylized choreography, arresting music and beautiful locales. Rai’s career began rolling after this film.
— Sanjukta Sharma