I’ve begun comparing films to a wonderful funeral: Vidhu Vinod Chopra
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Vidhu Vinod Chopra is probably known more today as the producer of Rajkumar Hirani films than as a director in his own right. Yet, in the 1980s, he was one of Bollywood’s brightest film-making talents. He began with experimental shorts such as Murder at Monkey Hill (his 1976 Film and Television Institute of India diploma film) and An Encounter with Faces (1978), which earned him an Academy Award nomination and saw him sitting next to Jane Fonda at the Oscars in his pyjama kurta (he couldn’t afford a tux). Then came his extended spell as director of feature films, marked by critically acclaimed films like Sazaye Maut (1981) and Parinda (1989). In 2003, after his production Munna Bhai MBBS broke the bank, he had the good sense to recognize the opportunity that presented itself. His partnership with director Rajkumar Hirani over his next three films—Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006), 3 Idiots (2009) and PK (2014)—has been one of the most successful in Hindi film history.
Those who assumed that Chopra’s directorial career had ended in 2007 with Eklavya: The Royal Guard might be surprised to hear he has spent the last five years fulfilling an old dream: making a film in Hollywood. The result is Broken Horses, a story of two brothers caught up in the Mexican drug war. In an interview a couple of days before the film’s release, Chopra spoke on working in Hollywood, the legacy of Parinda and why he’s becoming more Buddhist as he grows older. Edited excerpts:
Had you always wanted to work in Hollywood?
I was nominated for an Oscar in 1979, which kind of suggested to me the possibility that I could work there. At the time, I was in love with Renu Saluja, whom I married. I was offered a job at Zoetrope, Francis Ford Coppola’s studio, by Fred Roos—who worked for me on Broken Horses—but because I was in love with Renu, I left everything and came to India.
When I came back, what would I do? So I went to Film Finance Corporation. They gave me Rs.3 lakh, I made Sazaye Maut. I returned that, and they gave me Rs.8 lakh, and I made Khamosh. I returned that money, then they gave me Rs.12 lakh. I made Parinda and then I took off. But the idea (of working in Hollywood) stayed with me, and after 3 Idiots, I felt the time was right.
You started with the idea of remaking ‘Parinda’.
When you see the film (Broken Horses), you’ll see how it started as an adaptation, but gone somewhere else. Personally, it’s gone miles ahead of Parinda.
If you write honestly, then you don’t really know where your film will go. You have to honestly depict your characters, you have to be honest about what you want to say, and then the film takes on its own life. Frankly, I don’t do formula—put five songs, three dances, make this guy move his ass and then people will clap. I’m not running these movies down, but I find them too stupid.
Why did you set the film on the US-Mexico border? sixthMAds
I had a house in Beverly Hills, but I travelled a lot; I went to Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, border towns like El Paso. One of the reasons the film has got the kind of reactions it has from LA and New York and London is because I spent so much time getting to know that landscape. It’s like you can’t make a film about Bombay sitting in Delhi. You have to come and study a city and all its idiosyncrasies before you make a film.
It was to be set in New York, but I realized that the film will become very silly because I don’t know the city at all. One night, I went with (3 Idiots and PK screenwriter) Abhijat Joshi—we were both reasonably drunk—to Rockefeller Center. I conceived a wonderful killing there, with white snow and red blood falling on it. We were walking back, very happy. We passed Fifth Avenue, and I said at the next one, this is Sixth Avenue? He said, no, it’s Park Avenue. Then this one? Lexington, he said. By the time we reached back, I told him, we can’t make this picture here, we’ll look like fools.
Then, the next morning I thought of our elements: water, earth, wind, fire. I told Abhijat, let’s build this film around the elements we know. That’s how it became a Western.
Were you a fan of Westerns?
I was a big fan of Sergio Leone. He was a big inspiration. In a way, this film is a tribute to him. He made some great films out of Italy, and he didn’t even know English.
Did you consider bringing in a Hollywood screenwriter to work with you and Abhijat Joshi?
I didn’t feel the need. When me and Abhijat were writing, I was very happy. We had two consultants: there was a guy called Jason Richman, and there was a great man by the name of Walter Murch, who’s worked on The Godfather. The camera operator on Broken Horses, Peter Rosenfeld, is his son-in-law; he put us together. Walter saw the rushes, read the script, loved it and wanted to be a part of it. He and I were like brothers.
Did it concern you that Hollywood executives might not take a Western written by two Indians seriously?
Yeah. I didn’t put my name on the script. James Cameron, who wasn’t a friend at the time, read the script and he called me. He wanted to offer a job to the writers. I told him I’m busy directing. He said, no, the writers. When I told him I’d written it, he said I must have missed your name. I told him, I didn’t put my name on it because if you had read written by Vinod Chopra, you’d be checking my spellings. He became an admirer of the script, which was very helpful as far as the rest of Hollywood was concerned. He’s gone out of his way to praise this film sky-high, which I’m very grateful for.
Did working in Hollywood throw up any unexpected challenges?
My biggest challenge was that this wasn’t just a Vidhu Vinod Chopra film. Say, I made a stupid film with PK, you could blame Raju Hirani and me. But Hollywood already looks down on us as over-the-top and loud. If Broken Horses was stupid, it is Bollywood that would have been labelled stupid. I was very aware of this while making the film; it was a huge responsibility.
You’re one of the few Bollywood directors to make a film in Hollywood. How come there aren’t more local film-makers working outside the country?
Alfonso Cuarón (director of Children of Men and Gravity) put this thought in my head: if a scientist goes from India to Harvard, he’s doing the same science. Same with a mathematician or a philosophy professor. But for a film-maker, it’s a completely different art form. You have to see the film to know what I’m saying; it doesn’t look like it’s been directed by an Indian.
I had to unlearn everything I knew, and learn it all again. Out here, if I’m directing an actor, I’m usually talking about the expressions and how the scene should be, whereas there I was talking more about the state of mind, not how and where to look. Another big difference is that the actors there had studied the script inside out, they’d made notes and we’d discussed those before the shoot. I shot this film in 33 days. It would have taken 100-150 days in India.
Were there any cinematic benchmarks you had while deciding the look of the film?
I was thinking of Fritz Lang. I wanted to have shadows, which you’ll see a lot of in the film. Tom (Stern, cinematographer on several Clint Eastwood films) has done very well with light and shadow.
Could you talk about the legacy of ‘Parinda’?
Parinda was my first big film. At that time it didn’t do well, and that hurt me and upset me, and that’s why I don’t get upset anymore if my films don’t do well. PK was a big hit, but Ferrari Ki Sawaari (2012) didn’t do as well, but I love that film, it’s a movie I believed in. That’s what Parinda taught me. And Broken Horses is a culmination of that journey which started with Parinda.
You know, I’ve begun comparing films to a wonderful funeral, rather than, as people normally do, childbirth. In a day or two, a wonderful funeral will be conducted, and then it’s really not in my hands if the film goes to heaven or to hell. I’m afraid I’m becoming more and more Buddhist as I grow older.