New Delhi: With his historical action-adventure epic Mohenjo Daro due for release this Friday, Ashutosh Gowariker returns to the director’s chair after four long years. Neither the tepid box office response to his previous outing Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey (2010) nor the recent surge of period films seems to worry him. In an interview with Mint, he talks about researching a world nobody has ever really written about, balancing his creative sensibilities with the economics of filmmaking and why he couldn’t have made Mohenjo Daro without Hrithik Roshan. Edited excerpts:
The last time you took a six-year break between two directorial ventures was between Baazi (1995) and Lagaan (2001). Why did Mohenjo Daro take so long?
What happened was while I was making Khelein Hum, I had begun prepping on a film that I was making on Gautam Buddha. I worked for about a year on its scripting and everything else. But the film didn’t take off at the time. Once I stopped work on that, I started with Mohenjo Daro, which took me two years to write. It’s unfortunate that film (Gautam Buddha) did not happen and, hence, the gap increased.
How did you begin prepping for Mohenjo Daro?
I realized that if I wanted to make a film on the Mughal period, there are so many books available on it, or on the Rajput era or the British Raj. But I just didn’t find anything on Mohenjo Daro or the Indus Civilization except for archaeological findings. That’s when I realized this is actually pre-history and nothing has been written about it. There were a hundred archaeological books I acquired and went through all of them, and came across the name of Jonathan Mark Kenoyer whose findings and analysis of this civilization I was convinced by. I got in touch with him, invited him over from the US and got all my facts from him directly. I also had four other Indian archaeologists who had worked at other locations—Lothal, Dholavira, Kalibangan, Rakhigarhi. Their studies are very different from each other. So I thought I should at least meet them and get all the information at their disposal before I start building my story.
Why do period movies fascinate you?
I think I’m fascinated by the idea of creating another world. That has got its challenges but I feel they can be met if you’re well-prepared and have a team that contributes to your vision. The end result of going down that path is just the sheer joy of breaking into another era. And I like chapters of history that are untold. Lagaan, for example, was completely fiction. But the feeling at the end was that this happened somewhere. I’m fascinated by untold stories, but then you have to imagine them responsibly.
Is the cost of a period film bothersome? Now that you’re a co-producer, how involved are you with the economics?
Actually, Sunita (his wife and director at Ashutosh Gowariker Productions) is the one who takes care of the business. She’s the biz, I’m the show (laughs). Of course, it’s very difficult to make period films on the scale you want to, so you definitely need stars. If I didn’t have a Hrithik, I couldn’t have made this film. You’re ultimately trying to reach out to maximum audience. And you need a certain amount of money when you’re creating another world. That you need a star follows.
There’s a clash between the creativity and economics all the time. But I’m open to those discussions because filmmakers have great ambitions and visions but what use is it, if it isn’t brought within a budget?
Is it easier when a studio is in the picture? Do they streamline things?
Oh yeah, absolutely. With UTV, my association has been excellent in so many movies. They’re not just co-producers, they’re very participative in the creative process, they’re the distributors themselves. They also take care of marketing. As long as you share information, everyone knows what needs to be done for a movie. So we try and do that as much as we can.
After all the research and hard work, does it feel unjustified when people come out with pre-release reactions and feedback, especially to do with the historical accuracy of the film?
When you make a movie which is set in the past, everyone in the audience has their own vision and image of what this civilization could have been. Even among historians and archaeologists, there has always been a debate on what happened and how. Their analysis keeps changing every five or 10 years. In this film, I’m following Jonathan Mark Kenoyer’s study. There can be some who are following other archaeologists and historians and feel mine is a different chain of thought. Of course, it is because I’m not writing a book or a historical analysis or putting out an archaeological finding. Ultimately, it’s a movie so I’m combining fact and fiction. All our architecture, property and wardrobe have come from the findings—all that is fact. Fiction is the characters I’m creating and the story. So the bottom line is it’s my make-believe world that I hope audiences like, enjoy and get to take something away from.
Apart from the fact that you needed someone like Hrithik for the film, how else do you choose your actors? Does it come from you being an actor yourself?
When I’m scripting, I try and jot down my initial thoughts on whom I see playing a particular character, what my ideal choices are. In case of Mohenjo Daro, my first choice was Hrithik, right from inception stage. Usually, the cast keeps changing so much—the star you think can play the role doesn’t like the script, or he likes it but doesn’t have dates—there are so many hurdles that to have your first choice in the movie is a great thing and I’m very glad we have Hrithik.
How do you look back on the project now that it’s over? How does it feel now that something that you’ve nurtured for so many years is coming out for the world to see?
(Laughs) I would say it’s nervous excitement. It still hasn’t sunk in that there are only a couple of days left. I feel so much work could be done. It’s like more is less. I’m really looking forward to the audience liking the film and identifying with this world. That’s very important—when you’re making something set in the past, it has to be relevant to today’s audiences. And I hope the audience finds it relevant.