Asutosh Gowarikar Interview Transcript
LORRAINE: Welcome to TalkAsia, I'm Lorraine Hahn. This week, an Indian film director at the forefront of Bollywood's global charge. Ashutosh Gowarikar is the director of "Lagaan" – the first Hindi-language film to be nominated for an Oscar since 1958. Laagan is set during British Colonial rule in India. It deals with an arrogant challenge by a British Captain to a small village, he says if the villagers can defeat a British team at cricket, he'll set them free from land taxes known as "Lagaan." The movie incorporates similar elements of song, dance and love triangles you might find in other Bollywood features, but something about this particular film struck a chord worldwide, and grabbed the attention of the Motion Picture Academy. Has Bollywood's time come? Ashutosh Gowarikar is right here, we'll ask him that Question and look at his journey toward success. Ashutosh, Welcome to Hong Kong and welcome to the studio, thanks for coming in. As I mentioned in the introduction, is this the stepping-stone for Bollywood to go Global? What do you think?
GOWARIKAR: Absolutely, I think so too. For the first time an awareness has been created for the Indian mainstream genre, which is the music genre worldwide. So hopefully we'll be able to feed the market with more and more films from India.
LORRAINE: Lets talk a bit about Lagaan since we've been raving about it so much. Did the film's success take you off guard, were you shocked or were you expected it?
GOWARIKAR: Well I was expecting a certain level of it, because when I wrote the script, and while making it, I had a certain degree of confidence that this is going to appeal definitely to a certain section.
GOWARIKAR: Because the theme is very universal, it's triumph for the human spirit. It's the underdog achieving the impossible, it's the oppressor versus the oppressed theme. So I thought it had some elements in it which would appeal, which it did. But what I did not expect was its cross over possibilities at such as huge level, so that has been an extremely pleasant surprise.
LORRAINE: You're talking about the Oscar's when you were nominated?
GOWARIKAR: Yes, but before the Oscar's there was the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland, where we won the audience award for the first time. It was viewed by the Italians, the French, the Germans and the Swiss, they liked it. That was the first indication that the film was liked by non-Indians.
LORRAINE: were you disappointed that you didn't win? You were up against some pretty tough competition for that Foreign Film award.
GOWARIKAR: Yeah, I was shattered actually. I was disappointed but that was just for the first five seconds. In fact, I quite like No Man's Land, it's a brilliant anti-war statement. So when we lost to No Man's land, I felt that we lost to a worthy contender. I like to believe that being short-listed among the five out of 52 films, that itself has been kind of an achievement and we're most proud of that.
LORRAINE: Most definitely, you basically won, you're still part of 1, 2, 3 ,4. Even minutes before, seconds before you called out the name?
GOWARIKAR: I was extremely confident actually to be very honest, I was really expecting that we might be the blessed ones, But.....
LORRAINE: C'est La Vie huh? How long did it take you to write this script?
GOWARIKAR: It took me about two and a half years, but it involved a lot of research and development not only of the British era, but also the lifestyles of Rajas and Maharajas -the Kings. And also about cricket, because cricket is a very integrated part of the plot, so it involved a lot of research not only on my part but of the entire crew that I took on into the film.
LORRAINE: What about the theme of the film, the story itself, how did that come about?
GOWARIKAR: You know my take off point was that I wanted to make a film about a group of heroes as opposed to a single hero or two heroes who achieve the impossible. So what if people forgot their differences and came together to fight a common enemy. That was the basic theme, basically about reunification. When I set it in modern times, it was not so interesting, so I tried to put it in a period back drop and when I did that, I got the British Raj as the most common oppressor, who we knew very well, because we got independence in 1947. I also got the Rajas and Maharajas lifestyles as well as the group of people became farmers. I wanted a non-violent way of presenting the war so hence the use of cricket, because cricket as a game as a sport, which is not only a national sport in India, but each player has a specific task and each player is a hero for us. So how this team gets transposed into the cricket and how they play the game to get the taxes cancelled, that is what this film is.
LORRAINE: Ashutosh, this film must have been a logistical nightmare for you. You had to hire, I understand tens of thousands of people. Tell me some stories of the nightmares you had to encounter.
GOWARIKAR: You know it could have been worse, at this point I like to mention that the numero uno star of India, mister Aamir Khan who has been in the business reigning supreme since 1988. He is the lead actor in the film, which is a great advantage, and the double advantage is that he produced the film. So, it gave me a lot of liberties, for example if I needed to cast actors from London, or needed to cast tens of thousands, to maneuver all this, it was slightly easier, though was as you say a huge production number. We had to employ 70 trucks that would go to villages at 2 am get the villagers put them in wardrobe. I think, I am very proud that I had a very good team to back me up. Production team as well as the complete creative team and actors which helped me achieve the scripts. Because usually with scripts you can dream the most unimaginable things in the four walls of your scripting room.
LORRAINE: And on paper, but to translate that on to the stage or film is slightly different. I want to talk some more about Aamir Khan with you and the production, we're going to take a short break, stick around, TalkAsia will be right back.
LORRAINE: This is TalkAsia, we're talking with Ashutosh Gowarikar, he's the director of the Oscar-nominated film "Lagaan" and that makes him one of the hottest properties in Bollywood. Ashutosh let me talk to you about Aamir Khan who you mentioned just before the break, he is an actor, he also produced the film, you're an actor as well. Does that help the fact that the both of you have had experience on set?
GOWARIKAR: Oh yes, because we both started out as co-actors in a film called "Holi", which was years ago, in which I beat him to the lead role. Then years later, we interacted on a inter-collegiate level, and at one point in time, when I first started to make my first film he played a special appearance in that, and in my second film he was the lead actor. So we've had a kind of association and professional relationship that has built over the years, which helped a lot in the making of "Lagaan".
LORRAINE: But why pick him? I mean there are tons of other possibilities out there. And as I read he didn't even agree with it, he didn't even want to be a part of "Lagaan" in the beginning right?
GOWARIKAR: You know when I wrote this script, you know Bhuvan is a character who is a very righteous person, he fights for the right causes whose values are very much in place. I think Aamir Kahn has these qualities in him by default, so it was very natural for me to think of him, because I thought he and Bhuvan would compliment each other. Which I'm very glad he finally agreed. Yes he did not agree at first because I think there are lots of don'ts in the film which are associated in Indian cinema, like you cannot pick a period film, you cannot have sports in your film, you cannot have a dialect as your main language and you cannot put your hero in a loin cloth during the entire film. So there are certain rules which are present but which are broken now due to Lagaan. So the second time that I narrated the entire concept, I could give him a more elaborate idea of how I wanted to create the British Raj, about the Rajas/Maharajas lifestyles, and all those details then somehow convinced him not only to act but also to produce the film.
LORRAINE: Now, this role, Ashutosh, that he took on for Lagaan, won him a best actor award. Did you sort of gloat when you figured out, hey, this guy didn't even want to be in the movie first of al, and now he's won a best actor award.
GOWARIKAR: Yes, on one side, I did feel happy and good that he won it, but he has won this award a lot of times in the past. For him, he's given such great performances consistently over the years, but yes it was a kind of triumph, that the film is being liked, and the actor has gotten the best actor award.
LORRAINE: It must have been tough, I understand you had to live in the desert for a long time and had to work with these villagers who sometimes were not very pleasant.
GOWARIKAR: It was quite a challenging task to live there, and staying there for five and a half months, getting into the heat, and with a crew that is not used to the heat. And also the entire group of British actors, who had to brave those kind of temperatures. Even the locals weren't used to the heat, for example in the climax, I had these crowds of ten thousands who would sit and watch the match. For the first two or three days it was an interesting thing for them to come and watch a film shooting. But after three days, the gave it up, the said one sec, give us meals, pay us money, we don't want to come again. So every three or four days we had to look for newer, fresher crowds to come in and fill in as the villagers, so it was quite taxing.
LORRAINE: Would you do it again?
GOWARIKAR: I would, Oh yes, absolutely, I would love to, because it's quite adventurous. You know making the film itself has been a very adventurous experience. It's film material on it's own, in a different way.
LORRAINE: Would you ever go back to being in front of the screen, or do you like what you're doing now?
GOWARIKAR: You're asking a very tempting question. Yes, if I get an interesting character, definitely I would go back and do it. But writing and directing has been an extremely satisfying and every fulfilling experience for me. The role that I get as an actor will have to be really worth it, for me to keep directing away and get into it.
LORRAINE: How about the lead role for Lagaan 2?
GOWARIKAR: I would love to do it, but I think it is very tough to be in front of the camera and behind it. I wonder how the greats do it. Not only the greats in India, like Gurudat, and Raj Kapoor and Visathram who have done numerous films with themselves in front of the camera. But I think I will first just try and perfect one craft which is making a movie.
LORRAINE: Okay Ashutosh, we'll take a short break, TalkAsia will be right back with Ashutosh Gowarikar.
LORRAINE: This is TalkAsia, we're talking with Ashutosh Gowarikar. He's an Indian director who is breathing new life into the Bollywood epic. Ashutosh, this is the Question of the Week, it comes from Ranjita in New Delhi. She asks, "What will your next movie be like?"
GOWARIKAR: Well I have just finished a draft of my new script, well, it is definitely not a period film, it is a contemporary film, it is based on a social issue. I know the question is directed with the feel that am I going to be pressured about Lagaan or anything, I'm not going to be pressured with Lagaan, I am just trying to make a film that I believe in once again. I'm trying to reset everything to zero. I'm going to start shooting somewhere around Jan.
LORRAINE: Well we look forward to it. Have you picked a name?
GOWARIKAR: Not yet
LORRAINE: Talking about social issues, how important is it for people like you, who obviously influence hundreds of thousands of people in your country, about tackling social issues. By that I mean for example, the India/Pakistan conflict, and things like that. How important is that?
GOWARIKAR: I think extremely, I think you need to use cinema as a tool to spread first an awareness before we educate because a lot of times what happens is that the masses aren't even aware of the deeper meanings of a particular issue, we need to first make them aware. I think it is very important to do it through the mainstream genre of song and dance. Because if you have to reach rural India, it is best done with music, since that is the most popular art form. At least as far as I am concerned, and a lot of my generation of filmmakers, we're trying to tackle as many diverse social topics in the film.
LORRAINE: That is hard though, when you have an issue such as India, Pakistan, Kashmir, how do you do it in song and dance?
GOWARIKAR: Well, there have been a couple of films in the past. Mr. Murry Ruthnam, who is a very renown filmmaker from the south of India from a state called Tamilnaru in a film called Roja, which was a success not only in Tamil, but all across the nation. It had music, music was it's main strength, in fact Aier Arman, was the numero uno composer in India right now, that was his first film, he was also the musical director for Lagaan. So, I think it needs to be done, it is very important that we tackle it in that fashion.
LORRAINE: Ashutosh, do you ever think of maybe making a Bollywood movie, for Hollywood?
GOWARIKAR: I would love to, in fact, I am toying with the idea, but I have not been able to pin down on a particular topic, because that would be fun to do.
LORRAINE: Why I mention it is obviously because of the Andrew Lloyd Weber case, where he's doing this Bollywood musical on a London stage, what do you think about that?
GOWARIKAR: I'm looking forward to that.
LORRAINE: Have you seen it?
GOWARIKAR: No I have not seen it yet. I think that Lagaan, I like to call it as a period drama with appearance of music, as opposed to a musical. It's not a musical in the true sense of the word musical. Moulin Rouge is a musical, so I am looking forward to it, because that becomes a window for India.
LORRAINE: Let me detour a little bit and talk about your childhood, is this something, acting, or being a model as you were sometime ago, part of your upbringing. Is that what you wanted to do as a child, did you always want to go watch the movies in theaters?
GOWARIKAR: No, not at all, in fact I'm into this profession by accident. I had no dreams or ambitions or even the faintest idea that I would get into this profession. It is an outcome of the college I went to which is Mitibhai College in Juhoo Bombay, which is where I studied. It is known for it extracurricular activities, where I participated in inter-college plays and folk dance, chorus, singing and what have you. I think that helped me discover myself, and one of the plays that I did was seen by director called Hetham Metta who cast me in his first Hindi film called Holi, that is when I realized that there was no turning back now.
LORRAINE: And the rest was history?
LORRAINE: What about your family? Are any of them involved in entertainment or the movie business or did they encourage you do to something like that. You know sometimes you get traditional parents who may not agree necessarily
GOWARIKAR: No, fortunately for me, my parents backed me up completely, and so id my wife Suneeta, she gave me the go ahead to get into the movie business. In fact she has been my most guiding force for Lagaan, she was the one who goaded me to make this film or nothing else at all. So they have been completely supportive.
LORRAINE: That's very interesting, so if you won the Oscar, she should be right there standing next to you.
GOWARIKAR: Yes absolutely
LORRAINE: You have two children, any of them following in your footsteps.
GOWARIKAR: Not yet, but the love Lagaan. My Eldest son is 11 and the youngest is 6, they love Lagaan, they've seen it about 22 times. In fact, its their expectations that I'm worried about in the next film.
LORRAINE: Really? How so?
GOWARIKAR: They are expecting e to come up with another comic book kind of a film, which I may not necessarily make.
LORRAINE: Now who were your influences? Did you grow up watching epic movies, did you grow up watching Bollywood casted type movies??
GOWARIKAR: You know, I am a director by observation, I'm not trained, I did not from film school, I have not assisted anyone. So all the experience I had gathered as an actor that helped me make my first film. So I don't have a particular director that I follow, idolize. Have several, they are a lot within India, they are a lot in America, Like Lucas, Spielberg, and of course in HK . I like to observe as much as I can, because that it my learning process.
LORRAINE: So lets say if you aren't working, then you're watching and studying different movies?
GOWARIKAR: Oh absolutely, I have been an avid movie watcher even before I go into the business, I was always the guy that always went to watch the movie first day, first show, I would not miss it at all.
LORRAINE: Well, Ashutosh, we're looking forward to watching Lagaan. Thank you very much for coming in, we appreciate it, good luck on your next movie.
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