What is it that has stayed with you since the days of Lagaan?
One thing I am left with is the way Reena (ex-wife) handled the movie. Although she was married to me for several years, she was not interested in movies. When I asked her that I would need her help and wanted someone I could completely trust, she agreed. He went and met Subhash Ghai and Manmohan Shetty, who used to run a film lab. He asked them to show him what processing, printing, and the lab process are. He went and met producers, directors, technicians. She broke it like she was a veteran. It was remarkable the way he controlled everything.
Do you regret coming so close to winning an Oscar?
In Los Angeles, they consider that when you’re a nominee, everyone is at the finish line, so everyone is equally good. Then a person is told to take one step forward so that one becomes the winner, but the remaining four are only one step behind. A nomination gives you the opportunity to grow your audience as people around the world become curious about your film. And this is how I looked at it. Winning an award is not that important to me. For me, the audience is number one, not the Oscars or any other award.
Lagaan was your first production. How do you think your career changed?
A few weeks before I left to film, I met Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar at Anil Thadani’s party. They are both good friends of mine and they were really worried. They said, “You are making a movie as big as your first production. We don’t know what movie you’re making. “We had kept the cricket part a secret, so they didn’t know about it. But they knew I was going for a one-time, sound-synchronized movie. They suggested I shoot for 30 days, edit, come back and take a call. But the fact is, I wanted to sync sound and individual programming at least five years before Lagaan happened. Sometime in 1995, I remember telling Dharmesh Darshan and Ram Gopal Varma to make the movie in a Just schedule and let’s sync the sound because the excitement that came when I was performing live was wasting. So I experimented with the unique programming, the synchro sound and I also brought the first AD (Assistant Director) system. I had gone to New York and locked up. Apoorva Lakhia as the first AD. He also knew Gujarati and could communicate with the villagers. That experiment was a success. I have only done sound synchronization since then. All my films are one-time and all my films are on the first-AD system. Comic book aside, after advising me not to do all of these things, Aditya and Karan have been following exactly this. They make movies with a unique schedule, they all synchronize the sound and they all have a first-AD system.
How do you see your career as a producer so far?
I’ve seen my father and uncle make movies. My father was a very enthusiastic producer. But he didn’t know how to do business, so he never ended up making money. He made a movie called Locket, which took eight years to complete. Then another Khoon Ki Pukaar movie took three years. I have seen him go through many financial crises. We often received calls from people saying that we had given them money and when I would pay it back. My dad was 40 then. And one night, my mother found my father looking for his graduation certificate to start working. Therefore, he had decided that he would never be a producer. I was happy to be an actor. But when Ashutosh came to see me with a script that I loved, I wondered who would produce this movie. Ashu, unfortunately at that time, had not given successful films. No one would have given him free rein. I felt that if I had to make this movie, I would have to produce it. Currently, I am doing Laal Singh Chaddha, and only after I am done with this movie will I move on to the next one. I am like a handloom worker and my production house is like a small cottage industry. We liked the Peepli Live story, let’s do it. Now how it would fare at the box office, we didn’t know. We have a 100 percent record to date. We didn’t lose any money even on the documentary Swathy Chakravarthy directed for me, called Rubaru Roshni. It has been a great journey and a great learning experience.
Lagaan was released with Gadar. Did people tell you it was a misstep to bump into such a big movie?
There was Anil Sharma, who is a successful director, and Sunny Deol, a big star, for which one was concerned. However, I always believed, and I still hold on to that, and we have examples to show that when two good movies come out on the same day, they both do well. Sunny and I have happened to get together many times. Dil and Ghayal also came the same day. I knew the story of Gadar and I told Ashu that the story was brilliant, his emotion is so good that it can’t go wrong, and let’s be ready for a very good movie. But it turned out she wasn’t ready for a monster movie. People from the villages came sitting in trucks, tractors, buses to see it. Today, I wonder how we lasted in front of Gadar. It was like a tsunami. Lagaan may not have done as much business as Gadar, but he received a lot of love. Both are tent movies. If someone had told me that Gadar would be such a great movie, I would have thought twice before releasing Lagaan with it. I don’t think even Sunny or Anil Sharma knew it would be such a monstrous hit because these kinds of hits are so rare. But I don’t recall anyone specifically telling me not to post it on the same day as Gadar.
Would you be okay if someone wanted to remake Lagaan today?
Why not? Ashutosh and I have already done it, and it will be boring for us to do it again. But if another filmmaker wants to make Lagaan, we will be happy to transfer the rights to him. They will have their own nazariya to do it. I don’t believe in being possessive of my film. (Laughs) I would like to see who can play Bhuvan better than me.
What made you successful as a star, as an actor? Did the way you view stories change?
For me, the selection of stories always depended on personal emotion. I’ve never tried to calculate how it will fare at the box office, which is a very difficult thing to do. I loved the story of Taare Zameen Par and wanted to do it. If someone were to ask what business you would do, what were you supposed to answer? I loved the Peepli Live story, but if I had to think about the box office and then produce, I wouldn’t have produced it. When I did Delhi Belly in English, how could I predict how many people in India would see it? No one knew that Taare Zameen Par would eventually earn Rs 80 crore at that time. It was the second thickest of that year. My main responsibility as a filmmaker is to entertain, and within that, if I have the opportunity to say something important, I take advantage of it. I also like crazy humor so that was one of the reasons for doing Delhi Belly, there was no message in it.
Why do you think Lagaan is still relevant?
Some movies like Mughal-e-Azam, Mother India, Gunga Jumna, Sholay … these are some of the classics. Why? Because they stand the test of time. But you can’t plan such movies, they just happen. K Asif would not have known that people would see his Mughal-e-Azam 70 years later. I always say that Lagaan is a travel movie. It started as a journey and is still a journey. On this journey, some joined in the early stage and others joined later. It started with Ashutosh, then I joined him, AR Rahman, then the other actors came in, the technicians and the last to join was the audience. Lagaan’s journey is ongoing, I still enjoy this journey and hope it never ends.