Life, one script at a time: Vidhu Vinod Chopra on his new book, ‘Unscripted’

The Bollywood director talks about making enriching cinema and surviving life’s ups and down in his book, co-written with screenwriter Abhijat Joshi

For over four decades now, filmmaker Vidhu Vinod Chopra has been an imposing figure in the world of Indian cinema. As director, screenwriter, producer and occasional actor, Chopra has been at the helm of classics such as Parinda, 1942: A Love Story, the Munna Bhai series, 3 Idiots, and PK. He won the National Award for his debut film Murder at Monkey Hill when he was 24 (and got into a tussle with then Minister L.K. Advani over the prize money), bagged an Oscar nomination for An Encounter with Faces two years later, and tasted commercial success and critical acclaim in the years that followed.

When I speak with him, Chopra is in the middle of promoting his latest project, a biography titled Unscripted: Conversations on Life and Cinema in which he speaks with his long-time collaborator and screenwriter Abhijat Joshi about his early life and the fascination with cinema that led him to the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune. “After reading the book, people are asking me to make a movie on my life. What a boring idea,” laughs Chopra, as I hop on a conference call with him and Joshi. Edited excerpts:

‘Unscripted’ feels less like a memoir and more like two friends having a conversation. Was that intentional?

Abhijat Joshi: Vinod has never really sat down and spoken about his life. These stories, in fact, tumbled out one or two at a time when we were working on different scripts. For instance, if he had to explain a character he had in mind, he would do so with examples from his life. These anecdotes turned out to be so memorable that I used to share them with my family and friends, so at one point, it felt like a good idea to share them with others as well. There are no in-depth discussions on the technical aspects of cinema here… those belong in a book for connoisseurs or students of cinema. This book has a wider appeal because it’s about life.

Vidhu Vinod Chopra: I didn’t even remember some of these stories until Abhijat reminded me of them. I’m someone who likes to live in the moment, so I don’t really look back much. When I sent him a copy of the book, director Werner Herzog wrote to me, “You’ve certainly lived life to the fullest. Now let’s see what you do in the next 50 years.” I liked that.

Your most recent movie ‘Shikara’ stems from your memories of growing up in Kashmir. How has that experience influenced you as a filmmaker?

VVC: I grew up in a small mohalla in Kashmir’s Wazir Bagh, and studied in an average Hindi medium school there. I didn’t read much, but it so happened that my visual sense and aural sense developed because I was surrounded by the beauty of the valley and the sounds of the rivers, lakes and shikaras. I didn’t know at that time, but I was becoming a visual artist.

I had done well at university, was a decent cricketer, and had seen a lot of Hindi films, so I was very arrogant by the time I got into FTII at the age of 19. But the three years there transformed me. I remember seeing three masterpieces — Godard’s Breathless, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, and Federico Fellini’s — in class one day, and emerging a changed man.

What is a movie meant to do? Should it reflect reality or should it inform society?

VVC: In all my movies, be it Parinda, 3 Idiots or Munna Bhai, I have worked with the idea that I should be able to give my viewers an experience which makes them a better and richer human being, a more aware human being… it should somehow enrich their life. In 3 Idiots, for instance, we worked off the central idea that if you chase excellence, success will follow. Through Shikara, many people were made aware of the plight of the Kashmiri Pandit community. So for me, the most important thing is to check if my film will make me happy, and if it will make my viewer’s life a little bit enriched.

Abhijat Joshi. | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

‘1942: A Love Story’, which is still acclaimed for its music, was one of R.D. Burman’s last works. How was your collaboration with him?

VVC: R.D. Burman was one of the best guys I have met in my life. When I went to meet him for 1942: A Love Story, he was going through a bad phase in his career. He gave me a very strange tune for ‘Kuch Na Kaho’, which I thought wasn’t good. And he told me, “You don’t understand Vinod, you are naïve. You are honest. This is what sells, not the old music.” And I told him, “Dada, I did not come to you for music that sells. I came for music that I like to hear.” And that was the beginning of a wonderful relationship.

You had an interesting method to zero in on the look and feel of your movies in the early days…

AJ: This was very fascinating to me because Vinod had shown me how his team and he had looked at paintings by Renoir to determine the look of 1942: A Love Story. Not just that, he also played two tunes for me — there was Beethoven’s Für Elise which is very gentle, and then there was the Fifth Symphony. The Fifth Symphony had power and Für Elise had tenderness, so he told me that is the range within which various scenes must operate.

You have a reputation for being a stickler for budget. How did that come about?

VVC: You have to understand where I come from. My first film Sazaye Maut (1981) was done with a budget of ₹3 lakh, Khamosh was done in ₹8 lakh, and Parinda, which they call a ‘cult film’ now, was done with ₹12 lakh. How do you make a film in ₹12 lakh?! While shooting Parinda, I remember Nana Patekar fought on the sets the first day because he asked for water, and I said, ‘Ghar se lana tha… (You should have brought it from home)’.

The kind of cinema you make and the kind of cinema you allow yourself to make are connected to how much money you spend. If you spend $100 million, you will have to make the kind of film that everybody understands, but if you spend ₹10 million, you can do anything you want. Your freedom as an artist depends on your budget.

In your book, you speak about an extremely low point in your career. How did you deal with that sort of turmoil?

VVC: That was when I was writing Khamosh [an unconventional murder mystery with no songs, which was very unlike the Hindi films of those days]. At that time, to think of a movie like that felt disastrous. I was very disillusioned with life because I felt sure that I couldn’t make the kind of films I wanted to make.

When I look back now, I realise that if I had made that misstep, these beautiful 30-odd years of my life would have never happened. I’ve mentioned this incident in the book because I feel it is very important for young people to understand that everyone has ups and downs. It is important to remember, especially when you are going through a rough patch, that ‘this too shall pass’.

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