Chakravyuh means that once you are in, there is no way out. I believe you've lived with the script for more than a decade.
That is more or less what happened to me, I guess! You know how it got written? One evening, in November 1995, outside Sunny Super Sound, Rajkumar Santoshi and I had just tied up the initial plot of China Gate. Then I began persuading him to do a film on the politics of exploitation. In response, he asked if I would do a script for a two-hero project. For Shah Rukh – Aamir! Blown, I ranted that mainstream cinema had forgotten that 50% of India that lived in the villages was suffering, while we were chasing DKNY dreams and NRI nostalgia for orthodoxy. Why couldn't he make a real film? Mischievously, Raj said he would, as long as the script had Shah Rukh and Aamir as its two heroes! In sheer frustration, for the next hour, I walked alone trying to construct a plot on how the rural poor were getting increasingly marginalized by the collusion of the government and big business, and how only the naxalites were actively resisting that. Having been a student-activist in the 70s, and then having documented the movement since, plus knowing many activist-friends closely, I had a sense of their motivation, their struggle, their isolation. And, my own discomfiture with the violence. But, why would anyone want to see a film on the naxalites? It is actually this key question that gave me the dramatic spine of the story. As I had hoped, Raj loved the plot. He had a fine sense of drama. He found the story emotional, personal, and not overwhelmed by its politics. And it fit his Shah Rukh – Aamir proposal to a T.
Prakash's movies have a strange casting that's good to the eye (never seen before). What do you have to say about the current casting?
Yes, he does tend to surprise people with his choices of actors. And, mostly manages to pull it off too! Even in this one, the combinations are interesting. Arjun and Abhay haven't done such roles, but one can imagine them playing these. The girls bring in their own definition to the characters. Manoj is of course effective as always. And, I'm especially pleased that my friend Om Puri is playing the character inspired by Kobad Ghandy. Kobad was the first ever activist-intellectual that I met in my life, as a college student in 1976. And since then have always been deeply moved by the life that his wife Anuradha and he chose.
When you conceived the characters, did you have anybody else in mind?
Well, as I mentioned earlier, this script was written for Shah Rukh and Aamir. (In fact, Raj and I even pitched it to Aamir in 1995.) However, after that project didn't materialize, the script remained with me for many years. During the shooting of China Gate, I casually narrated it to Om. He immediately wanted to produce it, with Kamal Haasan and him as the two heroes. However, that didn't materialize either. Barring these possibilities, I never imagined any specific face in the film.
Actually the original story sprang from agitation. At what was happening in India. Manmohan Singh's 1991 budget seemed to have triggered a chain reaction in the Indian economy as well as society. I was dismayed at how rapidly depoliticized and self-absorbed the Indian middle class became, totally indifferent to how the other half lived, unaware that its increasing material comfort and wealth was at the expense of the rural poor. Vexed at how brazenly biased the media had become towards the corporate sector. And finally, anger at the way big business, with the active collusion of a growth-obsessed government, was gleefully riding its juggernaut across India's countryside, devouring every natural resource in its wake. And to hell with those who lived off those resources for centuries, to whom they actually belonged. Frankly, under the pretext of growth, what had actually been unleashed was unbridled greed! You can't let your avarice ride roughshod over people's rights and not expect a reaction. Their anguish metamorphosed into resentment. Naya aadmi maang raha hai jeene ka adhikar! And the naxalites got their act together. Their movement, which had got fragmented over time, reunified under a single label – Maoists. It is difficult to encapsulate every relevant angle of a real issue into a single story. However, every once in a while that I updated the script over the last 16 years, some of these dimensions and layers would find their way into the revision. Hence, I proposed to Prakash that we should insert a 'claimer' in the beginning of the film asserting that this is a work of fiction inspired by reality.
Don't you get inspired by the current city scenarios and what's changing in the system? That too is India's reality.
See, my life has actually straddled both rural and urban areas. So, while I've spent most of my life in Mumbai, I come from a small agrarian town in Saurashtra, Gujarat. In that sense, that has been home always. But, then now, so is Mumbai, frankly. So, it isn't that I'm unmoved by what is happening in India's cities. I just want to write about things Indian. Maybe the next one will be set in a city.
With your penchant for writing and getting inspired by real life events, which biopic would you like to pen in the near future? On anyone in particular and why?
Trick question! I would've loved to do write a biopic on Babasaheb Ambedkar actually. He was a rare human being, one of the only genuinely humanitarian political leaders that India has had. I feel overwhelmed when I think of the difference that he made to Indian society. But, Jabbar (Patel) already made a film on him!
Audience has always kept themselves away from politics when it comes to movies. What keeps you intrigued about our political system?
Not just the audience, filmmakers too seem to have moved away from political themes. The road-roller of commercial ambitions tends to flatten out a more nuanced approach to storytelling, all edges from characters, and of course any kind of real disturbance. Frankly, I'm becoming sick of hearing 'It has to be commercial!' every time one proposes a sharper way of looking at a story. I mean, what is commercial? To me, everything that engages the audience is commercial. Period! This is a society that has grown up on the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, for God's sake. Can't get more painful or disturbing than that, can you? Indians thrive on complexity, ambivalence and contradictions. And yet, I'm afraid, as filmmakers, we continue to underestimate our audiences. Hence, I had become very reluctant about offering this naxal script to anyone, and in all probability would've let it remain on my laptop indefinitely. It is only because Satyagraha got pushed to January 2013, and Prakash Jha was insistent on doing a film in the interim and badgered me for something 'ready' that I suppressed my apprehensions and narrated this one to him in November 2011. We were fortunate to get Sagar Pandya – a talented and exceptionally sincere young screenwriter – as a co-screenplay writer who also did fantastic research in record time to bring us up-to-date. The script revisions, which I began in mid-December last year, were completed in record time! My aim was clear enough. The narrative had to be simple, but not simplistic. Complex, but not complicated. Political, but not cold. Emotional, but not filmy.
Its 2012, do you think writers are getting their due credit today?
The situation's definitely getting better, and in the next year or so, we should see sea-changes in the status of screenwriters in this country. There are many interesting and promising developments underway.