January 21 2018
Breaking away from the template: in conversation with Aanand L. Rai
31 August 2017

Aanand L. Rai holds forth on his upcoming production, Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, on pushing the envelope with the untitled SRK project, and his love for food

Filmmaker Aanand L. Rai, the flag-bearer of small-town, middle-class Hindi cinema, is awkward with compliments. Spurred on by his admiration for Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anand, the 46-year old director has been making intimate movies with endearing characters, delivering consistent hits like Tanu Weds Manu (2011), its sequel, Tanu Weds Manu Returns (2015) and Raanjhanaa(2013). But he stays matter of fact about his success and seems eager to move on from the ‘templates’ he is associated with.

However, while Rai resists getting boxed in, an increasing number of films are replicating what has now come to be known as the ‘Aanand Rai universe’. “It is overwhelming. Seven years ago I was searching for an identity. Then suddenly I began to be known for a certain kind of cinema,” he laughs. Clearly Rai doesn’t want to limit himself to his forte and comfort zone. “I don’t want to be recognised as someone who only makes small-town, man-woman films. As a director, with my next film, I will push the envelope,” he says.

Ambitious scale

No wonder then, that all eyes are on Rai’s ambitious untitled project where Shah Rukh Khan will be essaying the character of a vertically challenged person. Rai shuns using the derogatory label of a dwarf . Contrary to what people around him would like to believe, Rai is not anxious about working with the star whose films have been tepidly received at the box office lately, including SRK’s highly anticipated collaboration with Imtiaz Ali. “Pressure is not my process,” he asserts. For him it’s all a measure of how far he has come in life: “I am the son of a teacher who is now making a film with SRK.” He is excited about working with the person rather than the star, the intelligent and well-read man with whom he exchanges notes on life. “I am invested in the emotional journey. Films are a byproduct.” he says. He barely pauses before answering questions, reflecting a surefooted clarity in thought.

So what makes Rai click with his actors? It’s the ability to extract the real person in them, he says, “They surrender, I capture it and give [the quality] to my character. I use this emotional turmoil to make my film.” He tries to be his uncomplicated self on the sets. “I don’t hold back while speaking to Khan Saab and I do the same with my audience,” he says. The untitled SRK project is still a love story, like his previous outings, but a change in course in terms of genre is in the offing soon. “I will make an action thriller with a strong emotional core,” he shares.

Switching tracks

This week, however, he is courting the audience as a producer of R.S. Prasanna’s Shubh Mangal Saavdhaan. Rai picked up Prasanna’s own original Tamil romcomKalyana Samayal Saadham (2013) for the official remake. It’s a film where the protagonist grapples with the delicate problem of erectile dysfunction. Did he ever fear that it might be too bold for the middle audience? Ten years ago, perhaps; not so much now. “At times, we borrow something from society and make a story out of it. At times, we give something to society and say accept it, it is time for us to change. I can’t see my audience but I can sense their readiness for such stories,” Rai asserts.

However, navigating the tricky space was a tightrope walk and a huge responsibility. “Be it the Ambanis or you and I, Indians we have a conservative middle-class mentality,” he says. The communication gap between parents and children still exists, sexual problems are discussed behind closed doors. But it can be broken through a “family” film. “It is important for a family to sit and talk. This is what Shubh Mangal Saavdhan will be doing. I wanted to turn the bedroom talk into a drawing room discussion,” he says.

The film is set in Haridwar but he doesn’t want to tag it as a small-town film. “That is only the backdrop. These locations keep things rooted. [But] the theme is contemporary,” he quips. He wants to collaborate with the Tamil film industry in a bigger way than just doing official remakes. “I have discussed this with Dhanush and A.R. Rahman. I have met families in Chennai. In a couple of years, when I find an appropriate story, I would like to set a film there,” he says.

Making a mark

Rai prefers to look at his production house as a family where the members can have a smooth journey in making their own kind of films. “I want to take everyone along with me in my progress,” he says. So his longtime writer, Himanshu Sharma, is a co-producer on Shubh Mangal Saavdhan and editor Hemal Kothari is the creative producer.

Rai has indeed come a long way from being a shy, studious boy for the first 20 years of his life, content with his solitude and quiet life as a ‘Government Colony ka baccha’ in Delhi. He chose to be an engineer initially but soon enough found it restrictive, like a self-imposed cocoon. He moved to Mumbai to assist his brother Ravi Rai on television productions before branching out into his own.

Now films are his world. He talks of them as though they were human beings: “I don’t expect too much from my films, financially. I want to give something to my films, rather than ask anything from them.” He is happy to stay with one story for five years. If there are more, it’s a bonus. Falling in love with his story keeps him alive. “I am one of the few directors who feels very low when their film [shoot] is coming to an end,” he says. He doesn’t like to finish shooting a scene if he is enjoying the emotion in it. “I feel sad because I know I will not repeat myself. This emotion is happening to me for the last time,” he says.

Foodie forever

Apart from films he finds food to be the best way to bond with people. “I don’t have too many passions beyond food and films,” he says. Rai doesn’t cook himself but loves to eat. A non-finicky, experimental eater he can have anything, from boiled vegetables to fried stuff. In fact, food helped him in his initial days in Bollywood. “You only eat with people you are comfortable with. I wanted to be comfortable with people. I wanted to talk a lot. Food helped me get out of my shell,” he recollects. He loves taking people out for meals and discovering new places. One way Rai gets to know his actors is through their food habits. He is particular about the food served on his sets and at promotional events since it helps foster a community spirit, crucial for the betterment of any project.

A self-confessed, simple, family man, Rai claims that he doesn’t even check his account books regularly. All he wants is love, and more of it, for himself and his films. “I want to keep it simple, sleep peacefully,” he says. That defines success for him. Delivering hits regularly then, is just a bonus.



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