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IFFI 2017: A director never gets what he desires, says Subhash Ghai


The ‘showman’ of Hindi cinema holds an engaging and entertaining interactive session with the audience at a masterclass on commercial cinema.

Mayur Lookhar

Filmmaker Subhash Ghai was present at the 48th edition of the International Film Festival of India for a masterclass on 'Commercial Cinema'. Though the masterclass was meant to be a formal session, Ghai was in no mood to become preachy and requested the keen audience for an interactive rendezvous instead.

Known as ‘The Showman’ in the Hindi film industry after the death of the original Showman, Raj Kapoor, Subhash Ghai has delivered nearly a dozen blockbusters like Karz (1980), Hero (1983), Karma (1986), Ram Lakhan (1989), and Saudagar (1991). But he refused to make any distinction between commercial and arthouse cinema.

"What is commercial cinema,” he asked while responding to a query on how to make a successful 'commercial' film. “What we have is a mainstream cinema and parallel or arthouse cinema. No matter which film it is, you have to buy a ticket [to see it]. The moment you have to pay for a ticket that film becomes commercial."

Elaborating on the reach of mainstream cinema, Ghai continued, "Our mainstream cinema is a fantastical, larger-than-life film. The single screens [of old] had lower stalls, upper stalls, balcony and your literati occupied the top rows in the balcony. If [the theatre was] full, that [meant you had what] is called a pan-India film. You can be inspired by Satyajit Ray or Manmohan Desai. Never disrespect anyone."

Having explored different genres in his cinematic journey, Ghai was of the view that the biggest challenge for him as a filmmaker was always the question 'what next?' and staying away from repetition.

There is no better education than to draw inspiration from one's experiences, he said, sharing some interesting chapters from his life. According to him, more than success, it is failure that helps an artiste to grow. 

“In my 45 years as a filmmaker, I think failure has been the biggest asset for me. You treat failure as god’s blessing. It gives you a different energy altogether," he said and narrated a story.

“After Kalicharan (1976) and Vishwanath (1978), I made Gautam Govinda (1979) and Krodhi (1981). Both failed. The media said Subhash Ghai was finished. Even the distributors and stars didn’t want to work with me. Producer Gulshan Rai had agreed to do a film with me provided I got a star on board. There was one star who two years earlier was very keen to work with me, but now when I approached him, he said he was busy for the next three years and refused my offer.

"That was a big failure for me. I went to Rai and asked, ‘Do you want to make a film? Or do you want to make star-cast film? Is it content or a star that is the king? He said content. Then I told him a story which wouldn’t require a current star. My protagonists were a 65-year-old man and his 16-year-old grandson. Rai liked the idea and I told him I would have the legend Dilip Kumar and I have recently met a new actor, Sanjay Dutt, who had then done some film called Rocky (1981). They are both available and they will agree to it. The film was Vidhaata (1982) and it turned out to be a golden jubilee,” said Ghai triggering a round of applause from the audience.

“After that I made Hero (1983) with newcomer Jackie Shroff. Thereafter, I never bothered about stars, and merely concentrated on the the story, script. That was my challenge.”

For a director who has worked with some of the finest actors of the 1970s and 1980s, Ghai, surprisingly, felt it was impossible to get a scene cent per cent right with a star involved. “A director never gets what he thinks or desires," he said. "If he manages to get the scene 70% right, that is fine. There are a host of things involved — production arrangements, settings, costumes, co-actors, actors, you face a lot of problems while shooting. Sometimes, you might just be able to get 30% of the desired scene. How creative can you be within that 30%?

"Sometimes, you don’t even get a set. You are told that the star has no dates and shoot within what you have. Once I shot three scenes in one setting. I had to carry out a scene in a police station, so we placed the image of Mahatma Gandhi on the wall. Later we placed a shelf on the same wall with utensils and that made the set for the kitchen scene. Finally we placed a bed to shoot the bedroom scene. I had to shoot in such a way for the star wasn’t available next day.”

Asked why he had never explored the comedy genre, Ghai offered a cheeky reply: “All our mainstream films are comedy. It's larger than life, a hero can jump from anywhere, he can shoot from any distance, rescue the girl from anywhere. Is this not comedy?”

A question about the qualities a director should possess evoked a splendid answer. “A director is a person who directs all departments to tell his story," Ghai said. "He instructs the professionals from every department to carry out their work in such a way that it reflects the story, the vision of the director.

"Having said that, a director’s first job is human management. I will have different personalities working for me. How do I inspired them as a leader? What kind of person am I? I create a team with a lot of love and affection. I turn all the evil into gods. I encourage them, I inspire them. He has to be like a mother to the whole team.”

Mainstream 'commercial' films form the backbone of Hindi cinema, yet only a handful succeed. Acknowledging this, Ghai said, “Commercial cinema is not easy. Probably only 4% of the films click, while 96% fail. If you think it is simple work, that’s wrong. You not only need knowledge, but you also need the best of the technicians with aesthetic, artistic sense. Commercial cinema has its own beauty, charm and popularity.”

In the past, a Subhash Ghai entertainer often received both audience appreciation and critical acclaim. Today films that earn money seldom earn any respect or critical acclaim. Yet those filmmakers and producers flaunt their box-office collections as a sign of success. Cinestaan.com asked Ghai his views on this.

“First of all, it is a relationship between a sender and a receiver," the director explained. "The producer is a sender, the receiver is your audience. If a sender knows his audience, his market, you decide accordingly and make your film on that budget.

"Second thing, what I would like to tell you is, do not try to look at the critics, media, marketing, they are just traffic which you have to cross in your journey. The main thing is what story you have made and how it has been received by the audience. Anything between that is false.

"But sometimes we have to say things in this falsehood, we may not like it, but you still have to do it. Times have changed. There is much more competition, but what I have observed is filmmakers are concentrating too much on marketing. In our times, we didn’t just make a film but we put our lives into it.”

From Meenakshi Sheshadri to Madhuri Dixit, Katrina Kaif to Kareena Kapoor, Subhash Ghai has worked with some of the most beautiful and talented actresses in Hindi cinema. A female member of the audience asked him why heroines have a shorter shelf life than heroes. His reply: "I don’t think I am the right person to answer that. But the likes of Nutan, Shabana Azmi have had long careers. First they were heroines, then they played elder sister, then graduated to playing mothers. Can you say Azmi hasn’t performed for so many years? It all depends upon how powerful you are as an actor. The more powerful you are, the more you will stay in the industry. Perhaps, you should ask the audience.”

Another woman asked why India often uses the terms hero and heroine and not actor and actress. “The words hero-heroine are popular with Indians, elsewhere they are generally referred to as male lead cast, female lead cast," Ghai said. "In our films, a hero is someone who is like a rajkumar [prince]. As for the heroines, I will use a Raj Kapoor quote. I asked him once: you show your heroine as very beautiful, so what do you look for in her? He said, 'Son, a heroine should be a seductress, one that every man wants to marry, but she should be so innocent that a mother would say, ‘This is how I want my daughter-in-law to be'. So the innocence of seduction is the definition of a heroine!"

Finally, Ghai has worked with the likes of Dilip Kumar, Shammi Kapoor, Shatrughan Sinha, Shah Rukh Khan, Sanjay Dutt, Anil Kapoor and Madhuri Dixit, but he has never worked with the legend, Amitabh Bachchan. “Woh durbhagya hai [That’s my misfortune]," he remarked.

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