Interview Hindi

15 years of Darna Mana Hai: I just went ahead with RGV's vision, says director Prawaal Raman


As the horror anthology film completes 15 years (it was released on 25 July 2003), Raman goes down memory lane to share anecdotes about his Darna Mana Hai journey

Mayur Lookhar

Filmmaker Ram Gopal Varma is often associated with Shiva (1990, 2006), Satya (1998), Company (2002) and Sarkar (2005). These were films that had violence as the key element, and the protagonists were often rebellious characters who took on an evil system.

The maverick filmmaker that he is, Varma has also done his bit for the horror genre. He gave the audience the chills with Raat (1992), and then came up with Bhoot (2003). In the same year, Varma produced a one-of-its-kind anthology — Darna Marna Hai (2003). Varma served as a creative producer, but he entrusted the director’s reins to Prawaal Raman, who would make his debut with Darna Mana Hai. Raman had earlier assisted him on films like Jungle (2000) and Company (2002).

Here was a story of six friends, who lit a bonfire in a dark, deserted location after their car breaks down. Each one of them decides to narrate a horror story. These stories featured some of the established names in the Hindi film industry — Saif Ali Khan, Shilpa Shetty, Vivek Oberoi and Nana Patekar. The novelty of the storytelling and faith in Varma’s vision saw these actors take the plunge into the world of the supernatural.

Darna Mana Hai (Fear is forbidden) was a refreshing experience. The film was critically acclaimed and years later, it would acquire cult status. As Darna Mana Hai completes 15 years today, we spoke to director Prawaal Raman who spoke about his journey, how most actors gave their nod instantly, how he asked Patekar to stop smoking on the sets, and more.

Excerpts:

Prawaal Raman

In 1975, Gabbar Singh [antagonist from Sholay] famously said, 'joh darr gaya samjho mar gaya'. I guess, may be in the new millennium, people had forgotten or took it lightly and that is why it needed a Ram Gopal Varma and Prawaal Raman to remind them this dialogue again in a more consequential manner through Darna Mana Hai. Is that right?

Well, 'joh darr gaya samjho mar gaya' which Javed Akhtar and Salim Khan wrote for Gabbar Singh [in 1975 film Sholay] can never be forgotten even in this millennium. So, we were not even trying to remind anybody. It was just inspiration from the dialogue that our title came from. 'Joh darr gaya samjho mar gaya' is the most evergreen dialogue, and in the new millennium, it is just saying that it [fear] is forbidden.

I guess Darna Mana hai was perhaps the first anthology film in India. Does that aspect in itself make it historic?

Well, I, too, was told it’s the first [anthology] by Mr Varma. I was shooting for Company (2002). I had shot 14 minutes of a gangwar, that is when Varma offered me this film. I was only given this film because he liked what I shot for Company. The very thought itself was quite a debatable thing between us about coming up with six different stories in one film. The conviction with which he approached, I found it to be quite a challenge of not going in the conventional way. The very name Darna Mana Hai gave me more courage. So, I just went ahead with Ramu ji’s vision.

The film is said to have drawn inspiration from Hollywood film Campfire Diaries (1997). Is that how Darna Mana Hai was conceived?

No. The basic idea came from the TV series, Tales From The Crypt. I believe it was based on author Stephen King’s stories. The very thought of having many stories in one film (pauses) but the USP was we were graduating it to the movie theatres. That is what was most exciting.

That film had four stories, while your film had six. Atul Sabharwal, Rajnish Thakur, and Abba Tyrewala were the three writers. Can you tell who wrote which story?

No. It was a joint effort by all five of us. Lots of ideas were given – like I’d give three ideas, Mr Varma gave three ideas. Atul, Abbas came up with their own ideas. All five of us then brainstormed and then we would select the stories and those were then written. Mr Varma was always the creative supervisor of the film. We were all working under his supervision. I think this was the first film under Factory [Ram Gopal Varma’s production company].

I think Abbas came up with the idea of Nana Patekar and Vivek Oberoi’s story. Ramu ji came up with the ‘apple’ story. I came up with the main stories of the college kids. The dialogues and the screenplay was written by Atul and Abbas. Everyone was open to the idea that we discussed. Look, if you were to get a Stephen King, then he’d write everything. But all of us were new and so there was great camaraderie between us.

Were any of your stories similar to the TV show ?

No, they were original. The basic guideline given by Mr Varma was that it should not be a compared to anything.

Indians are used to one story running for 2.30-3 hours. How difficult was it to incorporate six stories into one?

It wasn’t difficult at all because they (six stories) had a platform of narrative which was these college kids. Secondly, I never went with the thought that I’m doing something very unique or change the entire perception of filmmaking in India. I just approached it as just another film. The emotional connect was held through these six characters. So, what was happening in the main story was that audience were glued to these six characters. The six stories were something where the mind was getting accustomed to in the first two stories. If the thinking is complex, then it becomes complex. Simplicity should be narrated in a complex way. I believe it was a very simple film.

Now when friends get together churn out horror tales, these stories tend to be more of legends. They are scary, but there’s also a humour element in it that perhaps makes it too-good-to-be-true. When we watch the six stories in your film, they give that impression. Is that how you guys wanted your six stories to come out?

Sanjay Kapoor

If [20th century English writer] Virginia Woolf can accept that the writing should be adapted to modern consciousness as a new literary approach in the so-called modern age, that too at the beginning of the 20th century, we writing unconventional tales with humour and horror and pain combined was nothing revolutionary. I was just 100 years late actually. It’s important to change the tastebuds. Many filmmakers try, but the majority is all about taking the safe route. If you take a risk, then rejection is always a possibility, but at least one makes the audience aware that there is entertainment beyond the pelvic thrusts, item songs and the basic package of the tested formula year after year. The growth of the audience and the makers is stagnant.

Horror genre was solely the bastion of the Ramsays, but they began to fade away in the mid 1990s. How tough is it to tap into this genre considering that in the past A-listers usually refrained from such subjects? But you guys managed to get few A-listers.

Saif Ali Khan

I’d give the credit to the uniqueness of the concept. Secondly, the casting was completely done under Mr Varma's supervision. The actors found it interesting to be part of such a film.

As far as the Ramsay films go, they were the pioneers of [the] horror [genre] in India. We’ve had some great horror films likes Aruna Raje’s Gehrayee (1980), then Ram Gopal Varma’s Raat (1992). But the horror that we associate with, is the pulp horror by the Ramsays that was very successful. Horror got a face into the mainstream not with the Ramsays, they had a separate audience. Vikram Bhatt managed to give due respect to horror, in the sense that his films had a commercial viability, it had songs. So, I give lot of credit to Vikram Bhatt.

How much of an influence did RGV have on the process of filmmaking?

I never saw him on the sets. Thankfully, he trusted me with the film. I guess the confidence was gained from shooting those 14 minutes of Company. He always told me that I was quite a good assistant of his. If I did well in Company, he said, I would continue as assistant, but if he liked what I shoot, then he would surely give me a film.

15 years on, what memories spring to mind?

Honestly, it was only when you called me that I realised it has been 15 years. I always felt that this film was done recently. I have been shooting other films, including horror, so I seriously didn’t think that it has completed 15 years. The film has been aired on television countless times. Thankfully, it has a great acceptance with the audience.

But is there any interesting anecdote to share?

Vivek Oberoi, Nana Patekar 

 It was my first film as a director. So, actors, too, had to build a trust in me. I remember the first day when I told Mr Nana Patekar not to smoke in the first scene. He lit a cigarette. I said 'cut', but he lit another cigarette. I said 'cut' again. Finally, he asked me to explain why he shouldn’t be smoking. I told him that he was portraying a ghost. Indian people believe that a ghost fears fire. So, he immediately said, because you’ve explained, now I trust you. He said I need my director to know the craft, know the reason why they would say a particular thing. This was a learning experience for me.

With Saif, I’d go out for a drive in the night. It was great fun. All these actors were convinced by the story. Boman Irani, though, was initially scared to be a part of it, because he was a little nervous to get into the movie industry. I had to really explain to him about the film. I told him that his character is someone who believes that he has to clean the society, he’s like a doctor, very methodical, pragmatic in his daily lifestyle. Once he heard that he said 'I got the character, I’m on'.

Looking at the six different stories, I was intrigued by the themes of no smoking, homework, then Aftab Shivdasani’s freeze fantasy. I wonder whether these story lines were derived from prohibitions, reprimands, rejections from personal experiences? 

Aftab Shivdasani 

Quite possible. There has been a kind of rebellious attitude that Mr Varma had already. We can see from his choice of films. I associated with him, too, because I believed in his thought process, or the kind of cinema that he makes. Yes, there has been a kind of influence of doing things that are prohibited, like making this film.

There were personal influences, for example, detesting homework, both Mr Varma and I didn’t like doing homework. Nor did Abbas Tyrewala like doing homework. Most important [prohibition] was no smoking. I tried it in school and was reprimanded by the teacher. Maybe they were all sub-conscious things which came out through this film.

Now talk of Nana Patekar and he usually intimidates the audience. It was a welcome changed to see him being frightened out. Also, I guess you guys wanted to send out a loud message to Cyrus Broacha and MTV Bakra.

Nothing was done deliberately. We are all great fans of Cyrus and MTV Bakra. It was just that if we could incorporate it [Bakra], as it was popular then, to make our story authentic. This was more out of respect than anything.

Abbas wrote the Nana Patekar story. I believe the entire gravitas of his (Patekar’s) character juxtaposes in the end with him being a MTV representative.

If we see today, save for one odd film, the horror genre still lags behind. Is it the limitation with storytelling, largely revenge theme, that affects the genre?

There were some notable films after Darna Mana Hai. I personally liked Madhavan’s 13B: Fear Has A New Address (2009). With Vikram Bhatt’s horror films doing commercially well, there has been a limitation in storytelling, as everyone tried to follow the same success formula. Few succeeded, some failed.

Now, you guys returned with Darna Zaroori Hai (2006) where there there were six stories, but now it had six directors. Unfortunately, that didn’t click. Was that a case of two many cooks spoiling the broth?

I wouldn’t say so because none of the directors met. They shot their stories separately. Perhaps, we can say separate cooking, different cuisine doesn’t make for a good meal.

Is there any thought given to another Darna Mana Hai?

There will be something like this soon. I have received offers to come up with something similar. The reference given to me has always been Darna Marna Hai. Let’ hope something like this would come up in the years to follow.