Interview Hindi

Saying 'Pappu Can't Dance' song was based on Salman was a marketing gimmick: Abbas Tyrewala

As Jaane Tu... Ya Jaane Na completes 10 years on 4 July 2018, writer-director Tyrewala goes down the memory lane to talk about his refreshing romantic comedy.

Mayur Lookhar

There are many, like this writer, who are done and dusted with the cliched, romantic Hindi dramas. However, every now and then comes a film that takes you back to the time when you believed love is all about the mushy moments, singing under the bushes, and the final moment when lovers unite at an airport or a railway station.

In 2008, screenwriter Abbas Tyrewala took you on a musical and romantic ride with his directorial debut Jaane Tu... Ya Jaane Na. Though refreshing in its story-telling, the film retained elements of a typical romantic Hindi film. So, while the protagonists Jai Singh Rathore (Imran Khan) and Aditi Mahant (Genelia D'Souza Deshmukh) cheekily teased each other as 'Rats' and 'Meows', we saw the mushy moments, the banter and a climax at the airport.

Though produced by Aamir Khan, it was not a film that the super-star chose as a launch pad for his nephew Imran, but it was the latter who brought the film to Aamir.

The film completes 10 years today (it was released on 4 July, 2008). Marking the ocassion, Tyrewala spoke exclusively to us about his Jaane Tu... Ya Jaane Na journey and shared how Aamir came on board as a producer, confessed to taking inspirations for certain key elements, and how the 'Pappu Can't Dance Saala' song, publicised as referring to Salman Khan, was a marketing gimmick. Excerpts. 

Abbas Tyrewala

When it comes to the matters of heart, wouldn't mankind always say something like 'Jaane Tu... Ya Jaane Na'? 

I think that is essentially the greatest question that every heart, and not just the young ones, faces. If love is the greatest joy that one can receive in life, then the suspense of love and whether it will actualise or not, is also the great tension, nervousness a person can go through. Whether or not love will be reciprocated is probably one of the great enticing questions for the youth and the humanity in general.

How time flies. Jaane Tu... Ya Jane Na completes 10 years. How do you look back at the film?

Unlike a lot of people who have the good fortune of being able to relate to their previous works and enjoy it, unfortunately, I have never had this gift. I really envy people who can refer to a film they did 10 years ago and still feel such a great sense of belonging, attachment and pride. To me, I really believe that I changed so much as a person that it looks like an entirely different lifetime, of an entirely different person who made this movie.

I have an academic memory of having made the film and all the love that came our way. But I no longer can claim to feel the same person who made that film. If tomorrow, I sat down and decided to make such a film, then I’d probably not be able to do it.

It is a very affectionate memory where I met some very special people, some of whom became friends, it is also a film where I met my wife, but in terms of the making of the movie, it feels as much as it was done by someone else. [Same goes for] Munna Bhai M.B.B.S. (2003) or a Main Hoon Na (2004). [Tyrewala wrote the dialogue for the former, and the screenplay and dialogue for the latter].

The film was called 'refreshing' when it released.  However, it very much had the basic elements of a typical romantic comedy – two people start off as friends, are unsuccessfull in finding love elsewhere and eventually realise they are made for each other. The climax was often dramatic too. You just changed the style of storytelling. Would you agree?

Geneila D'Souza and Imran Khan 

Well, I think as team, we changed it. I had the script written for a while. This movie had been turned down by a number of people. Whether it was Aamir Khan's vision, as he had gauged that the story could be special, or whether it was AR Rahman, who decided to work with a complete nobody when it came to filmmaking, and give the kind of music that he gave, a lot of things came together to make it a very special experience.

While a lot of people loved the film in cinemas, and watched it a number of times, one has to ask, would many people come if it was not produced and promoted by Aamir Khan? There was lot of support from reputed and great people. 

Most people usually try to tell larger-than-life stories, but this was a story about each one of us. That is why the word 'refreshing' was used a lot. 

How long did you have the story? What was the reasoning when people rejected it? Was there ever a temptation to bring a star on board? 

Well, I was clearly told that it is not commercially viable. I think the innocence, and the quality of being ‘your story, my story’ would have been lost, if I went looking for stars. This movie happened when all your superstars were not people who could go to college anymore.

All the Khans [Salman Khan, Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan], as well Hrithik Roshan were out of college. Nobody else had come on the scene. Ranbir Kapoor, I believe had not even done his first film, Saawariya (2007), yet, that was almost parallel to our film.

There is jazz music playing with the opening credits, but the first scene has these young people travelling in a car and singing the classic Kishore Kumar song, 'Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na'. This was like embracing world music, but still being very desi at heart.

That wasn’t intentional, but when you put it like that, it actually describes the tone and the soul of the film. When you put it out it that way it sounds like juxtaposition but it wasn’t planned that way. Because it happens right at the beginning, and I’m sure it ends up saying it. That is quite a lovely way to look at it.

While the film is all about Jai and Aditi, the character of Mala (Renuka Kunzru) is also intriguing. She is pessimistic, hates love stories and the clichéd masala entertainers, but in the end, it is this stranger who is so moved by Jai-Aditi's love story that she hugs them. I wonder whether Jaane Tu... Ya Jaane Na originated from this character? Also is there an Abbas Tyrewala in Mala?

Renuka Kunzru

No, there is no Abbas Tyrewala in Mala, there is a very unfortunate case of one of the few places where l liked something in another film. This narrative device of a friend telling the story to somebody who doesn’t know the protagonists was a device I saw in American film Forget Paris (1995). At that time, I used it more as a place holder. I’m not one to copy, but it just became so integrally linked to the movie, it became inter-woven to the story.

When the idea of writing this kind of a film came to me, I thought I’m telling a romantic story about friends again, who turn out to be lovers with a climax at the airport. I thought the audience would say, “What’s the new thing? So I said, let’s come up with a character that represents the audience. This was more about Mala representing the audience before one could say, ‘We have seen this before’. The purpose that Mala served was like, 'We have this seen before but there could be more surprises in store’.

What’s the story behind casting Imran Khan, Genelia D'Souza Deshmukh, and Prateik Babbar? What impression did these young artistes leave on you?

Imran had then just comeback from film school. I didn’t even know whether he seriously intended to do acting. A long time ago, he had done some acting or diction course with my mother-in-law and that is who we remembered - a very sweet nephew of Aamir. So, Paakhi [Tyrewala’s wife] was the casting director, she kind of found him. We had no screen test, we just met him at Barista [Cafe] and I felt that I should do a film for this boy. He had that absolute, lovable, innocent, every mother’s son, every sister’s brother, every girl’s perfect-boyfriend quality. He was very real. The moment I met him, I knew he was the way to go.

Genelia was an interesting casting. She was the best in the audition. Now Imran was a new comer, but she had done few films before, I wasn’t sure this [casting Genelia with Imran] will be a good idea. It’s credit to Aamir who told me not to get caught up in trying to gauge about marketing or audience, if you feel that she is perfect cast, then forget what she has done before. You just focus on making the film.

Prateik was an interesting casting too. When I met him, he hadn’t found the focus that he has currently. He was young, slightly lost, his aunt was very protective of him. But the guy’s face and eyes were just a million bucks.

I knew if could get him to overcome some of his hesitation, I knew the screen would love him. Also, the part was so anti-social, misanthropic. He was able to play with a certain amount of flamboyance. He worked very hard. My mother-in-law worked with him and others for six months.

All of them had got to a point where they knew the script inside out. You could wake them up in the middle of the night, give them a cue and they would say the dialogue. They had really come to live their parts. When I was directing, it was more for the camera. There was very little directing I had to do for the performance.

They had rehearsed so well, and those who hadn’t rehearsed so much were actors of the calibre of Ratna Pathak Shah, Rajat Kapoor, Kittu Gidwani, Naseeruddin Shah, and Arbaaz and Sohail Khan, who came for a day and had a ball of a time.

One of the most stand out aspect of the film was the brother-sister relationship. The relationship between Amit and Aditi (Geneilia-Prateik) left us with a question - is it traditional upbringing or the human nature that siblings drift apart when they grow up into adults?

I don’t know how it works, but it clearly does happen. Over here, the film took a very clear stand on why it was Aditi and not Amit who drifted apart. She is a free-hearted girl who makes friends everywhere. Amit was far more sensitive. So while every time the family went to a new place for a visit, Aditi saw it as an adventure and Amit felt uprooted, and he totally stopped making friends. What seems to be hatred on Amit’s part, not hatred, but conscious sarcasm, viciousness towards Aditi is as usual as in the case of all dislikes based on great love. 

The quality of the movie is to remind you of the more innocent, by-gone times, where we, as siblings, were more nicer, gentler people.

The Naseeruddin-Ratna Patna Shah humour was truly hilarious. It brought back memories of Ghar Ho To Aisa (1990) where Kader Khan’s character communicates with his dead father through a photo frame. Was that an inspiration while creating the characters of Amar Singh Rathore and Savitri?

I remember that, but I think the more potent reference that people found was of Priya Tendulkar’s character in Hum Paanch [television show]. But my reference was from Calvin and Hobbes [a comic strip by American cartoonist Bill Watterson]. The idea there was that here is this stuffed toy who talks to Calvin but no one else seems to notice it. I read the comic multiple times. My device was triggered from Calvin and Hobbes but I remembered other references too. The Kader Khan reference came much later. 

In a refreshing change, the film moved away from the tradition of having a cool, sexy protagonists but it is Aditi and Jai’s friends who strike a chord with ordinary citizens. Traditionally, not just the heroes but the supporting cast, too, needed to look good on the screen.

They were all fantastic actors. They had extremely memorable faces, they had well written roles, and they all slipped into it with complete joy and abandon. I really think that if you look at the film, they make the 50% soul of Jaane Tu...Ya Jaane Na, while the rest is of Aditi, Jai and Mala’s track. Rotlu (Karan Makhija), Shaleen (Sugandha Garg), Jiggy (Nirav Mehta), Bombs (Alishka Varde), they are as well remebered as Jai, Aditi and Mala.

And then we had, my favourite jodi in the film – Bhalu (Sohail Khan) and Bagheera (Arbaaz Khan). I felt these two characters brought the mass connect to the film. Wonder if their antics, especially their comical dance, was their natural talent?

Look at them, they had the time of their lives. I just told them I need you to get into your most bad behaviour type dancing. These are two guys, who never had a Bombay girl dance with them. They probably come from a very traditional family where the men dance on one side, while the women dance on the other. I wanted them to go crazy, but at the same time, I didn’t want them to go into the Shakti Kapoor, Ranjeet kind of zone.

It had to be a boyish craziness. It had to be like they can’t believe their luck that there is this hot Bombay girl Richa [Urvashi Shah] who wants to dance with them. For me though the fighting after the dancing was a lot more fun than the dancing. When Sushant [Ayaz Khan] comes to stop it, for them the fight is more important than being able to dance with the girl. That is their real high. I really wish someone could make a series out of Bhalu and Bagheera. They required the least direction.

There is one moment, which many people have complimented me about but unfortunately, I have nothing to do with it. There is a point when Bhalu and Bagheera are thrown into jail and they take pictures of each other with virtual cameras. That was completely improvised by them. That can’t happen unless actors have got completely into their characters.

Does Jaane Tu... Ya Jaane Na’s success remind us that, perhaps, it is important to preserve the typical elements in a romantic film?

I don’t think there is anything that needs to be preserved. Every audience will make its own demand. And every time filmmakers will feature them according to their understanding. To get into a thinking that any kind of narrative should be preserved, would be a fallacy. Audiences evolve, so do filmmakers and filmmaking.

Each age will find its own tone and tonality. Take for an example Sanju (2018). Would you categorise it as an unusual film? This a biopic of a living person which is based not on a heroic life. It is unusual yet the treatment is as Bollywood as it gets. Telling of stories will always find its own voice. Audience will respond to some, and not respond to some.

When you first took the film to Aamir Khan, what conversation did you have with him? 

I didn’t take the film to Aamir Khan. It was to be produced by Jhamu Sughand. He was the one who got me AR Rahman for the music. Even Imran was chosen when Jhamu was the producer. This was unfortunately towards the end of Jhamu’s life and he went through a difficult time, so he couldn’t see this movie through. He had two or three commitments and could complete only one of them. He called me and said, 'I’m sorry but I can’t take this film.'

I didn’t know who to take it to. By then Imran had got attached to the film, and he showed it to Aamir, who then wanted to meet me. He liked the script and was considering of producing it. I didn’t meet him for pitching, but only for narration. And he said, 'Great, I want to produce this.' It was that simple.

The film also stood out for its outstanding music by AR Rahman. I don't recall an Indian film that used jazz music for a song. Rahman crooned and composed the 'Tu Bole Main Bolun' track. Whose call was it to have this one track playing to jazz music?

It wasn’t Rahman’s call. I was big time into jazz music. 'Tu Bole Main Bolun' was clearly inspired by 'You Say 'Tomato', I Say 'Tomato'' [from 'Let's Call The Whole Thing Off' song by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong]. Jazz was something I had loved for a long, long time, especially the old classical jazz, artistes like Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong.

So, I think, Rahman was so delighted [to hear] that I loved jazz and wanted to use it. He never had a chance to use that kind of jazz in a Hindi film.

Was the Pappu in 'Pappu Can't Dance' song referring to someone in real life?

It was quite amazing. First there were articles that it was based on Salman Khan. This was before the film was released. This was done by our PR team. I was like, 'Oh my God, Salman will beat me.' But it was just a fun marketing gimmick and Salman was very sporting about it.

But later when it started being applied to Rahul Gandhi, I think some [pauses] … once we had coined Pappu, it was always going to be bigger than one song or a film. Referring to someone as Pappu has become a cultural phenomenon. I love the fact that it has almost become iconoclastic.

Imran Khan was thought to be meant for bigger things after an impressive debut. Sadly, 10 years on, he is nowhere on the scene.

I don’t like to judge other people’s choices, career. I just think that Imran’s soul was not completely in sync with hardcore Bollywood [Hindi cinema]. Everytime he tried to do something that was really hardcore Bollywood, he looked a little out of place. Whether it is as an actor, and probably more like a filmmaker, which is what he had studied when I had met him, even then he knew that acting would be something he did for a while and then he wanted to make films.

I think Imran needs to find a distinctive voice in the sense that say a Rajkumar Hirani or a Farah Khan have. I don’t think Imran will be able to speak in the voice of typical Bollywood. I believe the most exciting phase for Imran, be it as an actor or filmmaker, is still before him. To judge his career now would be very silly.

This was the film where you would meet your future wife Paakhi. Did the romance blossom during the shoot?

It blossomed at a time when the film was stalled when Jhamu ji was unwell. At the time Aamir came on the scene, we were already together. In fact, I think we were married just before the shoot. We had recorded a few songs.

The professionalism demanded that we didn’t work together on the set. Initially, she would come on the sets as AD (assistant director) and then she had done the casting, directed the opening song, opening credits, and assisted her mother on the acting workshop, but she was not actively present on the sets most of the time because it was no longer feasible to have my wife as an assistant director.

Can we expect another Jaane Tu... Ya Jaane Na from you?

It is just that I’m probably no longer the kind of person who wants to tell that story. I’m at a point where I wish I had the clarity that I had ten years ago.

A lot of people ask me, 'Why haven’t you done more work?' It’s not that I am walking around with a lot of scripts and not getting a chance, but I have actually struggled to figure out what my voice is. What is the reason to make movies?

Generally, I have not done as much work as I could have. Today, if I tell people I want to do another Jaane Tu... Ya Jaane Na, I’ll have 50 people wanting to work [with me], but do I want to tell a Jaane Tu...Ya Jaane Na or am I done telling it?