His latest film has got the country buzzing, but Raju Hirani can still get away on Mumbai streets without being mobbed. The mastermind of the Munnabhaiseries of films is described by most of the people who know him as a nice person, like the people in his films.
Anuradha SenGupta: What everybody seems to be talking about you is the fact you have managed to take somebody who has dominated and loomed so large over our history books and put him into popular culture. I want you to go back now and de-construct for us exactly how this film happened for you.
Rajkumar Hirani: I was actually working on a script, which was about a 17-year-old boy in 1947, who has an encounter with Bapu and his life certainly changes and he becomes a big believer in Bapu’s ways. And two days later he was hit by a baton of a British soldier and goes into coma.
Fifty years later, when the nation is independent, Bapu is dead, he comes out of coma. There is a joy that he sees an independent country, but also there were also sorrow that is this country we have fought for? So the plot was interesting but it was becoming a grim film.
So, in one of the walks that I take in the morning I was wondering how do I make it entertaining and still I say what I wanted to say. Just as a thought, I said what if Munnabhai supposed to be that 17-year-old man? But he can’t be like that. Then I thought if Munnabhai meets Mahatma Gandhi somewhere. So, that was the origin of that thought.
Anuradha SenGupta: When I saw Munnabhai MBBS and then when I see Lage Raho Munnabhai - which incidentally I saw sitting on a stool, because it was difficult to get a ticket, but I had to see it before I met you - that the basic approach to life, which you show in both the films, which is do good, be good, feel kind, take time out to relate to each other. Is this your philosophy?
Rajkumar Hirani: Hundred per cent. I do believe strongly in that, I aspire to be that, I am not 100 per cent there, I am remotely close there.
Anuradha SenGupta: How do you get this balanced? A lot of laughter and constantly being inter-balanced with these moist eyes. How does it go? Because you are also an editor, I mean that’s how you started your career!
Rajkumar Hirani: A lot of editing actually took place at the script table. I purely go by my gut feeling.
Anuradha SenGupta: Do you get moved very easily as a person?
Rajkumar Hirani: Stories do move me. I can get moved very easily moved by watching a film. I get easily moved by the book I read
Anuradha SenGupta: What about the world out there?
Rajkumar Hirani: Not really.
Anuradha SenGupta: Is that in a sense ironical? Many of us need to connect with the emotions or feel moved in an artificial construct and perhaps, become immune to reality. Do you feel the same way?
Rajkumar Hirani: Possible. Lot of friends do think that there are lot of things happening with me and for that matter, the success of the film Lage Raho Munnabhai. I kept wondering for a few days as to why I wasn't feeling elated and I don’t know why it happens. But there was small story that took place Ahmedabad that moved me. And I remember I had moist eyes when some body told me that he was buying a house and consulting a Vaastu expert as to whether he should buy the house and after he saw the film he stopped consulting the expert. He went ahead and bought the house. It moved me and I cried.
Anuradha SenGupta: There is one thing that I have noticed in both the films. There has been an very obvious concern to include senior citizens and it is not just the concern to bring them in your films or make them act in your films, it is also about what you are making them do. You are making then live life.
Rajkumar Hirani: Your output is primarily what you have inputted in your life.
Anuradha SenGupta: Can you tell about what you have inputted in your life?
Rajkumar Hirani: I grew up in Nagpur. I did my schooling there and went to a college in Nagpur only. I come from a small family. My father had a small business. He used to sell office equipments. My family is still there and they keep coming to Mumbai. Besides that I have lots of relatives including a lot of uncles and aunts.
I have always been with people until I came to Mumbai to join the film industry. So that’s why I keep telling Abhijat (Joshi) that we need to input more. Otherwise we will be giving out the same thing. We need to consciously take a break and go and live with people.
Anuradha SenGupta: Have you exhausted that context and those inputs that came to you which life has given to you already?
Rajkumar Hirani: Not yet.
Anuradha SenGupta: Did your parents, like many middle class parents in India, want you to become a doctor?
Rajkumar Hirani: No, my parents never wanted me to be a doctor. I studied Science till Class XII. I wanted to be an engineer. During those days all children wanted to be doctors or engineers. I did not get into an engineering college. My father is very open person eventhough we come from a conservative family. He told me that I could do what I wanted to do.
In fact he informed me about the film institute as I used to do a lot of theatre in Nagpur. I wanted to become a director and he told me to study film direction. And at that time people thought it was stupid. And anybody steeping out of Nagpur into films would mean he has gone to become an actor. Nobody would understand editing and direction.
Anuradha SenGupta: How did you specialise in editing?
Rajkumar Hirani: I actually wanted to get into film direction and I applied at the film institute but I couldn’t get through. Then somebody said that the trick is to go into editing because thousands of people apply for direction.
Anuradha SenGupta: Ironically the film industry in Pune has become famous because of its editor-director. Isn’t it? You are one them, David Dhawan is one. Even Sanjay Leela Bhansali is an editor-director.
Rajkumar Hirani: Yes. I don't regret it now. I think that there must have been a divine intervention. I am so glad that I got into editing because I think that knowing a craft is always better because once my film is done I feel so much in control of the editing table.
Anuradha SenGupta: People have enjoyed your film and there is no doubt about that. And there is no doubt about that they are suddenly talking about Mahatma Gandhi. But the kind of philosophy that Gandhi stood for and what you are propagating, how many people do you think will take that away?
Rajkumar Hirani: As I keep saying the job of a film is to entertain and if I am able to give a little message sugar-coated with it, it is something I want to do. I am not even expecting that the world will change with it because it will be stupid of me to think that the world will change.
Anuradha SenGupta: But do you think that people will be moved to be a little kinder to each other?
Rajkumar Hirani: From the amount of calls, e-mails and SMSs I am getting,. I think they definitely will.
Anuradha SenGupta: We live a kind of life that is very competitive, very fast. There is a hunger to grow, the hunger to have more, the hunger to have monetary success is huge and that is encouraged. In India today we are beginning to feel comfortable with the fact that it is allright to have these aspirations. How should one include this philosophy into the life one is leading?
Rajkumar Hirani: I don’t know the way as to how to do it but I should tell you that when the film was being made, many people told me, ‘Why are you making this film. Nobody will agree with the fact that Gandhian ways will work today. It will be stupid and people will laugh at the whole thing.’
Now when I go to the theatres to watch the film I see people watching the film and I watch their faces. Deep down there is some goodness within them that’s why they are crying when sitting in the dark hall seeing some goodness.
Anuradha SenGupta: How much of the philosophy and the outlook of the film is really yours? Do you genuinely believe that little acts of kindness makes your life better?
Rajkumar Hirani: I very strongly believe that. When I talk about jadu ki jhappi I definitely believe that it works. You go and give a hug to someone, I am sure it will make him or her feel good and it will make you feel good too. I have been feeling that all the more these days. If something makes me angry it makes me physically sick so I don’t want to get into it. So I believe 100 per cent in the Chicken Soup approach to life.
Anuradha SenGupta: Would it necessarily be for you to curb your ego to do some of the things that Munnabhai did in that film?
Rajkumar Hirani: Not really. I don’t think that there is any question of you trying to do a scene as in a film.
Anuradha SenGupta: When Munnabhai (Sanjay Dutt) says sorry to Arshad Warsi, it was really tough for him. Isn’t it?
Rajkumar Hirani: Not at all. I think one should strongly attempt to be an ego free person. I think that makes life easier.
Anuradha SenGupta: How are your parents and your family reacting to your success? People are talking about Munnabhai but you are the brain behind Munnabhai.
Rajkumar Hirani: No, there are too many people behind Munnabhai.
Anuradha SenGupta: Sure, the film is a collective craft but the director is the auteur. You are also credited with the story of the film. How are your parents and your family reacting to the brain behind Munnabhai?
Rajkumar Hirani: My parents are there with me and they are extremely happy. My father is in fact a unique man because when I called him asking him to come for the premiere of the film he said, ‘No I will watch it here.’ It doesn’t matter to him whether he is watching it there or here.
Anuradha SenGupta: But is he taking credit for the fact that you are a director today? He was the one to point you to the direction of FTI.
Rajkumar Hirani: He is a unique man and he will never take credit for it. But he is delighted seeing that and he comes every day to me and says, ‘Can I send a friend to watch this film,’ and ‘Can I get some tickets to send him in.’
My wife is the only on who bashes me up for spending very little time at home. I had told her that we will take a holiday after the film is over but she says, ‘It is over now. It has been two weeks.’
Anuradha SenGupta: So are you taking a holiday soon?
Rajkumar Hirani: I want to take a holiday but it this has been going on. I surely want spend some time with my children.
Anuradha SenGupta: I don’t think there is a big hurry. There are other things in the environment. It is Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday in October, there will be a celebration for the launch of the 100 years of the Satyagraha Movement this week apart from the fact that you have managed to take Mahatma Gandhi out of dusty photographs and history text books and made him popular.
Rajkumar Hirani: But that is done now. What I want to do now is take one little holiday for a month and get back unto my next script. I am really looking forward to that.
Anuradha SenGupta: Bande mein hai dum,I think it is phenomenal. The way it is being incorporated into the tune of Vande Mataram.
Rajkumar Hirani: We constantly wanted to say that we need to modernise Bapu because the image of Bapu is that of an old man in a dhoti and a stick and people probably laugh at him now. So we wanted to say that he is a great man but wanted to say it in a way so that the youth could connect with it. So we wanted a line that could communicate that.
It was just two months before the release of the film that we found this line. Me, Vinod, Shantanu and Swanand were sitting frustrated because we had to record the song. They kept asking me what I wanted to say.
I said, ‘I want to say that he is a great man or Banda yeh bindaas hai’ and that is the line I had in mind but I couldn’t say that. We didn’t have a line even an hour later. I said, ‘I need power,’ ‘I need dum,’ and that went on. Sometime later we were frustrated and after much suggestions Shantanu said let’s say Bande mein hai dum.
He said it and all of suddenly reacted to it. I remember the excitement. Shantanu picked up the guitar and started to sing Bande mein hai dum, we added Vande Mataram to it and it just came. But I think that the idea was to keep striving. If you spent two years making a film you better be happy about it.
There were times when I was very unhappy with a scene. I was very unhappy shooting that and finally went and re-shot it. It makes you very uneasy if you do something that you are very unhappy with. I feel that you need to be entertained. Thoda hasna chahiye.
Anuradha SenGupta: A lot of comparisons have been between Rang De Basanti and your film, as both comment on the system that we have in our country, and how people deal with it. Do you see yourself endorsing the kind of view that Rang De Basanti took as a story?
Rajkumar Hirani: I don’t look at films as a medium which is propagating an ideology. When I went to see Rang De Basanti, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I look at myself not as a crusader or as someone who is really here to change the world. I am filmmaker and at the moment if a story which inspires me and that’s what I am going to do it.
Ten-years back I had the Munnabhai script with me. When I go back and look at the draft that I wrote at that time, I find it is completely different. It looks exactly how a college student would write it. I had met some medical students at that time. The gags and the jokes in it are completely different. You grow with age and say things differently.
Anuradha SenGupta: The chemistry between Sanjay Dutt and Arshad Warsi in the film is so critical to enjoying everything else in it. Is the dialoguing or the editing that is working there to create that sense of chemistry?
Rajkumar Hirani: The script and the lines were good. But I think Sanju and Arshad do share a strong bonding. There is no fear or a feeling of competitiveness between them. Arshad is assured as an actor who is playing a second lead in the film that Sanjay is not going to take away his lines from him.
Anuradha SenGupta: Pretty much like the Circuit-Munnabhai relationship.
Rajkumar Hirani: There is a basic trust between them. Many a times I have seen actors getting scared of each other. They want to override the other actor and compete with each other. I think a film is not about competing with your co-star. It is about story telling.
Anuradha SenGupta: Another thing that Vidhu Vinod Chopra production has done very skillfully is perhaps the marketing of the film. Did you all do ‘focus group’ the first time round for Munnabhai MBBS?
Rajkumar Hirani: Yes, we did focus group for Munnabhai MBBS.We wanted reaction and that was the time actually when nobody was buying the film. We showed it to everybody. Over 1,000 people must have seen the film before its release. We were quite desperate to sell it.
Anuradha SenGupta: Did you incorporate any of the findings that you got the focus groups. Like studios in Hollywood do much to the dismay of the director? How open are you to that?
Rajkumar Hirani: I am absolutely open to suggestions. I think, an individual does not make a film alone. Many people suggest, then you as a director see the larger picture and have an option to select and discard. And since you remind me, yes I remember, that whole mamu song had come post-reactions.
Anuradha SenGupta: Did you do focus groups for Lage Raho…?
Rajkumar Hirani: No.
Anuradha SenGupta: You didn’t need to?
Rajkumar Hirani: No. Not really. In a way we showed to a lot of people and I was scared to show an incomplete film this time. I was wondering whether I will get the right reactions.
Anuradha SenGupta: But doesn’t your gut instinct tell you whether something is working or not?
Rajkumar Hirani: Since you live the film for such a long time, jokes stop working for you. Last time it happened when I was editing the film. But this time it happened while I was shooting the film. Because for me it’s like living for five years with Munna and Circuit, so mid-way I started thinking none of the jokes are working.
Anuradha SenGupta: It’s must have been quite a mad house in your head living with Munna and Circuit.
Rajkumar Hirani: Yes. So the jokes stop working for you. It happened the last time also but it worked for the audience but this time I wasn’t sure whether it will work. And what also happens when you have a little successful film behind you, you get a little unsure of the people around you whether they are telling you the truth.
Anuradha SenGupta: It’s like Circuit seeing Gandhi just because Munnabhai was seeing him.
Rajkumar Hirani: They think if he’s making it, then he will obviously make it good and not give their point of view. But I always keep telling people no be honest, be truthful, find the flaws first and praise it later.
Anuradha SenGupta: Sanjay Dutt is going through a tough time, tense time in his life right now. He’s somebody with who you worked for over two films and there is a pretty intense emotional thing, not just because of the success, because his father featured in the last one. What was it like working with him?
Rajkumar Hirani: As far as the case is concerned, there were days when I used to see him pretty hassled. He used to be visiting the court in the morning, coming for the shoot in the afternoon. He used to be disturbed. The visits to the court were frequent and I have seen him really shattered and at times almost sobbing in the van. I’ve seen him suffer for so many years.
I feel it was work that kept him going otherwise he would have been a wreck. And if he would be glum in the sets, I would meet him and then he would go out and come back after five minutes and do a great scene suddenly.
Then there was his father and they shared an interesting chemistry and they would be looking forward to be there on the sets. Dutt saheb would joke and say Dekho mai aa gaya, hero aaya nahin abhi shooting pe (Look I’ve come, but the hero hasn’t).
Anuradha SenGupta: What is Sanjay Dutt’s take on Munnabhai because he obviously hasn’t done too many publicity interviews which a star normally does while releasing his film.
Rajkumar Hirani: Before the release he was going through so much of stress and I am so happy to see him so joyful and delighted and happy to see these things happening around him. I think it’s great to see a man who is in a way fighting a lonely battle go through this little happiness which is coming his way.
Anuradha SenGupta: Raju Hirani, you have made your star actor happy, you’ve made people very happy and I think you’ve touched people, so we hope you’re a happy man today. Thank you so much.
Rajkumar Hirani: Thank you. Pleasure talking to you.
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