Rajeev Masand: Welcome to the special show To Catch A Star whose theme this season is Rising Talent. My guest today is an inspired filmmaker who has made a reputation for himself with just two films. Thrillers and crime drama excite him and he isn't afraid of going into places a little dark.
Let's say hello to the director of Ek Hasina Thi and Johnny Gaddaar, Sriram Raghavan.
Let's talk a little about your inspirations and your influences. You spoke a lot about the crime genre, films like Goodfellas, Johnny Mera Naam, which is one of your favourite films. You have said that it’s a film that gave you multiple orgasms and a film that you can watch repeatedly. Tell us about your childhood, a dark childhood then?
Sriram Raghavan: No, I had a simple boring childhood actually. But I used to love movies. However, the poster of Johnny Mera Naam which had a gun and a girl with a briefcase and Dev Anand peeping out really caught my fancy. I remember seeing it when I was six or seven, I really tripped on it. I can vividly remember the movie then, and I have repeatedly watched the movie. Even now, I can put on a DVD and watch it for half an hour and enjoy myself.
Rajeev Masand: What are the films that shaped your youth. I know you went to FTII, I know you studied direction. What are the films that shaped you career?
Sriram Raghavan: Lot of them are the '70s Hindi cinema. Farah Khan and Sajid Khan and myself grew up on certain kind of movies. While I used to love slightly more serious movies like Vijay Anand's, Teesri Manzil by Naseer Hussain, Yaadon Ki Barat, Victoria 203 by Manmohan Desai. Then came Hollywood. I remember going to a first adult movie, when I used to wear half pants and they wouldn't let me in. Then came the institute, it was during the '80s. There was no DVD, VHS was just coming in. Those days I got to watch a lot of world cinema where my immediate thing was the French cinema.
After that I saw all kinds of European and non-European movies. So it has been a lot of influences from a lot of movies.
Rajeev Masand: I saw the Johnny Gaddaar DVD and I saw that you have added a whole lot of special features. Apart from the trailers and the making, there was an alternate ending and there was a commentary by yourself, your DOP and your editor. I think that is interesting. What I want to ask you is that, how you like to watch your favourite films as well to pretty much find out everything about the film?
Sriram Raghavan: Definitely. If I like a movie, I keep it a couple of more days and watch every possible feature. I think it is great in a sense that it demystifies the movie and it really benefits me as a film student to know how the whole thing was done, which is very useful and educative. When you see a good movie, many things come into play, so I love watching that. I think it should be done because it helps to preserve the history of the film.
Rajeev Masand: What are your favourite DVDs?
Sriram Raghavan: It would be Godfather, Raging Bull. I love watching Martin Scorsese, Satya, which is one of my favourite Ram Gopal Varma's film, Guru Dutt's Mr and Mrs 55, Yaadon Ki Barat, Borne Ultimatum. Assault and Precinct is a very low-budget movie with new actors but terrific on craft, basically a cult movie by John Carpenter. Billy Wilders, a documentary on Billy Wilders. He is one of my favourite directors and also Manmohan Desai's films.
Billy Wilders has a got a very cynical and satirical view about life. I love his work. The Untouchables, Getaway, these are crime thrillers but the way they are done makes me watch them repeatedly. Sholay is of course Sholay. Anupama I love the movie and it is autographed by Dharmendra.
Rajeev Masand:You have been a big fan of Dharmendra. His '70s films are your favourites. Did you write the part in Johnny Gaddaar especially for him?
Sriram Raghavan: While writing it, we were mentally prepared to cast it, so we thought it would be great if Dharmendra did it. Though I was very sure, he would say no because the role was of a racketeer, and he was an MP then but it was sweet of him to do it.
Rajeev Masand: What I really enjoyed about Johnny Gaddaar was that it was a thriller which was unraveling not for the audience, because the audience already knew who the bad guy was, but it was a thriller that was unraveling for the characters.
Sriram Raghavan: I know, Johnny Gaddaar is a suspense. 'Suspense' is a very misunderstood word in India. Suspense does not only mean who has done the murder at the end rather it is an anticipation, wondering what happens next.
So I was very sure that we needed to tell the audience that this is the character who has done it but they were still going to enjoy it. In fact, Alfred Hitchcock who is called the master of suspense has never made a single 'who dunnit' in his life.
Rajeev Masand: Here's a tricky one. You have been packed off to a deserted Island, you are allowed to take only three DVDs with you, which ones would you take?
Sriram Raghavan: I would take Johnny Mera Naam for the music and for fun, the Godfather trilogy and Sholay.
Rajeev Masand: One of the things that I really enjoyed about Ek Hasina Thi is the ending which stays with you, when Urmila (Matondakar) leaves Saif Ali Khan with the rats, what inspired you, is there a story behind that?
Sriram Raghavan: There is actually me, Ram Gopal Varma and Pooja who was the writer where we were trying to see which was the best way to conclude the film. And Ramu (Ram Gopal Varma) remembered one of Alfred Hitchcock's movie where a guy comes out of jail, his partners betray him, and trap him. So, the idea struck of doing something like that and then popped the idea of using rats in the cave.
I was quite anxious as to whether the audience would swallow it or not but apparently, they seemed to have liked it. Saif wanted a more action-oriented ending but finally settled with the idea.
Rajeev Masand: You wrote both Ek Hasina Thi and Johnny Gaddaar yourself. Do you require that kind of familiarity and closeness with your story and your characters to be able to direct the film? Could you direct a film not written by you?
Sriram Raghavan: Ek Hasina Thi was not my script. The earlier draft was done by Pooja Radha Shurti, who was my associate director in the movie. Ramu gave that script to read. It was not a complete script but lot of things were there. I did a little bit of interfering in it and we spent a lot of time doing additional work on it.
But I was attracted to the subject, which was written first. Technically, it is not my script. I would prefer to sit was somebody who has already got something which I like and then build on it and make it better.
Rajeev Masand: Talking about writing, your brother Sridhar Raghavan, who is the writer of such films as Khaki and Bluff Master, have you collaborated as of yet?
Sriram Raghavan: We are trying to collaborate on a movie but again he is very busy but we brainstorm into each others scripts, subjects or ideas. However, I would prefer to work with somebody who is at my beck and call, which I cannot do with my brother.
Rajeev Masand: Are you inspired by the same material in terms of the kind of films that you grew up watching?
Sriram Raghavan: Quite a bit. There are very few films, which I loved, and he hated it. We think on quite similar lines.
Rajeev Masand: In both your movies, you have an inherent style both in camera work and editing where there is a sense of impending action.
Sriram Raghavan: The story dictates the style. I have worked with a team of technicians who all vibe with me on the story. They are all good film technicians. The moment we find fakeness in a scene, we try to remove it. It is not just me doing it. The crew will chip in and give me their inputs. Style is evolved with the group.
Rajeev Masand: Is Johnny Gaddaar a B-grade movie?
Sriram Raghavan: I would definitely agree that it is a 'B' movie. I love 'B' movies. I love to do it in black and white, but that is another matter.
Rajeev Masand: You almost made Johnny Gaddaar in black and white?
Sriram Raghavan: We toyed with the idea but thought that it would be too dicey so we just did the beginning in black and white.
Rajeev Masand: When you made your first national-award winning student film at FTII, your editor on the film was another one of your FTII's colleagues, Rajkumar Hirani. Both you sensibilities and influences seem completely different from the movies that you both have made. What was that motivated you all to work equally to work on a common project?
Sriram Raghavan: In the institute we had to choose our unit by the time we are in the end of second year Raju me and another person called Biswadeep, a sound recordist, and Hari Nair, cameraman comprised the unit. There used to be a lot of looking down on Hindi cinema, especially the commercial movies. When we went to see Mard, people were shocked. However, Raju and me we really got along.
Raju's work is great. His films are very much like what he was then. I would be able to make a movie which is lighthearted yet so deep the way he has done it with Munnabhai. I know that I couldn't have done half of what he has done.
Rajeev Masand: You have spoken very passionately how the films of the seventies really influenced you and inspired you. What do you think is missing in the films of today?
Sriram Raghavan: Even I keep wondering about that. But I feel some kind of innocence is missing. Passion in a large level is missing. There is more of a get-away-with-it kind of thing going on. Though I am not the person to do the analysis but more than often when I see a big commercial movie, I do get disappointed.
They have everything, they have stars, they have money, a little more work was needed but that would be missing.
Rajeev Masand: Your next film Agent Vinod which almost sounds like one of those Mayapuri pulp kind of novels. What I am kin to ask you is that it's a film that Saif Ali Khan is going to produce and act in. His sensibilities seem to be a little more elite. What drew him to the kind of films that you are interested in.
Sriram Raghavan: Saif and I really got along after Ek Hasina Thi. However, he was a little wary about his change of image. But after a lot of discussion, somewhere he trusted me and then sank his teeth into it. Agent Vinod is very retro and pulpy which was a big success back then. It is a bit of a pain because its title is terrific but I cannot make a movie like that today. Euro spy movies don't work these days; we need to find a completely new idiom.
Rajeev Masand: You are also going to do a love story called Happy Birthday with John Abraham and Aishwariya Rai. It is going to be a pure love story or will it have that sinister element?
Sriram Raghavan: There is no sinister element in the film. I actually wanted to do it before Agent Vinod but for whatever reasons it got shifted. I just wanted to breakaway from thrillers. It is a little odd kind of a story, which will be done sometime soon.
Rajeev Masand: Best of luck. Looking forward to seeing lots more from you. Hoping of course you will constantly surprise us.