Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, who previously directed the award-winning Rang De Besanti  social-political drama with Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan and sports biopic Bhaag Milkha Bhaag [2013, about Indian Olympian runner Milkha Singh and starring Bollywood multi-talent Farhan Akhtar], takes an ambitious turn with the just-released Mirzya, a visual stunner based on the famous Punjabi Mirza-Sahiban legend of star-crossed lovers.
In fact, Mehra doesn’t consider Mirzya to be a Bollywood film at all, what with its novel structural juxtaposition of doomed folkloric and contemporary stories linked by music, wall paintings and third-party narration. To bring out his admitted obsession with the Mirza-Sahiban folk tale, Mehra enlisted India’s celebrated poet, screenwriter and film director Gulzar, the top Bollywood songriting team of Shankar Ehsaan and Loy, untested actors in the lead roles (Harshvardhan Kapoor, son of Bolly superstar Anil Kapoor, in the Mirza-derived role; Saiyami Kher, granddaugheter of actress Usha Kiran and niece of actress Tanvi Azmi, in the Sahiban part; Anuj Choudhry, as the third character in the tragic love triangle), and a location—the desert of the North Indian state of Ladakh—that is as forbidding as it is beautiful.
Mehra spoke of Mirzya in a phone conversation last week from London, where he had just arrived for his film’s premiere.
What attracted you to the Mirza-Sahiban story?
Thirty-five years ago I saw a play of it while I was in college–in 1981 or ’82 at Delhi University—and I was fascinated by the Sahiban character and how she broke the arrows of Mirza. It made an indelible mark on my consciousness, before I ever thought about directing movies.
What was it that affected you?
Maybe it was how the things that we love the most often destroy us—which stayed with me the longest time. Now, 35 years later, I texted Gulzar, whose contribution to Indian literature—poetry and short stories and long stories—and Hindi movies, for which he is a great exponent of poetry, is immense. We live a minute apart, and I went to his house and over tea I asked him, Why did she break the arrows? He said, “Son, why are you asking me? Why not ask her?” I said that I’d been looking for her for the longest time, and she seemed to be eluding me.
You mean Sahiban, who broke Mirza’s arrows to prevent him from killing her brothers? Did Gulzar offer any suggestions on how to “find” her?
There was a twinkle in his eyes, and he said, “Let’s hold hands and find Sahiban”! He’s written scripts and directed a dozen movies, but not written for any other director in 35 years. So we embarked on a journey, and a couple months later he had a draft of the legend of Mirza-Sahiban.
But Mirzya doesn’t end with the story of Mirza-Sahiban.
I had a second question: Is there a Mirza-Sahiban of today’s time? Like Romeo and Juliet, can these stories be experienced today, or are we too caught up in the pace of modern life? And Gulzar said, “Why not?” Because maybe the world is moving so fast, but the heart still moves at the same beat and at the same rate that it has forever! Then we turned around and came up with a story for today’s time.
But your concept didn’t even end there!
I kept getting greedy! I said, “Let’s mix both these stories up!” and took them onto my writing table and mixed them up, totally. But I love telling non-linear stories.
The music really comes into play here.
You can argue that every Hindi film is song-and-dance, but Mirzya is not a true blue musical. I wondered if I could tell a story musically, and remembered seeing [1993 gypsy music documentary] Latcho Drom, which traced the music of the colorful nomadic gypsies of [India’s northwestern state] Rajasthan—who still exist–through Egypt and Turkey and Eastern Europe all the way to France and Spain. It depicts a journey that’s been going on for thousands of years, and I wondered: Why can’t I tell a story in 2016 in the same form? Then everything started coming together. I said to Gulzar, “Just give me some poetry and a narrative,” and we wrote it all into the script and the songs.
It must have been a lengthy process.
I took a year. Every director has to make the material his own, and I had to take Gulzar’s amazing writing and make it my own. It was fascinating and exciting to build the two worlds connected by another world—the music—and see how all three came together. But in my head I was telling one story, and after finishing the shoot for the one in the present day, I took a one-month gap and told the entire unit to go home and we’d resume in a month. Then we shot the musical portion in 15 days and six months later shot the folklore portion—making no connection between the characters and the role-playing but approaching it as a new film altogether.
The music, then, is the third film?
Yes, the music of the nomadic gypsies, their dancing and their narration of the folklore portion. That’s the inspiration, and they come together at the end of the film. It was absolutely fascinating to tell this one story, essentially, in three different forms: one in choreography and music, one in regular sound and dialog, and one in silent cinema–because there’s not a single word spoken in the whole folklore portion, and no songs are attached. My dream was to make a silent movie and it’s so pure, and the third part—the contemporary portion—the characters are as real as today’s India.
Is it Bollywood, then?
It’s definitely not Bollywood. I don’t know what it is, but it’s definitely not Bollywood.
The soundtrack singing voice of the great bhangra artist Daler Mehndi is almost a character in itself.
Absolutely! I related to him the story as told by the blacksmith, the paintings on the wall that come alive, and said, “Younger Bro”—I call him that–“the only voice I could think of is you!” because he’s so soulful! He does famous pops songs, but he’s also an exponent of semi-classical songs and folk and Sufi singing. He’s a great Sufi singer, and you don’t see that side of him normally.
You said there were no songs in the folklore portion.
There is background music but no spoken words. It’s an old folklore from greater Punjab, and I didn’t treat it the way it was written but reinterpreted it–as folklore is all about: They become larger than life, and I wanted to invent larger-than-life characters in the mythical past. I wanted very strong imagery, and a childlike quality. When I hear these stories, the child in me is triggered off. I knew that Sahiban had broken Mirza’s arrows and filmed that, and picturized all the fight scenes.
The fight scenes, with Mirza firing arrows on horseback, or quite stunning.
I realized there was no mounted archery in India. There was one club in Japan and one in Turkey, and there were passionate people in Poland. So I got 16 riders in Poland, and they played Sahiban’s brothers.
How do you categorize Mirzya?
I had already started in my head making departures from the place called Bollywood. But there’s no place called Bollywood! Hollywood has a hill and a sign, but we don’t have that! Also, I don’t like the term. It’s a generic label, and when our cinema was turning 100 years [in 2013], I was asked to make a documentary expression of it and try to show how the whole [Bollywood] song-and-dance came about, and how the hero started dancing. It was titled Bollywood: The Greatest Love Story Ever Told , all in dark humor! I took a camera and went into the metro station in Bombay, and the first cab I found, I asked to take me to Bollywood—and the cabbie said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about!” I asked a second cabbie, and he said, “Get lost!” Then a third and fourth, and the fifth one said, “Give me a thousand bucks and I’ll take you there!” It was shown at the Cannes Film Festival and all over the world—but there’s no place like that!
What about the place where you filmed Mirzya?
It was a place in the north of India, Ladakh–the highest and coldest desert in world. It’s like taking the desert and putting it at 20,000 feet–absolutely exquisite, with very little oxygen. I’ve been going there to camp every year for 20 years. I’ve been there through rain storms and snow blizzards, and know it inside-out—so it came out of a very personal, deeply entrenched place in my head and imagination.
And the Polish director of photography Pawel Dyllus?
I wanted a fresh set of eyes and was looking up directors of photography and came across Pavel, who shot Maciej Pieprzyca’s [award-winning 2013 Polish film] Life Feels Good. We hit it off on the first Skype chat, with my favorite films turning out to be his favorite films. One of the main things, he was a student of [influential Polish director] Krzysztof Kieslowski. I’ve learned from Kieslowski.
How did you work with Pawel?
He came over and was with me for six months before shooting. The visual effects were done by the same company, Prana/Rhythm and Hues, that did Life of Pi and The Golden Compass. We went to them and made a movie that looks like one of the biggest Hollywood productions, but we needed to do it on an Indian budget: We had to make a film that looked like $100 million with a $6 million budget.
And what about the cast? The four lead actors are all new.
In the folklore portion you see some known faces. But when the new draft came together–with a new approach to storytelling—and the music was almost half complete and I was feeling that the film was coming together and feeling very strong about it in my heart, then I told the casting director we needed new faces, because we were trying something new and needed to let the audience come with a completely clean slate. We spent 18 months with the new actors before we started filming. That’s a lot—and we could only get that from newcomers: If they were established actors, we wouldn’t have been able to train them. None of them knew horse-riding, and they had to learn different levels—the battles, the polo games. But everybody had to be trained for everything.
How do you sum up Mirzya?
I have to tell one story–even if there are two or three different things. At the end of the day, you have to feel it’s one day—and it’s a journey: What I wanted to discover is that one moment you spend in love, that’s greater than your entire lifetime. So many scenes were written with boy-and-girl romantic moments, and I kept throwing them out. They only come together at the end.
And what comes next for you?
After doing this film about love, after doing social-political films like Rang De Basanti and the paranormal [Aks, 2001], to enter the zone just to understand the deeper meaning of love–I came out of it a different person and filmmaker. It’s almost like a rebirth, and it’s really amazing. I can’t tell you how cool it is to keep exploring different genres.