A conversation with ‘Mirzya’ director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra

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(Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra–photo: ROMP Pictures)

Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, who previously directed the award-winning Rang De Besanti [2006] 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 [2011], 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.

‘Mirzya’ mixes time periods in stunning retelling of tragic Punjabi Mirza-Sahiban legend

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(ROMP Pictures)

Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Mirzya, which opens today worldwide, offers the story of a doomed love triangle that literally transcends time, thanks to a novel—for Bollywood—storytelling technique.

Mirzya essentially interweaves three stories: the central Punjabi folkloric legend of legend of Mirza-Sahiban, a thinly related contemporary take on its tale of tragic romance, and a sort of gypsy music-and-dance commentary that loosely ties the other two together. So structurally, Mirzya is anything but a typical Bollywood film.

Cinematically, it’s truly stunning, especially in its mythical depiction of the folkloric segments. Newcomer Harshvardhan Kapoor (Bolly superstar Anil Kapoor’s son) as the Mirza-derived character suitably fits the role of warrior-on-horseback, firing arrows at aggressors—and exploding bombs and missiles–with blazing speed and accuracy in breathtaking desert and lake locales. As the gorgeous Sahiban character Suchitra, fellow newcomer Saiyami Kher (granddaughter of actress Usha Kiran and niece of actress Tanvi Azmi), in exotic costume, explains Mirza’s fateful desire—which carries over to Kapoor’s Munish character in the contemporary parallel.

The mesmerizing slow-motion photography of the folklore fantasy also carries over into the contemporary scenes, most notably in the polo sequence starring another newcomer, Anuj Choudhry, as Karan, the prince who is Munish’s rival for Suchitra. But what really brings out the intensity of the film’s romance through the ages is the music, composed by the famed Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy Bollywood team of Shankar Mahadevan, Ehsaan Noorani and Loy Mendosa, and delivered most notably by the great Punjabi bhangra king Daler Mehndi.

Mehndi has a robust tenor reminiscent of Pavarotti and infuses his Mirzya songs with the dramatic urgency sought by Mehra. His is the perfect voice to convey the immortal love that is the credible heart of the film, that for audiences unfamiliar with Mirza-Sahiban, might have been otherwise missed.

Ajay Devgn and Kajol star in New York ‘Shivaay’ press conference

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(From left, Ajay Devgn, Kajol and Reliance Entertainment USA head Sumit Chadha at “Shivaay” press conference in New York)

It had been over 10 years since Bollywood superstar Ajay Devgn had come to New York to promote a film to the metropolitan area’s huge South Asian population, but when he appeared at a press conference at the Taj Pierre Hotel in Midtown yesterday—to be followed with similar outings this week in Dallas, Chicago and San Francisco–he brought along his fellow Bollywood superstar wife Kajol to delight the packed room of journalists while supporting his ambitious action thriller Shivaay.

Also Devgn’s second directorial project (he produced the film as well), Shivaay releases worldwide on Oct. 28 for Diwali Weekend. A production of his Ajay Devgn FFilms company, together with Pen India Limited and NH Studioz with distribution via Reliance Entertainment, Shivaay was introduced with a trailer launch event Aug. 7 at the Basketball Complex in the city of Indore, home of one of Devgn’s biggest fan clubs.

The explosive trailer, which has since surpassed a staggering 25 million views on YouTube and social media, was shown at the start of the press conference and offered a breathtaking representation of what looks like a stunt-filled movie replete with car crashes, helicopter chases and dreadful tumbles down Himalayan mountains.

“Become Shiva–destroy your demons,” the trailer states, and the trailer surely lives up to another statement: “There will be destruction.” Indeed, the film required stunt teams from four countries besides India, as Shivaay, which was in pre-production for over two years, was shot in exotic and extreme locations and situations including 19-degree Celsius temperatures.

“We shot in atrocious conditions, and I’m grateful to my unit,” said Devgn of his 400-person crew. “They all believed in this film and worked as hard as if it was their own film.”

Devgn noted how he suffered severe hypothermia while shooting at the Vihren Peak in the Pirin Mountains of Bansko in Bulgaria. He also had to overcome his fear of heights in performing his own stunts.

“I don’t have a choice!” said Devgn, whose father Veeru Devgan is himself a stunt choreographer and action film director. “People expected me to do my own stunts.”

He noted that while Bollywood lacks the big budgets of Hollywood cinema, “we have the information to try to do that”—meaning that Bollywood has the technical ability and capacity to pull such a Hollywood-level action film off. “Trust me: When you see the film [you will see] we can make it in India.”

He added, however, that because of the “logistics” involved, including access to out-of-the-way locales, many action sequences had to be shot in Bulgaria and elsewhere.

But rather than “action thriller,” Devgn chose to call Shivaay an “emotion drama” film.

“There’s a lot of action, but there’s a lot of pain on the character’s face when he’s doing the action—and not action for the sake of it,” he said.

Devgn’s main character is the title’s Shivaay, a Himalayan mountaineer and innocent everyman who transforms into a determined destroyer in order to protect his family. His name, of course, derives from Shiva, the principal Hindu deity known as “the Destroyer” as well as “the Protector.”

But Devgn noted that Shivaay “does not touch on religion in any way,” that the title connotes “energy” and that Shivaay’s faith is “within him. It could be any religion.”

He declined to reveal much of the storyline so as not to spoil it, other than to note that the young girl of the trailer is his daughter in the film. After the “buzz” about Shivaay’s soundtrack was brought up, he observed that music director Mithoon was “really pushed” out of his musical comfort zone in composing the songs, and added that they tried to predict what music style would be current during the two years of advance composing work.

To this end, the new video for key track “Bolo Har Har Har” was screened, showing participation of the singers Badshah, Sukhwinder, Megha Sriram Dalton and Mohit Chauhan in fiery ice and snow setting jibing with the movie snippets. Mithoon has said that Devgn wanted “a powerful sound to represent the intensity and the contemporary nature of his film at a level of world music,” and the track does in fact blend contemporary and traditional sounds in an EDM/hip-hop format.

Also screened, for the first time ever, was the new video for the romantic track “Darkhaast,” which was shot against a Himalyan landscape and goes online today.

“Every song has its own feel and voice,” said Devgn. “Whichever worked best.”

Devgn mentioned his involvement with Parched, the international film festival favorite that was a hit earlier this year at the New York Indian Film Festival and is considered groundbreaking in its exploration and representation of misogyny and sexual attitudes in a stagnant and remote Indian village. Devgn produced the indie feature, which was written and directed by Leena Yadav, who credits his participation in its initial funding for providing the impetus for its production.

“I don’t know if it makes a difference, but at least it starts a conversation,” Devgn said of Parched, which due to its content is only now being released in India after its release everywhere else. But he maintained that “films are basically all about entertainment, [though] entertainment can be emotional so long as it connects with you. The basic idea is to entertain people and not necessarily have a message—but it should touch your heart.”

Here Kajol interjected that “honesty and integrity is what people respond to,” that “the camera is one thing that will never lie to you.”

She was asked whether, like her husband, she had any directorial desires.

“I’m not going to make a film!” she said. “I’m purely an actor. I’m the lucky one: He does all the work and I get all the glory.”

Feigning disbelief when Devgn explained that she didn’t belong in Shivaay because the female roles were for a non-Indian and, especially, a 19-year-old, Kajol recalled his first directorial effort, the 2008 romantic drama U Me Aur Hum (You, Me and Us) in which they co-starred in their seventh film together.

“He’s one of the finest directors I’ve ever worked with in my life!” she emphatically testified. “My dad was in the hospital and there was a lot of stress, but no indication of that ever came across on screen.”

Devgn returned the praise in relating how directing Kajol “is pretty easy because she understands the character, and she’s one of the best actresses we have in our country. She’s more concerned about the performance than how she looks on screen, [whereas] so many actors are more concerned about how they look.”

He also revealed that directing “comes much more easy than acting,” and said that he always wanted to direct before becoming an actor.

Asked if he wanted to join other top Bollywood stars who have recently signed on to Hollywood film and TV projects, he said that “offers come in all the time—but do you like it?”—suggesting that the right offer for him has yet to come in.

Devgn was also asked about the commitment of U.S. studios to Indian offices. Some are withdrawing, he conceded, but “I think nobody’s going to leave. They have to adapt. You can’t come to India with the mindset of the U.S.”

And he was also asked why it has been so long since his last visit here.

“I got lazy and didn’t travel so much,” he said, but declared that he felt he must come now because of Shivaay, and that he was happy to be here—as was Kajol, even though they got stalled by the street closures and transportation delays due to the opening this week of the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly.

“We got out of the car and walked to the hotel since there was so much traffic!” she said. “We did the New York thing.”

In ‘Jersey Boys,’ Clint Eastwood Does it Again

I saw Jersey Boys only once, opening night on Broadway in 2005.

I was there since I was the first writer, I think, to write about the show with any kind of substance, enjoying a breakfast interview with Bob Gaudio at least a couple months before it opened, for Billboard. I mean, Rolling Stone had to be badgered into giving it any coverage—that’s how little the Four Seasons were regarded.

But I only saw the Broadway show that one time, and only remember that I thought it was great. But I know it couldn’t have been any better than Clint Eastwood’s screen version, which opens June 20.

I suppose a lot of people were surprised to learn that Clint was directing the film adaptation. I was, too, at first, but only because I wouldn’t have thought of him within the context of the Four Seasons and rock ‘n’ roll. I’d interviewed him a number of times, too, for Billboard, about how he put together the music for his movies, either choosing songs or composing his own movie themes.

In that respect, Clint long ago transcended Clint. There’s a quick incidental shot of him in his breakthrough TV role on Rawhide as cattle driver Rowdy Yates, which hews to the time period of the action, of course, but also points to the vast artistic territory Clint covered after leaving the show.

There were the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns, obviously, and his own masterful western directorials that followed, then the action films of Dirty Harry and their like. But where he was once synonymous with westerns and action—and stereotyped for them—that was all so long ago. His film romance The Bridges of Madison County, which he starred in opposite Meryl Streep, was truly beautiful, and the took on as director another best seller in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

He successfully plied biography in Invictus (Nelson Mandela) and J. Edgar (Hoover), and his back-to-back World War II movies, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, make up a singular achievement in the history of cinema, being a look at the Battle of Iwo Jima from first the American point-of-view, then Japan’s.

And as an actor, starting with his masterpiece western Unforgiven, his performances have added subtle nuance to go with his aging character portrayals (In the Line of Fire, A Perfect World, Absolute Power, True Crime, Space Cowboys, Blood Work, Million Dollar Baby, Gran Torino and Trouble with the Curve).

Music, meanwhile, has remained a central thread of his films, from his singing role with Lee Marvin in the musical version of Broadway’s Paint Your Wagon to his directorial debut, Play Misty for Me, a thriller in which Clint, who had played jazz piano in an Oakland bar prior to being drafted into the Army in 1951 (in fact, he played a bit of jazz piano in In the Line of Fire, and in 2003 directed the documentary Piano Blues for Martin Scorcese’s The Blues documentary series) played a jazz radio DJ. From there he easily transitioned into playing a country-and-western singer in Honkytonk Man (also starring his son Kyle, who’s now a notable jazz bassist/bandleader and contributed to the Jersey Boys score); he also produced the documentary Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser and directed the  Charlie Parker biopic Bird, and composed the score for Grace is Gone, starring John Cusack.

In 1996, Clint was honored by a musical tribute at Carnegie Hall, later released on CD and DVD as Eastwood After Hours and featuring his performance along with those from numerous jazz luminaries. And when he walked up to the front of the Paris Theatre to introduce last night’s VIP screening of Jersey Boys, he reminded me of a fellow jazz great and ageless octogenarian, Tony Bennett, both of whom only get better with years.

He spoke briefly and softly, and after noting how films have long been adapted from Broadway musicals and more recently vice versa, said how he tried to use actors from three different versions of the staged musical, including the key original Broadway cast—and how much he loved them all and what a great pleasure it was for him to direct the film. And while ‘60s rock ‘n’ roll would not seem to be Clint’s forte, he could not have been more respectful of the Four Seasons and all of us who love them and their music.

And as always, Clint brings out the best in his actors and crew members. Jersey Boys is one gorgeous movie to watch—and hear. And whatever you do, don’t leave before the credits, for Clint ends it with what is essentially a joyous Bollywood video using the full cast as singers and dancers: Even Christopher Walken, who is superb in his gangster role, becomes a natural hoofer.

So now I beg you, Clint. Make my movie dream come true: An acting collaboration between the two greatest living actors, Clint Eastwood, 84, and Bollywood’s likewise incomparable Amitabh Bachchan (71).