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Verve Man
December 16, 2011

The Big Picture

Text by Nasrin Modak. Photographs by Vishal Kullarwar. Location Courtesy: Amateur Riders’ Club, Rwitc Race Course, Mahalaxmi. Realisation by Bappa.

Give him a romantic saga to shoot at a picture postcard location and he would perhaps fumble a little. But give him a story with loads of drama and plenty of action and he’ll craft a fabulous film. Just like his recently released, much talked about The Dirty Picture. Milan Luthria, polo player and golf enthusiast, bares a bit of his soul to Verve.

  • Milan Luthria, Film Director, Bollywood, The Dirty Picture
  • Milan Luthria, Film Director, Bollywood, The Dirty Picture
  • Milan Luthria, Film Director, Bollywood, The Dirty Picture

He grew up around horses. In fact, he went to school on one, because his mother felt it was the quickest way to learn to ride! But his passion for horse racing is inherited from his father, erstwhile director, Raj Khosla. There were many occasions when Milan Luthria spent the whole day at the Amateur’s Riding Club at the racecourse at Mahalaxmi. He played polo, did show jumping, competed at and won several championships and at one point, he even considered becoming a professional horse racer, but then movies just got the better of him. He needed to make money.

“When you came to see a race, you’d spot stylish people.”
In the 1970s and ’80s, the racecourse was more charismatic. Maybe because at that time, there was less media activity and fewer films were made, giving the actors, directors and producers more time to indulge in their other passions. “Film personalities like Feroz Khan, Sanjay Khan, Rishi Kapoor, Raj Kapoor, came here in their fancy cars to relax. For the new generation, it’s all about making more movies, more money and being seen at more events. I wish I could turn back the clock.”

“Those days, men were men and women were women; today, you can’t tell the difference.”
He grew up watching dramatic movies like Amar Akbar Anthony, Mr. Natwarlal, Sholay, Hum Kisi Se Kum Nahin, wherein  scripts were written to highlight the machismo element of men and to bring out the femininity in women. “With the multiplex wave, films are made to cater to the metros and the overseas audience, thinking that’s the formula to success and before realising it, we formed a group of filmmakers who only knew how to set films in London or New York with similar storylines of boy-meets-girl or four friends on a holiday.”

“We’re not a country of subtlety.”
The Indian mind feeds on high-voltage drama and emotions. “When we weep, we weep; when we get drunk, we pass out. We are not balanced people, so in our films, we need to see even more. When a hero gets angry and beats up 10 people, that’s what the common man wants to do all the time, in a train, in a bus. That’s what I’ve tried to bring back.” Right now, Luthria is enjoying his popularity but there was a time when people from South Mumbai dismissed him saying, here’s a guy who makes ‘those’ Hindi movies. “Presently, everybody’s on the trail, waiting for the next one. All my dinner table conversations are like annoying press conferences where everyone’s asks the same kind of questions at the same time.”

“Making each movie should help you explore another aspect of yourself.”
Bollywood films often follow a set pattern. Today, Luthria’s kind of films are working, tomorrow, they may not. But he says he can’t make a rom-com. “I don’t think I know how to but there is somebody else who does it really well. So I’ll just stick to what I know best. I took on the ’70s because I think there’s something in my personality which is attuned to that period. I wanted to get in touch with that side of me, and see if it is any good or not.”

Just like that, with The Dirty Picture that explores the life of a woman in very sensual and dark ways, Luthria wanted to see what he could do to add to the presentation of a woman. “Being a man, there is a lot of passion in me for women, so I wanted to see what happens when I connect with that passion, and bring it out on camera. All the big directors I admire have been in touch with that side of themselves. Whether it’s Raj Kapoor or Bimal Roy or Mahesh Bhatt, they’ve had that space in their careers to stop making hero-driven films, and make an Arth, a Prem Rog or a Ram Teri Ganga Maili or Sujata.”

“Being a director is not so much about being a creative genius because there is no such thing; most of us imitate.”
His uncle Mahesh Bhatt and he both started out as mavericks who in their early 20s, couldn’t get along with people and had problems with the way the world worked. But by the time Luthria actually started working with him, Bhatt had dropped his grudges against the world to settle into a comfortable, disciplined rhythm. “I found that to have a very calming influence on me. He channelised his energy into work, and creativity, and his people management skills were extraordinary. It was very interesting to see how well he was interacting with people at each level of the process, bringing out the best in them — whether it was a producer, a song writer a music director or an actor and later on the press. Being a director is about eliciting good performances from an actor, staying calm, and about managing a lot of crazy people. It’s about catching the rhythm of actors, playing with it and earning their trust. As Mr. Bhatt has taught me, ‘They are going to strip emotionally on screen for you; the more they trust you, the better they’ll do it.”’

“We waited and got it all out of our system: the fights, the quarrels, the hitting on other people.”
An affair that went on (and off) over ten years, finally culminated in a marriage three years ago. Luthria’s wife Lianne comes from a very established horse racing family and is a senior designer with a reputed design house in Mumbai. They met through his cousin who was Lianne’s colleague. “We had quite a tumultuous relationship for a long time. Neither of us wanted to get married, we kept breaking up and getting back together, but eventually I guess it was meant to be. I’m glad we waited because both of us were not very ready to make a commitment and stop living a single life. Had we hurried up, then probably, we’d not have been able to make it work. Both Lianne and I enjoy our work but we are aware that it’s only a part of our lives and there is so much more to be done.”

Lianne is a Parsi and she cannot understand Hindi. In fact, she watches Luthria’s movies with subtitles. She doesn’t know anything about the film industry but is very blunt in her opinion about his movies and the people he associates with. “I go with her instincts because it gives me a different and non-filmi perspective on things.”

Sometimes, Luthria waits for Lianne to travel so that he can have his fill of masala Hindi movies and spicy food. “When she’s around, it’s always the strict salad diet, with no spice, salt and oil. The moment she leaves, I call friends over and order pav bhaaji or kheema pav or bhelpuri. That’s my single time. When I travel, she gets time to do her own things. I encourage her to entertain because Parsis love the good life and they are much more disciplined and I don’t want her to keep waiting for me to pack up. Their evenings start at 9 pm and end at 11 pm whereas film people don’t come before midnight anyway.”
Luthria often brings Inaara, their year-old daughter to the racecourse. “She likes horses and as much as I’d love to see her ride, it’ll be up to her. With horses, they need to like you as well. It’s an inborn thing, if she has it, she’ll find her way.”

“I don’t know what to do when I walk into an event and people take my picture.”
Luthria hasn’t yet connected with the success of Once Upon A Time in Mumbai. “I don’t know what to say when they praise the movie. I cannot understand how something I make can be so liked. I’d be happier if someone told me they didn’t like a part of it and if I could go home and think about how to fix it in the next movie. I don’t think I am that interesting a guy. To me, I am still a young 20-something trying to get a job, or make my movie happen for the first time.” In fact Luthria finds it amusing when everybody listens to him on a set. “Why don’t they question me instead? How come I know more than them?” But obviously he does and he’s worked hard to learn it. So what’s the reason to come out in the media now? “When you are in the rat race and everyone is doing it, you should do your little bit as well. But it’s very half-hearted,” admits Luthria.

“The voyeurism is much more exciting to the voyeur when he is watching respectability being stripped.”
There was so much anticipation about The Dirty Picture because people thought it’s about a woman stripping, which it really isn’t. “In India, sex sells, and that’s why people are so focused on it. It’s a sex starved country, so when someone from a mainstream, respectable, popular slice of life (which Vidya Balan, Naseeruddin Shah and me represent) makes a sexy film, the common man gets to strip that world in his mind, making his arousal far greater.

For Luthria, selecting a movie or deciding on the cast is a lot to do with instinct. It’s what they call blink (like in the book) about making up your mind about an action to be taken or an opinion about a person, in the blink of an eye. “Whatever happens after that is just because you’re going to dissect it, analyse it and look at it from 20 different angles. It’s the same with selecting a story or casting.”  And yet, he admits that the market does dictate what you do. It’s important to keep people entertained. “You can’t make a movie with five guys who you think are good, you need a star, you need the money to be brought into the film.” Maybe that’s where his learnings from the last century come into the ‘picture’ when making a movie was still an art.

More about Milan
Reads a lot of: Everything, but mostly biographies of acclaimed filmmakers “It gives me the comfort that I am not alone.”

If he made a historical drama: It’ll be interesting and flamboyant with some humour, sex, romance and thrill, “It’s old in its history, not in its pace.”

Enjoys most: Being around animals. “It’s better than being with humans.”

Prefers to: Travel at every chance he gets, even if it means just taking off to his second home in Mahableshwar or to Pune to watch a race.

On a trip abroad: Likes to see new things and get away from the comfort that a director starts to enjoy. “I enjoy doing the dishes, walking the streets and carrying my shopping bags around.”

Loves: Cars. “I have fun reading up and trying new things with them.”

When he is not making a movie: He spends a lot of time at clubs, trying his hands at golf, or spends time with horses. “My ideal day is getting up late, being with family, a nice lunch at the club, an afternoon nap and an evening with the horses. Basically nothing.”

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