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June 16, 2015

Vidhu Vinod Chopra On Creating His Own Challenges

Text by Shashi Baliga. Photographs by Ritam Banerjee

With Broken Horses, the maverick filmmaker became the first Indian to write, direct and produce a Hollywood movie

“What have you done with me! I can’t believe that’s me!” If you knew Vidhu Vinod Chopra even slightly, you might be worried about those inflections. But then, his laughter ­— ringing and full-throated — courses through his office, and we lean back.

People tend to tread carefully around the 62-year-old film-maker, legendary as much for his straight talk and temper as for his generosity and laughter. And we’ve pushed him a bit today. He’s just come in from the US, is jet-lagged, has a clutch of journalists waiting to throw questions at him — and is running dangerously short on time. We haven’t helped, with photographer Ritam Banerjee taking up a chunk of that time, leading Chopra around the office and varying qualities of light till he ultimately gets what he wants.

So, finally there’s the director, in a bright blue jacket, presenting a natty, I’m-living-the-good-life picture with his dogs Fudge and Toffee, on his green-fringed terrace by the sea. And he can’t get over the results. “I’m not that person at all! Nah, nah!”

So what kind of a guy is he? “A simple T-shirt kinda guy,” he answers. “My opinion of myself (which may not be your or anyone’s else’s opinion of me) is that I’m a straight, simple man.” There’s a modification. “A very simple Indian man.”

This comes from, of course, one of B-Town’s most successful producers, a man who’s rolled out some of the biggest earners in the business — PK, 3 Idiots, the Munnabhai series and is the first Indian to write, direct and produce a Hollywood movie. And who’s spent some 20 million dollars on his film, Broken Horses.

There are three parts to his statement: straight, simple and Indian. Actually, few would argue with any of the three. Or with the T-shirt bit, for that matter; Chopra’s lean frame can be spotted in a tee even at glitzy award nights.

So I move to Hollywood. How did this full-on Bollywood man make the switch in terms of sensibilities? “I was Vidhu Vinod Chopra there; I didn’t become Vee-nod,” says the director, adding, “I was making an out-and-out Hollywood film but with my sensibility. Just as Sergio Leone made his spaghetti westerns in his own style. One critic described Broken Horses as ‘a western with an Indian heart’.

It’s got violence as its backdrop but it’s a very warm film about family, about brothers.”

Broken Horses is, in fact, broadly similar to Chopra’s iconic Parinda (1989); those familiar with the latter will recognise characters, elements of the storyline, dramatic ploys and more in the Hollywood version set in the dusty US-Mexican badlands. Two brothers from different worlds — one, a violinist steeped in classical music; the other, a professional hitman who’s slow-witted but nimble-fingered — find themselves caught up in a blood-soaked dilemma, directed with flashes of Bollywood-style drama.

The theme of brotherly love and sacrifice is one that draws from the Indian ethos but also reflects Chopra’s own life. “I’m very close to my brother Vir; he’s four years older than me, and he’s supported me all my life. It’s because of him that I got into FTII (Film & Television Institute of India). My father was an honest man and therefore very poor and couldn’t afford to send me there. Vir paid for me to go to FTII, and that is part of who I am,” says Chopra.

There’s more of him in all his movies, he says. “There’s also a beautiful love story in Broken Horses because I’m deeply in love with my wife, Anupama.”

So, in Karan Johar’s immortal words, it’s all about loving your parents. “Well, I’m not doing this to sell my film; this is who I am,” he says.

I look above his head and there, on a panel that spans the width of his office cabin, I spot this nugget among others: ‘First is health. Then is family. Then is cinema.’

“Yours?” I ask.

“Yes,” he smiles. (I also loved ‘The director’s indecision is final.’) This leads me to ask Chopra how his way of working went down with his American crew. “Oh, it is completely different there,” he says. “Here, they’re all like extended family. So we sit together like family members and make our movies. It’s great fun.” It’s a colder world out there in Hollywood, he says. “But they’re extremely efficient. Here they’re warm but very inefficient.”

And where did the twain meet? “I took the warmth of my country and my personality into that cold but efficient system, and it was magical,” he says. “On Day One, they didn’t know what to do with me. They were all ‘Mr Chopra this’ and ‘Mr Chopra that’.

But by the third day, they were kicking my ass!” At the end of the shoot, the crew gifted him a book in which they wrote “some wonderful things”, he adds.

To rewind a little, why did he look to Hollywood in the first place? Did he see it as a step up in his graph? “No, I see it as a step aside,” he says, “because it’s a different art form altogether there. Somebody in LA said of my making Broken Horses, and I quote, ‘It’s like Quentin Tarantino going to Mumbai to make a Bollywood film.’ Can he come here and make Ek ladki ko dekha toh aisa laga? I doubt it very much; frankly, he’d make a fool of himself.”

The same danger would apply to him as well. So, again, what drove him to this huge risk? “It was not a risk, it was pure madness. You tell me, after 3 Idiots, to go away for five years to live in a desert, away from my family…it’s completely crazy. What drives me is my passion, that’s all.”

Another way of looking at it would be that after the stupendous success of films like 3 Idiots and PK, he could afford to do pretty much what he wanted. How did that kind of money, to put it bluntly, change life for him?

“It didn’t change, really,” he insists. “I used to live in a small house; I still live in a small house. (In this case, ‘small’ is a relative term, but for the record, the building that houses Chopra’s home and office is nowhere as ostentatious as many filmi homes.) I have dogs, but now I have someone to take care of my dogs. The only big difference is that I used to travel economy, now I travel first class. And sometimes, if I want to charter a plane or helicopter, I can. Mind you, that’s only been in the last two or three years.”

He speaks of a recent occasion when his daughter Zuni travelled with him and flew first class for the first time. “When she walked into the cabin, she said, ‘Oh, my God, you travel like this?’

Both Zuni and his son Agni were well insulated from talk about his box-office earnings but that changed after the mega success of 3 Idiots (2009) and all the media noise about its collections of rupees 200 crore and more, he says. “My son told me, ‘I know you’re not poor; you’ve made so much money! You’ve been fooling us all these years!’”

“Wait,” he says, scrolling through the messages on his phone.

“Read this; it’s the message my daughter sent me after the birthday gift I got her. See the last line.” Without betraying Zuni’s privacy, let me just say that she thanked her father as only a young child can for getting her an ‘expensive’ gift. “It’s not very expensive for me, but look, this is how my children are even now. That’s how they’ve been brought up,” beams their father. It’s also a nod to Anupama, the respected film critic, writer and author, who wears her husband’s enormous success lightly and with a winning sense of humour.

Continuing on the subject of his ‘No Change’ policy, he smiles broadly, “I’m still arrogant, I still can’t abide fools. I’m not the friendly type and I don’t attend many parties. The only people around me are my family. I used to be worse but I’ve improved after living with Anu for 19-20 years; she’s made me a better person.” Chopra adds, “The core of who I am remains the same. It’s really very difficult to retain your childlike quality but I refuse to grow up.”

When I ask him what ambitions, if any, remain, the answer loops back to his children. “My son plays cricket; I hope he plays for India one day. My daughter writes lovely poems and books; I hope she’s happy. My other daughter, in Germany, is a dancer; I hope she’s happy too. That’s all I hope for. As for me, I’ll find another mountain to climb. I might fall or I might reach the top but either way I’ll have fun.”

Is he a man in constant search of the next mountain? “Of course! Otherwise, what’s the point? If I don’t find one, I’ll create one. What is Broken Horses but a mountain that I created?”

As he sees it, “I’m standing in the middle of the road; how do I know where it will take me? Did I have a good journey? Yes, it’s been wonderful. Have I followed my heart and my conscience? Yes. Am I, in the eyes of the world, successful? I don’t care! Am I successful in my own eyes?

Yes, absolutely!”

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