“It’s the first time I’ve slept in five years,” says filmmaker Rahul Dholakia with relief. The night before he was at a single screen theatre in Mumbai to gauge the response to his film Raees, a story about the rise and fall of a Gujarati bootlegger in the 80s. “I noticed that people continued sitting even as the end credits were rolling. That means my film is connecting with the audience.” The box office reports too validate that fact.
It’s a new world for Dholakia. He’s a National Award-winning director but admits to have never seen such staggering collections for any of his four other films. This is also the first time he’s directed superstar Shah Rukh Khan. This meant cautiously straddling the star’s mainstream appeal with his own indie sensibilities. Here he tells us about walking that tightrope and what’s he learnt from this experience.
You’ve spoken about not having any access to Shah Rukh Khan. You were introduced to Excel and suddenly you found yourself narrating the story to him. How did you originally imagine Raees and how did the film evolve once SRK agreed to come on board?
When we started writing the film it soon became a larger than life script. We wondered who we should get to play this. One of us said Shah Rukh Khan and I remember all my indie friends started laughing. When Shah Rukh did come in, we didn’t change the character so much for him but things changed around us and the film became a bit more ambitious. For example, I wanted to shoot in the interiors of Gujarat but they told me very clearly that you can’t shoot with Shah Rukh on the streets. I said why not, I've shot Naseer (Naseeruddin Shah) on the streets and they were like, “This is SRK!” Also because Excel is a big production house, they have certain ways of doing things – so the unit also becomes bigger.
The only thing which became a little more was that we needed to have songs so we tried to fit it into the narrative. We had “Udi Udi Jaaye” which is a folk song and also get them woven in, so the narrative moves further. “Zaalima” is a little odd I think. It’s shot beautifully and it looks nice so we put that in. Initially it was supposed to come much later in the screenplay and I had written as well, “Can we please not have a song here?” But you know it’s a SRK song so people are going to freak out on it and it’s going to get popular.
This is all interesting for me because it’s the first time I’m seeing this kind of response to a film. There is a single screen audience, multiplex audience and overseas audience and we’ve tried to cater to all of them.
But was Raees, the man, meant to be meaner? A common criticism is that the villainy of the character seems watered down. Because it’s Shah Rukh, this man who kills people also has to be charming and principled.
There are no scenes that were nasty that we have removed, but we added more Robin Hood-ness. I showed it to my cousins and they asked how does he win the election? You have to show something good that he does or else how will people support him. We had a scene of Raees sponsoring a health camp in the name of his mother and that led to two others scenes. I thought the second one was brilliant. We had to remove it because the film was getting too long. In the second half we added the ladies sewing because we had to justify the fact that they came out to support him during the yatra. The Api Duniya part was always there. I remember Paresh Rawal had told me that his nemesis should be because of his own greed or his own desire to do something.
What was great about Shah Rukh is that he’s extremely receptive and he understood the character very well. What he does is that he adds a little bit of an extra touch while performing. He’s very good in the romantic scenes so as long as he was within my space I'm okay with it. For a lot of scenes he would say, “Main ise do tarah se kar sakta hoon”. We had to balance both because Shah Rukh is not playing Shah Rukh – he’s being Raees. And I’m also not making Parzania.
When you’re working with a superstar who has been around longer than you, how do you bring trust to the table?
I always say this – and it applies not only to filmmaking but everywhere – the bigger party should reach out to the smaller party and make them feel comfortable and Shah Rukh did that on the first day. He invited me to his van to eat with him and I said no I eat with the unit. I have this indie spirit with which I made the film. So Shah Rukh came and sat with the rest of us. He came down to our space, and I thought now it’s up to us to go to his space, where he’s also comfortable. Once that happened, I think the trust just sets in.
Raees has taken 5 years to make. What’s been your biggest learning from this experience?
I think working collaboratively with so many people. I did that for Parzania too, but this was different. It’s a big film ya. I'm not used to such large distribution and box office numbers.
Raees’s one day collection is more than the lifetime collections of all my films! I'm still absorbing and understanding that. To me they are just numbers, it’s not sinking in. Someone tells me it’s made Rs 21 crores on a working Wednesday and I think Parzania ne toh Rs 2 crore ki thi.
But I get upset when someone writes a bad review. For me that is box office. On Twitter too, you'll have a 100 people saying good things but if that one guy writes something bad, I keep thinking about it. I think that’s my problem.