It’s not every day a respected Hollywood director makes their foray into Bollywood, that too with an out-and-out mainstream action entertainer. Director Chuck Russell is most known for his work on horror films like A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, action vehicles like The Scorpion King and above all, the cult-comedy The Mask. He’s even launched actors like Jim Carrey, The Rock and Cameron Diaz.
So why then decide to make a Hindi film? In a meeting at his vanity van in Mumbai’s Mehboob Studio, Russell continually stresses his love for universal stories and credits the influence of Indian cinema on The Mask and how its characters spontaneously broke into song and dance.
His upcoming Junglee is an action adventure which stars Vidyut Jammwal as a vet who’s grown up with the elephants at his father’s reserve. When poachers set their sights on the animals, he must fight to keep them safe. Russell says he’s not a fan of doing press for his films. In this case, however, he is as much a compelling part of Junglee as the story itself. Perhaps more.
He spoke to me about the similarities between Hollywood and Bollywood, how Western audiences have opened up to Hindi cinema over time and how Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto gave him the courage to make Junglee. Edited excerpts:
How did you come to be involved with Junglee?
Because I was originally interested in a couple of Indian stars to talk about some international co-productions I was working on because I’ve had an interest in telling universal stories. After The Scorpion King and The Mask, one of the things that really excited me as a filmmaker was to have role models from different cultures and that’s traditionally cool for an adventure film. So I’ve been here (to India) a couple of times for that and pretty much out of the blue Junglee Pictures came to me with a story for this project and the subject matter is amazing. So the opportunity to do something in my fun style of adventure and comedy combined with music and all the cultural elements on such a vital subject was something I couldn’t say no to.
A great deal of your filmography has focused on exaggerated, larger than life, otherworldly characters and stories like your horror films, The Scorpion King or The Mask. Do you think that helped you here in making a commercial Hindi film given our films also tend to be so heightened and exaggerated?
I do. I really enjoy Indian cinema. When I made The Mask, I was confident in it to do something very original in the West which is breaking out in song and dance, because of Indian cinema. Because my own response to this was ‘fantastic, we’re breaking reality a bit for the sake of joy’. So I’ve always accepted that in Indian cinema and it did influence me.
Had you seen many Indian films before you set out to make Junglee?
I’m not an expert but things do jump out at me. I’m a fan of 3 Idiots and Aamir Khan. Sultan from Salman Khan is also really cool. And Hollywood is aware of these folks. I even met a couple of them in California which led me back here. So I find Indian and Western cinema have some strong similarities but I prefer the joy of Indian cinema to some of the darkness that’s common in Western cinema.
It’s interesting that even to this day the two film industries still haven’t interacted much. When they have it’s been more red carpet photos and cameo-led rather than a genuine collaboration in storytelling and talent. Why do you think that is?
Because it’s a business. Look, from the beginning, films have been a slightly uncomfortable relationship between art and business so maybe after Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto and Christ movies, suddenly there’s a shift of ‘maybe I can see an inspirational film in another language’. I asked Mel about Apocalypto and he said basically he wanted to do a car chase through the jungle. From that, I had a little more confidence in doing this and I know the audiences have liked it because those have been hit films. The audiences internationally and in the West will accept films in the Hindi language if I’m telling a big story.
Considering you’re new to this world and the mainstream Bollywood storytelling grammar how do you know if what you’ve made is working and ‘a good Bollywood movie’? Whether it’s the action or music or casting, did a lot of it come down to trusting your team that this is what works?
Oh absolutely. Listen, I’m doing a film in a different language. So we developed the screenplay in English first. And I use my cast as my first audience. I come from theatre, so I work a little more in a theatrical style in that I force my cast to do rehearsal and improvisation even without the words. And we were all doing those improvisations in English because first, we had the English script that I developed. Then the great Junglee Pictures team came in with Hindi writers for translations. So I really wanted to do an authentic Hindi movie in that they weren’t just translations, these were collaborations with my writers and cast and finally the elephants.
People often talk about how the storytelling language of Hindi cinema is so distinct, it’s always been a barrier in getting foreign audiences to engage with our movies. Whether it’s the melodrama, use of song and dance, interval etc. Do you feel that’s changing over time in your experience?
I do, I think right now there’s been a couple of films that have been big breakthroughs. Films with subtitles used to be a chore in the West. Though never for me, because I’m like ‘wow, I can see Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’ – which was a big breakthrough. And now suddenly distributors want films set in foreign countries in the local languages instead of forcing English on everybody. It’s now weird to see a World War 2 movie in which everyone speaks in an English accent for instance. We’ve evolved, cinema has evolved, and western tastes are evolving so I specifically did the math with this film so that it would work in any language because of the fun and humour. I also turn off the dialogue track when I edit. I want to see without any language what story I’m telling and I kind of write those scripts with that in mind.
Did you have non-Indian audiences in mind at all in making the film? Was there a part of you that wanted to make a Bollywood film for the world?
It’s a little bit of the reverse, I’m telling a universal story but it’s got to be a Hindi movie. I’m really hoping you might see the fun in my style and know ‘okay Chuck Russell is involved because it’s crazy’ but the language, the personalities, the village customs are all authentic. Yes, it’s colourful, its larger than life, but I really used my production designer, my composer, my cast, my Hindi writers, it really was a team effort so I hope it’s a Hindi film telling a universal story.
When you were approaching this film was the intention to fit in and make the typical mainstream Hindi film or stand out and do something different?
It’s not about me, it really isn’t. It’s why I don’t do a lot of press for my other films. Having done some successful films, I still tend not to talk about much about it. I think the movie should speak for itself. And I don’t like the hype. I think the audiences will decide. I don’t want to tell them what to think, they’ll tell me.
When the trailer got such a good response, I was really great because I got the vibe that no one cares that it’s some American guy, it was more ‘Vidyut’s doing something amazing’. The fact that we’re getting feedback from the international audience on this picture tells me that it is kind of universal. What I’m getting from the West is surprising because they get right away that it’s a vital subject done in a warm-hearted way.
Most people would agree that our action films don’t even come close to the West in terms of stunt work and execution. Why do you think that is?
I know exactly what you’re talking about and I’m pushing a little more of a naturalistic style, and Vidyut’s pushing even more, literally doing the action – so that’s a little edgier. It gets from what I call stunt craft to actual daredevil levels. So for me, it’s about that. The style part I’m comfortable with. Whatever posturing the character’s doing was just fun for me so I think we found vulnerability and still got the machismo that we anticipate from a hero in a Hindi movie.
What would you say was the most challenging part of making a film in a different language, country and industry?
It might be just who I am for but me that’s kind of the fun part – making sure I can honour the culture. I didn’t have an agenda except how can I tell this story about in a true way. Though it’s larger than life and I’m using my humour and action, but how can I tell it in a way the Hindi audiences will relate to? To me that was the biggest challenge – am I going to do honour to this story and an important subject in a culture that’s important to me?