Only in Hindi cinema do filmmakers take pride in telling viewers to 'leave their brains behind at home'. The other phrase we often hear for such movies is 'mindless comedies'. Anees Bazmee, the maker of films like Welcome, No Entry, Singh Is Kinng, Mubarakan and Ready, takes umbrage to this term. "Yeh mindless comedy create karne main kitna mind lagta hain, I know as a director," he says, sounding exactly like a character from one of his films. Bazmee adds that to be able to add laughter to people's joyless lives is nothing less than a gift. His next offering is Pagalpanti starring John Abraham, Pulkit Samrat and Anil Kapoor.
Bazmee has spent over three decades in the movies. He started off as the most insignificant person on the film set and worked his way up to being the man calling the shots. He has a humongous body of work: 43 credits as a writer, 17 as a director and 4 as an assistant director, says IMDB. A sizeable percentage of these films became box office hits. Here he talks about a life spent in the movies.
I was just looking at the black-and-white photos outside your office. You look unrecognisable in them because you're so young. That tells you how long you been working in the movies.
I was 13 or 14 when I started working. I've done many odd jobs in the industry. I started as an actor. I was a junior artist in many films. But I understood very quickly that I didn't want to be an actor.
Do you remember your first paycheck from the movies?
I was a junior artist. I got paid Rs 15 for a film and I had to give the person who got me the job Rs 2 as commission so I actually got Rs 13. That was my first-ever salary. I clearly remember it was also the 13th of the month. You'll notice all my films have a reference to the number 13… tera hazaar crore, tera sau rupaye, tera tareek, tera yeh, tera woh. People tell me not to use it because it is an unlucky number, but I think it's very lucky for me.
Do you remember which film this was for?
I'm not sure… it's a very old film. I think Jay Vejay. The director was a lovely man from Madras. After that I did many films as a junior artist. Till today I meet some of the people I worked with then when I'm shooting. I feel very strange and emotional to see them now. They'll say 'Yaad hai Anees, humne aap ke liye khaana banaya tha'.
From being a junior artist I started working in the sound department, then editing, then art department. I did so many small jobs here and there. I then became an assistant director for Raj Kapoor saab on Prem Rog. I have been an assistant director on some 15-17 films. And only after that I became a writer. I must have written over 30 films.
You must have worked with so many amazing people across all your jobs. Who has been the greatest creative influence?
Raj Kapoor saab was one of them. I learnt the true meaning of the word passion from him. I'll tell you my favourite story about him. Once he fell asleep and I could hear him mutter something to himself in his sleep. I slowly went closer to him. I usually didn't have the guts to go near him because he had a terrible temper. Bahut danger aadmi the. But I went closer and heard him say the words maile, kuchhle phool, charnon. I didn't understand a word. The next day on set when someone gave me the dialogue sheet, I was in shock. The line on the sheet was – Maile kuchhle phool devtaon ke charnon main nahin chadhaye jaate hain. Woh Padmini Kohlapuri ka dialogue tha. I was only 16 at the time but I remember this very clearly.
So much of your significant work was in the 90s. Why does it have such a bad reputation? People talk about how disorganised everything was. That films were being written on set…
Maine khud set pe film likhi hai.
What was that time like? Why was it like this?
That's because the hero of our films used to do 8 movies at one time. Like today's stars, they didn't believe in doing one film at a time. Even the directors were directing 4 films at a time. Maine aise directors ko dekhe hai jo ek set pe baithe hain aur phone pe baithkar doosri jagah direction dete the. Maine aise directors bhi dekhe hai jo kehte the, 'Arrey wahan gaana hain na? Mera kya kaam hai. Gaana tum kar lo'.
Now when it comes to writers, you have to understand that we were paid the least. Everyone thinks they can write. And even if they don't know, they think they know enough to change what the writer has given. No one would dare do that to a cameraman or a lightman or editor because that's technical. I think this is why writers would get paid less. So if we wrote only one film at a time then we'd never be able to pay our rent and electricity bills.
I remember when I was first hired as a writer my producer took me to a small room where the roof was leaking and said, 'Sit here and write all day'. I refused. I said, 'This reminds me of my home.' I was living in a small house with a leaky roof. I said, 'I can't sit here and write movies.' So what I'm saying is that writers didn't have any respect. To earn a living we had to do 10 films at a time.
Sometimes when I had to write a four-page scene, I'd give the first page and while the actors were shooting that I'd write the second one. This is not a good practice at all. But some of the films I've written like this turned out to be massive hits like Shola Aur Shabnam, Bol Radha Bol, Aankhen, Gopi Kishan, Laadla and Raja Babu.
Is there a particular incident that you look back at and think – I don't think I can ever work like that again?
While shooting for Raja Babu I got a severe stomach ache at 3 AM. I was taken to the hospital and told that I immediately needed an appendix surgery. I got operated at night and was resting in the hospital. The next day at 9 AM David Dhawan came to see me. Main hil nahi sakta tha. He said, 'Set laga hua hai. Mar jayenge yaar'. I had no choice. I asked for a sketch pen because I couldn't write properly. And that's how we came up with a scene and he then went and shot it.
Did actors ever protest against working like this?
I know actors of today are more disciplined but I have to give credit to actors of the 90s. I've narrated only 2-3 minutes of a script to Salman (Khan), Akshay (Kumar), Ajay (Devgn), and they would just get it. Let's take Akshay – he used to work day and night. I called him one morning and said I wanted to narrate a story to him. He was in America at the time. He said, 'just tell me the story on the phone'. I told him I want to make a film about a young sardaar who feels that a bunch of dons living outside the country are giving his community a bad name. Ab yeh simple sa ladka wahaan jata hai aur woh poori gang ka boss ban jata hai. He told me, 'Anees bhai, it is a fantastic story. I am doing this film. Main aapko kal bataunga ki kabhi ki date hai'. He called me the next day with his dates and sent Mr. Vipul Shah to me to produce it and that's how Singh Is Kinng happened. That's it! I went through all of this without meeting Akshay. I saw him straight on the set.
Now the story doesn't end here. When he came, I told him, 'Let's sit for sometime so that I can tell you the full story of the film.' But we never found time. I think on the 10th day of shoot, which was a holiday, he came to my hotel room and said, 'Ab poora sunao'.
Kya hain ki log kehte hain ki it is mindless comedy. Yeh mindless comedy create karne main kitna mind lagta hain, I know as a director. I've written films in many genres but when I have to write a comedy I still get cold feet.
Making people laugh can't be easy…
Duniya ka sabse mushkil kaam hai.
Do you think people undervalue this talent?
100%. Kya hain ki log kehte hain ki it is mindless comedy. Yeh mindless comedy create karne main kitna mind lagta hain, I know as a director. I've written films in many genres but when I have to write a comedy, I still get cold feet.
I have a few friends to whom I would show my script. I would tell them my jokes and they would laugh the next day. Maine bola, 'Itna late samajh main aaya?' I realised if I make films which people understand a day later, it won't work. Nowadays people write off a movie while it's still going on. So I have to make sure people don't take long to get my humour. Uske upar log itne pareshan hain. Everywhere people look sad. People have forgotten to laugh. If you observe closely, the average person on the street is always running. Everyone is tense. So making people laugh is very hard and to be able to make them do that is a gift. In a 2-hour film people forget all their troubles, their complicated lives, and just laugh. Is se bada kaam kya ho sakta hai?
Why do you like this theme of gangsters who are basically decent and funny men? Be it Welcome, Singh is King, Ready… it's a running theme.
I've lived in many places in this city and changed many homes. Bade bade dada dekhe hai maine. So I know many such tedha people. I know their stories. A lot of them are just victims of their circumstances. When I would chat with them I'd realise there was an innocence in them. Some of them are hardcore gangsters. I'm not talking about them. But there are many jo dada bane huye hain but are actually being scolded by their wives at home. They are basically good husbands or good fathers to their children.Take Nana Patekar's character in Welcome. Usme uska motivation kya hai? Ki uski behen ki achhi jaga shaadi karana chahte hai. So he is a nice person. Aur unko dukh hai ki meri reputation ke wajah se meri behen ki shaadi nahi ho rahi. Now it's comedic that this man wanted to be an actor but became a gangster instead.
You're starting a Writers Room. What do you want upcoming writers to know about this?
They have to simply register their script and send it to my website. I have professional team that will go through the scripts and they will make me read the ones that have potential. If I like any, I'll contact them. And even if I don't like some, if there is potential, I'd like to meet the writers and give them feedback. I want to use my experience to be their guide. Mere aage peechhe toh koi tha nahi samjhane wala. Maine toh bohot thokre kha-kha ke fir chalna seekha hai. So If I can make even one person's life a little simpler, I'd be happy.