With theatres being shut and movie viewing being restricted to the small screen, one of the greatest sources of joy to film lovers during this time has been exciting movie announcements – things we can look forward to when this pandemic is hopefully behind us. Filmmaker Om Raut, who made the hugely successful Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior earlier this year, announced possibly one of the biggest movies we'll see in the near future – Adipurush. The film stars Prabhas as Lord Ram and Saif Ali Khan as Raavan. We spoke to Raut about his vision for the epic and what it takes to make a pan-India film.
Mohini Chaudhuri: When the announcement for Adipurush was made, I noticed that T-Series pointedly labelled it a pan-India movie. This is a term we only started hearing post Baahubali. What does it take to plan a pan-india film as opposed to any other film?
Om Raut: I don't think I do anything of such sort. Yes, they are saying it's a pan-India film and that is a great thing as it gives a great sense of encouragement. And yes, Prabhas is the most bankable superstar in our country. But above all, what works for me is him as an actor, him as a person and his persona. His eyes, his stance and body language all suit the character of Adipurush. That was my reason to go to him with the part. And that's what matters to me the most. I'm thankful that he accepted to play the part. However, to answer your question, if there's anything I'd do to make a pan India film, I don't know what that means. I've always tried to be truthful to my subject and truthful to the narrative that I believe in the most. In fact, I would like to make a pan-world film. I think every artist wants to be seen everywhere in the world. I would be very happy if somebody from a village in Spain or somewhere in Japan or Nebraska, Omaha have seen what I have done.
MC: Tanhaji released at a time when Bollywood was making several period films and historicals. I think what set Tanhaji apart was its treatment. You gave it a slick, video-game feel. Is that the makeover you're planning to give the Ramayana with Adipurush?
OR: Tanhaji, as you said, looks like a video game because I am an avid gamer. So I think that translated into the film. I think the other life that you have as a human translates into what you do on celluloid. There is an extract of that coming in into Tanhaji and I'm proud of it and very happy about it. It's my interpretation or my way of looking at a particular episode that happened in the history of our nation. Similarly, with Adipurush I want to create a great world around it and have our characters from our great epics interact with it. I want to stay truthful to my imagination – the kind of aesthetic that I would bring into the story.
MC: I remember speaking to a lot of VFX studios that have worked on Indian films for a story and a common complaint they had was that many Indian directors don't really understand how CGI works. They don't get how much time and labour goes into it and that such films need to be planned differently from the word go. How have you cracked it?
OR: I don't know how to answer this question, to be honest. I always believe that visual effects is just a tool. What is more important is the vision, the imagery, and the idea that you want to put across. Once you have done that, then you can decide whether you want to do it live or partly live and partly VFX. It's just a tool and a way to get to the result that you want. What is most important is that you have to be extremely clear of what you are trying to say because in that world you can't really change things. Once you have locked in on what you have said, you can't turn in a different direction.
MC: Is that something you learnt the hard way during Tanhaji?
OR: No. Not at all. About a year-and-a-half ago, before the film went on the floors, we had locked the entire film on visuals and those are the exact visuals that were seen during the release of the film. I come from a science background. I am a Bachelor's in engineering and a Masters in cinema. I am a film technician and a film artist. I don't know how to answer this question because anything that I would say would make me sound very arrogant and pompous and I don't intend to do that.
MC: Tanhaji was your first Hindi film as a director and it was a stupendous success. When you deliver such a major commercial success how does that open doors for you. How has it made this second film easier?
OR: Fortunately for my first film I had Mr Devgn as not only my lead actor but also my producer. I would say I am one of the most fortunate first-time directors because in Mr Devgn's world everything was made available. Regarding anything that would make the film better, he wouldn't think twice and in the snap of a finger it would be answered with a 'yes'. The entire idea of making the entire film indoors, because I want to the particular kind of light, was supported by him. 60% of the film happens in he night and I wanted the nights to look a particular way. He stood by me and stood behind me like a rock and allowed me to do whatever I wanted to do. So in my first film I had everything that I wanted. To be honest, nothing changes for me. I would like to be as good as a producer like Mr Devgn when I hopefully produce for others in the future.
MC: What are the responsibilities of making a film on Lord Ram? I know you've said you wrote this when you were in college. But do you think about things like our current political climate, conversations that we're seeing right now. Will that impact your story?
OR: Not at all. I think the purity and love is something that one needs to maintain. When you talk about epics such as the Tulsidas Ramayan or the Valmiki Ramayan, you need to maintain the purity of the characters. You need to make sure that you don't spoil the image and you need to make sure to keep it very pure. Also, I think if you don't have any mal-intention and the story is coming from within, everything will be fine. Prabhu Ram can be interpreted in several ways. There are different interpretations that are there. There are different characteristics of this Maryada Purushotam. There are different chapters within Ramayana which have different teachings to us. I have selected one particular chapter within and I'm trying to make that onto celluloid.
MC: What is it about Saif Ali Khan that makes you want to cast him as an evil man.
OR: Saif is a genius actor. I think he is one of the finest that we have in our nation. He brings so much passion to the set every morning. He will go into the deep and study the character thoroughly. I personally learn a lot from him every morning. I just enjoy working with him. His passion and commitment and pure acting talent is what I always admire. For an actor or a director, whether it is a good guy or a bad guy, you need committed performers who will put in their energy, efforts and time.
MC: Earlier this year, after the release of Tanhaji, Saif gave us an interview where he said that he was concerned about the historical inaccuracies of the film. But he overlooked it because he was excited to play the part. Is this something you'll spoke about later?
OR: No. Not really, because we were amidst the promotions of our film. I saw it a few days later when someone sent it to me on WhatsApp but we didn't really have a conversation about it.
MC: In one of your interviews you said Prabhas needs to develop an archer's physique? What can you tell us about how he's preparing for the role?
OR: About his physique, I think that's a secret and you will get to see that on screen. We have conversations now and then and we discuss scenes on the phone. Because of the pandemic we are not able to meet. We do speak on video calls quite often and are trying to shape the character. We are trying to make the most of the time that we have right now because we will go on floors in January and before that we need to get up to speed and get the ball rolling. We are looking forward to working with each other. The physical training and language training is already happening but the real character training will happen in a few days.