Aanand L Rai’s biggest film yet, Zero, opens in a little over a month. The filmmaker and his frequent collaborator writer Himanshu Sharma have rarely failed. In the past they have given us successful films like Tanu Weds Manu (2001) and Raanjhanaa (2013). Their collaborations usually have a pattern to them – they are rooted stories told with simplicity. This time around, they are working with one of the country’s biggest superstars in what looks like one of Hindi cinema’s most technically ambitious films in recent years. “For someone like me it is a big pressure that thousands of technicians are working day in and day out to achieve something that you had thought of sitting on a sofa. It’s extremely unnerving,” says Sharma. Here he talks about how he has tried to push the envelope, but gently, while writing for the superstar.
What can you tell us about the genesis of Zero. What made you want to tell the story of a vertically challenged man?
The idea came to me a couple of years ago. When we were promoting Raanjhanaa, it popped into my head. I was figuring out how to achieve this dwarf thing. We went to the US and visited a couple of VFX studios but they were not very keen. They said it’s difficult and we don’t know how to achieve it. It has never been done – an entire film where the lead protagonist has been made 4.2 feet tall. So then we got into Tanu Weds Manu Returns (2015) but in the course of time it never left me. The best test for any story is when it stays in your head forever. That means you can make something out of it, or else 90 per cent of the time, your ideas fizzle out after a point.
At what point did you know Shah Rukh Khan was going to play the part?
In the middle somewhere – when the scenes started coming to my head and Aanand thought we should approach Khan saab and see if he liked it. He really liked the idea. There wasn’t a script ready then. In fact the first half was barely ready when he said yes to it.
Is it more fun to write lines when you know SRK is going to say them?
It always works like that with me. I need to know who is playing the character and then you try and put them on their best foot. Khan saab brings so much to the table with the way he approaches the character. You know you can push your character to another level and put him in situations where you know it will turn out to be a difficult scene, but you’re not scared because he will pull it off.
Bauua Singh is charming and he’s got his arms outstretched which people love to see SRK do. Do you have to work that into the writing because it’s SRK?
It’s a situation where you have an actor who, for the last 30 years, has had a romantic aura around him, almost like a mythical legend. Suddenly you feel like you also have to create something new with him and yet have to keep something going that reminds you of the past. We should tap into that charm which has been enthralling us for so many years. But I would be a fool to not try something new with SRK. What’s the point of making a film with him then? I remember watching Darr and Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge in the theatres and going mad. So I love that persona a lot but also as a writer you think, ‘But where am I in this?’ So that combination of holding on to what you like in his earlier films and also trying out something new is hard to achieve. You have to push the envelope, but very carefully.
What’s nice is that he doesn’t seem like a character you’re meant to feel sorry for.
The easiest thought is to make you feel sorry for the man. All of us, without even talking about it once, had an understanding that this is the route we’re not taking. There would never be a sad moment. In fact, there is not even a direct mention of him being vertically challenged or Anushka (Sharma) being quadriplegic. It is by the way. It’s about any two people trying to find love. So there are introspective moments but even in those he’s not saying please feel sorry for me. He would rather come and bite off your head than cry about being short.
On the face of it, Zero looks like Aanand L Rai’s most ambitious film. I read an interview where he said – don’t be fooled by the green screen. It’s still warm and rooted. What was it like for you?
People like Aanand and me would be the last people to make a VFX film. We are very comfortable going to the actual location and shooting the way we want to. Our VFX supervisor (Harry Hingorani) was so open minded. He’s never said no to anything we wanted to do. He would keep finding ways to do things that we would otherwise do just like that. There is a lot of hard work gone into making it look organic. You know how they say you need to be very prepared to show chaos on screen? So it’s exactly like that. There’s a lot of rehearsal gone into making it look like it shouldn’t look rehearsed. And Aanand is not someone who is heavy on prep. He seldom goes into shot breakdown or storyboarding. He reaches on set and decides. He is very much into his actors. For someone like him to get into this could have been very tiring but fortunately it didn’t turn out to be like that. Baaki filmien bhi humne khaate khaate banaayi hai, usi tarah yeh bhi ban gayi.
When you’re writing an ambitious film like this do you have to factor in VFX and budgets?
When I was writing there were times when I’d be like, ‘This sequence has an interaction with water, so I should call Harry and ask him if we are okay with this? Or will we die doing this?’ There are certain things that can kill you. So I thought itna ambitious mat ho jao ki achieve na ho paye.