Last year, Ajay Devgn completed 30 years as a Bollywood actor. His last three films, Sooryavanshi, Gangubai Kathiawadi and RRR, have all been box-office hits. Now, he's directing, producing and starring in the upcoming Runway 34, a thriller about a mysterious pilot whose plane deviates from its course, sparking suspicion. In an exclusive session on FC Front Row, he talks about directing Amitabh Bachchan, the advice he got from Shehkar Kapur and whether he likes his actors to improvise:
Runway 34, which you are directing, producing and acting in, is coming up. You've said in interviews that the story was very strong, it was very compelling. What about this story made you decide that you were the one who could tell it best as a director? Because you could have just been an actor and producer.
It started two-and-a-half years ago. These writers came to me and said they had a story inspired by true events. When I heard the script, I really liked it. It was very intriguing. I asked them to make some changes, work on the script some more and get back to me. The chapter ended there. I forgot about it. They didn't get back to me, so I figured that they didn't manage to do what I asked them to. Then we went into a lockdown. I was sitting at home for six months and I suddenly remembered this script. I gave them a call and asked if they had worked on it. They said: Of course we have, we've been waiting for you to get back to us. I asked them to come over and when I heard the script, it really fell into place. We worked on it for another four to five months, and I got so involved, I wanted to direct it. I started seeing every aspect of the film and the way in which it could progress. Once you start seeing that, you want to make it, you don't want to give it away. No two minds think alike. I'm not saying I'd do it right and somebody else would do it wrong. But I'd seen the film in my mind, so even if someone made it better than me, it would not match my original vision. That's why I wanted to make it myself.
You actually originally wanted to be a director, right? Before Phool Aur Kaante made you a star…
Yes because that's what my upbringing was. My father was one of the top action directors. He was well-respected and technically proficient. He would accomplish with camera tricks what we try to achieve with CGI today. He was extraordinary with camera and with his technique. Even before I started working with him, I was interested in what he did. I remember when he was doing films like Mr. India – today, it's easier to do things like that since you have VFX, but at that point of time, everything had to be done through the camera. He was creating things that had never been created before, at least in our country. He'd discuss his technique with me and he even bought me a video camera when I was 12.
When I was 9 or 10, I'd started to edit for him. Action, at that point of time, was very difficult to edit, so most of the editors didn't want to edit dad's action sequences. They would send them to him and he was always occupied so he used to tell me to do it. That's how my journey started.
He used to say things like, 'I've taken this shot. Think about it and tell me how I did it.' And the next day, I'd achieve the same thing and show him. That's how my mind started working. Then I became an assistant director and started helping him with his action sequences. My mind was always on the other side of the camera. Even now, I choose films that are not easy to make, where technology is concerned, I was the first one to start Panavision in India, the first person to use a Helicam in the country. I did that for U, Me Aur Hum (2003), which I directed. Promotional songs with VFX shots have become common now, but I was the first to think of the concept and shoot it myself. It was a song called 'Pyar To Hona Hi Tha' with Remo. If you look at the background of that song, there are scenes from other films playing. At that time, this was a novelty. There were only two machines in India that could achieve this and we didn't even have people who knew how to operate them. So I shot the song and learned how to do it myself.
Going back to why I wanted to direct Runway 34 myself, a lot of the film takes place in the cockpit and in the plane, and it's not easy to shoot inside a cockpit. It's easy if you create a set, but I think that looks fake. I didn't want to increase the size of my cockpit or remove the machinery to make space so I had to design a lot of camera moves. I had 13 to 14 cameras inside my cockpit.
What are you like as a director? Do you plan everything. Do you storyboard?
No, I don't storyboard, I mentally plan everything. But I improvise a lot on the set.
Is it like the stories I've heard about Sanjay Leela Bhansali? Everyone's ready, he has everything on paper and then he says: No, kuch aur karte hain. Are you that guy?
No, I'm not that guy. What's on paper is correct. I only improvise the way I'm going to shoot things.
Do you like your actors to improvise?
I like them to improvise. I like their input.
And are you a collaborative director, in that sense do you want inputs?
I would listen to everybody's input. Then I decide whether to use them or not.
Are you a screamer on set? Gussa aata hai?
No, very rarely. Sometimes, you get frustrated, but most of the time, no. I think you need to be calm as a director. When I assisted Shekhar Kapur, he told me that patience is the most important thing a director needs to have. You need to be calm, you need to pamper your actors, you need to pamper your technicians, even if they're going wrong. You need to tell them — you're right, but let's try it this way. You have to keep their confidence up. You also have to be a leader. You're managing so many people.
Speaking of pampering actors, you're directing Amitabh Bachchan, who you've known since you were a child. You've also done six films with him. Was that intimidating at all? How do you walk up to him and say: Sir, shot theek nahi tha, ek aur take karein?
He's not intimidating. I could be wrong, but to me, he isn't. I've known him since I was a kid and so I share a rapport with him. I can go up to him and tell him anything. But hats off to him, he's a director's actor. His first question is: How do you want me to do it? What do you want me to do? Where do you want me to move? He breaks that intimidation completely, and then if you want one more take, you tell him, 'Let's go get one more.' So that's not an issue. He's so into his work, he inspires you to direct him. You can't imagine the kind of dedication and passion he has for his work. When we started the film, he said, 'Ajay, I'll come in at 11 am.' And I said, 'Sure sir, I'll plan for you to be here between 11 and 6.' And then the next morning, he came in at 9. He's extra punctual, he just lands up and he's ready. I'd tell him, 'Okay, relax in your makeup room or van or whatever, we'll call you.' And every time, he'd be ready on set within 15 minutes. The whole unit was baffled because he'd be on set and we'd still be prepping.
That must be scary.
If there's a light change, or there's a setup change, and there's half-an-hour between shots and you tell him, 'Why don't you go and rest for some time?' He'll say, 'Oh no, I'm sitting here.' So he'll sit on his mark, he'll keep going through his lines, he'll keep thinking about how he's going to perform. That's outstanding, at his age.