Filmmaker Maneesh Sharma has had a prolific decade. He debuted 10 years ago with Band Baaja Baaraat, and has since directed four films and produced five, all under the banner of Yash Raj Films. This puts Sharma in a unique position of being a young filmmaker who also gets to green light projects within one of the oldest family-led studios in Bollywood. We speak to him about his working relationship with Aditya Chopra, getting over the heartbreak of Fan and working with new talent.
What would you say has been your biggest struggle because for someone on the outside, it appears like you had none. You direct and green light films for YRF, which appears to be a perfect situation.
Yaar, I will be very honest, I have not had any struggle. It doesn't mean that I have not been rejected on a few scripts I wanted to back, but all of that becomes part of the process. My struggle was that I wasn't getting to make Fan…. now that is not a struggle! It's going to be stupid for me to say that was a struggle because I got to make three films while I was waiting to make Fan. I'm extremely grateful. In terms of what I get attracted to make, or the ideas I get excited about, for the most part I've ended up executing those. Then if it has gone right or wrong is a separate thing. So far it's been 9 films, including those I produced, and I can say that the good or the bad in them is totally on me. I've not been forced upon with the studio mentality of 'ye nahi karna chahiye. Ye hata do.' I would say that's a good position to be in.
You've said Fan wasn't your greatest creative risk, but certainly your greatest heartbreak. How did you get over the heartbreak?
I don't know how to articulate this. It takes time. I also feel like the films that don't do well have a more lasting impact on me. There is more to introspect and think about what exactly happened. It's something you mull over and you hope you learn, and not repeat the same mistakes.
Have you got perspective on where you messed up?
I can't say have full perspective, but you kind of assess other people's points of view. With time people are also more candid about their opinions. But it's not so straightforward, there are layers to it… you realise, 'okay so this part didn't connect'. I would say with Fan and even Meri Pyaari Bindu, there's a section of the audience that has lot of respect for these films.
What's been your takeaway from the feedback on Fan. Is there any criticism that made sense to you?
Very broadly speaking, there was a conscious choice in the telling of Fan that I wanted both the characters to be grey. That meant Aryan was also a little grey and I don't think that connect happened. I don't think the greyness was refined and I think people who were looking for a good versus evil story thought 'star waise thodi na kar sakte hai'. I didn't satisfy them and I had not set out to do that. Now whether I was wrong or right in that notion is a separate debate. As a storyteller I wanted to see a narrative where both sides are grey. I think this choice cut out a certain part of the audience. So that's one part. The other thing is that even the shade of grey that I'm talking about, maybe that clarity and communication was not quite there. I think broadly the disconnect happened in this area.
You're such a massive fan of Shah Rukh. Do you ever think I have to make another film with him someday and get it right.
Of course! I will! That's something Shah Rukh and I still talk about, ki yaar ek aur toh karni hai. I hope it happens. Fan is the one film I came to Bombay to make, and I ending up doing that, but that doesn't mean I won't go for it again.
You're working with Ranveer Singh again on Jayeshbhai Jordaar. What is it like working with an actor you started out with, auditioned, and gave a break to. Are there more liberties you can take with him?
I don't know about liberties, but it's a strange feeling. In life you have friends from school days and you can spend hours with them. It's very different from the new friends you've made in the past few years. It's that feeling with Ranveer and Anushka (Sharma). I can't explain. When we meet your tone, your body language goes back to that first day. There's a sense of coziness and comfort.
You've said when you were an assistant on Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, you realised you and Aditya Chopra had very different styles of working. You're not that structured. So what connects the both of you? Is it a case of opposite attracts?
I think it starts from both of us basically being film buffs. I can safely say that both of us are quite useless outside the film zone. When it's not about films, there is nothing else we are quite excited about. Apart from that, there is definitely a synergy. At any given point so many films are being made and he would openly say, 'ye wali film tumhari matlab ki nahi hai'. If you ask me, from my point of view and whatever little I understand of how other places in the industry operate, I think the biggest comfort is that any decision we take, big or small, happens in 20 seconds. That is a lot of fun. I've never felt like 'arre yaar, producer ye keh raha hai'. I don't think I've ever used this phrase in 10 years of my life.
You've said that he told once told you that even if you'll disagree, he will back you because if he didn't, it would defeat the purpose of bringing in new ideas and talent into YRF. That freedom I think puts you in a position of power because you can help talent enter the studio. Do you feel that sense of responsibility?
Honestly, I have been realising this sense of responsibility lately. But I go purely by my instinct for most of the decisions I've taken. About getting this kind of encouragement from the studio, maybe they felt I have a certain voice in filmmaking and that will be nice to inculcate. But it was so unplanned for me. It was never in my purview ever that I wanted to be a producer. Adi had that vision for me.
Now about the new talent, if you take Sharat (Katariya, Dum Lagake Haisha), it was a case of me really liking the script and me liking jamming with him on a creative level because he was writing a script for me. I had not seen his first film and I have still not seen it. At that time we knew taking Bhumi (Pednekar) or Ayushmann (Khuranna), who was not having the best time, was as underdog a casting as it gets. Thankfully it worked well and that's how Sharat came into YRF.
So it's more organic. I don't say 'ye talent sahi lag raha hai. iske saath kuch karte hain'. Even with Jayeshbhai Jordaar, the director Divyang (Thakkar) is an anomaly because he had not assisted on any film. He didn't even know how to pitch a script. My partner in crime Namrata Rao, the editor of all my films, ended up meeting him through a common friend. One day she told me 'I met this boy and he told me this concept and I liked it'. She didn't even ask me to read it. I asked her to send it to me, and I met Divyang in 2 days. I told him there's a lot I liked in the script and after a while I don't think it works that well and if he's game to make changes, we can jam. We spent a month going back and forth on the draft. Then I told Adi I'm sending a script, and I'm not asking you, I'm telling you it needs to be made.
Are you specifically looking for stories that are not typically YRF?
There is no note to self. I do engage with a lot of novice writers. I'm always on the look out for a story that excites me.