For the longest time, dialogue writer-turned filmmaker Milap Zaveri was considered 'the sex comedy guy'. He had written 2016's Kya Kool Hain Hum 3 and directed the Sunny Leone-starrer Mastizaade in the same year. But 2018 proved to be a turning point with his unabashedly commercial John Abraham-led action film Satyameva Jayate.
About this pivot in genres, Zaveri says that while films like Mastizaade came easily to him, the satisfaction he gets from the action-heavy masala space is far more. His new film Marjaavaan stars Sidharth Malhotra, Tara Sutaria and Riteish Deshmukh as a vertically challenged antagonist. It feels like it's been plucked right out of the 80s.
Zaveri's greatest strength is that he's clear about what he's making and who he's making it for. Bad reviews don't bother him. "I am transparent. People know what to expect when they come and see. I'm not promising something else and delivering something else," he says.
Ahead of the release of Marjaavaan, Zaveri spoke to me about the art of dialoguebaazi, his relationship with critics and why Satyameva Jayate was a direct response to the failure of Mastizaade.
You've said Satyameva Jayate was an angry film about taking a stand against the establishment. What is Marjaavaan about?
Marjaavaan is also an angry film. I'm in an angry state of mind. That anger isn't towards anyone. It was targeted towards myself when I was in a particular point in my career after Mastizaade. When it tanked, it got a lot of criticism and faced a lot of backlash and almost wiped my career out. I introspected and thought I'm better than this and there's more to me than this. That failure led to me making a short film Raakh which was a turning point. I wanted to prove that I can do something more dramatic as a director. People saw that and thought maybe I had some potential. When I narrated Satyameva Jayate to John (Abraham) he agreed only because he saw Raakh and something about that made him think that maybe this boy can make an angry powerful film.
Marjaavaan is an angry love story. It has violence, it has rage, it has tenderness, it has dialoguebaazi, it has the kind of over the top action you see in South Indian cinema. But there's also a lot of heart and love and that for me is the soul of the film. Riteish (Deshmukh) is also a unique part of the film. He's a larger than life villain even though he's a dwarf. He's grander than his height permits him to be. So it's an interesting face-off between him and Sidharth (Malhotra).
The trailer is full of dialogues like 'mandir aur masjid dono milenge' and 'madat milegi har kisi ko, maango ya ali se ya bajrang bali se'.. How can you tell if these sort of lines will work or come off as silly?
It's instinct but I have a few guinea pigs like my best friend and my family. I call them or my AD or my actors and bounce it off them and I sense the reaction. Nikkhil Advani often says the dialogue writer in me overpowers the director in me. I remember when Satyameva Jayate released someone from the trade called me and said it's the dialogue writer, not the director who's made the film a hit. and I said, 'Sir I'm both so I'll take it either way!' (laughs).
I grew up with those dialoguebaazi films. My entire career I've practised that, whether it was Kaante, Musafir, Shootout At Wadala or Ek Villain. It's my weakness and my strength. I try to change that sometimes but the first line that comes to me is always a punchline. It's just who I am. That's the way I want my heroes and villains to talk. Some people say it's dated, but till there's enough of an audience in the country that enjoys that kind of dialoguebaazi, I'll have a job.
Would you say Satyameva Jayate was a turning point for you?
Satyameva Jayate was superb. It busted a lot of myths and was John's highest grosser. And it was such a massy film. Right now, people talk about how multiplex and 'intelligent' cinema is the 'in' thing but with Satyameva Jayate, 80% of the business the film did came from single screens. That means the number of actual tickets that were sold is way more than a multiplex film because these tickets were priced at Rs 60, 80 or 100. The footfalls were humungous and I think that took everyone by surprise. It was also one of the highest-grossing A certificate films at the time but now obviously Kabir Singh has gone way ahead.
What I love about this profession is that if you find someone benevolent enough, you can change your destiny each Friday. In my case it was John Abraham and Nikkhil Advani, Monisha Advani, Madhu Bhojwani and Bhushan Kumar who gave me that chance. For me, John is my real-life hero. He's a very intelligent person. He's Parmanu and Madras Café, that's who really he is. He often jokes that 'Milap is my cheat day'.
For me, John is my real-life hero. He's a very intelligent person. He's Parmanu and Madras Café, that's who really he is. He often jokes that 'Milap is my cheat day'.
You're clearly making these films for a specific audience. How do you know who your audience is?
There's no perfect formula. You just have to know what you've made. Sometimes if you try and keep everyone happy, you end up in no man's land. When I made Satyameva, I told Nikkhil and Bhushan Kumar that this film is only targeted at the young mass audience. I don't know how much women will like it because it's very violent and I don't think families will watch it. It's a very angry film which dealt with corruption and how the common man feels towards the establishment and the police force. I was very clear who I was making the film for.
And I'm a filmmaker because I'm a film buff first. I've grown up watching and loving movies. For most of my childhood I saw mainly Amitabh Bachchan, Mukul Anand and Rajkumar Santoshi films. Obviously, that changed later in college when I got exposed to world cinema and Hollywood. And now I have the capacity to love a Rowdy Rathore as much as a Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Do you ever fear that one day the audience will wake up one day and decide they don't enjoy your brand of commercial cinema?
I don't think that's ever going to happen because it's too diverse a country. On any one road you'll meet seven different individuals of different social stratas and economics backgrounds. And most of the country is made up of the common man and this is their language. This is the what they've grown up on. If you see the biggest shows on Indian TV, all Ekta (Kapoor)'s shows are blockbusters. All the Naagins are the biggest shows.
We deserve some big heroes on screen. We don't have heroes in day to day life so we need them on celluloid. As a normal person, I can't take the law in my own hands or save someone's life but if there's a hero doing that on screen, I'll root for them.
Over time our multiplexes might become more plush, the seats might become recliners, they might serve you some fancy Michelin star chef's food and you'll pay 5 grand for one outing to the theatre, but the movies will never change.
You seem to have such a fun relationship with critics where you always take bad reviews on the chin and laugh off any criticism that comes your way. Do you ever crave their approval?
When I was younger I used to get affected more, but as you get older, I've calmed down a bit. I realised any critic who doesn't like my film doesn't have a personal vendetta against me, they just don't like that kind of film. It's their taste and their choice and what they want out of their cinema and that's fine.
I follow a lot of critics and enjoy their work. There are some critics I became friends with because I enjoyed how much they hated Mastizaade. They took my case and made me laugh in those gloomy times. And critics have their own image to deal with. If an intellectual critic tomorrow likes Marjaavaan he will lose his own audience. If they like an out and out commercial masala film, the fans who like them for not liking those films will turn on them and they'll lose their own mass following.
But I never keep them in mind while shooting. In fact, we used to have a running joke on sets of Marjaavaan during certain shots where we'd say 'these are the shots where critics will just walk out of the theatre and give up' (laughs).
Is there one line of criticism that really stayed with you?
There was a critic who once tweeted 'Milap Zaveri walks into a bar when Man United plays Liverpool and he'll still cheer for Rowdy Rathore' (laughs). I actually praised him and laughed.
Where does this love of violence come from?
The violence came from the rage of being side-lined and written off after Mastizaade. It came from people saying 'Milap is finished'. A prominent journalist met me at that time said 'you'll only be called the king of adult comedies and you'll never outlive that tag'. I was heartbroken. That anger and desperation to do well reflects in my films. Maybe if I get more successful, that'll tone down.
Your films face a lot of criticism about how exaggerated and jingoistic they are. What's interesting is that over time you seem to be doubling down on those areas, like with the Satyameva Jayate 2 poster.
When I thought of the concept of the poster, I said it's Hanuman. It's also Superman who tears his shirt like that. Here John tears his uniform and India is at his heart. That is his character, it's a patriotic film. And what really is jingoism? I feel if you use patriotism to harm the innocent, it's wrong. But if you use it to inspire, to elevate, to instil a sense of pride then I don't think there's anything wrong with. It just means you love your country. Satyameva Jayate 2 is an unabashed action film which deals with corruptions and patriotism and there was no better way for me to depict it than that poster.
I remember reading that you were signed to head an adaptation of the Vampire Diaries for Indian TV. What happened with that project?
I was actually going to do a version of Buffy The Vampire Slayer for TV with the late Sridevi ma'am. It was for Sahara and it was supposed to be her comeback. There was that and there was one more pilot I shot for Star TV which was like Dracula. I shot for that six months before Satyameva Jayate. If those had got picked up I would never have got to make that movie so I'm glad it worked out this way.