Edited excerpts from an interview between Boney Kapoor and Vishal Menon.
Several superhits that mark your successful career in Hindi have been remakes from the South. You've also become a producer making Tamil and Telugu films today. Can you go back in time a little and recall how you developed a taste for South Indian films?
It's something that developed on its own from around 1977. That was when I was starting out as an independent producer after working for my father's production house. He had made a film called Phool Khile Hain Gulshan Gulshan that was a failure and we were in major debt. I was speaking to several directors in Bombay to crack the right project but it wasn't working out. As I was making the rounds to see what can be done and what will work best, I realised I was becoming increasingly frustrated. That's when I sat back and thought of all the producers who were doing well in Bombay…barring two, most were either directors or actors too.
I had also worked with Shakti Samantha as an assistant and I learnt how his team was producing films. They had their own formula, which was successful, but it did not gel with my ideas. It was around this time that I travelled to Madras and I discovered so many big producers like AVM Chettiar, Nagi Reddy, Vasu Menon, Vijaya Studios. Except for LV Prasad, who also directed, all of them were only producers. This made me interested in probing their working pattern and how they went about the business of filmmaking.
What was one of the first patterns you noticed?
When I learnt more about the Kodambakkam model, I realised that they would first buy the rights of a good Malayalam film, then make that into Tamil by adding some more elements. If this worked then they would add even more commercial elements for its Telugu version. If that worked, the producers would then make a Hindi version too.
What were some of the first movies you saw when you came here in the late 70's?
There were so many…I remember a December in 1978 where I would have seen close to 50 films. I was staying in Palm Grove Hotel in Nungambakkam back when board and all three meals were only Rs.95 per day. I would either go to a preview theatre behind the hotel or to one of the nearby theatres. I had watched a lot of movies and then on one of the last days, I got to watch Mana Voori Pandavulu, an allegory for the Mahabharata, in the Sathyam complex, in which one screen was dedicated just for Telugu movies. It was the remake of a Kannada film made by Puttana Kanagal titled Paduvaaralli Pandavaru. I immediately worked on getting the Hindi rights and it became Hum Paanch later.
Was the system smooth to acquire the rights? Or was it very different those days?
It was different then. There was a man named Sinha who would operate out of Madras to get the rights for films to be remade in Hindi. He was in fact a specialist in choosing mythological films from the South to be dubbed into Hindi. He would take you around to show you the films to get you to buy the rights. Usually, all the hit films from the South would already have been bought by the big producers. But there were also many films that would get overlooked. So when I watched Mana Voori Pandavulu, I rushed to Sinha and told him we must buy its rights.
What was his reaction?
Sinha warned me that this film had no glamour and that it was a village subject. But I was insistent. Then I realised it was originally a Kannada film and I started the process of getting the rights from Puttana Kanagal, who was a star-maker then. His manager told me that the Hindi rights were already promised to Mohan Sehgal and that he would not give it to anyone else. I didn't want to give up but it was the weekend so I was not getting any tickets for a flight of train to Bangalore. We caught the last bus to Bangalore and stood till the bus reached Chittor. As an assistant, I had gotten used to staying in B grade hotels, so I would always carry a pillow, towels and sheets and that's what helped me through that bus ride. Finally I reached Bangalore and we agreed for Rs.50,000 and I gave an advance of Rs.1000.
What about the process of adding nativity to the script you bought?
I had only seen the Telugu picture. But after I got the rights, I signed on its director Bapu to work with me. We basically followed the Telugu version in Hindi too. This started a long friendship between him and me and I also learnt a lot about writing from Mullapudi Venkata Ramana, who had written the screenplay for the Telugu film. A lot of my grooming in South films was a result of these two. After watching Andha 7 Naatkal, I also became close to Bhagyaraj, who I regard as one of the finest screenwriters. We would often catch up even when he visited Ghatkopar because his wife Poornima was originally from there.
In terms of the nativity, lots of people in Bombay helped with this including Gulzar Saab. My system back then was to insist on watching the South films in a theatre, often with a full audience. With a pen and paper, I would note down the reactions of the audience and convey to my writers in Hindi that that was the reaction a particular scene should evoke.
Later, this system changed a lot. For instance, in Wanted, I suggested that we need a few more scenes with Prakash Raj because we needed to establish him as a villain in Hindi. With Salman, there was one sequence before the interval where he beats up 14 to 15 guys. I went to Prabhu and asked why Salman is not injured after fighting so many people. He said, "our heroes don't get hurt and they don't sweat." (Laughs)
What about understanding the dialogues for the originals? There were no subtitles either back then.
I believe cinema is not just about the dialogues. There were so many hits even in the silent era so I did not need dialogues to understand the films that appealed to me. Even when I'm narrating the scenes to my Hindi writers, I wanted them to get the high points…the moments that made the audience react strongly. Just recently, I watched an entire Malayalam film on mute. I wanted my own interpretation and then I called up a person who spoke the language to ask a few questions and then I enjoyed the film even more. It was an old Manju Warrier film called Kannezhuthi Pottum Thottu. I'm a huge fan of hers.
What have you noticed about the movie fans in the South when compared to the North?
I feel Malayalam and Tamil industries are making progressive films and this got me thinking. If you see, even the best technicians are generally from these two states. I think this is because the audience here are genuine movie buffs. I remember visiting one of Bapu's sets long ago and there were so many people who were waiting to get an autograph from Balu Mahendra, the film's DOP. In the North, this fandom would be limited just to the hero and heroine. This love for all aspects of cinema is somehow ingrained to them. This is the same when it comes to directors. You have good directors in Bombay too but it feels like all of them are competing for the Oscars.
Even the time it takes to get a film made is generally shorter in the South, isn't it?
Exactly. Malayalam movies, even today, get made in around 30 days with smaller budgets too. It is very rare for Malayalam films to keep shooting even if it's a big budget film. I'm remaking Helen for my daughter and I remember how it drew me in.
I was on a flight to Bombay to Chennai and before it took off, I downloaded the film to watch on my big Samsung phone. It was affecting me so much that my co-passenger thought something was wrong with me. I was choked and when I was walking on the aero-bridge, I had to tell him that it was because I had watched a movie called Helen. He then took my number and called the next day to tell me that he too cried after watching it. That is the power of good cinema.
Haven't you had the opposite experience too?
Yes I learnt that a Malayalam film was being made that was claiming to be the remake of Charlie Chaplin. I had remade the Tamil original into Hindi as No Entry and I was told that this new Malayalam film was a remake of my film, rather than the Tamil version. I filed a case and Asianet did not telecast the film until the makers got an NOC from me.
What about the whole #ValimaiUpdate frenzy…that must have annoyed you.
Amused yes, annoyed no! It only added to the film's curiosity. It was not a strategy from my side as people give me credit for. It was hilarious when VP Kamala Harris was asked to find me to get an update on Valimai. Even that test match in Chepauk, the TN elections, the question was everywhere. For a star who does not do publicity for his films, can you image the craze he's able to create?
Aren't stars like Ajith too elusive?
I am still amazed at Ajith's personality. When you meet him, he's so simple and he's like any other person. And on the sets, he becomes a part of the unit and he's close to everyone there. He cooks for them and he's as friendly as anyone can be. But in terms of exposure, his approach is something you dont see out there. He doesn't even do surrogate ads within films, let alone proper commercials. All of this adds to his mystery and he's proof that you can remain a huge star even without meeting people.
Lastly, as someone who started out by taking films from the South to Hindi, what made you think about doing the opposite?
It began when my wife Sridevi and I watched Pink and we were enamoured by the film. We felt it was something that needed to be told in every nook and corner of the country. She was very keen that we make a film in the South and the foundation for that was laid by both of us together a few years ago. Unfortunately, she left us before she could see it take shape.
Was it hard to handle the pressures of holding on to so many films during the pandemic?
Not pressures but I would call it a challenge. I was affected because I was holding on to five films with three that were getting made during the second wave. But I've reached a stage where I can absorb a lot! I have survived so many highs and lows. I started when I was 22 when my father's production bombed. My father had a heart problem so I had to take up the mantel as the oldest son. Even later, I have seen failures like Roop Ki Rani Choron Ka Raja. With my kind of journey, I can be a case study for anyone interested in the role of producer in filmmaking.