‘Cinema has no rules’
There’s no generation since the 1970s that hasn’t been influenced by the brilliance of Ramesh Sippy. The man behind Sholay, Seeta Aur Geeta, Shakti and the TV cult hit Buniyaad is finally turning mentor with his branded film academy. He gets candid with Unnati Joshi
Isn’t it rather late in the day that you have thought about setting up the Ramesh Sippy Academy of Cinema and Entertainment?
I guess there was something in my head always at some point. But I wanted to do things right and different. I wanted to encapsulate my vision and my films for the younger generation. Though the older and middling generation may talk about my cult hits, there is a whole new generation that has probably just heard of them or seen bits and pieces. Through the academy, I will not only be able to share my experiences but also the challenges it took to make a film those days.
I made technological innovations in my time and now there are tools in abundance to enhance the cinematic appeal. But ultimately it boils down to how you use that technology in telling your story, how innovatively you can use it, not overuse it and ensure the story gets told in a smooth way. As a bridge between generations, I am the right person to talk about balancing art and technique.Which is why the academy becomes relevant in my time.
Indian cinema is going through interesting times. There’s a film like Pink, a hard take on gender rights and equality from an urban standpoint. Then there’s the earthy Dangal, which is a biopic, about woman power, original, massy and the biggest hit of the year. This variety needs to be understood and made a part of film studies. We do have a few institutions but they are inadequate when it comes to factoring in contemporary dynamics. My academy is one small move in that direction. Besides, my curriculum is expansive, factoring in movies, television, web, documentaries and ad films. I don’t see any harm in more people being trained for specialised disciplines.
Talent is everywhere and will continue to spurt. I didn’t take any training and didn’t go to film school. But then my father was already in the movies and I had an opportunity. Not everybody has that opportunity. Apart from film-making and production, my academy will also have interesting subjects like film management. Today’s directors and filmmakers should know that it is not only important to make a film, you will have to sell it in theatres and ensure money comes back without leaching here and there. Yes, there are experts to do the job but at least you should be aware as a filmmaker; they should know that you know. Screen-writing is another area we are emphasising.
I am enjoying my role as a mentor but I hope each individual aspirant has the passion to express themselves.
Since you are now starting a film school, which areas do you think need working on in these digital times?
It is still the story. You should be able to transform technology into a subject and make the entire movie-watching experience worth its while. I was able to do it to some extent in Sholay.
You must use technology for your benefits. See how you can save cost and money and yet give something very different to the people. People are not going to waste their time and money just to see someone flying around. Those days are gone. It’s no longer fascinating. If there’s a flight scene, you should be able to take off with the audience. That’s the flight of fantasy. And that is how it should be.
You did a Western-inspired Sholay at a time when technology wasn’t as developed. Now that it is, why don’t we see you work with an epical venture?
(Laughs) Is this (academy) not an epical venture? At this moment, I am excited about this challenge. I have always loved challenges and I have done things differently in my life. My first film (Andaaz) was a mature love story about a widow and widower. My second film (Seeta Aur Geeta) was about two sisters and what they go through in life. In its own time, it was a path-breaker. Then came Sholay with all its technical excellence of sound and picture and their correct use. Silences tell the story as much as the sound. I have crafted my own journey and now it is time to pass it down.
My students will understand the philosophy behind what I did. Once they do that, they will be able to balance technique and stories. And that will be my lasting legacy.
Who and what were your early cinematic influences?
I loved the cinema of both the West and India. I loved the works of Mehboob Khan, Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor, Bimal Roy and K Asif. They are giants and maestros. Also the younger brigade is making beautiful films too. I look up to them and their work as well. There are Raju Hirani and Shoojit Sircar and I am forgetting some names. I always fear that if I miss someone, they will feel left out. See every point in time has good filmmakers. Because cinema is an evolving art.
People will always say past masters were the best, the singers were unparalleled. History retains memory of the few. Those days also there were 5,000 songs a year. But you only remember 10 or 15. That’s because the rest have just passed on. It is, therefore, unfair to compare time periods.
As a filmmaker, you have handled a different genre of film every time and managed to connect with both the masses and the classes. How did you do that?
I don’t think there’s any big theory behind it. You need to tell a story simply. We can make it sensible, intelligent and entertaining. That’s how you will get the larger audience to enjoy it. You can even take a simple story and complicate its telling for a more thinking audience. Cinema does not really have rules. The basic rule is to be clear in what you want to do. If you are trying to keep it as a mystery, there has to be reason why you kept it as a mystery so that when it is unveiled, it has its impact. Like in Sholay, the reveal about the Thakur’s missing hands happens during interval and sets up the drama in the second half.
You made Seeta Aur Geeta at a time when women actors were given lesser importance. How do you see women actors now?
It is definitely better than it was. Let’s put it this way, there’s a long way to go. We still do not have enough women directors. Of course, a few like Gauri Shinde, Aruna Raje and Zoya Akhtar have made their mark. Societal injustice will always be there, we have to fight it. And what do we fight it with? With our movies, telling our stories in a manner that has an impact on people. If we can combine entertainment with a little bit of message, all is good.
You have set a benchmark with Sholay and gave television its first longest running show, Buniyaad. Yet you have chosen to stay away from the two media except may be as a producer. Why?
Well, I took some time off. My son started making films. So I tried and paved the way for him to be able to do that. Also, I am heading several industry organisations and associations that take up most of my time. Somebody has got to look into the backend job-related issues in the industry. Unfancied but very crucial.
Does it bother you that you are identified as the director of Sholay although you have done other successful films?
I feel happy about all the work that I have done. Sholay happens to have been the most popular of them all and it stands out even today. Why would I feel bad, it’s not anybody else’s, it’s mine and I am happy about it.
What did it take to bring two stalwarts, Amitabh Bachchan and Dilip Kumar, in Shakti?
Oh! Very little effort. I was lucky. I had good writers who had a great script. I had a record of making good films. So they were happy to jump in.
Any anecdote that you remember from the days of the shoot?
I have always been asked if there was any problem making this film with two superstars. The problem is I didn’t have any problem (laughs). But truly they are such fine actors, I had very little to do except to bring them together in a frame. The story was there, the dialogues were there to tell them what kind of mood and range I was looking at....the rest they did on their own and gave me more than what I had expected. I am sure there are people who have loved it. Shakti wasn’t as big a success as Sholay was but I am very happy with that film.
What needs to change in Indian cinema today now that corporatisation and varied content are turning the rules of the game?
All that happens is for the best. Corporates have come in for sure but I would like them to show a little more confidence and take a broader perspective. They are doing a lot of good work but they are still too star-driven. The purpose of corporatisation isn’t served then. Amitabh Bachchan would not have been a star if people didn’t have the guts to sign him up when he was not a star. So that has to continue happening. It is happening, the youngsters are coming up but more encouragement can be given by these people because they have a lot of money. I am sure they are trying.
Is TV going to be irrelevant with the web revolution?
No. See it came as a big boss and now has flattened to the wall though there are innovations with 3D and allied gizmos. Today you can see everything in your mobile, which is personal consumption. For as long as we have Indian families, television will continue to be the centrepiece of entertainment. It will never go away. I don’t think we need to worry about the health of the industry. It will transform itself. People watch good content anywhere, be it on television or any other platform.
One unknown fact about Sholay...
(Laughs) Can there be anything after 42 years that I have not shared about Sholay? I would love to share it but by now what’s left unknown? My list has run dry, else I would have rattled off.
Advice for budding filmmakers...
Passion! Passion to tell your story in your way. Make it grow, let it be there.
Photo: Pankaj Kumar
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