Sooraj R Barjatya: Hum Aapke Hain Koun brought in family culture, Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar brought in the NRI phase – #BigInterview | Hindi Movie News

Sooraj R Barjatya is truly cut from a different cloth. In an age and time when most of his peers looked at the West for inspiration, Sooraj found his calling in deep-rooted Indian traditions and family emotions. His peers Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar ushered the NRI sentiment and style in Hindi movies, but Sooraj garnered equal success, if not more, catering to the heartland and telling stories that were old-school and old-world in their charm. Two decades later, between hits and misses, he still holds on to the values inculcated in him by his father. Wholesome entertainment for the family is his mantra and the legacy of his production house – Rajshri Films. In this week’s Big Interview, we catch the reclusive filmmaker in a candid mood. He points out to his own limitations as a storyteller and his desire to learn and change. He also draws parallels between himself and good friend Salman Khan. All that and more from the man himself.

You recently revealed that you want to try different things and break the shackles of your style of filmmaking. What has triggered that transformation?

I was writing my film with Salman bhai. It is a normal family drama, a happy, fun, joyful film. But honestly, it was during the pandemic that I felt I should tell this story for hope. I just switched overnight and I just felt that I had to tell this story. And it was a challenge because I have done all my family dramas in Mehboob Studio and Filmistan Studio. But in Uunchai, we shot mostly exteriors in Kanpur, Lucknow, and Agra. We even went to Nepal during the lockdown. I have done something that is not my usual self but I had to challenge myself. Because people want to see something different. And we as filmmakers need to convey a lot of hope today. The traumas will always be there but we need hope. And in Uunchai the story was clear. Normally, if you see my films they’re more moment-oriented. And I also had time to make this into a nice family trek film.

What did Salman Khan say when you told him about switching to Uunchai?

When I told him that I want to make something else he laughed. He told me, “
Sooraj yeh tere style ki picture nahi hai. Kahan jayega shoot karne idhar udhar?” I told him that I wanted to do this film. So, he joked and said, “
Toh main karta hoon na yeh film saath mein. I will put on weight.” I told him that the image of Salman Khan can allow him to climb the Everest. But I need actors who have an image that will give the impression that it will be difficult for them to scale the mountain.


Do you think overall in Indian cinema we are coming back to our roots?

Yes. All these are phases. I clearly remember when I made Maine Pyaar Kiya there was a phase of love stories. With Hum Aapke Hain Koun the whole family culture came in. Then Adi and Karan (filmmakers Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar) brought in the NRI phase.


What I think is that the audiences are also traveling everywhere. People are able to afford travel. I feel maybe the people also want to show their children their roots. So, now films have also come back to Lucknow, Kanpur, Agra etc.


The kind of cinema that is being made in the South is deeply rooted in Indian culture.

It’s a phase, but I think people want to see Indian stories. Indians will be Indians at the end of the day. And I am very happy that Indian stories are being told.

Do you ever feel like being a little more broad-based and making other kinds of films too?

I try to think of something different every time but I am not able to do it. I made Main Prem Ki Deewani Hoon which was different but I realized that it was not my calling. If you ask me, I don’t know how much a knife would cut/hurt someone because I have never seen that around in my life. But N Chandra whom I assisted on Pratighat knew about it. He told me that he had lived that life. Over the years, as I am growing up, I’m feeling more and more responsible to make these family films. I think if I can make a family film that everyone can watch together, it’s therapy. If I can contribute to society in some way then I must do that, to tell people that there are plus points in the family.


How was it working with Amitabh Bachchan in Uunchai?

I had only heard what it is like to work with Bachchan sir. But you have to experience him as a director to know it. When he listens to you, when you narrate to him, he listens to you with one gaze, which is difficult to face. Because he listens so attentively but without expressions. I would tell him, “I’m younger than you, I’d go on talking about this and that but you’d know better. You can tell me to stop talking.” But he’d say, “No. You’re a director.” That’s the respect he gives to a director. On the sets, he has made all of us learn to be prepared. He will be on time having learned his lines. So, we need to be very prepared.


Did any part of his conduct or process as an actor surprise you?

I found a different man in Bachchan sir when I would meet him in his vanity van in the morning. He has taught me so much about filmmaking, and the use of cameras and lenses. He is so calm and quiet. He will teach you poetry. In the vanity van, he might suggest doing things in a certain way but on the sets, he is a director’s actor. It amazes me that he’s like that at this age with that kind of experience. And his respect for writers is tremendous. He would tell me, “The writer is trying to say something with this line. I must convey it correctly.” Where do you find actors like this today? People want to write their own dialogue.

Are the writers of the Hindi film industry not being paid and respected enough? Is that why the industry is struggling so much?

Yes, because we have been proposal makers. Even if you see in the early 70s, we would put item numbers to please the distributors. Today, we look at films from the marketing point of view – what sells, what will work, which song will become a hit etc. I find it a little odd when music directors tell me that so and so director asked them to give him a hit song. I said but the song is according to a situation, isn’t it? The music directors said, “No. The directors tell us that they will make a situation for the song. You just give us a hit song.” Sometimes, you have to do it because the actor said so.

Have you ever faced such a situation in your films?

No. It has never happened to me. I have been very fortunate. It didn’t happen maybe because I prepare a lot. I take two years to write a script and see to it that every character is justified. An actor shouldn’t be a able to raise a question [in the script]. And I narrate the script to actors with the songs so that they know where they are in the film. I had 40-odd actors in both Hum Aapke Hain Koun and Hum Saath Saath Hain. And they were with me for almost 100 days.

How did you manage to control these mammoth productions?

I narrate the script to them for three hours and tell them everything in detail so that they know where they are in the film. If someone still has apprehension then I tell them not to do it. It’s better to be transparent. Nowadays, at least scripts are written. Earlier that wasn’t the case. When I was an assistant, there were no scripts. The writer would write a scene and give it and say, “This is a love scene” or some other scene. The action director would write the climax scene.

How was the magic of Hum Aapke Hain Koun created?

I really do not know. It was my father’s confidence. I made Maine Pyaar Kiya. He asked me, “
Sooraj, next kya banana hai?” Then he told me that Nadiya Ke Paar was made in 1982 but only one-fourth of India had watched that film. He told me to remake it in Hindi and make it contemporary. He used to give me subjects. I asked him what should I write. He told me to write what I have lived. I was only 25-26 at that time. I wrote what I had seen around. He told me to make it a musical. And we made that film with ease. But when we showed the film at trials, people complained about the 14 songs in the film. And that there was no villain and that there was no act one and act two. But my father had confidence. We had the biggest premiere at Liberty Cinema. I was shocked because there was no reaction. People were walking out during songs. I was scared. Adi (Aditya Chopra) and Salim sahab (Salim Khan) had told me that the two-and-a-half songs were my indulgences and that I should cut them. I cut those songs. But I don’t know how, even today, how the film started running packed houses from the fourth day onwards. We started with 17 screens and it went up to 3300 all-India. We started with 17 because nobody was confident about the film. We were distributing the film ourselves. So, we took Liberty Cinema in Mumbai where no family film would be screened. Only English films would run there. There was no ladies’ toilet too. We renovated the whole theatre.

Tell us about casting Madhuri Dixit and Salman Khan. Did Madhuri come on board after Salman?

Salman was there from the beginning. But we were debating about which actress we should we cast. And Madhuri was very busy at that time. There were many names that came up. But we needed someone who had glamour, masti, but also the maturity to become the mother to her sister’s child. Madhuri had done Abodh with us. I was an assistant on that film. She was such a big star that I was wondering whether I’d get her dates. Because I needed 100 days of hers. But when I narrated the script to her, she was on board. It was like a picnic because both Madhuri and Salman did their first films with us. It was my second film. Anupam ji (Kher) was working with us again. Then we had Reema (Laagoo) Ji and Laxmikant (Berde). We had a lot of fun making that film.

Salman Khan’s friendships in the industry seldom last. How has your friendship with him lasted for so long?

It is because we started together. We were 21 when we met. He was not the first choice for Maine Pyaar Kiya because he was already doing a supporting role in Biwi Ho Toh Aisi. But we saw his photographs, we did his screen test. I gave him a song to sing. He was amazing. He kept sending other boys because we were not keen on casting him. I was amazed by his gesture. I had not met a person like him. Then he came on board. I remember standing at Band Stand (in Bandra, Mumbai) and thinking “
Kya hoga humara?” There was a girl who did not want to do Maine Pyaar Kiya because she didn’t want to work with a new actor and new director. My father took us to an Awards party. Salman and I were both apprehensive about going. We went through the same phases together. Even when he got mobbed at a show at Metro theatre. When you have grown up together, nothing changes. We are the same. Like me, he’s also the eldest in his family. He fears his father. For him too, family comes first. We represent two different sides of the coin.


How do you see his journey as an actor?

People are surprised when I say this but I feel that there’s no better natural actor than him. As a natural actor, he has his own style whether it’s comedy or romance. Over the years, he has started taking his art very seriously, on the days when he is focused. He is a person who is ruled by his heart.

There’s inherent goodness in Rajshri’s films. Goodness or kindness is perceived as a sign of weakness or inferiority. What do you have to say about the power/value of goodness?

I feel that if we are fearful then we have insecurities. Then we try to guard those insecurities by saying we don’t need anyone. It’s our own insecurities. I feel goodness is your inner strength. Because if you like yourself, you’re going to like the world. And it has got a lot to do with my grandfather being a disciple of Sri Aurobindo from Pondicherry. And from day one he had taken a vow in front of his mother that he would only make films that had wholesome entertainment that an entire family could watch. So, that’s what we have tried to maintain. I have seen him telling the writers about their scripts that, “This is a superhit film.
Lekin yeh mere kaam ki nahin hai.” So, somehow that’s the culture we have lived in. We have been secure as a family. As a child, I did not know who my father was – from among my Tau ji or my Chacha, or my father. I mean we were brought up with so much security. So, I think that goodness reflects in films. And I think that it is a strength and it needs to be conveyed. You have to trust goodness. Otherwise on what basis do we trust someone? If we mistrust everyone then what’s life going to be like? We need to trust the fact that, if you give respect, you will get respect.

Will we see Salman coming back as Prem?

Yes, he will be back as Prem. After Uunchai, that’s the film I will be making.

What’s the story behind Prem?

Actually, there’s no story. While writing Maine Pyaar Kiya, we were thinking about what should be the hero’s name. So, when my father asked me what should be the hero’s name, I asked him what was our biggest hit. Till 1989, our biggest hit was Dulhan Wohi Jo Piya Mann Bhaaye. Prem Kishan ji was the hero of the film and his name was Prem in that film. So, we used Prem for good luck and since then it’s carried on.

After Saudagar (1973), why did Rajshri Productions take so long to work with Amitabh Bachchan again?

It just so happened that in the 70s we were making non-star-cast movies, more teenage movies. We were not making action films and Bachchan sir had an action hero image. But we distributed all his films. We distributed films like Sholay, Amar Akbar Anthony and Parvarish. But the films that we produced were more family oriented. My father used to make a lot of non-star-cast films. So, maybe that’s why we never worked together. But Jaya ji has done two films with us. Abhishek did Main Prem Ki Deewani Hoon with us. But it so happened that I heard the subject of Uunchai from this writer, who came to me with a humorous story about four friends and one of them wanting to go to the Everest. But he dies. So, the other friends take this trek to the Everest base camp in his honour. I was enamored by the courage of a 65-70 year-old who can go to those heights where there’s no plumbing, there’s no proper air. You have to travel in small planes. That is real hope. And then immediately Bachchan sir’s image came to my mind because of his grace, image, acting ability and courage. During the pandemic, I sent him the synopsis and did a half-hour zoom call with him. He told me, “Sooraj, I liked your theme. We all have an Everest within us and through the strength of which, we can cover all uunchai (heights). And it’s because of this inner strength that we could fight the pandemic”. That’s why I decided that this story needs to be told.

How much of the film has been shot at real locations?

Quite a bit. We have shot at heights of up to 13000 feet at real locations with actors. Our DOP and some other technicians went up to 17000 feet. It was difficult to take the unit to the Everest base camp. But we shot up to whatever height it was possible. All of us climbed the maximum height possible.

How have you evolved as a director from Maine Pyaar Kiya to Uunchai?

I have grown with every film. As I grow in age I have grown in the stories that I want to tell. Today, at 57, I wanted to make Uunchai because that’s the age that I’m stepping into slowly. But as a director, slowly I have become less focused on camera angles and style of shoot. Today, I just like to stage. I never see the monitor. Because I know that I want to capture a moment.


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