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Star Of The Week: Ashutosh Gowariker
It's not the freedom that matters. It's how one exercises it. After "Lagaan" he could have done anything. Made any movie he wanted at any budget he wanted without thinking twice...or even once.
But Ashutosh Gowariker, or Ash as friends call him, chose to return to the roots...one more time.
"Swades" is a subject that other successful filmmakers would think twice and thrice before attempting. After all, Indian moviegoers don't want parables on rural India and its mythic poverty.
Sure, "Lagaan" proved all the naysayers wrong. But what about the other bucolic sagas that came and went? During the last one year village-based films like "Mumbai Se Aaya Mera Dost" and "Mudda": the issues were summarily rejected.
Oh, Ash could've done anything. But he did "Swades". A very simple story about very simple values wrapped in homespun azure hue rather than the fashionable pastel and flamboyant colours that the more "with-it" filmmakers favour these days.
But that's Gowariker for you. He has never done the expected. "When I made a film set during the British Raj with cricket at its background, people thought I had gone mad. They probably think so again."
As I stare up at the simple posters of Swades with Shah Rukh Khan caught against a sky blue backdrop I am reminded of what the poet-actor Harindranath Chattopadhyay once said. "It's so simple to be difficult. But it's so difficult to be simple."
Gowariker's minimalist expressions in "Lagaan", where the characters appeared to be giving expression to the sweetest songs of life, went a long way in making it one of the most long-legged films of our times. Its impact continues to be felt even now, three years after its release, when the "Lagaan" bat was sold at an unheard-of price.
That brings me to the in-built danger of making a film as reverberant in its impact as "Lagaan". Ramesh Sippy is to this day known as the director who made "Sholay". Mehboob Khan was stamped as the director of "Mother India" although he made a number of other successful films.
But who remembers Mehboob's swan song "Son Of India"? Or the fact that K. Asif made a successful film called "Phool" before "Mughal-e-Azam"? Or that Gowariker made "Pehla Nasha" with Deepak Tijori in the lead and "Baazi" with Aamir Khan (inspired by the Bruce Willis film "Die Hard") before "Lagaan"?
Did the large looming shadow of "Lagaan" scare Gowariker? I don't think so. Even while the earlier film was spreading its tentacles far and wide, the filmmaker had quietly moved on.
First, he made a move away from his domineering producer Aamir Khan, who tends to ...well, kind of take over every project that he features in. If not, then there's a fall-out with the directors.
Remember Aamir's ugly run-ins with Ram Gopal Varma and Mahesh Bhatt after "Rangeela" and "Dil Hai Ki Manta Nahin"?
There was no break-up with Ashutosh Gowariker. Everyone presumed Aamir would naturally star in Gowariker's post-"Lagaan" endeavour.
Gowariker turned out smarter than expectations. He wrote his next script, an unassuming story about one Indian man's journey back to his roots in the village. The whole film industry wanted to work with him.
But Gowariker (who was a ubiquitous actor on television and in films - remember him as the spirited cabbie driving through curfew-stricken Mumbai in Mahesh Bhatt's "Naam"?) was very clear in his mind about what he wanted to do, and with whom.
I remember Kareena Kapoor wanted to be a part of Gowariker's post-"Lagaan" film. He had very clearly explained his strategy for "Swades".
"Going by the script's requirements I can only have one star in the film, the male or female lead. Since I had already decided on Shah Rukh for the male lead I had to opt for a newcomer for the female lead."
For the female lead Gowariker chose a simple non-glamorous middle class Maharashtrian, Gayatri Joshi. For the film's central role it was Shah Rukh, the Khan who had turned down "Lagaan". But then, so had Abhishek Bachchan.
Ideally this filmmaker would have gone for a fresh male face in "Swades". I believe he wanted to cast Madhavan in the lead. Unfortunately in Bollywood you can't dream big dreams without big stars.
And though both the super-director and the superstar deny it, there are stories about the heated discussions and creative disputes on the sets.
There's a story about how Shah Rukh stormed out of the sets after one of Gowariker's assistants reminded the star that his job is only to act.
I've a feeling these stories are true. No true creative work is born without conflict.
Aishwarya Rai and Sanjay Leela Bhansali fought fierce battles on the sets of "Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam". Shabana Azmi and Aparna Sen were at complete loggerheads during "Sati". Deepa Mehta and Aamir Khan couldn't see eye to eye regarding his character in "1947-Earth".
So yes...I'd like to believe Ashutosh and Shah Rukh disagreed to finally agree on creating a work of art. I believe "Swades" is a very special work, not because it's anything like "Lagaan" but because it's nothing like the earlier work.
One person who was looking forward to "Swades" is Jaya Bachchan. "I really want to see the film. It looks so fresh and so...pure! And after a long time such melodious songs. Ashutosh Gowariker has made Shah Rukh Khan act and look completely different."
Is "Swades" as big and grand as "Lagaan" at the box-office? No! But I know for sure that "Swades" has taken its creator ahead of his earlier film.