The Reel

‘Whatever could go wrong, went wrong’: Ram Gopal Varma gets candid about his reviled ‘Sholay’ tribute

“I thought if Sanjeev Kumar didn’t have hands how could he have shaved every day?” and other such misguided decisions that led to ‘Ram Gopal Varma Ki Aag’, as revealed in his collection of essays, ‘Guns and Thighs’.

The idea of doing something with Sholay came around five-six years ago, when one day I got a call from Sasha Sippy saying that his grandfather Mr G. P. Sippy wanted to meet me. As he is a respected senior member of the fraternity as well as the producer of Sholay, I went all the way to town to meet him.

There Sasha Sippy mentioned that they were interested in making a sequel to Sholay. He already had a storyline worked out which revolved around Babban or ‘Junior Gabbar’, the son Helen bears Gabbar Singh after he sleeps with her post the ‘Mehbooba’ song.

The big problem with making a sequel to Sholay was that some of the characters had been killed off in the film and some of the actual cast had died. One of the central characters Jai, played by Amitabh Bachchan, had died in the film and Sanjeev Kumar and Amjad Khan had passed away in the real world. Therefore, one had to make do with the remaining characters and cast, and possibly create new characters.

According to Sasha’s story Helen’s son wanted revenge for his father Gabbar singh, who was behind bars because of Jai and Veeru. Veeru and Basanti visited Ramgarh village now and then to meet Radha, who was still residing in the village. They were kidnapped by Junior Gabbar. Then both Veeru and Basanti’s sons come to the rescue...

In this plot, he wanted me to weave in a part for Jackie Chan. I first thought he meant some local actor named Jackie Chan, till I realized that he was talking about the Hong Kong superstar. Sasha Sippy’s Jackie Chan brainwave was owing to the runaway success of Rush Hour where an American and an Asian actor were teamed together. I found the whole thing so bizarre that I politely declined the offer and came away laughing. Little did I realize that the last laugh would be on me…!

Kya Socha, Kya Nikla?

Anyway, cutting again to the flashback, on my way back from the meeting with the Sippys, it suddenly occurred to me that if the story of Sholay was set in contemporary times in a city, it might be interesting. I bounced it off some people around me and they all thought it a splendid idea.

Then just for the heck of it, I started effecting simple changes such as instead of Gabbar’s famous ‘Kitne admi the?’ he should say ‘Kitne’. I thought if Sanjeev Kumar didn’t have hands how could he have shaved every day? So let’s have Thakur with a beard. So I basically went on this trip of literally interpreting shots and dialogues and scenes, and completely forgot the basic emotional connect of the film, which was the only thing that would have made a sequel work.

When I was dissecting each of the shots and scenes, people around me also came under the spell and I started thinking that maybe over the years Sholay had completely broken up into audio-visual bytes. You still remembered lines from it, made caricaturish characters from it and remembered particular scenes and shots. So it was kind of fragmented into parts and you didn’t look at it as a whole film experience, and that’s how it became at least in my mind.

I psyched the people around me also into thinking that way. I know it sounds stupid, it sounds stupid to me too now. I made a few people sit and started talking about for example Amitabh Bachchan’s character. In Gabbar’s introduction, I told them he would be drunk with power, hence have a laidback stance. And he would have a characteristic laughter sounding like a cough. Everybody around me thought it a fantastic interpretation.

When the film was released, someone came up to me and told me Gabbar looked like he had fever in his introductory scene in the film as he is coughing... So everything I thought so seriously about turned out seriously wrong.

One day as I was sitting around with four-five people, a commercial poster designer came to me with a poster design of Gabbar. My first instinct was, ‘Why would any city dweller wear such clothes’ because my idea at that point of time was still to make it very realistic but the people around me said it was fantastic.

Then I took it over to Mr Bachchan, and he also said it was fantastic. But Mr Bachchan also didn’t know what I had in mind. He took it for granted, the professional that he is, that I knew what I was doing. And he had developed so much of trust in me as a director post Sarkar, he thought I must be having some reason behind designing such a look. Seeing that Amitabh Bachchan also thought it fantastic and other people around also found it fantastic, I put down my own resistance to a mental block.

Then with that look as a reference point, I started changing the look of each of the characters and situations, what kind of a place he would stay in, etc… I tried to match everything to that look and obviously couldn’t because the scenes and characters and emotions were at loggerheads. So I started manipulating things or psyching myself and whoever was there. Each of the actors, whether Ajay Devgan, Sushmita Sen, Mohanlal, Amitabh Bachchan, Nisha Kothari or Prashant Raj, was completely convinced the film was heading in the right direction primarily because of my psyching. So they were also not able to look at the film in totality. Also, by that time, the hype around my remaking Sholay was so much, it was almost impossible for me to detach and take a fresh look at it.

To complicate things further, initially the lawyers told me that there was no copyright problem, and I didn’t need to take rights because of my completely fresh interpretation. After I started, they said you can’t do this and you have to change this character, you cannot have these many scenes in a sequence, so I kept changing scenes and characters. It is very dangerous to start changing scenes once you start a film because you don’t know what is going to be affected in the final cut.

I could not get the title Sholay, so like Ram Gopal Varma’s Sarkar or Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas, I settled on Ram Gopal Varma ki Sholay. Then, by the time it was released, the court gave an order not to use the word ‘sholay’. I had no choice but to substitute it with something that had a meaning close to sholay. So we just chucked out ‘sholay’ and bunged in ‘aag’ and Ram Gopal Varma ki Sholay became Ram Gopal Varma ki Aag. In short, whatever could go wrong, went wrong, with Aag.

But all these are still minor hazards of being a filmmaker, compared to the dangers of being surrounded by people who will not tell one the truth. It is not that they necessarily mean to cause any harm, but they may just not want to be contrarian or may be afraid or psyched or may just, mistakenly, believe that the filmmaker is always moving to plan.

In also came as a shock to me that most people in the twelve to thirty age group hadn’t seen Sholay. So they couldn’t make head or tail of Aag, which was a stylized interpretation premised on the notion that the audience had all seen the original orthodox version. As for the people who remembered the original Sholay, they didn’t like the intrusion of new characters and the new way of telling the story. So, to all of them, Aag looked like a ridiculous collage of scenes going nowhere and it became one of the biggest disasters of Indian cinema.

When people ask me if I was hurt by the brickbats, I must say I wasn’t, because I learnt a lot from the experience and I truly believe that I am a better director today because of Aag. Yes, I do feel terribly guilty because I made so many people, actors, technicians and investors party to a blunder I was single-handedly responsible for—from my preposterous rehash of the dialogues to going against my gut feeling about Gabbar’s look and the ridiculous title. They put in their time, money and hard work and trusted my vision and suffered the consequences for no fault of theirs.

But one thing about Aag that makes me happy is that the film did manage to provide mass entertainment if only in ripping it apart. The one thing I regret most about Aag is that, being the butt of it, I was the only one who didn’t get to f**k it.

Excerpted with permission from Guns and Thighs Why I Called Amitabh Bachchan an Idiot, The Women in My Filmy Life, My Affair with the Underworld and Other Stories from My Life, Ram Gopal Varma, Rupa Publications.

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