In the winter of 1998, Rensil D’Silva and I had written what we thought was a script. We titled it ‘Good vs Evil’. In any case, it was much more than a TV commercial, because it was 25 pages long. One
evening I was hanging out with Abhishek at their home when Amit ji peeped in:

AB: Bye guys, I am off to Delhi.

Me: Please read this as in-flight entertainment.

He indulged me and took the 25 pages of ‘Good vs Evil’.

Unexpectedly, the phone rang at 11 p.m. The ensuing conversation has been described earlier in the book. Basically, Amit ji wanted to know what I had been drinking while writing the script. In his inimitable style, he agreed to be part of whatever I made out of ‘Good vs Evil’.

I felt a strange hollow in my stomach that grips someone when an impossible dream comes true. Now I had to mount a film that featured this towering titan of Indian cinema. Amit ji was to play Inspector Manu Varma, an honest law enforcement officer. His nemesis in the script was to be Raghavan, a ruthless killer whose dialogues were laced with spirituality. I had to cast Raghavan next: someone who could match the prowess of Amitabh Bachchan, if such a thing was indeed possible.

I was chewing the cud on this when I saw a performance by Manoj Bajpayee. He was the toast of those times post his hugely acclaimed role as gangster Bhiku Mhatre in Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya in 1998 and a powerhouse performance in Shool in 1999. I narrated the storyline to him, and I still remember his reaction.

MB: Mehra Sahab, aap film nahi philosophy bana rahe hai. (You’re not making a film, you’re propounding a philosophy.)

Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra and Manoj Bajpayee on the sets of Aks (2001). Courtesy AB Corp/Flicks Motion Picture Company.

He was perfect to play Raghavan. Another crucial part to be cast was Neeta, a strip club dancer, a first for Indian cinema. She is also Raghavan’s love interest. When Raghavan is shot dead and his soul enters the body of officer Manu Varma (Amitabh Bachchan), Neeta is the one to sense this paranormal shift and her love for Raghavan finds completion in Manu Varma’s avatar.

I needed an actress who could pull it off and I found my Neeta in the ravishing Raveena Tandon. She was the reigning queen of the box office and this part was very much against her projected persona. But in my first meeting with her, I knew there could be no one else. This bold part was written for her.

Raveena Tandon in Aks (2001). Courtesy AB Corp/Flicks Motion Picture Company.

The support cast had to be stellar as well. My association with K.K. Raina began with Aks. Critically acclaimed actresses Nandita Das and Tanvi Azmi and senior actors Dr Mohan Agashe and Amol Palekar elegantly accepted support roles as guest appearances. Kamal Tewari from Mamuli Ram played ACP Pradhan, Manu Varma’s senior and friend. The find of Aks however was the character Yeda Yakub played by Vijay Raaz (yeda means crazy in Marathi), a relatively new
talent at the time.

Samir Chanda and Kiran Deohans from the advertising world joined the crew as production designer and cinematographer, respectively. One of the most challenging departments was prosthetics;
both Amit ji and Manoj were to impersonate each other wearing face masks.

BAFTA award-winning British make-up effects and creature designer Nick Dudman, who was part of the Harry Potter series and The Fifth Element, joined the crew. Paul Sims, my VFX supervisor
from advertising days, flew in from London for the VFX sequences.

Anu Malik, the most sought after music director of the time who was delivering one blockbuster after another, was signed up for the music. He teamed up with Ranjit Barot, another throwback to my advertising days. It was a unique experiment as both of them have different temperaments. While Anu brought in the timeless melodies, Ranjit interpreted the sound and design in a new-age manner. Both of them collaborated gracefully and that is why the music of Aks is both memorable and path breaking. But one of my biggest fantasies was about to come true: a decade after I knocked on Gulzar’s doors for the first time, he wrote the lyrics for Aks.

Manoj Bajpayee and Vijay Raaz in Aks (2001). Courtesy AB Corp/Flicks Motion Picture Company.

Initially, ABCL was to fund the film with Flicks Motion Picture Company Pvt Ltd. But this was not to be, given the delicate phase ABCL was going through. The company was Amit ji’s dream to corporatize and clean up the Hindi film industry. As is the norm, this first attempt is usually a sacrifice to the cause. Amit ji levelled with me.

‘These are tough times. How do we make this film?’ he asked. And as he was speaking with me, Canara Bank was all set to auction his house. Many people were writing him off as finished around the time. Amit ji was on the cover of a magazine with the headline screaming ‘A Legend Falls’. I noticed that he had kept that magazine on his desk for four years. It might have inspired him to reverse the flow that was against him. Eventually, he sprang back and rose like the proverbial Phoenix.

Finance was a challenge but I was determined to make the film myself. I would make one ad film at a time, and shoot Aks for a few days with whatever money was earned from it. My contemporaries in advertising were buying penthouses; Bharathi and I stayed in a one-room apartment in Prabhadevi with the old Gypsy. I did not want to worry about how things would happen; I just wanted to make them happen.

Looking back, I don’t know how we did it. I didn’t have the money for fuel but I was making a film with Amit ji and the rest of the stellar cast.

Amitabh Bachchan and Nandita Das in Aks (2001). Courtesy AB Corp/Flicks Motion Picture Company.

The film opened to mixed responses at the box office but garnered much appreciation among cinema lovers. It did not set the box office on fire like we hoped. I recovered only partially from the film and had to keep covering my losses over the next three years with ad films.

As we kept selling the rights – VHS rights, satellite rights, digital and television rights – I was able to recover 80 lacs more, which I was able to return to ABCL. Creatively though, something gnawed at me. Aks was an incomplete product; I had to complete it in some way. Perhaps with the next film?

Aks had made me destroy myself and recreate a new me. The end result empowered me in some way. I was now a feature film director. That profession was perceived quite differently from being an ad film director.

Excerpted with permission from The Stranger in the Mirror, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra with Reeta Ramamurthy Gupta, Rupa Publications.