Aanand L Rai is taking his time to move from one room of his office in suburban Mumbai to another. The filmmaker is late for an interview by 30 minutes – hardly anything by Bollywood’s clock-bending standards – and he apologises profusely.
Rai has a legitimate reason for his delay – he has been in a meeting, one of many for the numerous films he is directing, producing, and steering. The 46-year-old director of Tanu Weds Manu (2011) and its hugely successful sequel Tanu Weds Manu Returns (2015) is in juggler mode at the moment. He has several productions on the floor, is in the process of putting together his untitled movie, starring screen icon Shah Rukh Khan as a dwarf, and is distributing Amit Masurkar’s acclaimed Newton.
Most of these films have deadlines to meet, but the one around the corner is for Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, an official remake of the Tamil comedy Kalyana Samayal Saadham (2013). Written and directed by RS Prasanna and starring the actors Prasanna and Lekha Washington, Kalyana Samayal Saadham is a romcom about a groom-to-be with erectile dysfunction. The Hindi version stars Bhumi Pednekar and Ayushmann Khurrana, who hilariously explains his plight as a “gents problem” in the trailer. The movie will be released on September 1.
When Rai watched Kalyana Samayal Saadham at RS Prasanna’s request some years ago, he was taken by the filmmaker’s confidence. The movie received warm reviews but was criticised for its lack of ambition. The Hindi version, then, is a chance to improve on the original.
“Even in my own films, I don’t want them to be flawless – flaws are beautiful and interesting,” Rai observed. “There should never be a remake of a perfectly alright film, you don’t feel like going for it.” That being said, an original story “takes less time to work on than something that is already there”.
Shubh Mangal Saavdhan took its time to fall into place. “The script took one and a half years,” Rai said. “I have a different story now, it is not the same movie, but is new in terms of characters, movements and the culture.”
The comedy has the potential of normalising the prickly topic of male performance anxiety in the same way that Piku normalised bowel movements in 2015. “The movie has an adult feel to it, but I see the film as a family entertainer, with its own purity,” Rai said. “It depends on how you deliver a message – it is a forward thinking film and we enjoyed doing it.”
The movie has been co-produced by Eros International, the leading Bollywood studio that has put Rai into a zone of comfort as far as his future is concerned. Rai’s production company Colour Yellow Productions has a co-production deal with Eros that resulted in Nil Battey Sannata and Happy Bhag Jayegi in 2016 and includes the upcoming Mukkabaaz, Manmarziyan, Geethu Mohandas’s Malayalam film Moothon, and projects by Rahul Sankalya, Himanshu Sharma and Navdeep Singh. (Eros has inked a similar deal with NextGen Films).
The arrangement gives Rai the financial push and clout to get his own films off the ground as well as make possible a host of productions by his peers. He has gone from being a director to a creative producer with the smarts to ensure that films balance creativity and commerce.
Mukkabaaz, which will be released on November 10 after a premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, and Manmarziyan are both directed by Anurag Kashyap, who has chosen to work with Colour Yellow Productions rather than his own company Phantom Films.
“I like him and his guts a lot,” Rai said about Kashyap, who directed the box office turkey Bombay Velvet in 2015. “Everybody goes through a phase, and sometimes, you have to take a bypass to recover. I am that bypass. Anurag is in his element and he is making what he wants to make. I am only trying to give him the space and the service lane. I have peace of mind right now. I can share it.”
Amit Masurkar’s political satire Newton is another one of Rai’s punts. “Like Nil Battey Sannata, it is a very important film,” Rai said about the September release. “I don’t know how much money it will make, but if people talk about it, I will be happy. I will see that it gets a good release and reaches the right pockets. It’s worth a fight.”
Rai’s Santa Claus moment comes from the sweet spot he finds himself in – financial and critical success after an initial struggle to be counted as a filmmaker. He grew up in a government housing colony to parents who were teachers. He studied engineering in Aurangabad before deciding to switch streams, and moved to Mumbai to assist his brother, Ravi Rai, on television productions.
Rai’s first two movies, Stranger (2007) and Thoda Life Thoda Magic (2008), went nowhere, and he learnt his lessons well before breaking out with Tanu Weds Manu in 2011. The romantic comedy stars Kangana Ranaut and R Madhavan as a mismatched pair who get married after a series of tribulations.
“After I made my first two films, I asked myself, do I have any reason to tell a story,” Rai said. “Those were interesting times. I learnt to be fearless – I had nothing to lose. I told my wife that I would make lots of money after Tanu Weds Manu. If it worked, I would be doing another film. If it didn’t work, I would go back to television and make money anyway.”
One of the reasons Tanu Weds Manu clicked, in Rai’s view, is that its humour is couched in a firm sense of community. Rai’s films are set in an identifiable north Indian middle class segment of Indian society, a world that he says reflects his upbringing.
“I can build a sense of community in my films because I am from the middle class, and I remember the government quarters where I grew up in Delhi,” he said. “It is not about a place but about the milieu, about knowing the dates when the salary used to come, about the time given to family members, about my father preparing breakfast for us because my mother used to work too. It’s different now – I don’t remember the last time I hung out with my daughter for two hours doing nothing.”
The Delhi milieu has now moved to the cities where most of his films play out – Kanpur, Varanasi, parts of Haryana. “My films are not steeped in nostalgia – I am talking about the mindset of men and women and families today,” he said.
Rai proved that Tanu Weds Manu wasn’t a fluke by making a hit out of Raanjhanaa (2013), starring Tamil actor Dhanush in his Hindi film debut with Sonam Kapoor. Rai nearly gave in to demands by financiers that he replace Dhanush with a more saleable and familiar actor. “I was not hell-bent on Dhanush until I started meeting other actors – I asked myself, why am I making this film?” he said. “If the actor doesn’t match the role, I won’t be able to tell my story. I knew that audiences would love to see Dhanush’s character, but until the Thursday night of the release, the industry was not with me. They felt that I had gone wrong. On Friday morning, my audience and I proved them wrong. Life became a little less difficult after that.”
Not every filmmaker gets to follow his dreams in a notoriously unstable industry, but Rai believes he is now in the right place at the right time – even though he knows that the good run won’t last. “My production house is of a director who wants to make his own kind of films with his own economics – I want more control over my creativity and my conviction,” he said. “I have travelled for many years being unable to make my own films, and I am like the directors I work with. And I may not be where I am after six years – this is a cycle and I am ready for it. I am perhaps better at management, which is why I can hold on to the process for a little longer than the others without diluting it and keeping it pure.”
In between floating other boats, Rai is preparing for his ambitious movie with Shah Rukh Khan, in which the star plays a dwarf. The movie’s genesis has something to do with the spate of superhero films released in India and elsewhere over the past few years,
“We started on the film three or four years ago, and at that time, superhero films were making a lot of money,” Rai said. “I saw the hero leap off a 250-storeyed building. I felt that as Indians, we are not emotionally, physically and mentally ready for superheroes. I am not saying that these films should not be made, I am just saying this about me as a director. We are short in stature, so I felt, let me go over to the other side. Let me make a love story about the journey of a character from Meerut who can’t even climb a chair, let alone leap off a 250-storeyed building. The character is inversely proportional to a superhero.”
The movie will be on a bigger scale than Rai’s previous productions, but it will have what he says is his “middle class approach to economics”. The movie-going masses who have rewarded his previous three efforts will be the final judge of his choices. “If you can hold on to originality, you will reach somewhere faster,” he said. “Never judge the audience – that is wrong. Try to create a bond instead with these people you cannot see. I have had tough days, and God has been really kind to me. Things will come and go. Life will be different after five years. I am a successful man so long as I can sleep well at night.”