If you had to place a milestone marker on Aanand L Rai’s career, it would be at 2011. The release of Tanu Weds Manu that year marked a turning point in the producer-director’s life. Prior to that, the former engineer had been attached to films that are hard to recall (Strangers and Thodi Life Thoda Magic), but after 2011, his filmography has been robust. Rai has directed Raanjhanaa and Tanu Weds Manu Returns and supported the films Nil Battey Sannata, Newton, Tumbaad and Manmarziyaan. His latest movie Zero, starring Shah Rukh Khan, Anushka Sharma and Katrina Kaif, is his most ambitious and risky production yet, even though the December 21 release celebrates middle-class North Indian life like Rai’s previous films. Excerpts from an interview.

With Shah Rukh Khan Khan as a vertically challenged protagonist and Sharma as differently abled, is ‘Zero’ a risky proposition?
When we are writing and directing, Himanshu Sharma [ the film’s writer] and I are not calculating whether it will be risky. We only ask will it entertain? Is it original? And the answer to both those questions is yes. That is the driving force.

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Zero (2018).

Shah Rukh Khan is a larger-than-life superstar. You have cast him as a man with flaws. Was the irony part of the calculation?
There was a need to cast this way, otherwise what am I changing? I can only take away from you when you have it.

I needed somebody humongous to do this to. I am taking away two feet from Khan saab and shortening those arms and saying the part is about soul and heart. Who could I snatch these things away from? It had to be someone like him and then when we did it, we challenged him to show us what he could do.

Would it not have been safer to get an actor rather than a star to play a wheelchair-bound character? The depiction of disability in India cinema has often been questionable.
In the last couple of decades, we have suffered from the need to play safe, and that is not something good for a storyteller. I felt this story deserves a certain kind of making. It has a dreamy, fairy tale-like feel. It deserves a bigger audience. The story needed the mounting, which this cast gave me, and the story needed Shah Rukh, Katrina and Anushka. You call it a gamble; I call it casting.

What is ‘Zero’ about?
It’s the journey of a man and his love story and a relationship. At times, there is an affair, at times, there is a bond. I really enjoy exploring different man-woman relationships, whether Kundan and Zoya or Kundan and Bindiya in Raanjhanaa or Dattu and Manu or Tanu and Manu in Tanu Weds Manu Returns or Bauua and Aafia in Zero.

The idea for Zero came from Himanshu, but it began about five-six years ago, around the time when Indian superhero films like Krissh were working very well, but we didn’t feel they were very Indian. Seeing a man leaping off a high-rise building is amazing to look at, but to me, it looks borrowed. This got us thinking that as storytellers and as Indians, we think we are not capable of doing certain things yet. There is this phrase ‘kad mein hum chote hain’ [we are small in stature], which is our insecurity. That phrase gave birth to the idea of a vertically challenged person. It is a human story where we celebrate the incompleteness. There is nothing wrong with not being perfect, and flaws are not boring.

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Mera Naam Tu, Zero (2018).

What was working with Shah Rukh Khan like?
As an actor, he is one of the purest I have worked with. He is a proud actor who will never ask why he should do it. He will do it. At the most, he will ask you how.

He is very dedicated. When I work with an actor, I look for one thing – the willingness to give it all. You have to honest to yourself as an actor. Don’t lie, because it will show.

The North Indian city is almost like a character in your films. This time your setting is Meerut.
I think our winning point is how we see small towns. For me, the world where I am coming from – the middle class – is breathing in places like Meerut.

Anushka said an interesting thing to me. She said when people look at a small town, they look at what is not there, the place’s deficiencies, but small towns are very progressive.

I believe it is not about Benaras, Kanpur, Haryana or Meerut. It is about people. Maybe I understand people from that space very well. Khan saab is still very Delhi. I always tell him that no matter how much you show Mannat [his bungalow in Bandra], at heart you are middle class. His roots are intact.

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Tanu Weds Manu Returns (2015).

Audiences are able to judge a film by its trailer and are unforgiving when A-list films do not deliver. If anything, 2018 has proved that the Khans are not invincible. Has this affected your nerves?
Yes, there is nervousness and pressure. But the point is that audiences are brutal when you don’t tell them a story. It has nothing to do with the actors. They saw Newton, they saw Tumbbad. They had stories. Our job is to tell a story.

You once said your ‘revolt comes with a certain fear’. What is that fear?
Actually, I became fearless very late in life and I have started enjoying that. I made a film like Raanjhanaa when people were expecting me to do another rom-com. I had always played safe in life, till then.

Now as a storyteller, I never wanted to do this. What’s important for me is to have fun and to entertain. That’s why I have made this film. Supporting films such as Newton and Tumbbad also comes from that fearlessness.

Aanand L Rai (right).
Aanand L Rai (right).