Ram Madhvani is a devoted advertising filmmaker. But he’s equally committed to creating fiction that strives to get to the truth of a character.

Madhvani directed his first feature Let’s Talk in 2002. Neerja came 14 years later. In between, he kept trying. Projects would be announced, sometimes with fanfare, like the fantasy Talisman with Amitabh Bachchan, but not materialise. His web series Aarya, which will be out on Disney+ Hotstar on June 19, was initially meant to be a movie, but it was shelved one month before filming was to start. That was seven years ago.

Madhvani persisted with the Hindi adaptation of the Dutch series Penoza for nine years. Over time, the concept changed form, format and cast. Sushmita Sen, Chandrachur Singh, Namit Das, Sikander Kher and Manish Chaudhary are among the actors fronting the story of a woman and her family and the narcotics trade. Edited excerpts from an interview.

Is ‘Aarya’ a show about family or crime?
It’s about family and crime. As you saw in Neerja also, I am interested in relationships. Neerja was not a hijack film. It was a mother-daughter film. It was about parents, about children, about a mother overcoming the loss of her daughter. Let’s Talk was also about relationships.

I decided that in order to reach out to a larger audience, I needed a plot that drives the architecture and machinery of the edge-of-seat excitement. The approach in Aarya is similar to Neerja – to make the characters feel like real people and bring in the truth. The scene should not appear like it is something happening only between “action” and “cut”. It should feel like the characters and their lives also exist before and after.

How did you pull Sushmita Sen and Chandrachur Singh out of hibernation?
I had worked with Sushmita many years ago. To do or not to do this part was her choice. I told her about my process, about the show, my approach to work and work ethic. She had an infectious, childlike enthusiasm. She embraced the show, the process, and us.

Chandrachur and Sushmita have been there, done that. They are fully empowered and happy where they are. They are busy doing other things. Only the right opportunity brings them back. I was looking for someone sincere to play Aarya’s husband. This is a crime show, but I wanted someone who looked like a family man, not like a criminal. We did have to woo Chandrachur a bit and he is completely correct for the role. The rest of the cast – from Sikander to Namit, Ankur Bhatia or the children – feels and looks like they are friends and family.

Aarya (2020).

How do you stay motivated to stick with a project for nine years, as you did with ‘Aarya’?
I do believe that the universe conspires and things happen at the right time. Cinema is not in your control, no matter how powerful you are.

Neerja happened 14 years after I had tried to make six other films. But when it happened, the gods seemed to say you deserve it – the critical and commercial success, the national award, here’s all of it.

Aarya didn’t happen for nine years but then when it did, it happened easily. One just has to have the tenacity. It’s like climbing a mountain. You will get pushed off it, get frostbite, there might be a landslide, but you have to get to base camp and stay there because you have to keep climbing that mountain. I have been struggling and climbing that mountain, which is a quest to get some truth and reality in cinema.

And how do you get over something when it doesn’t come together, like ‘Taalisman’ or ‘Aarya’ the film?
I meditate. I cry. I eat comfort food.

I do have a great support system. My wife Amita is a positive and bright person who pulls me out of it. But you do have to let it out.

Many years ago, when Aarya the film didn’t happen, I remember it was 2 pm. I gave myself 24 hours. For those 24 hours, I cried. I scheduled my dejection and disappointment. After that, I said that’s it. It’s over. Aarya didn’t happen then for various reasons, and that has made it better. It also took me some years to crack the idea of putting a value system into the show. You will see it in episode nine. How do I culturally piggyback in order to reach out across metros and non-metros? The story deserves nine episodes. The original was five seasons, so hopefully we will have more seasons too.

Ram Madhvani.

Is there a chance you will be bracketed as a women’s drama specialist?
While strong women in my family and crew surround me, you don’t choose a subject for that reason. In fact, my next one is going to be a comedy and it’s hero-centric, because that’s what the story demands.

You are known to be a perfectionist, which can be good but also increases the budget and shooting time.
It’s actually faster to do what I am doing. You don’t do it because of the budget. You do it because it’s the best way to get to the truth. You are not interested in continuity of action but in continuity of emotions.

During Neerja, I had limited budgets, so I shot with four cameras. I had money to shoot for 33 days and I finished in 31. For Aarya, I was given 60 days and finished shooting in 59. Having said that, my method was faster, cheaper and better.

What is the future of advertising filmmaking in a post-Covid world?
I am meant to be making two commercials this month. I am passionate about advertising. I like the people and it has taught me a lot about craft. Communication is not dependent on technology. We will put the films out there with lockdown scripts and post-Covid budgets. You have to adapt, you have to be nimble and you have to reach out.

A commercial for Coca Cola directed by Ram Madhvani and featuring Aishwarya Rai and Rajpal Yadav.