Sooraj Barjatya’s movies are like much-loved wedding videos. You put them on wherever you’re feeling low, run them from anywhere you like and they still keep you engaged and lift your spirits up. He mostly shot his films on grand sets, caring more for the ease and order of a closed set than the chaos of an outdoor shoot. But he threw all his self-imposed restrictions out of the window while making Uunchai. The film, which starred Amitabh Bachchan, Boman Irani, Anupam Kher, Danny Denzongpa, Sarika, Neena Gupta and Parineeti Chopra, revolved around a group of 60-plus friends making a trek to the Everest Base Camp. It was marked by memorable performances and was well-liked by the family audience. Excerpts from a tete-a-tete with the talented director, who took on a new challenge and succeeded.
You always make romantic family films with young actors. What inspired you to make Uunchai with older actors?
A writer came to me with a story in 2016, and its heading was “Death.” When he read the story to me, I thought that this is what life is. At that time, I was busy writing a story with Salman Khan in mind. But then I realised I should make a film that is more personal to me. I made the film during COVID. I knew that this was not my style of story. I was in search of a good director who could make this film. All of a sudden, I realised that I wanted to make this film myself. There is no chiffon-clad heroine in Uunchai, there is no dance or drama. But I wanted to write a story of courage. And I did not care whether the young crowd would come to see my film or not… I just had to make the film and I made it.
What was Amitabh Bachchan’s reaction when he listened to this story?
2020 was the peak period for COVID. I sent my script to Amit ji and narrated the story on Zoom. After hearing my story, he said that he liked what I had narrated about the mental height each of us has, which helps us to cross any hurdle that we come across. It was simply because of Bachchan saab that the film got made. The most amazing thing is that he made the trek to Everest Base Camp at the age of 79.
Was it difficult for you to direct a veteran actor like Amitabh Bachchan?
Bachchan saab is the easiest actor to work with. He respects the writers highly. He will ask about every word that has been written and the reason behind it. He will ask, “What is the emotion behind it? Why did you write this?” Etc..etc…I am so much younger than him, but he followed each and every word I uttered. On the set, he is truly the director’s actor.
What was the toughest part of shooting Uunchai?
Outdoor shoots. I wonder how Yash Chopra and J.P. Dutta managed to do outdoor shoots. I do not possess that vision. Visuals inspire some people to become directors. But I’ve always been inspired by stories. The most difficult challenge was creating a travelogue during COVID. Another challenge was to capture the beauty of Everest on camera. There was constant concern about any mishap involving any of the members. As a result, I dispatched my writer to Everest to determine the number of obstacles we would face there. Then I went there with a crew of 400, along with a doctor, oxygen cylinders, and medical supplies. We arrived at the Everest Base Camp via the Lukla airport, which is the world’s third-most dangerous airport due to its short runway of 1500 metres. Landslides and heavy rains are common features. Every night we used to think that we should return to safety, but the next morning we’d feel that Mount Everest looked nearer. To shoot a road movie from Delhi to Nepal and then to shoot in the mountains was not easy at all.
We tend to underestimate the older generation…
My late father, Rajkumar Barjatya, once made me read an article. An 80 year old lady went to a government official and said, “I had requested to be given some land for opening an Ashram. When will I get it.” The officer asked, “But who will run it?” The old lady was angry and said she herself would be running it. The officer felt bad because he had underestimated her. He touched her feet. I was highly impresse with this story. When my father got a new flagship mobile, I assumed he wouldn’t be able to use it. I used to do all his work for him. Today I regret that kept him from learning how to work the phone.
You always look composed and calm. Do you ever get angry?
I used to get angry earlier. I have also scolded the actors on the sets and made them cry. But then I realised that this does not help at all. The director’s job is to keep the atmosphere calm and serene. Otherwise, the actor feels insecure, however big he may be. The actor’s job is more difficult than the director’s because they have to work according to the director’s vision and yet look natural. If the atmosphere is unpleasant, he cannot emote naturally and convincingly. So I try my hardest to keep everything normal. I keep an eye on every minute detail. I keep worrying on the inside, but I never let it show on my face.
Who are the actors who were unfortunate enough to face your ire?
I have scolded Kareena Kapoor and Abhishek on the set of Main Prem Ki Diwani Hoon quite a few times. Both are mischievous and prone to playing pranks. They’d leave the rehearsal and start chatting. So once, I threw a huge fit just to put the fear of God in them. Why did I have to wake up at four a.m. unnecessarily for the shoot? Both immediately sobered up and stopped their pranks for a while. But they were back to being their old selves after a day or two.
Have you ever scolded Salman Khan?
There was never a need for it. I was 20 when I met Salman for the first time and we have shared a bond since then. I keep my mouth shut when he gets angry, and he does the same when I am angry. We understand each other perfectly.
You made Salman a superstar, and hence he never refuses to work on your films.
I did not make him a superstar. He was born a superstar. Because he never refuses to work with me, I feel more responsible. When you’ve grown up together, the bond never breaks, however successful you may be. Our values remain the same.
Rajshri Productions is always known for romantic films. What are your thoughts on today’s love stories?
I feel that all types of films should be made. It depends on the maker. I always want to make graceful love stories because I believe in them. Each story has its own charm and audience. When I was making Vivah in 2006, I was asked as to why I was making such films when today is the time of live-in relationships? I said then that even in today’s time, there had to be some arranged marriages. That is the class that will watch my film. I do not make films for others. I make films for my own conviction and satisfaction. Analysing a film is important, which I always do when my film flops. The problem is mostly with the base of a story and the structure of a film. I never repeat a mistake. But I never thought of changing my track. I feel that I should make films that I want to make. Even today, some people tell me what they want from my films. When I was making Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!, Mahesh Bhatt was shooting his film nearby. I went and touched his feet. Unhone puccha ki kya shoot kar rahe ho? Maine kaha, shaadi ka sequence shoot kar raha hoon, joote chhupane wala. Bhatt saab ne kaha, karte raho. Jab tak tum joote chhupate rahoge safal hote rahoge. (Mahesh Bhatt asked me what I was shooting. I said I was shooting the sequence where the groom’s shoes were being hidden by the bridal party. He said as long as I kept in touch with our rituals and traditions, I’d never go wrong.
We have seen your highs, but what was your low phase?Our first eight or nine films had all failed when I was working on Maine Pyaar Kiya. At that time, making a film with a new director and new actor was a challenge. My father, Rajkumar Barjatya, took a great risk and made a three-and-a half-hour film. It was the costliest film of the time. If the film had flopped, we would have been bankrupt. I still remember those days.
If a film runs well, it is your luck. While I was shooting Uunchai on Everest. I often wondered why I was taking such a great risk. But then I realised that until I give my best, the public will not love me.