THE HERO OF his brilliant new film 12th Fail doesn’t give up on his dream despite the challenges. Just like the man who directed and produced it.
“In real life, people are not so good,” said a young OTT executive to Vidhu Vinod Chopra after watching his inspirational new movie. He loved it, but he felt it was unrealistic. To which Chopra replied, “I am a good person, I exist.”
Indeed. In the 45 years since he directed his first short documentary, An Encounter with Faces, Chopra has built an informal school of filmmaking, marked both by memorable movies and remarkable collaborators. Not all have stayed with him, but he has generously chosen to let them go, widening and deepening his associations. As director of the stylish Parinda (1989) and 1942: A Love Story (1994); producer of the folksy Munna Bhai MBBS (2003) and Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006) and the upbeat 3 Idiots (2009), and mentor to filmmakers such as Sudhir Mishra, Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Rajkumar Hirani, Chopra is indeed a good person.
It is a quality that shines through 12th Fail, inspired by the story of Manoj Kumar Sharma, an IPS officer from Bundelkhand, who made it through the gruelling UPSC examination despite having failed his Class 12 exam. But it is not merely his story. It is the story of countless others like Manoj, who come from nondescript towns and villages, with fire in their bellies and dreams in their hearts. “Unki punji hai unka jazba (Their inheritance is their passion),” says a character in the film. “It is also my story,” says Chopra, with almost every dialogue echoing his own philosophy. “It was Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s poem, ‘Geet Naya Gaata Hoon’, which was one of the inspirations for the movie,” says Chopra, reciting it in one breath.
The movie has the same anthemic quality to it, with each line written and rewritten to polished perfection over three years and 268 drafts. “These are things I believe in,” he says, referring to the idea of #restart, of not allowing failure to stop him. “I did not sell 12th Fail to any streaming platform, or to any advertiser,” he says. “I came to Mumbai with nothing, if I lose everything it will not matter. If I was interested in making movies for money, I would have been doing Munna Bhai 9,10,11,” he adds, referring to the many sequels that have been suggested for the successful movie.
Chopra says he is deeply influenced by the movies of the 1950s and 1960s, where you took something home with you. “There was so much hope in the air, everything one did was for the nation. Unfortunately, we stopped thinking about the country and thought only about ourselves. We started making dishonest films, that were aimed only at opening weekend numbers,” he says. “You know, I had a green card while I was making Broken Horses in the US. I gave it up. I made this film for my country and for its people,” he says.
Chopra prefers to wear his honours lightly, only declaring occasionally how arrogant he is. He also likes to cover his innate emotional honesty with an aura of prickliness. At heart, though, he remains a child “of the mountains, lakes and waterfalls of Kashmir,” the simplicity of which has informed all his work directly and indirectly. It is that purity that prompts the 71-year-old to continue making cinema that excites him and the audience, making him stand in the centre of Mukherjee Nagar in Delhi, IAS Coaching Central, shooting on location amidst thousands of people. It is the boy who waited to watch the latest show at Srinagar’s Broadway Cinema run by his friend Vijay Dhar. And the young man who went to Pune’s Film and Television Institute of India (he graduated in 1976), wanting to be a filmmaker and mistaking Sigmund Freud for a German filmmaker.
“I did not sell 12th Fail to any streaming platform, or to any advertiser. I came to Mumbai with nothing, If I lose everything it will not matter. If I was interested in making movies for money, I would have been doing Munna Bhai 9, 10, 11,” says Vidhu Vinod Chopra, filmmaker
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“He is constantly in search of something in his craft,” says Sudhir Mishra, who first interviewed him in 1980 for Doordarshan’s Yuva Vani hosted by the late Vinod Dua. “He enjoys the medium and is impatient with those who don’t. “He is not boring at all,” he says, adding he has a remarkable ability to deal with powerful people in a most down-to-earth way. So, whether it is walking into Farooq Abdullah’s office when he was chief minister and demanding a rain machine for a sequence, or insisting on the prize money for a National Award from LK Advani when he was Minister for Information and Broadcasting, he is not intimidated.
Looking back, Chopra admits that he should have described himself as co-creator, rather than producer, of his movies, from Parineeta (2005) with Pradeep Sarkar, to the Munna Bhai twinset, and 3 Idiots, PK (2014) and Sanju (2018) with Rajkumar Hirani. His involvement in all the films was in-depth and somewhat under-appreciated. Whether it was 26 auditions for Vidya Balan, before he finalised her for the lead role of Lalita in Parineeta, or sitting Kareena Kapoor Khan down on the first day of her shoot in 3 Idiots and telling her this was no place for her “commercial” acting, he has always been a hands-on producer. And all these associations were without contracts. “I don’t believe in forcing anyone to stay, professional or personally,” he says.
Sudhir Mahadevan, who has analysed his work since his first film, underlines this when he writes that the “totality of his work far exceeds the directorial role”. As a director/producer, he notes three distinct phases in his career, the thriller/suspense phase that ended with the iconic mafia movie, Parinda, the historical epic that ended with Eklavya: The Royal Guard (2007), and the family film, which began with him as co-writer and producer, with Munna Bhai. He also situates him firmly in the tradition of FTII-trained directors and colleagues such as Saeed Mirza and Kundan Shah whose careers were bracketed by the realist art cinema of the 1950s to the 1970s, and on the other hand by the dramatic 1990s.
Anil Kapoor, a long-time collaborator, who worked with him in Parinda and 1942: A Love Story rightly calls Chopra, “the last of the Mohicans,” “the last of the purists”. He says, “It is not easy to stay relevant for 45 years, but he has done it. To make a critically acclaimed film that is also commercially successful in today’s age without a major star is not a small thing. He is always in service of the story and makes the film with the cast it needs.”
“My self-respect doesn’t come from money, or the number of followers I have. It comes from my work. Fom a certain point of view, I must be a very stupid man,” says Vidhu Vinod Chopra
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If he has launched stars, he has also rescued many fallen idols. If 1942: A Love Story’s score restored RD Burman to the status he deserved, Sanjay Dutt’s casting in Munna Bhai resurrected the troubled actor’s career. But that is not what drives him. “For me my sleep, my cup of evening tea, my conversations. These are important to me. I want to enjoy everything I do and not do anything I don’t want,” he adds. “My self-respect doesn’t come from money, or the number of followers I have (for the record, he is not on social media). It comes from my work. From a certain point of view, I must be a very stupid man.”
There are many stories about his exacting nature on set—for instance, the lengths to which he went to secure the colour or consistency of blood in Eklavya. His 12th Fail actor Vikrant Massey can testify to his dedication to the craft. “He squeezes the last ounce of emotion and dedication out of you, and you’re happy to do it,” he says.
Mishra, who assisted him in Sazaye Maut (1981) and Khamosh (1985), says Chopra is a throwback to the greats of the ’50s who paid attention to the technicians and gave them the respect they deserved. Whether it was Renu Saluja, who edited all his work; or Binod Pradhan who shot frequently with him, he has always been particular about the craft of filmmaking. “The industry likes to call such people difficult, but they demand excellence from others as much as from themselves,” he says. Mishra has always been close to Chopra, especially until the death of Saluja, who was Chopra’s first wife and later Mishra’s partner. “It was a complicated relationship but always deeply cordial,” says Mishra.
Humanity, secularism, integrity, honesty seem crucial to Chopra. “Each film is my life. It comes from within me. Denge wahi jo paayenge is zindagi se hum (You will give to life what it has given to you),” he says, quoting a song from Pyaasa (1957).
You can take the Punjabi boy out of Srinagar’s Wazir Bagh, DAV School, and SP College, but you cannot take the stories and songs of those times out of the little boy. “And I’m not growing up,” he says.