At his cosy apartment off Peddar Road in Mumbai, the director of India’s 1978 cult film Don is shaping his second innings in Hindi cinema. After a 31-year hiatus, Chandra Barot, 67, is raring to have one more shot at moviemaking.
Chandra Barot, director of 1978 cult film Don, is planning another shot at moviemaking after a 31-year hiatus.
In between advising his teenage son Akshaan on the chappal he should wear with the traditional Indian outfit for his school function, Barot, whose thick mop of hair makes him look far younger than his age, talks about his imminent second innings, the spy thriller he’s thinking of making, his experiences in the film industry and his relationship with the Bachchans. A self-proclaimed fan of Steven Spielberg, with a collection of thousands of English DVDs, Barot talks to Open in a rare interview. Excerpts:
QYour film Don has cult status today…
A I will interrupt you right away. When Don was released, it passed as an ordinary film. There was a journalist called Devyani Chaubal who wrote ‘I feel very sorry for Chandra. He made a beautiful film, but the film flopped.’ This was the first 15 days. Then came Khaike Paan Banaraswala and the film skyrocketed. I must also mention that in 1978, Amitabh’s five best films were released. Ganga Ki Saugandh, Trishul, Besharam, Muqaddar Ka Sikandar and Don. Then there was Raj Kapoor’s Satyam Shivam Sundaram, Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi. But we took the Best Actor award despite these giant directors. After all these years, when Farhan Akhtar’s Don was released, I was on several TV interviews with Amitabh and Shah Rukh, discussing the film. I told Amit—I call him Tiger— “Sala achha kaam kiya thha, par pachees tees saal ke baad apne ko title mila ke [we did bloody good work, but only after 25-30 years did I get the title that] ‘you have made a cult film’!” TV anchors said they had come to see Farhan Akhtar’s Don because they could not forget Chandra Barot’s classic. It feels nice. So I interrupted you when you said I made a cult film, because I wanted to tell you so much has gone into it.
QThere are many stories about how you did Don only to help the producer Nariman A Irani who died during its making. Did you choose the script or was it that there wasn’t anything else?
A The prime interest or focus was how to help a genuine, lovely person who was in debt for no fault of his. He made a film with Sunil Dutt, who was a superstar. But by the time it was about to be released, unfortunately the star had run up a number of flops. So this man lost about Rs 12 lakh. This was big money those days, you could practically make a film out of it. A cameraman’s price those days was Rs 60,000 which Manoj Kumar was paying him. Even if he did 20 films, it would take 20 years, and till then the debt would be on his head. So I told him, you have to make another film. Lohe ko loha kaat ta hai [steel cuts steel]. I spoke to Amit, Zeenat and Pran saab. I motivated the whole thing. Zanjeer was a big hit, Sholay was in the making. When we started, it was July 1974, and when it was released it was May 1978. We requested Nariman that if you can get Salim-Javed on our team, irrespective of the script, it would be great.
The script which was offered to us was rejected by Prakash Mehra, Dev saab, Jeetendra. It was a discarded script. And mafia and dons were not popular then. We used to have thakurs and dacoits. The subject was referred to as ‘woh don wala subject hai na apna…’ [that subject with a don]. So we went to Nariman and told him, you register the name as Don. Manoj Kumar called me and told me, “My driver says you are making a film called Down? No one will understand it.” When I explained it to him, he suggested we call it Mr Don. So I told him don means a Spanish gentleman in the dictionary. You cannot write ‘Mr Spanish gentleman’. That was the way we started it.
QWho are the filmmakers you admire?
A I am an Aquarian, and Aquarians are supposed to be futuristic people. People say Don was 20 years ahead of its time, and I feel very happy. I appreciate Spielberg for the simple reason that not just cinema, he succeeded in creating a world which till then was just in the thoughts of people. Today, kids don’t have to visualise what dinosaurs are. They can see it there in Jurassic Park. He made a film called Duel, with only two characters. It was unbelievable how he sustained the film with only two people, a car and a truck.
I admire James Cameron too. Once we were sitting at an awards function, and Raaj Kumar’s son Puru came and said, “Sir, tell me something. If I come to you with a script where, in a ship a passenger from the third-class falls in love with a lady from the first class and the ship sinks, would you make a film on it?”
In India, there are so many I like. From Raj Kapoor to Guru Dutt to Manoj Kumar. These were the people in our time. I watched Dil Chahta Hai and I told my son, “I feel I have made this film.” That was my reaction. When Farhan invited me to watch his Don, he told me “Uncle, I am a crazy fan of yours.” I told him “I am also your fan.” Dil Chahta Hai was a masterpiece. Sanjay Gadhvi was also good with Dhoom 1 and 2.
You cannot focus only on one director. Rajkumar Hirani is good. David Dhawan, consistent in 30 comedies, entertaining people, taking the mantle from Manmohan Desai. The director of Wake Up Sid, Ayan Mukerji. Today we are at liberty to nominate as per the film. In earlier days, Raj Kapoor had a trend, Nasir Hussain, the Mukherjees. Subhash Ghai had one. Manoj Kumar…
QBut some of them like Subhash Ghai seem to have lost their old touch…
A His film Kalicharan and Don released the same year. Subhash has established himself as a consistent filmmaker. Then he became a producer, came out with an IPO, started giving films to other filmmakers. The focus is gone. Whatever little work I have done in my life, I have never passed a shot without seeing it through the lens myself. Because then I know what I will be watching on screen.
QTalking of songs, how much of Don’s success would you attribute to Khaike… and the other songs?
A In the milieu of big, huge films, if something gave a push to my film, it was Khaike… That was like an engine, pulling the train. But once people came to watch the film, they realised it was a good film, and had an interesting story.
QIn the remake, many liberties were taken, and there was a twist in the end. What is your view on these?
A I have never mentioned in all my interviews that there were flaws in the film. I have always maintained that Farhan is a young guy, he liked the script his father has written and he wanted to tell the story his way. But there are a couple of basic questions nobody has asked about the remake. In the remake, the real Don does not die, and carries on till the end after killing the lookalike.
My question is, if you are the real Don, how can you sing Khaike Paan Banaraswala? It is not his culture. He has been brought up in a foreign country. And if he is not the singer Vijay, the lookalike, why is he romancing Priyanka Chopra? He could have disposed of her the first thing. He has his own girl, Isha Koppikar.
There was another thing I personally felt missing in Farhan’s Don. Javed gave me brilliant one-liners in Don. If you are writing for your own son, give at least five new one-liners which people can remember. Can you remember even one new line in the remake? Come out with something new, some real punchlines, where people would have forgotten the old Don. It became a cocktail of the old and new.
If a sequel is coming, he should come out with something really deadly which will surpass my Don and his own one.
QWhat is your take on Shah Rukh’s way of playing Don and Amitabh’s?
A Shah Rukh’s fans are teenagers. They weren’t even born when the old Don was released. At the premiere, he was very humble. He put away his cigarette when he saw me. I had my son with me. My son said it was awesome. Teenagers go to see Shah Rukh. There is grandeur, sophistication. You can’t say it’s a bad film. It’s Farhan’s version as a young man.
QYou were in your mid-30s when you made Don. Why did you not hit a high again all these years?
A I don’t blame anybody. I blame destiny. I never sat home for one day. I started a film with Sarika, half way through she got married to Kamal Hassan. I started another script with Shashi Kapoor, Tabu, Danny, Rohan Kapur and Farah, called Kadi, that ran into financial problems. The same script was later made into Dil. I then signed 21 stars for one of the most ambitious films, Lord Krishna. Sattee Shourie poured money into it. The writer was Narendra Sharma. We did a lot of research. We called monks and had sittings to know what Lord Krishna was about.
Then Sattee Shourie got her daughter married to Boney Kapoor. The film took a back seat, and it was shelved. She did not want to do such a big movie then.
I started a film with Dilip Kumar, and he signed a movie as Manoj Kumar’s father and Anil Kapoor’s grandfather. Then my financier asked me, who will watch Dilip Kumar romancing Saira Banu now? So that film was buried too. I also planned two films with Amitabh which never got made.
But Yusuf bhai [Dilip Kumar] told me, everyone has forty-fifty films but only three aces. Mehboob Khan has Mother India, Ramesh Sippy has Sholay. You may not even remember the names of their other films. So Don was mine, which ran for 75 weeks. I made another Bengali film with Mithu Mukherjee, which became a super hit, called Ashrita. It ran for 69 weeks.
Mithu was my friend in those days. It was started with Dinen Gupta, but something went wrong, so Mithu called me. It became a massive hit. I had also started a film called Boss with Vinod (Khanna). But I don’t really know what happened. Vinod just disconnected with the project after a point.
QDo you feel in some way, the film industry which you have given so much to, has let you down?
A No, never. That thought has never crossed my mind. The industry is a huge family. You don’t give to the industry, you give to the public.
QYou are still ahead of your time. You are a keen observer of today’s films…
A For the last 20 years, I sleep four hours. After the family finishes its quota of Hindi films etcetera, I watch two English films every night, sometimes frame by frame. I try and understand why I liked a particular film or shot. I don’t miss a single line. This is my education.
QSo when do we see you coming back to filmmaking?
A It is all inside, waiting like a volcano to come out.
QAnd when do we see that volcano?
A Hopefully, next year. I have the money. I have no stars. I went to the financiers and told them I want newcomers. They told me with newcomers you can make a film for Rs 2 crore, but you need Rs 2 crore for publicity in today’s times.
QDon’t you want to tap some of your big contacts for your new projects? Your friend Amitabh Bachchan also has his company AB Corp?
A The respect which I got from the Bachchan family is enormous. I was invited to the wedding of Abhishek and Aishwarya. Two days after their wedding, Jaya Bachchan brought them to seek the blessings of my mother. Family bonds and commercial bonds are two different things. In the last 40 years, I have never asked Amitabh to come and cut the ribbon for some friend’s shop. But if there is a charity function, I will go to him and pull him out by the hand. That is the relation.
I would not like to go to them and say now I want to use that relation for my commercial interest. And frankly, I don’t have a script like Paa which can excite someone of the calibre of Amitabh Bachchan. Years ago he had told me he would like to play the role of Raavan in Ramayana, a most powerful role.
QAre you looking at new scripts?
A I never found good ones, so I have written a few myself. My friend Sachin Bhowmick has written the screenplay. He is one of the best in the business. Seeing his reaction, I feel happy that I am on the right track. I will have newcomers. It will be an insult to me if I had to go and get today’s big stars and suffer their tantrums. One film I have is a spy drama, a couple of steps ahead of Don. I want to shoot a part of it in the eastern sector, Hong Kong etcetera. Farhan told me they give a lot of facilities for filmmaking. We call it the Hong Kong-wala script. Another is a comic caper. I am hoping to come up with something where people know Don was not a fluke. Though I can confirm that it was not a fluke, with Ashrita.
QAre you looking forward to your second innings?
A Yes, for the last two years. The high is like any other newcomer waiting to launch something—I am going through the same feeling. And that credit I would give to Farhan Akhtar. If he had not made Don, people would not have again focused on me and you would not be interviewing me today. So somehow I am indebted to Farhan. I have told him that too. People often see me and ask “How old were you when you made Don?” Luckily, I don’t look very old. I am eight months older than Amitabh Bachchan. I tell them I began from KG.