‘Zero is a very good state to be in’

Even as one tries to introduce him to Delite’s popular jumbo samosa, producer-director Anand L. Rai says he already has his “share of oil” at a shop behind the iconic theatre in the form of bread pakoras. “Delhi brings nostalgia to me. Even when people say that it has changed, I manage to find my Dilli,” says Rai who spent his childhood in Sadiq Nagar. In the city to hold a screening of
Tumbbad
, his latest attempt to back a film which we don’t expect from him as a director, Rai insists that it is not a strategy. Dressed as a horror film, which talks about human greed,
Tumbbad
promises to redefine the genre. Only a few days back, one met him at a hotel in Noida where he was holding the fort for
Manmarziyaan
. Not to forget his support for
Newton
and
Nil Bate Sannata
. “It is just happening to me. All these films tell simple stories but all of them carry something deep inside. If such films can penetrate into masses, I think we can expand the taste palette of the audience” says Rai, who is known for directing
Tanu Weds Manu
and
Raanjhaana
and his much anticipated Shah Rukh Khan-starrer
Zero
is

scheduled to release this Christmas.

Reinventing horror

“Sohum Shah (actor-co-producer) came to me with
Tumbbad
three years back. At that time, I was not in a position to provide it a strong backing. Somehow the film got delayed and when he approached me again, I felt now I could. I provide both creative and monetary support,” relates Rai.

Talking of his association with the horror genre, Rai says he could never direct one. “I get scared easily. I am a kind of person who can’t sit in a dark room. I need some light,” he chuckles as one tries to read meaning into it. “However,
Tumbbad
is like a fable for adults that underlines how human greed can destroy everything. If they narrate the story to kids, it will make an impact. It is original and rooted, that is how it should be if you want to be seen globally. It is not trying to be
The Conjuring
or The
Ring.
If it works, others will try as well. We have tweaked drama and rom-com and even action according to our sensibilities; it is time we remove the cheesy tag associated with horror.”

One wonders whether Rai could have attempted
Manmarziyaan
. After all, he gave us a social rebel of the sort in Tanu. “My revolt comes with a certain fear. I say my thing from the back foot. The script needed somebody who could play on the front foot. That’s why I waited for Anurag (Kashyap),” he shares. He maintains that even when he captures the tumult in the youth, he is conscious of what’s happening in the family and give respect to that point of view as well. “My films represent that times are changing, but
Manmarziyaan
is a kind of script that says that times have changed.” In this change, he feels, the space for the older generation is shrinking. “Earlier, youngsters used to change according to the will of elders. Now, they make up their mind very early and expect the parents to come around. I want to see the evolution that parents are going through as well.”

In Anurag’s universe, he admits, the streak of individualism is much more. “I keep checking my protagonist from going a bit too far through voices around him or her. Perhaps, it reflects me and my growth. Our profession is such where there needs to be a constant conversation between the makers and the audience. And I guess this is happening these days.”

Many feel that Rai knows the pulse of small-town India but the director insists that there is no clash between metros and towns. “Big cities are made up of people who have migrated from small towns. And the winds of globalisation are taking Barista, Cafe Coffee Day and of course the Internet to interiors of the country.”

Over to Meerut

After exploring Banaras, Rai has set
Zero
in Meerut. “For the first 20-25 years of my life, I didn’t venture out much. Now I am exploring different spaces with my collaborators. It was Himanshu (Sharma, writer and his long time collaborator) and Zeeshan Ayyub who introduced me to Meerut. In the last three-four years, I have been to the city eight-nine times. Cities become characters in my films and here it was the
zid
, the obstinate character of Meerut that hooked me.”

Rai maintains that the presence of Shah Rukh Khan and VFX might be creating a feeling that he has taken a leap but the fact is that the focus is very much on storytelling rather than just creating a fantasy. “There is a beautiful thread where I have seen dreams as reality. It is not a single-layered film.”

Even the die-hard fans of Shah Rukh, whose last couple of films haven’t done well at the box office, feel that the star needs reinvention. He has been trying to do something new, like in
Zero
he is playing a dwarf, without losing out on his core audience, a difficult balance to achieve. “He is a very intelligent man. He knows what audiences are asking of him. How will he get out of this trap, I don’t know. But one thing is certain that he would get out of it through stories only. And he is aware of it. He doesn’t live in a make belief world,” reasons Rai.

Till date, Rai has worked with actors who surrendered themselves to him. Good intentions notwithstanding, a superstar is difficult to turn into clay and remodelled all over again. “One thing that I have noticed in him is that he is not Badshah for himself. He is so obedient that sometimes you get scared. After all, I am only the son of a teacher who never went to a film school. I believe in collaboration. So when he comes and says, ‘you tell me and I will do it,’ you have to be very careful,” gasps Rai.

He says he could very well have continued with
Tanu Weds Manu
franchise or its variants “But I wanted to push myself. I wanted to show that even if you snatch everything away from me and throw me into the greens (referring to the colour of the screen for creating special effects), still I could make the heart beat.” So, in a way, the title refers to his propensity to put everything at stake in every project. “Zero state is a very good state to be in. It keeps you relaxed. I put so much in every project that I am always at zero. But don’t you think some of the best cinema of 50 and 60s came through with this mindset?”

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