He has a yen for films on subjects never touched before: “Cheeni Kum,” “Paa,” “Shamitabh,” (his only box-office failure) and “Ki & Ka.” R. Balki’s wife Gauri Shinde’s directorial debut “English Vinglish” (2012) also falls in the same category, and he produced the film.
Coming up now is “Pad Man,” the entertainer inspired by the life of Arunachalam Muruganantham, a humble South Indian rural welder, who went on to revolutionize menstrual hygiene in India with economical sanitary napkins that he fabricated and distributed himself, fighting social and circumstantial opposition. He was the first and only choice of producer Twinkle Khanna when she decided to film the story on one of India’s finest innovators.
“That also is the reason why I finally chose to do the film, although I was steering myself away from biopics as a genre because we are dealing with human beings who exist or existed, make me nervous,” he says. “On the other hand, no one had touched the issue of menstrual hygiene before.”
Balki’s new office, in the old IMPPA (a producers’ body) House, reveals a lot about this man who has spent 20-plus years in the ad world, making all but his last two films while still in a senior position at Lintas. Like the man himself, the sanctum sanctorum is temperamentally ‘cool,’ there is a warmth and comfort as well, and his entire office premise is speckled with small and cutely creative objects and artifacts.
Excerpts from an interview:
Q: We hear that Akshay Kumar and Twinkle Khanna approached you this time.
A: Yes, because it was Twinkle who had met Arunachalam. I like to make films that deal with something never seen before in our cinema, though if you watch the film, it is a fictional story inspired by a real saga.
Q: You even transplanted the hero and his world to Madhya Pradesh from the South.
A: Yes. The milieu had to be shifted to make the story relatable across the country. My friend Swanand Kirkire (lyricist of some of his films) came in as a co-writer since he is from Indore. There was another change I brought in: the character of Sonam Kapoor, who does not exist in his story.
I also named Akshay’s character unconventionally as Lakshmi. It is very interesting that Twinkle Khanna’s new book “The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad” also has a story about him, and is a different interpretation of Arunachalam, also named Lakshmi!
Q: Twinkle said recently that Akshay was not the first choice for the role.
A (Guffaws): Oh, she was just joking. There was no question of anyone else doing this role. We needed a big star, but what was more important was that we needed Akshay, the actor.
Q: How was your experience of working with a big star apart from Bachchan, who is like your muse?
A: Akshay is not someone interested in painting himself as a genius, and so nothing is a big deal for him. Success, per se, does not matter to him, and he will never intellectualize anything – he is completely natural. Actors always bring a bit of them into every character. Akshay did not copy Arunachalam, but he studied the man and incorporated his key nuances. And Akshay is so unassumingly creative! His fabulous comic timing and his mix of a straight face and his innocence are great assets for such an entertainer.
Q: What about your two actresses?
A: We all know how good an actress Radhika Apte is! And she has automatically changed herself to be a villager, which is a far cry from what she actually is – an educated Maharashtrian from Pune who is from a well-to-do family. And Sonam Kapoor, who is a fashion diva of sorts, is mesmerizing in the way she has transformed herself.
Q: How do you approach your casting?
A: A filmmaker brings his own sensibilities to his work. I like to write my scripts for stars after fixing them for their roles. And it’s always refreshing to look at a star differently.
Q: And we are sure that Amitabh Bachchan, your good friend, and lucky mascot, is in a cameo in “Pad Man.”
A (Laughs): Yes, Amit-ji is doing a cameo and an important one!
Q: Why have you jettisoned your favorite composer Ilaiyaraja this time?
A: I wanted completely North Indian music this time, and I know Amit Trivedi very well. He has done a splendid job. Though it’s not as if Ilaiyaraja-sir cannot do North Indian music, but he will come in whenever I feel I need him. Even in my last film “Ki & Ka,” he had composed the background score and one song.
Q: Why did you quit the ad world?
A (Laughs again): When you are really enjoying something, that’s the time to drop it so that you can maintain your love for it!
Q: In this case, we hope that you do not get to love filmmaking!
A (Guffaws): Oh I have hardly done cinema, compared to spending over 20 years in the ad world!
Q: “Padmaavat” is likely to clash with “Pad Man.”
A (Shrugs): This is so silly! We had fixed this date months ago. As an industry, frankly, we are not that big, in fact, the Indian film industry is smaller than even our ad film world! We have only 5000 theatres, and it’s not so much a question of who loses more, as it is about the fact that audiences will be divided and so BOTH will lose.
Q: What is the remedy?
A: We as an industry should care about each other and talk to each other when such situations arise. The idea must be that all get their fair chance to succeed, and so we must help each other, not hinder each other!
Q: And after this film, is it true that Gauri is planning a sequel to “English Vinglish” and you are making a film with Amitabh Bachchan and Kangana Ranaut?
A (Laughs): Neither is true!