Neeraj Pandey

Filmmaker Neeraj Pandey, whose upcoming defense drama “Aiyaary” will hit the screens on Feb. 9, says all his films are inspired by and rooted in real life. (photo provided)

MUMBAI— Neeraj Pandey has been ‘uniform’ly successful – and by that we mean that not only has he never given a flop as a director (“A Wednesday!,” “Special 26,” “Baby,’ “M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story”) but also has specially made a name for tackling very gripping and unusual stories about India’s defense forces (“Rustom” as writer-producer and now “Aiyaary”).

Two more of his films, “Baby” and its spin-off “Naam Shabana,” have been on India’s undercover intelligence. “A Wednesday!” displayed a common man’s fight against terrorism. For good measure, Pandey’s output includes a successful Marathi film (“Taaranchye Bait”) and an acclaimed web short (“Ouch!”), that like “Special 26,” his Dhoni biopic and his latest socially hard-hitting production “Toilet: Ek Prem Katha,” had nothing to do with our uniformed forces but were loved and appreciated all the same.

Ten years down, Pandey is almost a household name in Hindi cinema, never mind if, like masters Rohit Shetty and R. Balki, he is a low-profile guy. Fact is, he is in the unique situation of someone who never needs stars, though the stars consider it an honor to be cast in his movies!

Fact two: Pandey is considered as a mainstream filmmaker who never makes conventional content.

The director always picks up his number, and thanks to the busy schedule before the release of his new film “Aiyaary,” a phone conversation is easier and more relaxed than a physical meeting by appointment.

Excerpts from an interview:

Q: Let’s begin by talking about your completion of a decade in the industry.

A (Laughs): Actually, it does not seem like ten years, it seems like yesterday! My feel and my zeal for working both remain intact. I make movies with the same passion, never for the sake of making one. I chase an idea; then I get excited about how it will work out. And I still spend the same time and energy on making the film.

The only aspect that has changed in 10 years is that my partner Shital (Bhatia) and I now take decisions more sensibly, in the sense that we see a broader picture.

Q: What about your contribution to your success?

A: I also want to thank all my collaborators down the years for enhancing our films with their inputs!

Q: Now can you tell us how tough it was to make your first film more than 10 years back? “A Wednesday!” had no stars or songs, so how did you market and release it along with UTV in that confused era of filmmaking?

A: There were a lot of challenges. I needed money to make the film. My first film had to look and be interesting, but the buyers were just not there because we did not have any commercial frills.

But Shital and I enjoyed the process of making the film eventually ONLY because we were sure that everything was negotiable except the script and the cast! And my artistes came willingly on board despite my being a newcomer in films who had never assisted anyone.

“A Wednesday!” was delayed by a year because UTV Motion Pictures as co-producers and distributors were not finding the right “release window” – that is, a date that had the right screens and shows and nothing major as competition. We finally locked September 5. But it all paid off. In the second week, more theatres were added, and in the third week, we had even more! The audience just embraced my film!

Q: And so it was easy to make your next film with a big star – Akshay Kumar.

A (Laughs) No, no! The second film took four years! As Naseer-saab (Naseeruddin Shah) told me then, “After the first film, everyone thinks they know where you are coming from and put you in a box!” So when I started “Special 26,” even my actors were excited but a shade nervous!

Q: You helped make that first turn in Akshay Kumar’s career towards a more substantial kind of mainstream cinema and roles.

A: No, no! I am the one who should be grateful to him because he trusted me! It’s like this: “Special 26” needed a big star. I had approached several stars, and among them all, only Akshay understood the budget and the project best. It was totally a piece of anti-casting, but he alone responded to the fact that if he charged his market price, things would go haywire. And after “Special 26,” there were other boxes into which I was put! I next made a song-less, unconventional thriller with Akshay, “Baby¸” and I was called a “thriller-wala banda (man who is good at thrillers)!” So there was loads of apprehension when I announced the biopic of a living cricketer, M.S. Dhoni, next!

Q: How do you decide what film you should only produce and write, and which you should direct?

A: Two things: my gut feeling and my schedules decide that. Like when “Rustom” had to be made, my film on Dhoni was going on, and I could not direct both. Prep, which includes research, also is important.

Q: Coming to “Aiyaary,” something about what this fascinating title means – all your titles have always induced curiosity, and of the right kind. I recall calling you up when the film was announced, and you said it was something like sorcery.

A: Yes, “Aiyaary” refers to someone who can change his form at his will – it’s like a form of sorcery. There’s a term for them called “shape-shifters.” I first heard the word ‘aiyaar’ in Devakinandan Khatri novel’s “Chandrakanta,” and it was made popular by that TV serial. It’s a Persian word.

Q: Are all your stories, biopics apart, always taken or researched from real life?

A: You could say they are inspired by and rooted in real life. For me, that element is mandatory! I like to go deep into such subjects.

Q: You also form quick and lasting bonds with actors like Anupam Kher, who is a compulsory element in all your films, Akshay Kumar, Manoj Bajpayee, Naseeruddin Shah and others.

A (Laughs): I do not know why they all like me! But for me, what matters is that all these tremendous actors have no frills or pretensions. They never put up an act, and you get what you see. As for their talent, we all know what they are!

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