(A shorter version of this interview by Anna MM Vetticad appeared in the August 2013 issue of Maxim magazine. The full text was first published in Maxim India’s online edition.)
“THE FILM INDUSTRY IS MARKET-DRIVEN. AND MARKETS ARE MALE-DRIVEN,” SAYS RAMESH SIPPY
There’s no generation since the 1970s that hasn’t been influenced by the brilliance of RAMESH SIPPY. He’s behind the film that’s considered by many—including Maxim—to be the most incredible Hindi action-drama ever, and he’s been in semi-hibernation for almost two decades. In an exclusive chat with Maxim, he says he’s ready for the next leap.
Does it make you happy or bother you that you are always identified as the director of Sholay although you’ve made many other successful films?
It makes me happy. In anyone’s career, there will be a film that stands out for many reasons for its achievements and milestones. After all, Sholay was a front-runner since it took cinema to a different level. It broke certain earlier barriers with its treatment of friendship, the suggestion of widow remarriage. It’s not like such things didn’t exist in movies before, but this one went as far as Sanjeev Kumar taking his widowed daughter-in-law to discuss marriage for her. So it’s not like it was just an action adventure or a revenge saga, but it was also touching upon several social issues very nicely which made it a wholesome film that had something important to say.
Okay, let me put that another way: Is Sholay a millstone around your neck, which overshadows your other successes?
No, it’s a bell around my neck, announcing itself wherever I go. It resonates everywhere, in TV and writings even today, but it hasn’t overshadowed my other work.
You mentioned Jaya Bachchan’s character in Sholay. The 1970s were a bad decade for women in Hindi films, so why did you break free from prevailing gender norms and risk a film like Seeta Aur Geeta with the heroine as the central character, that too in a double role?
Even when I made Andaz people wondered why I chose that as my first film. To me, the point was that anyone watching it would want those two people to get together. It’s a different matter that she was a widow so it was an important film for women, but I just saw it as a story that needed to be told.
Andaz’s hero was equally important but Seeta Aur Geeta was totally heroine-focused…
It’s always a risk. Even when Andaz was made it was a risk. Even Shammi Kapoor thought that. He said, “I’m supposed to be a rebel star and a dancing star. Everyone knows me for my songs and dances. Young man, are you sure you want to do this?” And I said, “Do you like it? Do you feel this kind of a story will make a good film?” And he said, “Yes.” I said, “Do you want to be a part of it?” And he said, “Yes, but are you sure you want to make it as your first film? It’s your career.” Obviously implied was the risk of it. And I said, “Yes I do. And I feel it’s important to make something different.” And it did help me a lot because people sat up and took notice that here is a young man who in his very first film has gone and made this, he seems to have a voice, he wants to say something. Of course, I didn’t see Seeta Aur Geeta as a women-oriented film the way we discuss it now. To me it was just that we keep making such films with men, and people had this attitude that an action film should star men. To me it was a Cinderella film. In a normal story the oppressed girl would turn around and become strong but to make it more enjoyable, we brought in her twin sister like in Ram Aur Shyam. I remember thinking that in Ram Aur Shyam it was unbelievable to see a man being cowed down that way, and a woman was more likely to be exploited in such a household. Salim-Javed wrote a highly enjoyable script from that idea and we had a huge success.
Why didn’t you make more women-centric films?
I didn’t want to be slotted as a crusader. I just wanted to make good films with good stories that people will enjoy.
Don’t good stories include the stories of women?
The film industry is market-driven. And markets are male-driven. This is largely true of the West too. You need to fight that system somewhere, but the reality is that films about women don’t excite the moneybags.
But as a producer, you are the moneybags yourself!
Tell me, should I not have made Shakti because it had no central woman character?
It’s not that stories of men should not be told but that stories of women are not being told…
Then I should not be the only crusader, no?
But the question comes to you because you did start off with Andaz and Seeta Aur Geeta.
I’m driven by a desire to make good films whether about women or men. If a good, woman-oriented story were to come to me even today, I’d do it.
An independent cinema movement is emerging. Mainstream Bollywood is getting experimental. What has led to all this?
People are making films with a certain freshness and younger actors want to do films that show them in a different light. Besides, actors once did 4-5, even 10-20 films a year, but now they’re doing one film a year because they have more avenues like endorsements to bring in money and power. Doing less films also helps maintain their exclusivity. So the number of stars available to producers at any given time is a handful. You can’t run an industry that way. So people are looking for ideas that will interest audiences but don’t need a big star to drive them.
What are you working on now?
I can’t reveal details but I’m working on a subject that I would like to direct.
Why haven’t you directed a film for 18 years?
Change was coming and I was missing it somehow. So I wanted to step back. And I feel now is a bloody good time in the industry when different ideas are working so I can think of ideas that satisfy me that also have a chance of box-office success.
Was it difficult for you, when it seemed like you no longer fitted into the changing scenario?
I suppose it was. Hindi cinema had entered a phase when only dishoom-dishoom, sex and violence were selling. I tried to make a couple of films like that but it didn’t feel right and they came out exactly the way I felt. So I thought it was better to step back.
Would you have an issue with any of your films being re-made?
I’m not particularly fond of remakes but if you can attack a subject in a completely fresh way, like Hollywood reinvented Sherlock Holmes with a whole new humour and approach, if you’ve really got something like that in your head then do it. Otherwise it’s better to go for fresh stuff.
Is there any film of yours about which you feel it would be absolutely a foolish mistake for anyone to try to remake it?
At the moment I’d say it’s Sholay. Because it’s still so much in people’s heads that I would not advise, I mean, what would you make of it if you remake it? How would you approach it differently? What would you say that’s new?
Photographs courtesy: (1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ramesh_Sippy (Ramesh Sippy pic) (2) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sholay (Sholay poster)
Note: These photographs were not published in Maxim