You have previously worked on films that have had a real-life context. What was it about Bell Bottom that got you hooked on it?
BellBottom is also a story based on true events, and personally, I’m really intrigued by real-life context. So, I pick such content. The intrigue and thrill increase tenfold when you find out that an extraordinary incident actually took place. I love real-life stories. Before making this film, I also didn’t know about this chapter in history. I think a lot of people don’t know much about it as it is based on a RAW agent and a covert operation. Things like these are usually classified information. BellBottom is set in the 70s and 80s when India faced the challenge of multiple hijacks. During one such incident, a RAW agent whose code name is BellBottom sees through the plan and begins India’s first covert operation.
The trailer of the film reminded the audience of films like Special 26 and Baby, which were headlined by you. So, they naturally expect a similar degree of thrill and entertainment from BellBottom, too. Knowing your level of involvement in each of your projects, do these expectations play on your mind when you are choosing films?
Honestly, I don’t think so much, I look at a character as a character, and the film as a whole. If I like the script and screenplay, I go ahead with it. Whether it’s a hero’s role or a villain’s part, a 10-day shoot, or a month-long schedule… if I know it is something I’m going to enjoy playing, I do it. The above-mentioned films were successful, so, yes, in a way, it is like setting a benchmark for yourself and then crossing it.
Before the shooting of the film, the country went into an unprecedented lockdown owing to COVID-19. What gave you the confidence to start work when no one was planning film shoots?
It was actually very spontaneous. Our producer Vashuji (Bhagnani), who shuttles between the UK and India, at that time was in the UK. I remember I was talking to him over the phone. It had been probably a month-and-a-half since we were in lockdown and restlessness had started to set in. It was probably the longest time I’d gone without facing the camera. And I randomly suggested to him that we shoot abroad in a bio-bubble. I kid you not, within 30 seconds, he said, ‘Yes, let’s do it.’ It was all him, he believed he could pull it off and he did. Ours was the first film in the world to start and finish shooting in the midst of the pandemic, and now, we are the first Hindi film to unlock theatres after the second wave, despite losing out on Maharashtra. From the start till the end, it has been Vashuji, and of course, his children, Jackky and Honey, who have made this impossible mission possible.
While the theatres in Maharashtra have not opened yet, theatres in other parts of the country and the world are slowly opening up. It’s the first time that a big-ticket Hindi film will be released, leaving out one of its biggest markets — Maharashtra. How did the team and you arrive at such a decision?
I think this decision, and rightly so, belongs to the person whose money is riding on it. So, even in the case of BellBottom, it was Vashuji’s decision to go ahead with the theatrical release of the film and we all respected that. Of course, it would’ve been a more favourable scenario had theatres in Maharashtra opened up, because anyway, as per the norms, it would’ve been 50% occupancy, so you’re already losing out a huge chunk. And now, with Maharashtra territory not opening up, which accounts for nearly 30% of the business, it is going to be a tough battle. But Vashuji is a brave man, he’d made up his mind that come rain or sunshine, this time, we wouldn’t budge from the planned release date.
Sooryavanshi was ready for release when the first lockdown was imposed in 2020. Is that film likely to release in theatres, given that we have heard of so many release dates being announced in the past and the momentum it had gathered is slowly burning out?
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again — with regards to Sooryavanshi’s release date, there are only two people who can answer your question. One is God and the other person is Rohit Shetty. Even I want to see Sooryavanshi on the big screen. As for the audience and my fans, I’m really grateful that despite such a long wait, they are asking about updates on its release. Hopefully, BellBottom will pave the way for future theatrical releases including Sooryavanshi.
Do you think people have managed to get over their pandemic fears to watch a movie in a cinema hall?
I think so. Living with COVID is the norm now. The recent India vs England match is a good example, if you saw how many people turned up in the stadium. After all, for how long can people stay cooped up at home, not go to work, to the mall, stadiums, theatres and restaurants? I think the audience is also hungry to watch films on the big screen, one just has to wear a mask and move on.
So when the decision to release BellBottom in theatres was taken, was it driven by monetary prospects or the need to change public perception about going back to theatres and bringing back a sense of normalcy?
Definitely the latter. Despite a huge territory like Maharashtra not opening up, we still went ahead with BellBottom’s release, because someone has to. Now, we have vaccinations in place, theatres are sanitised and following all safety protocols, their employees are vaccinated and people are masking up. Given the circumstances, everyone is putting their best foot forward and trying to make the experience of watching a movie in a theatre normal and safe again.
Ranjit M Tiwari is a relatively new filmmaker. And you have always enjoyed teaming up with newer filmmakers. What is it about a new filmmaker that you find likeable?
After BellBottom, I’m now shooting my second film, tentatively titled Cinderella with Ranjit. You know, earlier I used to work with new directors because big directors didn’t take me in their films (laughs!). But the reason I continue to do so even now is that although new directors lack experience, they make it up with their greed to do more, passion to do better and that is something I like surrendering to. I know while I may be working on multiple projects at one go, this person has only this one opportunity to get it right and he will give it his all.
It’s reported that you insisted Lara Dutta should be cast as Indira Gandhi in the film. How did she come to your mind for the part?
I wouldn’t say I insisted, but yes, I did suggest Lara’s name for the role. For some reason, she was the first person who came to my mind. I remember calling her up and telling her about this film that I was doing and that we were casting for the role of Indira Gandhi in it. I wanted her to consider it. And she started laughing and refused to believe I was seriously asking her to consider it. For the longest time, she thought I was playing a prank as she saw no similarity between the two whatsoever. But then I explained to her what the role entailed and why I felt she could do justice to it. And she, along with the brilliance of make-up artist Vikram Gaikwad and his team, did exactly that.