Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s last film, fantasy romance “Mirzya”, failed miserably at the box office. A year-and-a-half later, the filmmaker, known for hits like “Rang De Basanti” and “Bhaag Milkha Bhaag”, is back with a subject that is closer to reality.
“Mere Pyare Prime Minister” (My Dear Prime Minister) is about a precocious boy from a slum in Mumbai who writes to the prime minister to ask for a toilet for his home. Mehra says his film is not political or a tribute to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pet project – the Swachh Bharat (Clean India) Mission. Instead, he says this is an attempt to highlight an important issue from a child’s perspective.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for the film?
A: There was no eureka moment. There were all these dots which connected. I came to Mumbai 30 years ago and the city has changed so much in these years. With more than 52 percent of Mumbai residing in slums, you have to ask - what is Mumbai? Is it a slum or a metropolis?
Most of my stories were set in Delhi, because I am a Delhi boy and understand the milieu there better. But around eight years ago, when I was returning from a late-night shoot, my car headlights caught a group of women squatting on the road in the early morning. That is the opening scene in my film. But this time, I am one of the women, and the glare is on me. I have tried to tell the film from their perspective.
Q: The title gives the impression that the film is political in nature.
A: In the beginning, I was asked about that a lot. But once the trailer was out, it was clear, and once the film comes out, the truth will be out. My film not political.
Q: Do you think talking about toilets and open defecation in mainstream Hindi cinema helps in tackling the problem?A: I don’t know if it can help at the ground level, but it can bring the issue into the national collective consciousness. While “Rang De Basanti” had no solutions, it brought a feeling of patriotism in audiences. “Bhaag Milkha Bhaag” spoke about the intolerance between two nations. “Delhi 6” again spoke about religious intolerance. There may not always be solutions, but it is important to talk about it.
Q: Why did you think that prime minister was an important part of this story?
A: Because the story is of the have-nots and the voice of the poor. Whom else do you write to? The weakest link in society is writing to the strongest, most powerful person in the country. I think that is very inspiring – that you shouldn’t just take things for granted but do something to change them. Obviously, with the way things are, and especially in an election year, everything does get coloured politically. But most certainly, that is not the intention. The prime minister is figurative in the film.
Q: Was there a temptation to cast stars or big names in the film?
A: This is a real story set in a real location, so it was only natural that what you see on screen should seem natural and believable. I want a lot of audiences to come to the theatre, but I want them to come for the right reasons, not to watch a film of their favourite actor. I hope that approach works.
Q: How do you ward off pressure from producers who want big names in films?A: I produce my own films. That is the only way. I was very influenced by Mani sir (Mani Ratnam), and I asked him for a mantra. And he said: “Rakeysh, you’ll have to produce your own films.” This film is made outside the studio system and with private funding. In this case, I was not answerable to the system as such.
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