For a man who grew up in the picture-perfect hills of Shimla and Iran, it isn’t surprising to find his movies a visual feast first, and a medium of story-telling later. Be it his debut film, ‘The Cell’ (2000), starring Jennifer Lopez to ‘The Fall’ in 2006 and ‘Immortals’ last year, and this season’s ‘Mirror Mirror’, Tarsem Singh Dhandwar (he prefers ‘Tarsem’) creates a huge canvas and fills it with spectacular sights.
Having started out with music videos and commercials, Tarsem earned millions of dollars directing for giant brands and record labels - a quick recap would include the elaborate Pepsi commercial starring Enrique Iglesias, Britney Spears, Pink and Beyonce Knowles, and R.E.M.’s smash hit, ‘Losing My Religion’ (Best Video of the Year at the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards). As for his take on the classic fairy tale, Tarsem’s $85 million version stars the inimitable Julia Roberts as the evil queen, and a rather tough Snow White, played by Lily Collins. Comparisons are already being made between the Relativity Media-produced film and Universal Pictures’ ‘Snow White and the Huntsman’, starring Charlize Theron and Kristen Stewart, to release in June.
Tarsem, 50, says his film “uses iconic characters and incidents but makes observations on modern society with them”. He calls it a family film with “whimsy and fantastical visuals” and insists it will appeal to everyone. He talks about his early years in filmmaking, Bollywood, and why he was not intimidated by Julia Roberts.
You have seen only one Bollywood movie in 25 years. And you were quoted saying you wouldn’t fit into Bollywood.
I saw ‘Lagaan’ because I met Aamir (Khan) and I liked him. I loved the film too; it’s ‘Seven Samurai’ (1954) with 11 cricketers. As for whether I am interested in portraying Indian stories or folk? Yes. Unfortunately, what I shoot tends to require a lot of money. If I was writing stuff, I might write for Indian films. Right now, I think the films I (make) seem like the tail-end of a dying genre, I just look at it and say, how can I put my DNA into a film that right now is the pulse of pop culture. I don’t think ‘Mahabharat’ is going to be on the hit list of that pop culture any time soon.
That said, in ‘Immortals’, Mickey Rourke’s character was inspired by Ravana.
I’ve been an atheist since I was nine years old. So I am not familiar with mythology or religious. As for Mickey Rourke’s character in ‘Immortals’, it was really my mom’s religiousness that planted the seed of the concept in me. If something similar happens in the future, I’m willing to dip into mythology for reference.
You were born in India and studied in Shimla. What was your initiation to films?
I went to boarding school in Shimla where one didn’t see too many movies. When I reached college, I began loving Indian films and ended up seeing almost every Hindi film in the late 1970s. I even liked ‘Disco Dancer’ (1982). It was kitsch, but it had its own charm.
What, according to you, works for and against Bollywood?
Bollywood’s aesthetic is fantastic. If someone is 44, fat and ugly, people will still call him beautiful. In the middle of a really serious situation, a dog can have a flashback in a Hindi movie. And it’s still played seriously. I love that. What I don’t like is that Bollywood movies throw in a lot of colour without much thought.
With reference to ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ (2008), do you think Indian filmmakers are less equipped to portray India as it is?
In a way, yes. Hindi movies often do not capture the beauty of India. They may show the same places, but I look at them with a different eye.
THE BIG PICTURE
You have directed music videos, commercials and movies. Which is most challenging?
I liked the music videos when I was making them. But once the music stopped appealing to me, I moved to commercials, which I enjoy. I get to check out all the new toys and it keeps me young and telling stories in about a minute. I just love filming and being on a set. I shoot more than 300 days a year and am on the road all the time.
Having worked with some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry, from Beyonce Knowles to Brad Pitt (for a Japanese commercial) and now Julia Roberts, have you had a starstruck moment?
Everybody keeps asking me, ‘Wasn’t it intimidating, going to Julia and talking to her?’ And I just said, ‘Really? I live in a little bubble. With Julia, when I met her, I just thought, ‘Oh my god, she’s just a mom.’ That was it. I guess the only reason it doesn’t intimidate me is because I’m just naive about that kind of stuff.
‘The Fall’, ‘The Cell’ and most of your music videos are visually rich. Tell us how it works.
I grew up in India and Iran. People may think the splashiness and extravagance in my work comes from my Bollywood background. But then everything comes from your background. In Iran, I saw a lot of films in a language that I did not understand - it was almost like a silent film experience, because I could react to only the images. That has influenced my approach a lot. My films so far have been visual because I value the visual element.
Was it tough to push the envelope in ‘Mirror Mirror’, given that it is a classic tale?
No. In fact, I believe that how familiar people are with the story made it easier for me to try and put a new spin on it. Ironically, I myself saw the original animated classic for the first time just a few months ago. I just wanted it to be a little bit bigger, because the original one is only about vanity, and it’s a ten-minute tale. I made it about a stepmother’s thirst for power...
Tell us about Julia Roberts on the sets.
Julia was integral to the movie, and it was a great experience working with her. I said, ‘here is an evil person I want you to like.’ So then you have somebody like Julia, a person who has such a contagious laugh that even the servant who’s terrified of her will start laughing with her.
HOLLYWOOD, CLOSE UP
The most popular misconceptions about Hollywood?
People like to think that someone like me would be treated like an outsider in Hollywood. I get the same chances everybody else does and if you make big films that don’t perform, you’ve blown your shot.
Whom do you look up to in Hollywood?
For me, the ideal (example of a filmmaker) has always been (Roman) Polanski. You see a studio film and you see a personal film and you see as much of him in ‘Knife In The Water’ (1962) as there is in ‘Chinatown’ (1974) - you can see his DNA in everything that he did, from any genre that you can think of. He always had that in there. I wish I could strive for that balance too. I also admire people like Clint Eastwood and Christopher Nolan and how they’ve built up such a smooth relationship with people at a particular company.
Projects to expect?
I’m doing ‘Eye in the Sky’ after this. I kind of had an idea that I’d like to do a war film that just had the two perspectives, one side is so (disconnected) and just drop these little things, and downstairs it’s a completely different world...it is profound and really, really moving. I’d also like to adapt ‘Samurai Jack’ at some point because I love how much it is influenced by Akira Kurosawa, along with tackling ‘A Killing on Carnival Row’, which will end up being a grand visual piece.
What do you want to be remembered for?
Oh, I haven’t decided that yet! I’m going to mix it up right now. I’ve made four films that are very visual, where I’ve been a monster for critics and writers but a poster boy for set decorators. Now, I’ll make a more character-oriented film. And as that progresses, I hope I’ll have a clearer idea of what I want my legacy to be.
‘Mirror Mirror’ is scheduled to release on April 20.