Director-producer Vidhu Vinod Chopra speaks to Puja Talwar about his latest film, 12th Fail, his philosophy on filmmaking, and completing 45 years in the industry
Your latest film, 12th Fail, is an adaptation of Anurag Pathak’s bestselling Hindi book of the same name. You devoted four years to the project and it is being described as one of your best works. What was it about the story that drew you in?
The film is not just about the UPSC examinations; it is also about the people around me, whether they are in the civil services, the arts or cinema. It is about restarting your life.
The crux is to never give up, even when the odds are against you, much like what (former PM) Atal Bihari Vajpayee said in his poem Haar Nahi Manunga (I will not be defeated), which is used in the film. For me, 12th Fail is also a reflection of my own life. I come from a small town in Kashmir, and when I told my father I wanted to make films, he was worried that I would starve to death. But, I went on to get nominated for an Oscar (for his 1978 short film Encounter with Faces). So this film is also about that kid who came to Bombay with the conviction of making films on his terms, and here I still am.
For the larger part of your career, you have worked with stars—Amitabh Bachchan, Sanjay Dutt, Ranbir Kapoor, Aamir Khan among others. But, like your previous release, Shikara (2020), which featured new faces, 12th Fail is headlined by the less mainstream actor, Vikrant Massey, and debutante Medha Shankar. Is it a conscious decision to move away from box-office heavyweights?
I have never worked with stars, but actors—even when it was Amitabh Bachchan, Anil Kapoor or Jackie Shroff. That’s the best way I can explain it. So if there is a star, who has a dominant actor in him or her, I will work with them. And Vikrant is a wonderful actor.
You are the director, writer and producer for 12th Fail. Is there a role that you prefer?
The word I prefer for myself is co-creator, because I also create music as well as write dialogues. I don’t particularly like the term producer because in the context of films, it evokes the image of a money bag; I have never looked at a film through that lens. Even the movies that I have bankrolled have been co-created by me. I own those films, whether it’s Three Idiots, Parineeta or others. 12th Fail, for instance, is not on any OTT platform; all the money is mine. If it works, we recover; if it does not, we will lose a lot. I doubt there is any filmmaker who is releasing films today without selling them on OTT.
What is your take on the theatre vs OTT debate?
I don’t think about that. It’s not my job. My job is to create cinema and share my belief system with the world. And that’s all I have been doing. To quote from Gone With the Wind, “Frankly, I don’t give a damn.”
Can the audience expect a third film in the Munna Bhai franchise?
It will only happen if we get a good script, which we are working on.
You have spent 45 years making films. What has been your biggest learning through the journey?
I have just walked on the path I believe in, and it has been a long walk. I continue to remain focused on doing what I think is the right thing to do in my cinema. When we recently screened Khamosh (his first feature film) to mark the milestone, I kept recalling how I made it in a budget of just Rs 8 lakh. It was a moving moment. My biggest learning has been to never sell your soul, something I learnt from my favourite filmmaker, Ingmar Bergman. I follow his three commandments: thou shall make films that entertain, thou shall entertain without selling your soul, and make every film as if it’s your last. All of it is true for 12th Fail.
If a biopic was made on your life, what would you call it?
The Fourth Idiot.