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The inimitable art of Rajkumar Hirani, Bollywood’s most profitable director
Three weeks after the release of what may well have become the highest grossing film in Hindi cinema, one whose box office takings and tide of popularity have inspired paeans, Abhijat Joshi, the co-writer of PK, finds himself asking his closest friend, walking companion and creative partner: “Raju, are you even aware that you are ‘Rajkumar Hirani’?”

Joshi is a part-time academic who spends half the year teaching drama and cinema at Otterbein University in Ohio; it is no wonder he can pose a leading question. In his seemingly simple query lies a clue to understanding the mind of Bollywood’s foremost filmmaker today. On the one hand is the man himself, ‘Raju’ to those who know him; a modern-day miracle man who remains unaffected by fame. His friends and co-workers employ old-fashioned terms to draw out his character: “congenial”, “honourable”, “sincere”, and “modest”. He is universally regarded as unworldly, a trait that is common to all his heroes—PK, who literally does not belong to this world, the sagacious Rancho of 3 Idiots to a large extent, and even the artless Munna Bhai before those two.

Hirani, 52, wears the mantle of his legend rather lightly. After four films, each bigger than the last and the most recent one having redefined the yardstick of big earnings in Hindi cinema—17 days into its release PK has earned a staggering Rs 300 crore at the domestic box office and is expected to cross Rs 600 crore in worldwide collections—‘Rajkumar Hirani’ (to use Joshi’s single quotes) has come to mean that rare thing: a box office alchemist who is both adored by fans and rated highly by critics.

His contrarian-if-simplistic formula of beguiling with humour while tapping latent reserves of public anger stemming from injustice has worked every single time, even though it seems a little frayed from overuse in PK. It is possible to see Hirani as more than a filmmaker, as a modern socialist and thought leader of our times. All his movies have transcended the boundaries of the form to evolve into cultural ideas that have become a part of our consciousness as much as of our lexicon. His first, Munna Bhai MBBS (2003), exposes the cronyism of the medical establishment but candy-wraps it with a ‘Jaadu ki Jhappi’ (a magical hug)—this would become the recurring trick of his craft, to soften the blow of criticism with an electric shot of optimism—while his second, Lage Raho Munna Bhai, makes a case for Gandhism in modern times but turns it palatable by reshaping it as ‘Gandhigiri’. 3 Idiots, a biting critique of the education system, also carries the reassurance that ‘All Izz Well’, or could be.

In PK, a movie that was five years in the making, we find echoes of Hirani’s previous films: it is a hero and villain story with a catchphrase, ‘wrong number’, which may not exactly have caught fire like the others but has its own resonance in the film. Early on in PK, Boman Irani’s character warns Anushka Sharma’s character, an eager-beaver TV news reporter keen to take on godmen, “Iss desh mein rehna hai toh religion se mat uljho” (If you want to live in this country, do not mess with religion).

Despite the authorial disclaimer, Hirani did not heed his own words, bravely taking on the excesses of religion, superstition and godmen in the country. Swanand Kirkire, a friend of Hirani and the lyricist for all his movies, says that the audience has been very wise in laughing along with the film and grasping its message without getting swayed by the controversy. He attributes this to Hirani’s genuineness of intention.

Yet, for all its popular success, PK is a blunt instrument. Well-intentioned it may be, but it is also heavy-handed in parts, its moralising entertainment let down by its laborious and oversimplified tone. However, in the light of the backlash that the film has attracted from rightwing Hindu activists—ending up as a victim of our culture of offendedness, leaving theatres vandalised, screenings cancelled, posters burnt and Baba Ramdev calling for its social boycott—it is a relevant document on India, and Hirani a filmmaker who is in sync with our anxieties.

Hirani, whose reputation for agreeableness precedes him, does not disappoint. When his publicist wants to whisk him away to catch a flight when we meet in Delhi some weeks before the release of the film, he offers to stay back, miss his flight even, in case more time is needed for the interview. His presence is cherubic and his manner engaging. He does not throw out witty one-liners in conversation but does laugh, loud and infectiously, sometimes in self-deprecation, and sometimes at his own stories about living in a small town, the influence of his parents, and his student days at FTII in Pune.

He grew up in a middle-class family in Nagpur. His father, who greatly shaped his worldview, was a Sindhi refugee from what is now Pakistan, an unlettered man who had to build a life from nothing in India (he ran a typing institute). Though the young Rajkumar Hirani dabbled in theatre in school and college, writing and acting in plays that bear the imprint of the work he does now— of social issues paired with comedy— he was expected to follow a conventional career path. He recounts his favourite anecdote, ending it with a burst of raucous laughter: “That scene in 3 Idiots where Madhavan goes to his father and tells him that he doesn’t want to be an engineer, it comes from my own life. I really had to muster the courage to go to my dad and tell him I don’t want to become a chartered accountant, and he just looked at me and said, ‘Okay, don’t’.”

It was his father who nudged him to join FTII, where he would study editing, ironically, after being rejected for the direction course. It would be many years before he became a director, working as an editor and ad filmmaker after college, directing his first movie at the age of 40. The influence of his father is found in all his work and conversation. His father was a fierce rationalist, and the ideological perspective of PK is derived largely from his ideas of religion. Hirani says he toyed with the concept for over 20 years, and then while walking with Abhijat Joshi at Borivali National Park one morning, they found the device they were looking for—of telling the story through the eyes of an alien, a character innocent of all human baggage and least likely to offend people. The pivotal scene in PK’s second half, where Anushka Sharma’s character gets a call on her phone that leads to the idea of ‘wrong number’ to call out religious fraud, is taken from his father’s life in Nagpur. In Munna Bhai MBBS, Sunil Dutt plays the honest and upright father of the hero played by Sanjay Dutt, lecturing a pickpocket and saving him from a public thrashing. Hirani recalls being six or seven years old when he saw his father deal with a crook in a similar way. It would define his moral vision for the rest of his life. He would come to see the world as largely good.

“If you ask me, I feel, exceptions apart, by and large, nobody is a bad guy. I genuinely feel that. It is our perception of that person, the stories we make in our own heads... and we live in a society where it’s very easy to form perceptions. I feel that everybody is living their lives, fighting their own battles, we all have a justification for what we do.”

Hirani’s cinema is driven by a dual impetus—a deep sense of outrage, and his personal memories. “You’re a sum total of your experiences,” he says, “Your upbringing does have a major influence; in my case, both my father and mother (the poet and the storyteller of the family). And then of course you have your own beliefs. I’ve been fortunate I’m surrounded by people of strong beliefs.”

In Hindi cinema nowadays, as the audience gets increasingly fragmented, it is nearly impossible to find a pan-India filmmaker, but that is often how Hirani is celebrated. It may have to do with how he sees himself, as the quintessential small town boy, and his deep sense of middle- class belonging. “Actually, if you look at my ideas, they’re very middle-class ideas yaa, all my characters are middle-class characters, the scale may be bigger or smaller depending on the story.”

“When I made my first film, people said, ‘Are you mad? You’re setting it in a hospital, you’re not shooting outside India...’,” he adds, “For me, successful films were what Karan [Johar] did, what Yash Raj did. Those were big films, I was making a small film, but it found success commercially.”

After watching PK, Anurag Kashyap, who has also just released a film, said, “People say Dibakar, Vishal and I are brave, but I feel Raju is the one.” Like the man himself, Hirani’s activism is low-key; he mostly keeps away from grandstanding. “Everybody does their own bit in their own way to bring change,” he says. Is this his way of bringing about change? He demurs. “I don’t think the world will really change, but a certain percentage does get affected. After 3 Idiots, I’ve met people who have quit what they were doing, chasing their dreams, doing what they felt is right... so some change does happen. I meet parents who admit to being wrong in pressuring their kids.”

A long while ago, he says, he gave up reading the newspaper. This comes as a surprise. “It’s not like I don’t read it, but in the morning I don’t read it, consciously. It’s a bad way to begin; also for a long stretch, I had stopped reading [entirely]. Now I sometimes do, and I’ve reached this conclusion that any news which is worthy of itself, you will get to know. It will reach you.”

He has few interests beyond his work. He hardly watches movies, but takes out time to read non-fiction, mostly books of philosophy, in a quest to understand human nature.

Boman Irani, a friend who has featured in each of his films, says that he is no different on the sets than he is elsewhere. “He’s a great conversationalist. But the reason why he’s a great filmmaker is that he considers the opinion of everyone. He’s very open to criticism. There is nothing highfalutin about him, despite all the success.” His wife Manjeet Hirani, who works as an airline pilot, says that he slogs day and night, usually putting in 16 to 18 hours a day. Manjeet says she’s the odd one out in the family; their son Vir, who is 15, has already made two short films.

With the release of PK, Hirani and Joshi will go back to taking their long walks, says the filmmaker. It’s how they get most of their creative ideas— to be put down in a thought folder. “Like me, Abhijat has a lot of capacity for work. Sometimes, I tell him, ‘I wish you were a girl yaa’,” he chuckles, “I’ve spent more time with him than anybody else on this planet. While writing PK, I remember post-dinner we used to walk down with our laptops and sit at an Amish furniture store which had two rocking chairs. We would sit there till 3 or 4 in the morning. Once or twice, the cops came, and they would laugh at two Indian writers sitting and writing a Bollywood film off a lane in small- town Westerville.”

In his own self-effacing way, through the conversation, he constantly credits good fortune for his success. “I can make another Munna Bhai and sell it and make hundreds of crores, but we take time over every film, so we’ve stuck to our ideology. We’ve been fortunate, I think, that it’s also been conventionally successful... Whatever we believed in has been rewarded in some way, so that gives us more confidence to carry on along that path.”

For now, though, he is rumoured to be working on a biopic on Sanjay Dutt with Ranbir Kapoor as the lead. “Everybody has to make a living, everybody has a skill to make a living, and I consider myself very fortunate that whatever I’m selling to make a living is something that I love and it doesn’t seem like work at all. We are doing what we love every day. So it’s great fun, a happy life... no complaints at all.” An appropriate sentiment from a man known for comfort cinema that asks disquieting questions.