Playing With Dhoni

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A big budget feature film on India’s most successful captain is a different kind of thriller for Neeraj Pandey

IN TWO WEEKS, National Award-winning filmmaker Neeraj Pandey will face the biggest test in his (roughly) decade-long Hindi film career. His fourth feature film as writer-director, MS Dhoni: The Untold Story, made over two-and- a-half years on a reported budget of Rs 80 crore, will soon release worldwide in four languages.

A biopic on the life of arguably India’s greatest cricket captain, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the Sushant Singh Rajput- starrer MS Dhoni will be Pandey’s first film since A Wednesday! to feature a lead actor other than Akshay Kumar (who starred in both Special 26 and Baby) in a genre other than a thriller, and on a canvas far bigger than before.

But over an hour-long afternoon conversation in the Mumbai office of his production company, Friday Filmworks, which he co-owns with producing partner Shital Bhatia, Pandey could well pass off as ‘Captain Cool’, the moniker deservingly earned by Dhoni for his ability to stay unfazed, especially at crucial junctures of a cricket match.

If the film is a critical moment in his own journey, Pandey doesn’t betray any sign of nerves. He is unpretentious, laidback and genial during the interview. And for a man fresh off Rustom, a Rs 100 crore-plus box office hit that he produced, he is unusually self-deprecating. He answers every other question first with a joke about himself, before grappling to find an earnest response.

Pandey seems conscientiously focused on the prize, and everything else in between is something he’d rather get through with, so he can do what he loves doing. And for this reason, giving interviews, going to Bollywood parties or even being ‘visible’ for anything other than actual work is a task. “I love what I do, there’s no denying that,” he says, “but this is not my entire life.”

“My passion is pre-configured and I have a lot of respect for my ‘9 to 5’ or ‘9 to 12’ sometimes, so I don’t feel the need to display it. I have never felt I am a crusader in the world of movies, ki yahaan jhande gaadenge (that I’ll plant flags here). Between writing something and creating something, I’m dealing with the world in my own way, and that negotiates all these other issues, and purges me in so many ways. That’s my day-to-day motivation, and I hope it continues; I hope I remain this way.”

Pandey’s way, of course, stands apart in an industry where glamour and cinema play an equal part. And that could perhaps be because of his non-filmy trajectory. Growing up in late 70s Calcutta to working-class parents, Pandey wasn’t the kind of child who had his life chalked out in any way.

“You know, it’s a myth that everyone in Calcutta is intelligent,” he says with a laugh, pointing out that he shouldn’t be perceived as intelligent just because he was born there. “No doubt, some of the people who shaped the film industry in the 50s and 60s were Bengalis, but you are talking about Howrah, jahaan humein Bombay pata hi nahin thha kahaan hai (where we didn’t even know where Bombay was). Most of my friends wanted to do a BCom and the more dynamic ones had only one dream, bas yahaan se nikal jaayein (to just get out of here). At that time, I really had no clue what I wanted to do with my life.”

If there was one thing that he did know, it was that he liked telling stories through his childhood. “I was very good at lying as a kid and it all started from there,” he says with a straight face. “I was a very mischievous kid, so I had to keep on making excuses, by using my imagination and digging up stories. I think that, sort of, perfected my skill at storytelling and sowed the seed.”

Growing up, Pandey was always a literature buff and was just as interested in sports. Looking back, he is certain that the nudge towards movies was rather subconscious. “I can make it sound profound and intelligent at this point, but to be honest, at that time, I just liked watching films a lot, without knowing anything about the film industry or that I’ll be pursuing a career in it.”

Two films in particular left an indelible mark on him, though. One was Kamal Amrohi’s Pakeezah, the “experience” of which stayed with him through the years. The other was Guru Dutt’s Kaagaz Ke Phool that he has watched a number of times. “Maybe it was the theme of rise-and-fall that affected me, or maybe it was the music, which I was very, very fond of at that time, contrary to what I’m known for today,” he says sheepishly.

My focus is to tell any story as entertainingly as possible and then I had it over to the director in me, who is a crowd pleaser

“One song in the film, Kaifi Azmi’s Dekhi Zamaane ki Yaari , stayed with me and that disturbed my parents a lot ki kuchh toh problem hai idhar (there’s a problem here). Because at that age, you are not listening to this kind of music.”

Talking about his parents, Pandey says he feels blessed that they always encouraged his hobbies, as opposed to other parents of that generation, who’d rather their children pursue either engineering or medicine. He remembers how they never stopped his pursuits, until it was absolutely necessary. So when he took up reading and films as hobbies, there was no resistance. “I guess it was more a sense of relief than anything else for them that I had found something to do with my life,” he says with a laugh.

Films turned into a passion for Pandey during his college years in Delhi in the early 90s as a literature student at Delhi University’s Sri Aurobindo College. He briefly flirted with theatre, as a writer- director, he points out (“There was no confusion about this bit”), and eventually decided to take up cinema because he “had no other skillset”, or so he insists.

“If you are a Literature graduate, you anyway don’t have too many choices,” he says with a smile. “Stories excited me, and so I decided to learn direction to be able to tell them visually. My source of inspiration, and my institution at that time was TNT channel, which was Cartoon Network by day, and used to show black-and-white movies from 9 pm to 6 am. That became a huge source of learning for me. The best stories were made in the 40s and 50s, even in Hollywood, so watching them sorted me out in life.”

The aspiring director at the time tried to get admission at the renowned Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, but was rejected. So he started doing television in Delhi as a stepping stone to cinema. He first worked as an assistant director and then on a couple of telefilms and fiction television shows as an independent director for Doordarshan and others, because he knew that he couldn’t get to be a film director “so fast”. “Main kisi ko jaanta thodi na thha (It’s not that I knew anyone) that I’ll come here suddenly and get a film.”

Indeed, after shifting to Mumbai in 2000, it took time for Pandey to get the chance to work on his first feature film, 2008’s critically-acclaimed A Wednesday! that won him a National Award for Best First Film by a Director. Till then, he had worked on commissioned documentaries, ads and television, mainly through the first production set up he started with Bhatia, Quarter Inch Productions.

Meanwhile, he wrote three films—a romantic comedy, a comedy and a satire—none of which saw the light of the day. The 2006 Mumbai serial train blasts inspired him to script A Wednesday! that became a sleeper hit, and was subsequently remade in Tamil as Unnaipol Oruvan and in Telugu as Eeenadu, both starring Kamal Haasan in the role of Naseeruddin Shah as the ‘common man’ whose life is derailed by a terror attack.

It was this movie that labelled him as a ‘thriller guy who makes films about the common man’, a tag that he has now stopped fighting. “I have realised you can’t control what the audience or critics take away from a film,” he says.

“I had gone to the theatre to see the audience reaction to A Wednesday!, and found myself sitting ahead of two people, who were basically discussing if Naseeruddin Shah’s character was Hindu or Muslim, and that’s when I realised it’s all gone to the dogs. The whole point of the movie was to not talk about that, and here I was. Of course, the good thing was that at least people were talking… and perhaps there is a third guy who would counter these two and tell them what the point really was. That’s who I made the film for.”

It’s a very inspiring story about the making of the man that is MS. It’s a story of tenacity, something that pays off big time. If you can be very clear about your goal and go after it, chances are you will have a good journey

Ever since, he has stopped falling into this “trap” of trying to leave his audience with a moral takeaway through his writing. “It’s very important to me that I am not indulgent in thinking ki audience iske baare mein kya sochegi (what will the audience think about this),” he says.

“But you do want them to be left with some residual value in broad strokes, so what you are trying to say is translated to them—else, what’s the point? Like, in Baby, you were looking to give people a sense of respect for the guy on the border. But usually, the audience gratification I want is only in terms of their attention. As a storyteller, my entire focus is to tell any story as entertainingly as possible and then I hand it over to the director in me, who is a crowd pleaser, and knows when to amp up the background score.”

It is important to him that audiences like his films, he says, so that people who have invested can recover their money and he can continue to explore new genres. “We are not making films only for ourselves, else we may as well make home videos. We are catering to an audience, so you have to respect that,” he says.

His successful collaboration with Akshay Kumar, twice as a director and once as a producer (Rustom has arguably resurrected the actor’s career and given him a new identity as this generation’s Manoj ‘Bharat’ Kumar) is also a nod to the audience rather than indicative of his comfort level with the star, or a conscious choice as a filmmaker. “If your gamble pays off, you are hooked on to it, right? It’s no rocket science,” he says with a smile.

But of course, in Kumar, he has found a star who comes to set as an “actor”, which makes his work as a director easy. “There are no airs about him. He has no last-minute brilliant epiphanies on set ki koi bulb jal gaya (that some bulb has lit), and he is extremely disciplined.”

FOR MS DHONI: The Untold Story, the job at hand may have looked daunting to some. After all how is one to do justice to a living legend? But for Pandey, the movie was never about cricket itself, but about the man and his journey, and that’s what made him take up the challenge of presenting it on the big screen.

After he was offered the film, he found himself in a room talking to Dhoni, and experienced déjà vu, because it didn’t feel like he was meeting him for the first time. “He is extremely grounded and earthy and holds all his players and teammates in such high regard that I knew, in that very meeting, that this was a story I had to tell,” he says.

“It’s a very inspiring story about the making of the man that is MS,” he continues. “It’s a story of tenacity, something that, in my belief, pays off big time. If you can be very clear about the fact that this is my goal and go after it, and look the odds in the eye, chances are that you will have a good journey, and you will reach a good place.”

MS Dhoni’s story, of a man who rose from nowhere to incredible heights, is, in a way, the story of India’s ultimate common man. And as such, it only makes sense that Pandey was handpicked to direct it: His movies glorify the extraordinary deeds of the ordinary man, and as a filmmaker, he resolutely tries to stay ‘common’ in an industry that thrives on the uncommon. Tenacity brought him here, and just like Dhoni, it is the thrill of the chase that will likely propel him further.