Vidhu Vinod Chopra: A storyteller for all seasons

Chopra, 71, is ready with his newest offering—12th Fail

82-Vidhu-Vinod-Chopra Vidhu Vinod Chopra | Amey Mansabdar

Select cinemas across India have just finished week-long screenings of films by celebrated auteur Vidhu Vinod Chopra, whose production company Vinod Chopra Films is celebrating 45 years. Among the films shown were the iconic Parinda―the Anil Kapoor-Jackie Shroff-Nana Patekar starrer is one of the finest gangster films of Hindi cinema―and 3 Idiots, a mega blockbuster starring Aamir Khan and directed by Rajkumar Hirani. Some of his older films, cinematic jewels like Sazaye Maut and the cult murder mystery Khamosh, were also screened.

In today’s world, a filmmaker’s self-respect depends on the number of hits or the number of crores. My self-respect depends on my work. ―Vidhu Vinod Chopra

Chopra, 71, is ready with his newest offering―12th Fail, starring the talented Vikrant Massey and newcomer Medha Shankar. It releases on October 27 and promises to be a heartwarming, feel-good film about the people who attempt the UPSC examinations―India’s arduous civil services examinations that often take a decade to clear. In typical Chopra style, the simple storytelling unpacks socially relevant themes. “I showed the film to Naseer (thespian Naseeruddin Shah), and he said I can finally call myself a director,” Chopra jokes. Chopra’s first documentary, An Encounter with Faces, was nominated for an Academy Award in 1979.

We are sitting in his Santacruz office, a ground-floor space with a waterfall and a small landscaped garden for an oasis, and a table lined with cushions covered with Kashmir’s crewel embroidery. Chopra, a Kashmiri Pandit, last made Shikara in 2020, a lament for his lost land and his mother’s abandoned home. He had not directed a film for 13 years before it, but had produced several superhits like 3 Idiots, PK and Sanju.

Is the Bollywood blockbuster finally back, I ask him of this year that saw Shah Rukh Khan’s Pathaan and Jawan both cross the Rs1,000-crore mark at the box office. “This reminds me of a line in 12th Fail, where a character is asked what he thinks of the walls in the room. He replies, ‘I do not think about the walls’,” he says with a smile. “In the same way, I do not think about blockbusters. I make movies because I love making them.”

It is hard to believe, but Chopra’s first films did not find distributors, and he had famously booked one slot for himself at Colaba’s Regal Cinema to show Khamosh.

“When I made 3 Idiots I did not know it was going to be a big hit; I just believed this was a story that had to be told,” he says. The film, like 12th Fail, was a comment on India’s flawed education system. “Did you know Lage Raho Munna Bhai, the sequel to Munna Bhai M.B.B.S., ran empty for three days and picked up only later?” he says. “For me, life is more important than [money]. In today’s world, a filmmaker’s self-respect depends on the number of hits or the number of crores. My self-respect depends on my work. I am not on social media, so I do not care for likes.” I do not want anybody to like me, he adds with a laugh.

Chopra is wearing a T-shirt that says Restart. It is the catchphrase from 12th Fail, signifying recommencing cramming for the next year’s exams if you have failed this year. When we meet, three weeks from the film’s release, he is still finalising the right kind of red for a promotional poster, even as he sits at the edit table himself. “This is my reward,” he says. “The joy of craft, the joy of cinema, the joy of communicating, this is what makes me happy. We think the guy who makes more crores is the bigger guy, that is not true. Someone who watched 12th Fail told me he has come out wanting to be kinder to people. I love that response. All I want to do is leave the world a better place.”

Chopra says there is never a conflict within him between being a producer or director, neither financially nor creatively. “I still create the same way,” he says. “In fact, I do not even call myself a producer, the producer in me is dead, I am a co-creator.”

How has cinema changed in the last 45 years? He pulls out his smartphone to show me the opening sequence of his first feature film, Sazaye Maut. It is shot beautifully, through a long lens via a grilled doorway. But technological advances have made sound and lighting much more sophisticated. “Last night I saw the DCP (digital cinema package) of 12th Fail and you feel like you are in the middle of the scene; you can hear the chakki grinding the atta,” he laughs, referring to a scene. “But ask me whether I have changed? Yes, I have. I feel being married to Anupama [Chopra, his film critic and media entrepreneur wife,] for 27 years has made me a better person than I was. When you grow as a human being, your cinema grows, your thought process grows.”

Chopra’s films draw hugely from real-life stories. Parinda dealt with the Bombay underworld, Mission Kashmir with terrorism, and 12th Fail is the real-life love story of IPS officer Manoj Sharma and his wife, IRS officer Shraddha Joshi. Much of this, Chopra agrees, is to reach people through cinema.

Interestingly, his leading ladies are also quite similar. Almost all his films feature women who are slim, fair and traditional. Is this his ideal of a woman? “This is a great question! Yes, I think I have a type,” he is half-embarrassed to admit. “Even when I fell in love with Anu she had long hair.”

It is not widely known, but Chopra produced a couple of advertisements. He introduced Pepsi in India, then known as Lehar Pepsi, with Remo Fernandes and Juhi Chawla performing in the commercial. “[Senior mediaperson] Alex Kuruvilla was working with Pepsi,” he says. “He brought me a proposal and I refused it. They showed me a Pepsi ad with Michael Jackson in it, which I loved.” The legendary American ad man Alan Potash loved Chopra’s idea, but Chopra insisted on a contract with a no-client-approval clause and said he would charge Rs1 crore a day. This was nearly 40 years ago. Then, Potash wanted Chopra to create a similar ad for the Gulf countries. He flew Chopra to the US to talk him into it, offering him $1 million. Chopra says he still refused. “I made Rs11 lakh profit with Parinda, and Rs80 lakh profit with Pepsi,” he says. “If I kept making ad films, I would never be able to make movies.”

What about making a web series, the flavour of the season? “What season?” he says. “My season lasts 45 years. I am not a flavour of the season, I am here to stay.”