Ramesh Sippy, better known as the director of the popular and critically acclaimed ‘Sholay’, tells Rajiv Vijayakar about his movies, his experiences in the industry, and about his future endeavours.
His body of work is classic — Andaz, Seeta Aur Geeta, Shaan, Shakti, Saagar, India’s first colour soap Buniyaad, and of course, Sholay. For Ramesh Sippy, it was all in the day’s work, and when the title of Padma Shri was conferred on him this Republic Day, he accepted it as an overdue recognition of a life well-spent in cinema. “My friends asked, ‘Isn’t it a bit late?’” says the filmmaker with a smile and a shrug.
He’s content with being a part of the ‘creatives’ today for his talented director-son Rohan Sippy (Kuch Naa Kaho, Bluffmaster!, Dum Maaro Dum and the soon-to-be-released Nautanki Saala) and as a producer for these and other films.
“Whether it is Rohan directing or someone else, as with Taxi No. 9211 (directed by Milan Luthria) or The President Is Coming (directed by Kunaal Roy Kapur), I am enjoying my new role as a guide and mentor rather than being an active participant on the field,” smiles Ramesh Sippy. “I pass on the benefit of my experience and nurture youngsters. I sit in on the story, contribute my bit, and yes, if I dislike something, it is not made.”
After that, Sippy leaves the key decisions to the man helming the project. “The director is the final authority,” he tells you. “I cannot steer his steps and tell him what to do.”
Planning a comeback?
Will he return to direction? “A director never stops thinking of coming back,” says Sippy, whose last film was Zamaana Deewana (1995). “But the playing field is not the same anymore. The economics are different, and since I am now remembered as the maker of Sholay, I cannot direct just any film.”
Johar Mehmood In Goa, Mere Mehboob, Mere Sanam, Raaz and Brahmchari were some of the films in which Sippy assisted — most of them produced by his eminent father G P Sippy. “I never went to any school or institute as there were none then,” he says. “I looked into both aspects — financial and creative — and participated in all the fields. Directing a film had been my passion for a long time. After Brahmchari, Shammi Kapoor saw my involvement and agreed to work in Andaz.
Shankar-Jaikishan came in for music. Rajesh Khanna, whom I knew since Raaz and was also shooting Bandhan for us, did the special cameo for the famous song Zindagi ek safar hai suhana.”
For all its success, says Sippy, his debut directorial Andaz was not a cakewalk. “Shammi Kapoor asked me, ‘Are you sure you want to do this film?’ because he was to play a widower with a kid. He was apprehensive about how the audiences would take to a dancing star doing this role, but I convinced him. The film was a challenge, as in those days, widows, widowers and re-marrying were not shown on screen. But I had faith in the audience: why would anyone not want them to come together? My protagonists had lost their spouses, not had any differences with them, and they had a child each.”
Sholay, he lets you know, was planned with Shatrughan Sinha in Amitabh Bachchan’s role and Danny Denzongpa as Gabbar Singh. “But Salim-Javed were promoting Bachchan. They told me to watch Parwana, not the right vehicle to size him up though. Luckily, I had watched Anand, and later Bombay To Goa, and was struck by his sheer range in characters that were completely opposite. And Danny was caught in Feroz Khan’s Dharmatma, and could not adjust his dates and opted out as our shooting schedules were already decided.”
Sholay was planned in 70 mm and every shot was taken twice, once each for the normal 35mm version and 70mm. “After Seeta Aur Geeta, we wanted to do a huge adventure film on the lines of Butch Cassidy, The Sundance Kid and The Magnificent Seven. I needed that size. And after Sholay broke all records, I had to do something that had to be exactly the opposite — urban and yet fulfilling. That’s how Shaan was conceived. For the first time, there were huge expectations from me.”
Sippy admits that after Sholay, his next three films — Shaan, Shakti and Saagar — could not live up to that hype. “They were all very good films that suffered at the box-office due to this and other factors. At the time of Shakti, Amitabh Bachchan was a one-man entertainer, and his playing an intense role with Dilip Kumar dominating was something audiences could not really accept. And Saagar, which is my last good film, was not as big as I thought it would be.”
Foray into television
Around that time, the Sippys were asked by the powers-that-be to make a television serial on Partition. “The subject had always fascinated me,” recalls Sippy. “I took it on as a challenge. That’s how Buniyaad happened. Manohar Shyam Joshi wrote a superb script with a rich flavour of the language of undivided Punjab. We shot it like a film, taking five to six days for an episode in the beginning and later trimming that down to three days.”
After Buniyaad, Sippy went in for Bhrastachar (1989), Akayla (1991) and Zamaana Deewana (1995), films which were far from what one expected from him as a filmmaker. “Films had invaded homes by then, and theatres were catering to the lowest common denominator,” explains the filmmaker. “Also, the way I shot Buniyaad was probably responsible, in part, as a movie cannot be quickly wrapped up like an episode of a serial, and that’s what I did as a filmmaker.”
For all his commercial clout, Sippy was always after newness in his films. “The ABC of filmmaking is the same, but good cinema is all about bending some rules and taking a fresh route,” he explains. If the subject does not challenge me, I cannot be motivated to make it.”
And this is what Sippy searches for even as a producer, and so does his son Rohan Sippy, one of the brightest talents today in filmmaking. “I asked Rohan whether he was sure of his first subject, Kuch Naa Kaho, because once he had decided on it, there would be no going back,” says the filmmaker. “The only important decision I made for him then was to change his cameraman from a newcomer to a seasoned one, because a cameraman is like the right hand for a director, and he was not able to execute his vision in the beginning. By the time he was shooting Bluffmaster!, Rohan’s confidence was soaring.”
Nautanki Saala, which is now set for release, is set around the world of theatre, though it is more about the people in it. “The recent enactment of a scene from Sholay, as a part of its marketing, is not there within the film,” he tells you.
Sippy would rather not talk about the 3-D version of Sholay or the remake of Seeta Aur Geeta that are being planned. “The matter is sub-judice in the courts,” is all he will say on the topic.
Finally, how does he look upon the changed scenario in filmmaking today — the ‘playing field’ about which he spoke earlier. “Well, independent filmmakers will always fight for survival while corporate companies will always follow a safe, chartered course. But there are pros to the whole thing too. In our times, we would look for money after shooting two reels to shoot the next. Now films are made at a stretch, with everything planned.”