A grounded filmmaker

Bollywood buzz
Last Updated 24 September 2016, 18:38 IST

He’s the latest whizkid on the block of directors (and now producers too) on whom the audience can depend for a meaningful entertainer. Neeraj Pandey had a superb beginning with the incredible A Wednesday! (2008), and followed it up with Special 26 and Baby.

With his partner Shital Bhatia of Friday FilmWorks, he also produced this year’s Rustom, and is now set to release his fourth directorial that has already got a lot of attention and anticipation — M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story. And after that, he has a lot more aces up his sleeve.

Totally grounded (a major factor contributing to both his success and excellence), Neeraj stresses that he has never made any film that was not commercial as he does not believe in such films, and would even be willing to do a Dabangg or Rowdy Rathore-like film if he could be convinced about the subject. As for producing and directing movies, Shital and he take a call on which film they will only produce and which he will direct as well.

“When Arun Pandey (co-producer) came up to me with M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story, he had the rights to Dhoni’s life story and wanted me to direct it,” he says. “But when Tinu Suresh Desai, who assisted me on Special 26, came to me with the idea of Rustom, he wished to turn director and in all fairness, I could not take up the direction of that film.”

He credits the filmmaker’s hard work and Akshay’s faith in Rustom for the success of the movie, and the fact that it is the star’s fastest film to touch 100 crore. What is his role then as a producer, when he is not directing a film? “On the floors, it is entirely the director’s call. My onus is on the creative side of the prep, and after that I come in only in post-production,” he reveals.

Before we go on to discuss his new film, I ask how he feels about being the director who took Akshay Kumar’s career into an upward spiral? “I cannot take full credit for it!” he smiles. “Akshay had a big role in it when he accepted Special 26 and decided to believe in the film at that point in his career. Without that, Baby and Rustom would not have been possible. We are making Crack now, which I am directing with him in the lead, and he will also star in the satire Toilet — Ek Prem Katha, which we are producing.”

Neeraj is also producing Naam Shabana. “I am writing this film, which is a derivative of Baby, and stars Taapsee Pannu. It is neither a prequel nor a sequel.”

About M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story, Neeraj reveals that he had planned this long back, when Baby was on the floors. So did Dhoni have to approve the actor who portrayed his role?

“Not at all,” he replies. “My only understanding with Dhoni was that he would be the first to read the script, in case something was factually wrong. Casting Sushant Singh Rajput was again Arun’s idea, but I had to ensure that he could do the role. One look at him at our first meeting convinced me that he could be Dhoni! And it helped that Dhoni and he came from the same kind of background and from almost the same part of the country.”

About Sushant, the director raves, “He has rare potential. We wanted an actor who could transform himself into MS. Sushant has not so much as pushed but actually burnt the envelope. He worked tirelessly for eight months to get into the skin of MS’s character and the honesty of his labour shows in the film.”

Confessing that while he loved cricket, he was not a special fan of any cricketer including Dhoni, Neeraj says that the key point of the film was to tell the people his back story, and how Dhoni reads situations, reacts to them and makes his brave cricketing decisions. “Our suffix, The Untold Story, refers to everything people do not know about him and is not in public domain, for since 2002 or 2003, everything about him is well-documented. We are largely covering the period before that, and the making of the man that is MS.”

Neeraj is also glad that he had Anupam Kher as Dhoni’s father — Anupam has been common to all his directorial ventures so far. “Anupamji is a walking, talking institution. He can play anyone, anything. In my film, he plays MS’s father, Paan Singh Dhoni. He went and met the entire family and spent time with them. His childlike enthusiasm, both on and off-sets, is simply amazing.”

Disha Patani as the innocent woman who plays a key role in Dhoni’s early life, and Kiara Advani as the confident and outspoken Sakshi Dhoni, were also perfect for their roles, he says. But how has he converted a biopic into a musical with seven songs composed by Amaal Mallik? Smiles Neeraj, “Songs are normally considered speed breakers. In my film, they are heard in the background and help take the story forward.”

(Published 24 September 2016, 15:37 IST)

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