Inspired much

Inspired much

His oeuvre is limited but near-flawless: Cheeni Kum (2007), Paa (2009), Ki & Ka (2016), and (as producer) English Vinglish in 2012. The only blot on R Balki's stainless record was the experimental Shamitabh in 2013. Add over two decades of glittering work in the ad world, and we know that while a great director can falter once in a blue moon, it does not in any way reflect upon his calibre and approach to work.

And Balki is so magical as a film-maker that he was the first and only choice when Twinkle Khanna, returning as a (reinvented) producer after mishaps like Action Replayy, Khatta Meetha, Patiala House and Tees Maar Khan, decided to make a story on one of India's finest innovators: Arunachalam Muruganantham, a humble South Indian rural welder. This humble but daring man went on to revolutionise menstrual hygiene in India with economical sanitary napkins that he fabricated and distributed himself, fighting social and circumstantial obstacles, and coming up trumps.

Friendly vibes

Meeting Balki is a complete experience by itself: few souls in showbiz are as affable and
approachable as he is. He is always in an effervescent mood, guffaws very frequently, and sits in a new office that is a model of how a successful adman and a 2018 film-maker must design his sanctum sanctorum - cosy, warm and 'cool' at the same time, and spaciously uncluttered, just like his movies.

We exchange normal chat and then get down to business. "Yes, Akshay Kumar and Twinkle called me, as it was Twinkle who had met Arunachalam. I was actually against doing biopics as I was nervous about their outcome. But then, I ruminated upon the fact that the story was fascinating and entertaining, and that no one had spoken about menstrual hygiene before. So, I thought I must go ahead. I like to make films that deal with something never seen before in our cinema."

The major change that Balki made in the story was to shift the milieu to the North, Madhya Pradesh to be precise, and so his past associate (only as a lyricist) Swanand Kirkire, who hails from Indore, was brought in to co-write the film. "I would say that this film is a dramatised entertainer inspired by Arunachalam rather than a biopic. Like Sonam Kapoor's character does not exist in real life," he declares. "But yes, it has Arunachalam's blessings and approval!"

Balki found it ironic as well as interesting that Twinkle's book The Legend Of Lakshmi Prasad also has an interpretation of the pioneer's life as one of the stories. "Though Akshay is also named Lakshmi in my film, interestingly, Twinkle ends up with two different interpretations of Arunachalam - as a writer and, in this film, as a producer!" he chuckles.

Balki dismisses the idea that Akshay Kumar was not the first choice for the role. "Twinkle was joking when she said that," he says. "There was no question of anyone else doing this role."

He marks off the reasons for this: "We needed a big star, but what was more important was that we needed Akshay, the actor. He is not someone who is interested in painting himself as a genius and so nothing is a big deal for him. Success, per se, does not matter to him, and he will never intellectualise anything - he is completely natural. You see, actors always bring a bit of them into every character, and so he did not copy Arunachalam, but he studied the man and incorporated some small things as well. And Akshay is so unassumingly creative. His fabulous comic timing and his mix of a straight face and his innocence are great assets."

What about Radhika Apte as his wife? "We all know how good an actor  she is," he raves, adding, "And she has automatically changed herself here as she is shown to be from a North Indian state and a villager, which is a far cry from what she actually is. Even Sonam Kapoor has been a fashion diva of sorts, and she is mesmerising in the way she has transformed herself."

"A film-maker brings his own sensibilities to his work," he explains. "I like to write my scripts for the stars after fixing them. And it's refreshing to look at them differently."

Who else plays important roles, apart from, as we are certain, Amitabh Bachchan, his good friend and lucky mascot, in a cameo? He laughs and says, "Yes, Amitji is doing a cameo, and an important one," he laughs. "The other important artistes are Sunil Sinha, Jyoti Subhash and Shruti Mahajan."

Why has he jettisoned his favourite Ilaiyaraja this time? "Oh, I wanted completely North Indian music this time, and I know Amit Trivedi very well. He has done a splendid job. Ilaiyaraja-sir is like my muse, and he will come in whenever I feel I need him. Even in my last film Ki & Ka, he had composed the background score and one song."

Films forever

One question that we wanted to ask last time but never got around to it: why did he quit the ad world? "Oh, I felt that it is when you are really enjoying something, that's the time to drop it to maintain your love for it," he says with a twinkle in his eye. He guffaws when we mention that we hope that he does not get to love film-making so deeply too! "I have hardly done work here, compared to over 20 years in the ad world," he says.

Quiz him on the PadMan-Padmaavat clash, and characteristically, he is open about it. "I find it silly," he notes. "When two or three big films all insist on the same date, it is unfortunate, and we had fixed this date months ago. As an industry, frankly, we are not that big, despite being next to Hollywood. In fact, our industry is much smaller than the ad film industry! There are only 5,000 theatres and it's not so much a question of who loses more as about the fact that audiences will be divided, and so both will lose."

He goes on with quiet emphasis, "We, as an industry, should care about each other and talk to each other when such situations arise. The idea must be that all get their fair chance to succeed, and so we must help each other, not hinder each other."

Finally, is there any truth in the half-page story in a Mumbai tabloid that he is directing a film with Amitabh Bachchan and Kangana Ranaut? With typical direct brevity, he replies, "None at all."

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