The Mr. Reliable

The Mr. Reliable

There are multiple reasons why Neeraj Pandey has been uniformly successful, whatever the genre, scale or lead cast of his films. As a director, there is no flop to his name, just five path-breaking hits. As a writer-producer, he has also made Rustom (which won Akshay Kumar the National award) and Naam Shabana, India's first spin-off from his successful directorial Baby. He has made a successful Marathi film (Taryanche Bait) and an acclaimed web short (Ouch!). The only blot on Neeraj's cinematic escutcheon is his production Total Siyapaa.

Today, Neeraj is in the unique situation of someone who never needs stars to make hits, though they definitely consider it an honour to be approached and cast by him! In less than a decade, Neeraj is considered as a mainstream film-maker who does not make conventional content.

Quality over quantity

Though having a yen for well-researched subjects around our nation's security (A Wednesday!, Baby, Rustom, Naam Shabana and now his latest film Aiyaary), he has shown good variety in his movies. His second film, as we know, was the con-caper Special 26 that first inspired Akshay Kumar to make different kinds of commercial films. Neeraj's biggest hit, M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story is a sportsman's biopic, and his web short Ouch! is a satirical comedy. In short, Neeraj makes sure that his content is king, and a king who is always blessed by a film-maker's true God - the audience!

As he put it: "A Wednesday! was a commercial film and the audience was extremely important to me as a storyteller. If I was involving so much talent and resources, there had better be an audience. Otherwise, I would have made a home video for myself."

The soft-spoken, unassuming film-maker is always low-key and modest, laughing off his undeniably big achievements. We begin our interaction by speaking not about his latest film Aiyaary, but about completing a decade in this industry. "Actually, it does not seem like 10 years at all, it seems like only yesterday I started off," he says, and one can almost see the smile even though we are in a phone conversation. "My feel and my zeal for cinema is intact. I make movies with the same passion, never for the sake of making them. I chase an idea, then I am excited about how it will work out, and I still spend the same time and energy on making a film."

He, however, is quick to add that all the experiences have "calmed us (his partner producer Shital Bhatia and him) down a bit. We now take decisions more sensibly, we see a broader picture, and I thank all my collaborators down the period for enhancing my films with their inputs."

Now that the world is his for the asking, including the biggest stars if and when he needs them, can we get an idea of how tough it was to make his first film, A Wednesday!, all of 10 years ago, that too without stars, romance and songs, and market and release it as well in that rather confused era of film-making?

He ruminates, "Of course, there were multiple challenges. I needed money to make the film. My first film had to be interesting, but the buyers were just not there  because we did not have any commercial frills. We enjoyed the process of making the film eventually because we were sure that everything was negotiable except the script and the cast." His dream cast, of course, actually came on board.

Neeraj admits that the film was delayed by a year because their co-producers and distributors UTV Motion Pictures were not finding the right "release window" - that is, the date of release that has the right screens and shows and nothing big as competition. "We finally locked September 5, two weeks after their other offbeat release, Mumbai Meri Jaan."

A Wednesday! created history. Just over 90 minutes long, with two stalwarts as antagonists - Anupam Kher and Naseeruddin Shah - and an intensely patriotic theme, the film became a superhit. "In the second week, more theatres were added, and in the third week, even more," says a gratified Neeraj. "With all due credit to the audience, they embraced the film."

Did things become easier after that? Neeraj laughs. "No, the second film took four years! As Naseer-saab said, after the first film, everyone thinks they know where you are coming from and put you in a box. So, when I started Special 26, which was an expensive film because of the creation of a period 26 years earlier, even my actors were excited but a shade nervous."

Neeraj could be, however, credited with the shift in Akshay Kumar's choice of films and image. "No, no!" he replies. "I am the one who should be grateful because he trusted me. The subject needed a big star. I approached several stars, among whom only Akshay understood the budget and the project best. It was a piece of anti-casting actually, and he responded to the fact that he could not charge us his market price, or things would have gone haywire."

Says Neeraj wryly, "After Special 26, there was another set of opinions. When I next made a song-less and unconventional thriller, Baby,  I was called a "Thriller-waala banda (man)!" So, apprehension spread when I next announced the biopic of a living cricketer, M S Dhoni."

In all his output (when we first met, the film-maker had told me that "storytelling is the only thing I know!"), what makes him decide which of the films he writes and produces he would direct himself? "Two things," he answers. "My gut feeling, and then, my schedules decide that. For example, when Rustom had to be made, my film on Dhoni was going on, and I could not direct both films."

But what does the title Aiyaary mean? "Aiyaary refers to anyone who can change form at his will - a form of sorcery. There's a term for them called "shape-shifters". It is derived from the word 'aiyaar', which I first read in a Devaki Nandan Khatri novel, and was made popular by the serial Chandrakanta."

Current call

In Aiyaary, Manoj Bajpayee, who plays an army colonel, is like a mentor to Sidharth Malhotra, who plays a major, but though both are right from their perspective, the story deals with their differences in approach and what results from that impasse. Are all his stories, biopics apart, also taken or researched from real life? "You could say they are inspired by and rooted in real life. For me, that is mandatory. I like to go deep into such subjects," the film-maker says.

Neeraj also forms quick and lasting bonds with his team. Apart from Anupam Kher, who is a compulsory element in all his films, we have also seen strong bonds with Akshay Kumar, Manoj Bajpayee, Naseeruddin Shah and others. "I do not know why they all like me," he laughs. "But for me, what matters is that all these tremendous actors have no frills or pretensions. They never put up an act and you get what you see."

Finally, why has he moved away from his favourite composer M M Kreem after Special 26 and one song in Baby? "I have not. He will be scoring music for a musical film that is on the backburner now. But we will soon get going on it."

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