Om Raut: There’s a reason why forms of theatre have existed for more than 100 years in our country

A year ago, he made an entry into Bollywood, and quite grandly that too, with the historical action drama Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior, directed and co-written by him and headlined by Ajay Devgn, Saif Ali Khan and Kajol. The film was a cinematic delight (clearly meant to be consumed on the big screen), and today, Om Raut is gearing up for his next, Adipurush, a re-telling of the Ramayana, starring Prabhas as Ram and Saif as Raavan. The filmmaker talks to BT about the challenges of making an epic film, his passion for the big-screen experience, creative boundaries and more. Read on…

A year ago, Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior was running to packed houses in theatres. How did that change your life?

It was my first Hindi film, and to be a part of a successful film is something that every artiste and every director wants. Thanks to Ajay Devgn sir and (producer) Bhushan Kumar’s vision, I got an opportunity to narrate a story the way I saw fit, and the public showed acceptance for it. It opened more doors for me. A successful film opens Pandora’s box of satisfaction, opportunities, and recognition. You find yourself seated amidst people you’ve idolised in your life. Today, I want to make every film like it’s my last. Who knows? It might just be! I want to approach

my films as if I might not get another chance. That just means that I pull all stops and go for the kill. When I made Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior, I didn’t have another Tanhaji on my CV. The work we put in was tremendous. That’s how I will approach Adipurush also. Success should at best boost confidence, and failure must not pull you down

Adipurush is your re-telling of the Ramayana, a story that people have been widely exposed to over the ages, it makes the process doubly challenging, right?

It’s a tough film to make and it’s an important subject for me and a half billion people in the world. I am looking forward to this journey where I get to narrate a story that I hold close to my heart, and as a tech-geek, I get to use technology to aid the storytelling. It’s the calm before the storm. We’re into extensive and detailed prep for every shot. The idea is to assume that people who are coming into the hall have at least seen this story eight or nine times in the past. How do I then get them to enter the theatre for the 10th time, and come back the 11th time? I have to narrate this story in such a way that people come back for more; layer it in such a way that each time you see it, you get to see a different hue of the characters, and there is something more to take home. People won’t stop retelling this story. We’ve all known the Ramayana, but reading it clarified so many things for me, it changed my perspective about life. If I can translate that through a film like Adipurush, produced by T-Series, for the youngsters, I’m home.

How are you preparing Saif Ali Khan and Prabhas to play Raavan and Shri Ram — characters that are so deeply etched in public memory?

It’s a process that we slide into. Prabhas is based out of Hyderabad. I’ve travelled there once, and he’s been here once. The rest has happened over phone calls and readings over video chats. The thing is, all three of my films are based on a whole lot of written material available to us. I read, write, and deep dive into the material. I talk a lot to all my actors. They pick up what they have to from it for their characters. I don’t know how else to do it. As a director, I can tell them what I seek. As artistes, they find their own way to get there. I tell my actors everything that they need to know — the direction from which their characters are coming and where they are headed. The actors, for the last three-four months, have been undergoing language training, because the film has a certain tonality. We do readings and workshops using video calls. Fortunately, both the actors are into fitness. Prabhas has been training to play an archer. He’s also been working out twice a day.

Saif won immense praise for his deadly portrayal of Udaybhan in Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior. Was that one of the factors that drew you to bring him on board as Raavan for this magnum opus?

When you write, you also imagine someone playing the part. Though Udaybhan’s character from Tanhaji is in the past now, I know how to work with Saif sir. While writing Adipurush, I was certain that I needed a committed and passionate actor who can deliver every shot perfectly. I’ve seen how hard Saif sir worked to paint Udaybhan the way he came across in the film. He toiled with me. We had a wonderful working experience. It’s satisfying to work with an actor who goes the extra mile to perfect every shot. When it comes to Lankesh or Raavan, you need a solid actor to pull off the part. Saif sir is a phenomenal artiste who has the potential to play strong characters and the knack to slip into them with ease. For both my films, he was the first choice.

With the way cinema exhibition is changing, do you feel apprehensive about where Adipurush might be released?

No, I don’t because you can watch content on large screens at home, but that is not the India I make my films for. That is not where my brothers and sisters consume cinema. They enjoy it in a cinema hall. We believe in community entertainment and experiencing emotions collectively. There’s a reason why forms of theatre (plays) have existed for hundreds of years in our country. As a collective, we want to watch a spectacle together. So, yes, people will come back to cinemas, but there could be a clear division between what they want to watch on the big screen and what they prefer watching at home.

Saif’s comment about displaying the humane side of Raavan landed Adipurush into a controversy, following which he had to apologise. Do you feel the need to now work with a lot more caution?

Saif sir issued a statement and he has apologised. So, we should leave it at that. As for acting with caution, I feel that if something is said about someone who I feel very strongly about, I will get offended. I understand where things stand today. But if you maintain the sanctity of the subject in your mind and work in keeping with th at, you won’t go wrong. Cinema is a medium of perception that can’t have a yardstick. It’s a filmmaker’s choice how he or she narrates a story. We, as the audience, have the right to reflect on it. Having said that, the term ‘cinematic liberty’, is often misunderstood. It does not mean that you twist historical facts or timelines that have been passed down for generations to us through written material, verbal stories and more. That is simply twisting history. If factually a dagger had pierced the warrior’s body, cinematic liberty is only the manner in which you depict how it hits him and how he reacts to it.