Q&A: Ashutosh Gowariker


Ashutosh Gowariker acted in Indian television and art house films and in the 1980s, and after a couple of unsuccessful directorial outings he took a leap of faith in 2001 with a film about a simple villager in 19th century British India who challenges the nasty colonials to a game of cricket. "Lagaan" (Land Tax) drew an Oscar nomination for best foreign film, and Gowariker followed up in 2004 with "Swades" (Homeland) about a NASA scientist returning to his Indian village. Now 44, Gowariker has proved it possible to get around the formulaic plots of mainstream Indian cinema. His latest historical epic "Jodhaa Akbar" kicked up a storm of opposition when it opened on Valentine's Day. The tale of 16th century Mughal Emperor Akbar (Hrithik Roshan) and his Hindu Rajput wife Jodhaa (Aishwarya Rai) drew cries of protest about its historical accuracy and saw the ransacking of some of the cinemas screening the three-hour film. A few Indian states issued bans, lifted only after UTV Motion Pictures took its case to India's Supreme Court. Under pressure from some ethnic Rajput, Rajasthan still refuses to show "Akbar." The Hollywood Reporter's Nyay Bhushan caught up with Gowariker about all the fuss -- fuss that helped the $10 million picture boost ticket sales to more than $31 million worldwide.

The Hollywood Reporter: Were you expecting opposition?
Ashutosh Gowariker: I was not expecting this scale of opposition. But I knew there would be some reservations, as people may want to know on what facts I am basing my film. I decided to do research across Mughal and Rajput historic records and also met a section of Rajasthan royalty, with whom I shared the script to get their approval. When they saw the film, they were really proud to see how the Rajputs made a difference in the lives of the Mughals.

THR: How do you view freedom of expression in India as compared with China?
Gowariker: Because we are such a diverse nation, for any work of art it is natural for people to react. But this reaction should only be a form of protest and not about coming out on the street. We are going to express ourselves in this way despite democracy but I mean, why isn't a protest expressed democratically? I don't think this can be curbed or changed. But we also cannot compare with China as we have too much diversity. We have to take it in our stride.

THR: How has "Jodhaa Akbar" changed Indian cinema?
Gowariker: When I chose the subject, what I thought was important is the theme of how these two different cultures, Muslim and Hindu, came together. I knew that this would also have a contemporary resonance today as it is the need of the hour. When you tell a historical story, and it doesn't have any contemporary resonance, then we usually attribute it to the fact that the historical genre doesn't work. We have a glorious past with many epic stories that need to be brought to the screen.

THR: How would you like international audiences to respond to "Jodhaa Akbar"?
Gowariker: First of all it's a romantic story between a Rajput princess and a Mughal emperor that evolves after their arranged marriage, which I think is an unusual theme or plot. Usually it's the other way round. So this could appeal to the international mind. Two, it's a window to medieval India, of how Mughals ruled India and how there are only two emperors we have called "great" – Ashoka and Akbar. The west knows of Alexander the Great. "Jodhaa Akbar" can probably hold a curiosity for them to see who is Akbar the Great. Third, post-9/11, we need to realize that despite different religions we need to coexist. It's not about whose religion and culture is better. We need to believe in what we need to spiritually, but we need to coexist. If you talk about grandeur, then Hollywood has always done that. But these three points are still unique. Also, I wouldn't alter the film by removing its songs to sell it to foreign audiences. I would love Americans to watch the film with this length and songs. Even "Lord of the Rings" and "King Kong" are three hours long and with no songs!

THR: Critics have compared "Akbar" with "Troy" especially as Akbar duels his arch enemy as their armies look on.
Gowariker: I discovered this historical fact about the arm-to-arm combat between Akbar and his warring brother-in-law Sharifuddin with their armies standing on opposite sides. The first thought that came to my mind was that scene in "Troy" between Brad Pitt and Eric Bana and I thought, should I change my sequence because of this or stay truthful to history? I decided that 50 years from now, when people see "Jodhaa Akbar," they should know that this is how it happened. I decided to brave it despite the "Troy" comparisons. I never want to copy anything that has happened elsewhere. I stay steadfast and close to the script. The only scenes out of my imagination are those between Jodhaa and Akbar in their private moments as there are no accounts of those scenes. But I have responsibly imagined them.

THR: Has "Akbar" set a new standard for Indian epics?
Gowariker: I am proud that this is a completely homegrown film, with everything done in India, from visual effects to stunts. We tried to pull it in at $9.25 million but it touched $ 10 million. We don't want to compete with international productions but our ambition is to achieve that standard someday and we are trying to do that within our resources and the scope of the film.

THR: Do your films indicate a direction for Indian cinema?
Gowariker: I wouldn't want to do any special approaches to map out the future course for Indian cinema. I would like to focus on my kind of films and let them to do the talking. Only that way cinema can surprise, elevate emotions and find different markets. You cannot design something to represent a crossover for Indian cinema. It's organic. Yes, we are certainly trying different genres. There was a time when people only went for films with songs and if it didn't have songs it was called art house. Now people watch a shorter movie without songs. That is a positive step for Indian cinema to blossom. I just want to tell the stories that my heart believes in.

THR: So can we expect another epic from you?
Gowariker: Absolutely! I would make another epic based on history and research and still expect reservations and protests. But I will make the film - I will not let all these things disillusion me.

Name: Ashutosh Gowariker
Birthplace: Mumbai
Birthdate: Feb. 15, 1964
Selected filmography: (as a film actor) "Holi" (1984); "Naam" (Name) (1986); "West Is West" (1987); "Saleem Langde Pe Mat Ro" (Don't Cry for Saleem the Cripple) (1989); (as TV actor) "Kachchi Dhoop" (Tender Sunlight) (1987); "Circus" (1989); "CID" (1999); (as film director) "Lagaan" (Land Tax) (2001); "Swades" (Homeland) (2004); "Jodhaa Akbar" (2008)