Vidhu Vinod Chopra on Expanding from Bollywood to Hollywood with 'Broken Horses' (Q&A)

Vidhu Vinod Chopra - H
VC Films

One of India's top directors makes his U.S. debut with the tale of a drug war on the U.S.-Mexican border.

When Vidhu Vinod Chopra first went to Hollywood it was in 1979 for the Oscars. The then 26-year-old was nominated in the documentary short category for An Encounter With Faces – a film about the plight of India's destitute children.

Chopra didn't have the money for a tuxedo so he passed off his night suit as India's national dress. He still remembers the night - he sat next to Jane Fonda, a best actress nominee for Coming Home. Fonda won. Chopra didn't. But the trip proved a life-changer for the young Indian filmmaker. One day, he promised himself, he would return and make an American movie.

Back in India, Chopra established himself as a director and producer of both critical and box office hits. His 1989 feature Parinda (The Bird) was hailed as groundbreaking in its depiction of real-life crime in modern Mumbai.  As a producer, he delivered such tentpoles as 3 Idiots and recently, PK, which, respectively, have grossed some $65 million and $100 million internationally, making them among the biggest Bollywood hits of all time.

For his American debut, Chopra decided to adapt Parinda, the story of two brothers, one who becomes a gangster to finance his younger sibling's education. For Broken Horses Chopra shifted the action to Mexico against the backdrop of a border drug war. The first U.S. film written, produced and directed by an Indian filmmaker, Broken Horses stars Vincent D'Onofrio, Anton Yelchin, Chris Marquette and Maria Velvarde.

The $20 million feature, co-produced by Chopra's banner Vinod Chopra Films with Reliance Entertainment and executive producers David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman, opens worldwide April 10. Fox Star Studios will release Broken Horses in India while Disney India's UTV will handle overseas distribution including the U.S. Sony Pictures holds ancillary, digital and home video rights. Broken Horses has drawn raves from no less  an authority than James Cameron who wrote in a testimonial:  “This film wraps slowly around you like a king snake and squeezes.”

Chopra, 62, spoke with The Hollywood Reporter in Mumbai.

You are one of India's most successful filmmakers. Why do your U.S. debut now?

After I produced 3 Idiots (the 2009 hit comedy toplined by superstar Aamir Khan), the option was really to go on making 4 Idiots, 5 Idiots and so on. But for me life is not just about doing the same thing again and making tons of money. Life is about challenges you create for yourself... I am not the kind of guy who'd go for a long, lazy drive – I'd rather climb Mount Everest. This is the first time an Indian has written, directed and produced a Hollywood film. For me the satisfaction was to get rave comments from the likes of Jim Cameron and Alfonso Cuaron. Even Steven Spielberg saw it.

Broken Horses is an adaptation of your 1989 film Parinda, which is still considered a game changer in Hindi cinema for its unique style. What made you think it would work in an international version? 

I was in the U.S. for the screening of my film Eklavya - The Royal Guard (India's 2007 Oscar entry starring Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan) which was well reviewed. The LA Times said it was “a lost film by David Lean”. During the trip, me and my writer Abhijat Joshi saw Martin Scorsese's The Departed and we thought the original film (Hong Kong action drama Infernal Affairs) on which it was based, was better. So we were just joking, what if we could remake our film Parinda into an English film? It started as an audacious idea and then became a serious thing.

How challenging was it to write the English-language script together with Abhijat Joshi, who you've collaborated with on screenplays for some of your most successful Bollywood productions?

It was insanity. We had creative consultants from Hollywood such as writer-producer Jason Richman (Bangkok Dangerous) and Oscar winning editor and sound designer Walter Murch (The Godfather). Broken Horses is a film about two brothers and their relationship: there is a lot of our [Indian] culture in it.

Jim Cameron first read the script and called me and said: 'I would like to meet the writer.' And I said sure Jim, when can we meet? He didn't realize that Abhijat and I  wrote it.  I explained that we left our names off the script because if you knew a script about the Mexican drug war was written by two Indians, you wouldn't go past page three. 

But we showed our script around Hollywood and got good feedback. We actually started getting writing assignments which was a good sign.

How did the financing and packaging of Broken Horses come together?

Jeff Berg (former head of ICM) saw Eklavya and sent me a mail saying that he represented talent like Bernardo Bertolucci and Roman Polanski and he wanted to sign me. At first I thought this was a hoax. Anyway, he became my agent and then we got David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman (Mandeville Films founders whose credits include The Fighter) as executive producers. They were introduced by (Sony Entertainment CEO) Michael Lynton who also liked the Broken Horses script.

My mantra is the message of 3 Idiots – in life you have to first chase excellence and success follows. I liked Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Oscar speech when he joked that two Mexicans winning two years in a row [after last year's win by compatriot Alfonso Cuarón for Gravity] was suspicious. But to me what he was really saying is that its all about talent. The bottom line about Hollywood is that if you have talent and a good script, people will come and support you. That's what happened with me. I just had a script and nobody knew who I was.

Did you have any particular actors in mind while you were writing the script?

Yes and no. We were actually planning this film with Nicolas Cage and Joel Edgerton. At one point during the writing process, an upcoming actor at the time called Jeremy Renner was also working on the script with us. Then I was back in India for a while and suddenly Renner became a big star with The Bourne Legacy.

For the role of Buddy, one of the two brothers in Broken Horses, I needed a new face. Jeremy was no longer a new face and even though the financing would have been more viable with him I went looking for someone new. I am very happy with Chris Marquette (Alpha Dog) who was finally cast in that role.

Did you show Parinda to the cast?

I didn't show it to them.  Only Joel Edgerton – when he was attached at one time – saw it when he came to India. Broken Horses takes off from Parinda but it is actually very different. It goes on a new direction. Also, our acting styles [in Bollywood] are different and I didn't want my [American] actors to think that that was the kind of performance I wanted from them. I didn't want people to say: 'Oh this is Bollywood coming to Hollywood.'  For me, this was trying to find a new style of filmmaking. I wanted the first Hollywood film written, produced and directed by an Indian to be one that makes all Indians proud.

Was your shooting style different considering this is the first time you worked with a mostly American crew?

It was a great experience shooting with my crew - I had so much love and affection from everyone. They all danced to Hindi film music for the surprise wrap party video. My cameraman Tom Stern – who has worked with Clint Eastwood for three decades including on American Sniper - bonded so well with me that we used to joke we were like lost brothers out of a Bollywood film plot.  Vincent D'Onofrio said he and I were brothers from the east, since he is from New York's east side!

What kind of audience reaction are you expecting in India and the U.S.?

For Indians, ideally it should be a proud moment. For Americans, I hope they discover Broken Horses as a very warm-hearted film. [In his testimonial] Alfonso Cuaron said that in all my films “the characters are driven by love”. The film's characters are who we are as Indians - driven by love as a culture. That's why I had to make one brother slow and child-like (Buddy). There's a trail of blood but there's also a trail of love.

Your Bollywood hits have played well overseas, even beyond the diaspora. Your previous release PK will also open in China. What lessons have you drawn about the international appeal of Hindi films?

I believe that you can make any film - in Hindi or English – and if your story and script moves people, it will go through the barriers. I mean, we see Spanish and Korean films doing this because its their stories which catch your heart. As different as we may be from America, deep down we are the same human race.

What have you learnt from your Hollywood experience so far and what is it you want to change about Hollywood?

I admire their professionalism. The thing I want to change is that I'd like to give them a little more of my heart. They are too legal – too many lawyers, agents, too much of a lack of emotion. If I could change that, I would give them a bit of India in terms of emotion and feeling. And what I would take for them is fantastic professionalism and give it to my guys here.

What is it you want to change about Indian cinema?

I would like them to try more innovative stories, I want to throw challenges at them. Bollywood has become a little lazy in the sense that if one kind of movie does well, then there are a host of similar films. But things are changing here and we are getting movies that are different and interesting. What Bollywood should learn from Hollywood is complete and total commitment, dedication and professionalism.

Going forward, do you see yourself working in the Hollywood studio system?

We are already talking. I was just in the U.S. where I had meetings with [Lionsgate CEO] John Feltheimer and we are looking at doing business with them. I am very friendly with Michael Lynton so we are looking at doing some business with Sony. My idea is to make films in Hollywood and in India as well. This means, adapting a Hollywood film for India or taking big Indian films and remaking them as Hollywood films. It will really be an exchange of ideas between Hollywood and Bollywood. My productions such as PK - which has grossed over $100 million - 3 Idiots and the Munnabhai franchise, all have the potential to be developed as English films.

See James Cameron talk about 'Broken Horses' :