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Buddha & rebellion on Gowariker's plate

By Arthur J Pais
September 20, 2009 10:22 IST
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Director Ashutosh Gowariker discusses his next two films with Arthur J Pais in Toronto.

Ashutosh Gowariker's What's Your Raashee? got a solid welcome at the Toronto International Film Festival on Saturday despite some groans that the 192 minute-long film is too unfocussed. Minutes before the red carpet ceremony for the movie, the director told that he will be hugely busy with two very different projects in the next couple of years.

The biggest among them is an English language biopic of Lord Buddha that could cost $100 million, more than thrice the combined budget of his six previous films including Jodhaa Akbar.

Then there is the political thriller based on the book Do And Die: The Story of the Chittagong Uprising 1930-34 about a rebellion against the British in the then East Bengal province.

The yet to be titled Buddha film will be produced by businessman Dr B K Modi and is based on a script by David Ward, who won an Oscar for his The Sting screenplay 35 years ago. Ward also received an Oscar nomination for Sleepless at Seattle 16 years ago.

This will be the costliest film as yet directed by an India-born filmmaker. The films of Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth: The Golden Age) and M Night Shyamalan (The Village, Signs) have not cost more than $75 million each.

Gowariker discussed the two projects with as he got ready for the red carpet for Rashee... at the Toronto film festival where his Lagaan had gained an international profile in September 2001 and went on to be nominated for a foreign film Oscar.

The director spent a couple of days along with his lead stars, Priyanka Chopra and Harman Baweja, in the Canadian city. His was one of three films by India-born filmmakers -- Dilip Mehta's Cooking with Stella and Anurag Singh's Dil Bole Hadippa were the others -- that were chosen for the gala presentation.

Raashee... concluded the Toronto film festival, one of the most popular film events worldwide, which in some observers's opinion ranks a few notches below the Cannes and Venice festivals in its influence and scope.

The Buddha movie, Gowariker said, would have a worldwide release not only because it is planned as a Hollywood production with technicians from Hollywood, India and other countries, but also because it will be distributed by a major Hollywood studio.

Several studios including Sony have shown interest in acquiring the rights once the casting and other technical departments are taken care of.

In the ever-troubled world of materialistic conflicts, Lord Buddha's life offers many challenges to lead an alternative life, the director said, adding that Buddha's story could be told and retold every now and then. "It has timeless appeal," he added.

"This is the first time I am working on a script that had been completed before I was signed on," Gowariker continued. "But as it happens in the case of many such projects, I sat down with David and we worked on a few changes. For me, the emotional content of the story is very, very important."

His involvement with the project began a year ago. "Only now can I speak about it after the negotiations and other arrangements are in place," he added.

Then there is Gowariker's own production based on newspaper editor Manini Chatterjee's book Do And Die: The Story of the Chittagong Uprising 1930-34, which will feature Abhishek Bachchan in the lead role.

"The story gets at most a footnote in history books," the director said. The little sung about heroes ought to be household names across India, he added, for many of them were larger than life figures and their sacrifices and daredevilry ought to be widely known.

Chatterjee's book was published in 1999. "It is a rousing story of commitment and bravery," Gowariker said. "It is going to be a thriller."

It could also be the shortest film he has made in recent years. A typical Gowariker film runs more than two-and-a-half hours.

The thriller genre is new to Gowariker. "When I read Chatterjee's book, I was struck by the cinematic aspects and also by the rousing story it tells," he said. In its pacing and treatment, the film will be radically different from Lagaan, which too dealt with a rebellion against the British.

For the first time in his career, he will work on two projects at the same time, he said.

"I intend to complete the Abhishek Bachchan film in a few months," he said. "There will be room in the film for strong women characters, but I have not finalised the cast. We will also be carrying on researching the locations, looking for the actor for the Buddha project and finalising the details," he added, possibly for a 1911 release.

Gowariker also spoke about What's Your Raashee? and why he thinks it will be a winner.

Rejecting some complaints that his new film is too long, he said anyone goes to see it with an open mind will have not only plenty of fun but a few life-affirming lessons. "I have made a film that has 12 female characters symbolising each raashee (astrological sign)," he said. "I could not have shortchanged any one of them. At the end of the day, it is a light hearted and heart-warming comedy. I believe audiences will react to it very well. There is also suspense as to who is going to be the bride and audiences will wait for the finale."

Music has played a very important role in all his films.

He would love to work again with composer A R Rahman, Gowariker said. The two men joined hands on Lagaan, Swadesh and Jodhaa Akbar. For What's Your Raashee?, the filmmaker signed on newcomer Sohail Sen.

"When I approached Rahman for Raashee..., he was busy with Slumdog Millionaire, and several other projects including Subhash Ghai's Yuvraj," Gowariker said. "Usually between my productions I have about a six month gap, but I was to start What's Your Rashee within a few months of the release of Jodhaa Akbar and Rahman felt he just could not do justice to 13 full fledged songs I needed for my new film. Now, I feel we could work together again."

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Arthur J Pais in Toronto