India, May 23 — When I connect over a conference call with director producer Ramesh Sippy, the first thing that strikes me is the old world way of holding a conversation that is warm yet professional. He doesn’t ask for my name as he is already aware of it and uses it to addresses me rather than the impersonal salutation that many of the current crop engages in. He doesn’t want to enter into the interview headlong but first inquires which part of the world I am holding the conversation from. On hearing that I am connecting from Delhi, he quips “You are better off as things are opening up while in Mumbai, we can’t venture out as yet.” Clearly, even if you are the director of a larger-than-life spectacle like Sholay, you have to abide by the whims of a microscopic virus and adjust to life accordingly.
He is doing just that. His Ramesh Sippy Academy of Cinema and Entertainment (RSACE) at Kalina, Mumbai, which runs five graduation courses around film making in association with the Mumbai University and Garware Institute since 2017, has shifted to the online module of teaching. Given the nature of the profession and the way it is taught, where physical contact seems essential, I wonder how it would be possible to continue to teach online indefinitely and he says, “That is a million dollar question. No one knows how we will go forward. and what’s happening. We do not know what shape and form the course the pandemic will take. We will have to see how much it is possible to go back to the normal or whether in the next six months or one year we do a mix of online and physical classes or just the former.” But one thing he is sure of, his vast repertoire of films helps budding film makers learn the craft.
It is not just teaching film making that will be affected but the profession leading up to it is bound to take a hit in the way that it works. Already, there are speculations about the manner in which intimate scenes would be shot, something which Sippy’s film Sagar had in ample measure between the lead pair of Dimple Kapadia and Rishi Kapoor. The director is unfazed and says, “Technology is there to help us do a lot of things that we cannot. Even five, 10 or 20 years back, we used technology in Sholay and Shaan to change the face of cinema. At that time, those were creative decisions but now they might become necessary.” He goes on to point to several projects where people are sitting at home and relating interesting stories through short films. “That is a new way of story-telling now but, of course, this can’t be permanently used for entertainment, he says and adds, that it was possible as humans, by their nature, are a race of thinkers.
He believes that taking things lying down is not the appropriate reaction to the reaction. “It is good to understand what the problems are but it is not a good idea to sit back and let the virus take over your entire life. We have to stand up and fight for the welfare of society and individual. If we try to look after everyone, everyone will look after us. There will, of course, be stray cases of unfortunate incidents of people who we cannot help.”
He resorts to a history lesson to explain the point further. “There hasn’t been a World War for 70-75 years. But we are now facing Coronavirus across the world, which is nothing short of a war. We will resolve this too. There will be suffering along the way, naturally, but that is the price we pay. We would learn a lot of new things along the way,” he says optimistically.
Another resort to the past is the way Doordarshan decided to telecast the serials of yore which commanded huge fan-following including Sippy’s Buniyaad , which followed a migrant family during Partition. He believes that the serial has struck a chord among the younger generation as “it was basically a good story about the events that took place.” And there are parallels in contemporary life as well. “In north India, there were refugee camps and people were confined to them. It is a reminder of those times when the confinement was greater and, the problems, more dangerous,” says the director.
Talking of Buniyaad naturally brings us to his love for ensemble casts which was evident not just in the serial but also in films like Shaan (1980), Sholay (1975) and to an extent,
Seeta aur Geeta (1972). “Of course, I like working with bigger casts but it is never easy. It is the challenge that eggs you on. The actors too could feel the vibes of something very good being made and, with so much care and attention, they put their best foot forward,” he says as his voice fades out over a connection that is often patchy.
Another thing that was very much apparent in his films were larger than life villains. Whether it was Gabbar Singh menacingly asking his cohorts, ” Kitne aadmi the ?” or Shakaal declaring, ” Ajeeb janwar hai . Kitna bhi khae bhooka hi rehta hai ,” – both could chill you to the bone. Sippy retorts, “Don’t heroes come out larger than life? Were heroes, like Amitabh or Dharmendra ordinary?”
However, it wasn’t a huge canvas rather a heartwarming story that the director started his career with. The son of producer GP Sippy, after having assisted during several films, decided to turn director with Andaz in 1971. The story about a widower’s daughter and a widow’s son bringing the duo together was unconventional given the time when second marriages were uncommon. Add to it the fact that Sippy was all of 25. “Everyone called me a fool for attempting a film like that. Reactions included, ‘You are a young guy. What are you doing making a film on a widow and a widower. What is wrong with you?'” His father was also surprised that he wanted to debut as director with this film. When he approached actor Shammi Kapoor for the role of the widower, his reaction was not very different but for an altogether different reason. Shammi, who was known for his light-hearted and stylish romcoms which featured great music as well as a lot of Elvis Presley-inspired dancing asked, “Do you know what I am famous for? Dancing and singing. What are you trying to do?” A young Sippy, backed by a powerful idea, was undeterred and said, “‘Haven’t you done enough of that? Let us try something different.’ He looked at me, somewhere it clicked and he agreed.”
Sippy was completely convinced that, despite the zeitgeist of the age, the world would not object to a man who had lost his wife and has a daughter coming together with a woman who had lost her husband and had a boy. “If you make a film like that, you need to make the audience want them to come together so they had to be warm people with feelings,” says Sippy thoughtfully. Luck favoured them and superstar Rajesh Khanna agreed to be a part of the film. “The music was superb while the story telling was interesting and bright. It was a warm story told with an unusual angle with great performances,” he says and pauses. The gap becomes inexplicably long and we realise that we have lost the connection with him yet again.
Once reconnected, Sippy’s voice still wavers and when I suggest that we should re-connect again, he retorts, “It is a Coronavirus phone,” and guffaws before adding, “Everyone is on the phone and the internet so these are being used beyond their capacities.”
He repeated Hema Malini, the protagonist in Andaz , in Seeta Aur Geeta . Again many people felt that a double role for a woman and that too on the lines of Ram Aur Shyam (1967), which had been essayed by none other than Dilip Kumar was a huge risk. “I felt this one was better. The idea of Dilip Kumar being exploited was not as convincing as a young woman suffering the Cinderella syndrome,” he says. What also immensely helped the popularity of the film was Sanjeev Kumar and Dharmendra, two fine actors and young superstars in their own right, being cast opposite Hema. “It is not easy in India to convince the male actor to take on the secondary role. Their characters were interesting but Hema had the cream and they were supporting her. It was great of them to say yes. In its commercial way the film spoke about a woman,” he says.
But it was Sholay that placed him in the big league so much so that even now his name is synonymous with the film. Sippy recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award at Filmfare Awards which was held in Assam in February this year and he feels that it was given to him mostly because of Sholay . However, he doesn’t deny, “I do have a body of work and I couldn’t have made a Sholay without having made Andaz or Seeta aur Geeta .”
The fact that the film continues to be a phenomenon where its dialogues are still quoted in different situations off screen is lost on no one. But at the time of filming no one, least of all Sippy, realised it. “I could feel that we were making a great film. How can you predict it was a phenomenon? It just happened, you couldn’t predict it. People found something new every time they watched it,” he says attributing its success to a combination of its technique, storytelling, performances, music and background score. He credits writer duo Salim Javed, lyricist Anand Bakshi, music director RD Burman ,the technicians and cameraperson along with the cast which came together to put up a great show.
Considering that remakes are often attempted of films that break box office records, what are Sippy’s views on the same? “I wouldn’t make Sholay . It is not like remakes can’t work but you should add something to it or have a new take on it. A film like Titanic was made 20 years before this version. Mother India had been made by Mehboob Khan less than 10-15 years ago before the colour film which was a much bigger and improved version of the original and it worked brilliantly. It is very difficult to add to Sholay which already has so much. I fail to see why I should attempt to make it? If someone has the confidence they should do it but make it worth the attempt,” he says recalling the fate of Ram Gopal Varma Ki Aag (2007).
With the advent of OTT platforms, newer directors and increased exposure of the audience, Sippy agrees that films have changed. “Not just the story but the whole storytelling technique has changed. You are, after all, telling the story to a completely different audience which has the sensibilities of the time it lives in. Today’s viewers are very different from the audience of the 1960s, 70s, 80s or 90s. While the themes continue to be the same, love stories or revenge dramas, because we are humans, the narrative style has transformed. That is the challenge as you have to do something differently for today’s age and do it as interestingly as possible hoping that the audience will like it,” says Sippy matter factly.
It is not just story-telling which has transformed but the way that the audience consumes entertainment as well. “Something which is for the phone will remain for the phone and will never be as as impressive on screen. Under the present circumstances, people are saying that cinema may never come back but I don’t believe it. If you have an experience to share with people that is worth it, they will come to the theatre. Aren’t people feeling fed up at home during lockdown? They want to step out and cinema would enable them to do that, of course, at the right time – three or six months down the line,” he says and adds, “This is a good note to end,” but when I persist that I do have a few more questions left, he teases, “You don’t want to talk to me another time? Let’s keep it for that.”For any query with respect to this article or any other content requirement, please contact Editor at firstname.lastname@example.org