Exclusive: Director Ram Madhvani opens up about his upcoming OTT release, The Waking of a Nation

He is currently working on the new series and is set to engross his audience, once again!
In frame: Ram Madhvani
In frame: Ram Madhvani

He has directed advertisements. He has directed short films. He has directed feature films and he has also directed a few web series. Ram Madhvani has seen it all and done it all.

Most noted for Sonam Kapoor starrer Neerja, Kartik Aaryan’s Dhamaka and the crime-thriller series Aarya, starring Sushmita Sen, when it comes to advertisements, he has some memorable ones for Adidas, Happydent White and Airtel — which have all garnered lots of praise. A recipient of multiple awards, Ram is a genius in his field.

One of the most notable aspects of his work is a silent set. So, words like ‘action’, ‘cut’ and ‘silence’ are not used on the set. Also, he steers away from conventional Bollywood movies. We have a fun freewheeling chat with Ram, to know more about the man behind the director, his work, the genres he likes working on and lots more…

Ram Madhvani
Ram MadhvaniFrank Ahalpara
In frame: Ram Madhvani
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From advertisements and short films to feature films and web series — how did it all begin for you?

I think, I always wanted to make a career in it. When I was 16 and anybody asked me what I wanted to become, I would say I want to be a film director. When I was studying in St Peter’s School in Panchgani (Maharashtra) and when I was in a small town called Barsi, which is outside of Sholapur in Maharashtra, my family knew the theatre owners there. So, during holidays, even if it was a housefull, I would still get a seat. I would get a Mangola (a mango drink) and Mangola doesn’t exist anymore, which shows you my age (laughs). And in school, every Saturday night, we were shown a movie in the assembly hall, because we didn’t have theatres nearby. In those two or three hours I was in that space, whether it was in the theatres in Barsi or in school, I would forget a lot of things and also remember a lot of them. I realised that it’s a mood altering experience and I need to be the person who can be in charge of controlling that mood. That’s what I’m interested in. I’m here to, in some ways, change your mood. I have also started to think that in school, we used to have the 16 millimetre projectors and the projectors used to burn sometimes because the film used to be hot. And I think that smell of burning film must have intoxicated me. Even now when I smell burning film, I get a high (laughs).

How much liberty do you take with the script?

A script is written the first time it’s written. The second time it is rewritten at the shoot and the third time it is rewritten at the edit table. So, a script is a roadmap. It’s like a church bell that is inviting you in. It doesn’t matter what was on paper. What matters is what is the intention of what was on paper and whether the intentions came through. What was the feeling that you were trying to get to? If you get that feeling, then I think that that’s all you really need. Even in advertising, I’m not interested in following the script. I’m interested in following the intention and the feeling.

How different was it working in Neerja and Aarya?

Whether you are doing an ad or whether you're doing a film or whether you're doing a series, I think the questions you ask are the same. What are you saying? How are you saying it? And how are you making people feel? As long as you're clear about those and you achieve those, then the rest of it really has to do with the size of that frame or that painting or the canvas. In Neerja, I was the director and in Aarya, I was the co-director. So, a lot of the kudos goes to other people. I've also been the creative producer, I've also been the showrunner. That's where the difference lied for me because I was not just directing all of it myself. Now, I am working on a new series where I am the creator and the director of all the episodes and it sometimes helps to have a showrunner to give you that objectivity. 

Frank Ahalpara

The projects that you work on, they don’t really come into a particular genre. So how do you approach your projects?

I'm interested in the moral conflicts that the characters go through. Let's say in Neerja, she did run away from her husband and her father and there were conversations on the choice that she made. Her husband oppressed her and now the people who came to hijack the plane, they oppressed her. So, her own reaction to that was the moral choice that she made. In Aarya, the moral choice that she has is whether to be a mother or a daughter or a wife and she chooses being a mother. So, these moral choices, which are in my head, are conversations about karma and dharma and those are the conversations that are part of our own upbringing. And for many years, I was trying to crack Aarya because eventually she puts her father in jail and I asked myself, “will the people accept that she put her own father in jail?” And the answer was, yes, provided we tell people that she's being a mother first. 

When we look at your projects, they steer away from the conventional mainstream kind of cinema. Was it a conscious decision to do so?

Not really. I love Hindi movies. I love European movies. Sonam Kapoor, for instance, told me, “Ram, you are the most commercial director I know.” So, the people I am reaching out through advertisements, or through Neerja or through Aarya, are what I call the family audience. When I go to Lucknow or Jaipur to meet part of our family, I like it when they come up to me and say that they have seen my work. I feel commercial in the way that I do believe in making sure that the people who put money in, get back their money.

In frame: Ram Madhvani
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When it comes to your projects, what is the process of setting the final cast?

I work with people who want to work with me. I don't think I'm in the position of power. I think that they are in the position of power. The people who are working with me, they sign up for a system. I don't work with lights. I work with four or five cameras. I do long takes. I try not to do it in the traditional handcuffs of the industrial processes of filmmaking. 

When it comes to a scene or a shot for that matter, do you tell your actors how to do a scene or do you let them find their own chemistry?

As a director, you actually don’t know. As a director, you can’t tell a music director to play a particular note. You can’t tell an actor to do a shot in a particular way. The last thing that a director like me does is act. I will never show an actor how to act. That’s not my job. My only job is to inspire. I have a vision and that vision has to be passed on. But I don’t have the instrument, the actors are instruments. With my experience, I may not know what to do but I definitely know what not to do.

We have heard that you have a silent set. Which means, words like ‘cut’ and ‘action’ are not used. Can you tell us more about it?

It has become a bit of a fable and a bit of a myth. We just did a shoot for Waking of a Nation, which is the next series that I’m working on, where there were around 800 people on set and these are the times at which you can’t run a silent set. But if I am working with around 150 people, the set will remain silent. I find that the word ‘action’ changes the molecules in your body. As soon as you say it, it’s like ‘oh my god! What’s happening here?’ So, I don’t do that. And I think nobody should say ‘silence’ because it changes the way the environment was working without it.

Finally, what can we expect from you next?

We just finished working on a series for SonyLIV, which I am editing currently. It’s called The Waking of a Nation. It’s about colonialism and racism and it’s set in 1919 India. I’m also working on two feature film scripts currently.

The Waking of a Nation will stream soon on SonyLIV.

Email: alwin@newindianexpress.com

X: @al_ben_so

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