“A strong woman is a woman determined to do something others are determined not be done,” says American novelist, poet and social activist Marge Piercy.

Farah Khan has proved this time and again. She’s taken a great deal of flak throughout her decades-long (and still running) career and marched ahead with her head held high. She has been one of the most popular choreographers in India who has worked with nearly the entire Hindi film industry, judged numerous reality TV shows, hosted her own celebrity talk show, jumped into acting and produced and directed films. And she’s excelled in these roles.

Farah donned the director’s cap in 2004 and her first film Mein Hoon Na, starring friend and superstar Shah Rukh Khan, was a super hit, becoming the second highest grossing film that year. Her second directorial venture, Om Shanti Om, released in 2007 and smashed box office records. Tees Maar Khan (2010) was not a success, but that didn’t dampen her spirits. Her latest film, Happy New Year (HNY), became the highest earning film on the first day and has entered the INR 200 crore club in the domestic market and grossed nearly INR 400 crore worldwide.

I was greeted by a warm “Assalam-o-Alaikum” when I got a chance to talk to the wonder woman over the phone for Images on Sunday.

Farah Khan’s reign of success over Bollywood as a director continues with her fourth super hit film, Happy New Year

“When we make such a big movie we always hope and pray it works because everybody wants their movie to do well. But we didn’t know it will do this well, so we’re very happy. When a big movie releases, there are a lot of mixed comments: somebody pulls it down, others praise it, but to withstand all that and still continue getting the numbers genuinely means the masses have absolutely loved the film,” says an ecstatic Farah when asked if she had expected HNY to do record-breaking business.

HNY had all the ingredients that appeal to the masses: a big star cast, opulent and extravagant sets, song and dance, beautiful cinematography and bits of comedy. Farah proudly says that’s the kind of cinema she wants to give to the audience.

“I make commercial films only. I don’t make small, boring films. Even if I do, I’ll still try to entertain people because I like watching entertaining movies. Alfred Hitchcock said that the biggest crime you can do to the audience is to bore them. And I don’t want to do that,” she says in her typical candid, casual manner.

The cast of  Happy New Year
The cast of Happy New Year

But while the film may have grossed crores at the box office, it has also generated a lot of criticism. Farah feels generating any feeling is good and that many blockbusters had to face a backlash initially. “Down the ages, from Sholay to Amar Akbar Anthony, every big film would face a backlash in the first week. Sholay was even declared a flop in the first two-three weeks and pulled off from cinemas. But since ours crossed the INR 200 crore mark, it means despite everything, people like it. I always say a film should be given breathing space. Don’t pounce on it on the first day,” Farah responds.

Would it be safe to say that these are the kind of films the masses want to watch?

“I never delve into who will like what. I never thought Mein Hoon Na will do so well in Pakistan. Whenever I meet Pakistanis in London or the US, they have so much love and affection for me because of Mein Hoon Na, which was my most criticised film in India. But down the years that movie has withstood that negativity and criticism from a certain type of people who think I should only make a certain kind of films. They think ‘how dare a woman director make a big commercial movie; she should make those sensitive, small films on women’s issues’. Those films should also be made but don’t pressurise me into making such films.”

Farah says the ‘woman director’ factor could be behind the criticism because people have forgiven other directors for very bad films.

“Ours is an aesthetically pleasing, mind-blowingly shot film presented very well with big production value, good songs and costumes. The direction and production is of a world-class level. So if you criticise this also, then basically you have a problem; that what right does a woman director have to make such a film?”

But Farah is not letting criticism affect her. She has calmed down a lot since Mein Hoon Na and, in her own words, has become “Saint Farah”. With so much attention to the criticism, she says no one talks about the positives. “Boman Irani (one of the cast members) was telling me it’s our weakness that we forget the good things and focus on the criticism. Thousands have praised it but we talk about the two that bashed it. I’m so happy it’s doing so well in Pakistan also. I never try to play jingoism in my films, portray anti-Pakistan sentiments or play up to the gallery.”

Another factor that hit the film was legendary choreographer Saroj Khan not taking her alleged spoof too well and lambasting the director for it. But Farah denies any fun having been made of the former and says she only includes people in her films whom she loves, admires or is herself a fan of. And she chooses to leave it at that.

With a massive star cast, boasting of some of the top names in the Hindi film industry today, the shooting of the film could not have been less than a riot. And that’s what it was. With everyone already close to each other off-screen, there were no hang-ups, tantrums or egos.

“This was one of the best experiences I’ve had in my entire career. We were and are a family. We spent 170-180 days together, which is more than what we spend with our families,” Farah tells me.

Out of the four films she has directed so far, Shah Rukh Khan has featured as the lead in two and in a prominent role in the third, HNY, all of which proved massive box office successes. So why choose only him and not any other lead actor? Is it their decades-old friendship? Other than that, Farah says Tom Cruise is the other actor she would love to work with.

“Why not SRK? I’ve worked with other actors also and realised no one’s better than him. We have a brilliant understanding. Even when he’s a producer, I’ve got 10 or 100 times more than I’ve asked for. I’ll give all of the credit to Red Chillies and SRK as a producer. He’ll always be my first choice … unless I’m making a movie about a child.”

Farah has also worked before with her HNY lead actress, the sultry Deepika Padukone, who debuted in Bollywood with Om Shanti Om. With back-to-back super-hit films recently, Deepika has grown massively as an actress. So what does Farah think of Deepika’s progress?

“In OSO… she was very raw. I had to tell her where to look, turn, what word to stress on, how to give the right expression; just like teaching someone ABCD. This time I only had to explain the scene to her and demonstrate the accent. She’s honed her craft so much and become a great actress,” says the proud director.

Farah is also one of the most active users of Twitter, with over 1.7 million followers. She feels it’s extremely useful, but it also has a lot of disadvantages.

“We have so many followers that probably no newspaper has this much circulation. If we want to give news or confirm or refute anything we don’t have to wait for a paper to carry it the next day, we can just tweet it. It’s like having your own mini newspaper. Its disadvantage, however, is that there’s no control over what people talk about. I’m not active on Facebook; there’s an imposter by my name. With a set of triplets, a husband, a house to run and a movie to make, I find Twitter convenient for putting my thoughts through.”

While Indian films continue to enjoy massive following in Pakistan for years, in India, on the other hand, a handful of Pakistani movies have reached the audience yet — Khuda Kay Liye, Ramchand Pakistani and Bol. Only recently, Zee Television took the first step towards sharing Pakistani content with Indian audience through their new channel, Zindagi, and the plays they have shown have been well-received.

“I hope there is an exchange. Cinema, art and culture should definitely be shared. These things transcend borders. So definitely, they should be shown. Peace is better than war if you ask me as a mother or any other woman on either side of the border,” says Farah while sharing her thoughts.

She hasn’t had the chance to watch Pakistani plays on Zindagi yet or the recent Hindi films starring Pakistani stars, but has met Fawad Khan. “I met Fawad on the TV show I was judging. Bohot acha laga unko mil kar. He was so dignified and mannerly. I’ve never seen so many women on the set go crazy. Women of every age wanted to meet him. That’s when I realised what a big star he is. I saw him in Khuda Kay Liye but haven’t seen his serials. He has great fan following among Indians here.”

Still revelling in the success of HNY, Farah says she hasn’t had the chance to think about future projects. In her usual friendly, casual manner, she says, “Saans to lenay do. Chutti to loon bachhon ke saath! I’ll take a break at the end of the year and start work on the next project in January.”

As we wrapped up the interview, I realised that during the course of our conversation it never felt like I was talking to a star film director. Impressive! Well, here’s hoping Farah comes up with something as big as (or maybe something even bigger than) the biggie Happy New Year.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, November 30th, 2014


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