The Punjabi industry opened their doors to my way of work – Rohit
What defines director Rohit Jugraj best is his grit to graciously and passionately rise after experiencing failure. Even though his Hindi films James and Superstar didn’t work well, Rohit kept his feet firmly on the ground and focused on being a ‘better storyteller.’ He made his Punjabi debut with Jatt James Bond that immediately made the audience take notice of him. This was followed by the 2015 film Sardaarji that had the biggest ever opening for a Punjabi film in Punjab.
With his upcoming film Sardaarji 2 already touted to be a commercial hit, Rohit’s story speaks a lot about his unswerving dedication. In a conversation with Pandolin, the director opens up about his comeback to Bollywood and his long-awaited film on the Battle of Saragarhi among other things.
Your last film Sardaarji did well commercially. Did the response prompt you to make a sequel or did the story demand a sequel from the beginning?
There was no demand of the story or any compulsion (for me) to make a sequel or not. For me it was very important to make a film that has a lot of fun in it, which was there in the first part too. It was filled with aspects that I was not being able to make in Bollywood. I wasn’t big enough to get that sort of a budget in the Hindi film industry. When Sardaarji became successful and touched the kind of collection which was not common for any Punjabi film, it gave us a lot of confidence. This happened earlier in the case of Chaar Sahibjaade also, but that was a religious animation film.
The producers (Gurbir Singh Sidhu & Manmord Sidhu), Diljit (Dosanjh, actor) and I were all quite confident of that fact that we can further explore this story. The producers asked me if I wanted to carry forward Jaggi’s character, who was the ghostbuster in part one. In Sardaarji 2, Jaggi is not a ghostbuster any more and explores different dimensions. What I realized was that there was a potential for a franchise where we can keep the Punjabiyat and humor alive, keep it entertaining and still weave in emotions. For me, part two was a step forward in storytelling. Sardaarji 2 is not just a comedy or a rom-com; it touches upon issues that are close to not just Punjab but every farmer.
So is it primarily about the major issues faced by the farmers?
It starts with certain issues revolving around the villages. You would think that these are issues of a village but then the story travels to Australia and becomes global. The story moves from a small village in Punjab to Australia and we get to see that human beings are the same everywhere.
How different or similar are both the films?
The character of Jaggi and the actor (Diljit) are the common factor in them. Though Diljit doesn’t play the same character of a ghostbuster but like Jaggi, this character also has a slightly disturbed childhood. So he grows up with quirks. At times there are certain issues from your past which we need to overcome, for which you either develop your humor to that extent or build up certain quirks within you which the world finds funny and gradually that becomes your defense mechanism. That is the case with Jaggi and as he grows up he realizes why is he like that. There is an emotional chord that we touch. The similarity is that he goes out to help his village. In the first part he had traveled to London to help a Pakistani couple and this time he is traveling to Australia where he ends up helping an Australian couple and essentially travels to save his village.
Is Diljit playing a double role in it?
You’ll have to see (the film) to find out how the double has been placed. Sometimes you’ll see two Diljits or may be even more, but it is not exactly how doubles are mostly shown.
What is the kind of expertise that Diljit brings to the table?
He is a phenomenal actor, which is the part about him that I really love. For the first time I dealt with an actor with whom I could discuss four different ways of doing a scene. That gives me a high as I know that he won’t get confused or drowned by it. We improvise a lot and there is a lot of humor on the sets.
What made you choose him for the role?
It was an obvious choice for part two. But when the producers had come to me for part one, the choice of actor came first and then we decided the name Sardaarji. We wanted a good actor who could play a complicated role. For a ghostbuster to talk to bottles or to water from where a witch comes out, we needed a really accomplished performer to pull it off.
Despite the fact that Sardaarji did exceptionally well, the slapstick comedy didn’t resonate too well, as per some reviews. What would you say?
I think people who termed it as slapstick didn’t really watch the film. Sardaarji was a comedy film but it wasn’t slapstick. So what I figured out was that the journalists who mentioned it like that wanted some social cause to be shown in the film, which is what Sardaarji 2 will show. It has entertainment with a whole subtext to it.
Was it the mixed response that made you inculcate some causes in the story?
Not really. The biggest reward I got was from the audience. I knew that there is something that they loved about it. But then I asked myself, if that is what I would want to repeat, my heart said that there should be more emotions and layers to it.
When you shifted your focus towards the Punjabi film industry, did you expect Jatt James Bond and Sardaarji to get the kind of success they got?
No, I was only looking at surviving. In Bombay, I was not getting to say my kind of stories in my way. So what do you do in that case? Bade jungle me geedad rehne se toh acha hai ki chote jungle me sher raho…(It is better to be a lion in a small jungle than be a jackal in a big jungle). The Punjabi industry opened their doors to my way of work. It gave me the confidence that irrespective of the language I can truly say stories my way. All my HODs are from Mumbai because I truly believe that language doesn’t matter. Be it international, national or regional – it is just cinema.
After your debut film bombed at the box office, what brought you back with the same passion?
When your first film doesn’t do well and then even your second film doesn’t do well, one doesn’t know how to react. When your film opens to be a flop or a disaster, it shakes up your world. But then you have breakups and breakdowns (in life). Even relationships breakup and everything goes for a toss in your life. But then you realize that it was just a film and the world is still going on. Other people’s lives are moving in the same way and nothing much has changed. It was just a film that you made to entertain people and it should be given only that amount of importance. It was a lesson for me. Things go wrong but one needs to stand up and see how one can be a better storyteller.
After having directed three Punjabi films, what according to you determines the success of a film in Punjab?
Whether we are talking about a Hindi, Marathi or a Punjabi film – everything boils down to just content now. If you have good content, the film will run. People want to be engrossed in it – whether you are showing a biopic, a war story or comedy.
And how do you go about choosing your stories?
It has to be challenging. I’m very thankful to Punjab because with Hindi films I would have never gained this confidence. The confidence is mainly because my team and I have lived up to those challenges.
You started your career by assisting Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Ram Gopal Verma. How has the experience added to your filmmaking journey?
It has hugely added to my journey. Both of them are my gurus and teachers. They are the greatest filmmakers in our country and I really look up to them.
What is happening with your period Bollywood film based on the battle of Saragarhi, which is supposed to have Sanjay Dutt in it?
Sanjay Dutt, another producer and I announced this film in 2008. Being from an army background, this is a subject which is very close to my heart. I don’t know when this film will get moving as it has an enormous budget involved. And seeing the canvas (of the story), I don’t want to downsize it. This is based on the historical battle of Saragarhi, where 21 Sikhs of the 4th Battalion (then the 36th Sikhs) of the Sikh Regiment of British India died fighting against 10,000 Afghan and Orakzai tribesmen while defending an army post.
We were the first ones to announce it but then there have been people coming up and claiming that they want to do it. I can’t stop anybody from going ahead and making it but I would just like to say that I won’t die without making this film. If I die, my ghost will come back to make this film. Even after my death, I’m going to haunt all of them who’ll make the film before me (laughs). It should go on floor as soon as the finances are in place.
What are your other upcoming projects?
After a gap of 10 years, I’m directing a Hindi film which will star Diljit Dosanjh. Also my endeavor now is to come up with a studio that would promote and encourage new talent. It will start in Punjab and then move on to Bombay. The studio will pick new talent, make films that have interesting story lines in budgets which are very low and viable.