Rachana Dubey (BOMBAY TIMES; July 21, 2017)

The failure of his directorial debut may have been a setback of sorts, but the experience taught Sabbir Khan a few valuable lessons about the industry and its ruthlessness. It also made him a man who knows his mind. On the eve of the release of his next, Munna Michael, Sabbir talks to BT about how a film's box-office fate doesn't affect him, how he only pays heed to constructive criticism and why he'd never make a 'pseudo-intellectual' film. Excerpts...

All your previous films were for the same banner. Munna Michael is your first project outside it and many perceive it as your litmus test. Agree?
Would you look at a painting and call it the artist's litmus test? No one has a 100 per cent record, but everyone's intention is the same - to make an interesting film. I know that the industry is a ruthless place and only success is worshipped, but these things have never affected me. I'm not nervous or anxious about the outcome of Munna Michael. A story excited me and I set out to make it, that's all. The only time I am under pressure is when I am choosing a story. I am particular about it being interesting and universal.

Commercial cinema thrives on the universality of content. But don't you think it's a tad difficult to pinpoint what is universal and what isn't?
My math is simple: Can everyone watch what I'm making as a filmmaker or is it targeted at a select subset? At its core, Munna Michael is about fulfilling your dreams. Almost everyone can relate to that. We're all caught up with something while we have some other dreams. I grew up watching films in theatres that housed a thousand people, and everyone would react the same way - for me, that is the universality of content; it has become the basis of my filmmaking. I can't narrate stories in a dry or dull manner. I can't make biopics or pseudo-intellectual fare just to be taken seriously as a director.

Do you agree that the days of typical Bollywood commercial films are numbered?
Nothing in life disappears. Fashion, films, food...Everything is reinvented and presented with a relevant perspective. This is the golden age of Indian cinema, where compelling stories narrated beautifully have taken precedence over everything, including the star system that was the norm in the 80s and 90s. Having said that, Hindi cinema has its unique identity and that shouldn't be lost while we're trying to be different. While we're aiming to be unique, we shouldn't ape a Korean, Hollywood or a French film and add a Hindi subtext. We must find ways to keep our identity as an industry intact while narrating stories in diverse ways with a fresh set of actors. No one has a formula for surefire success. Creativity and sincerity are the only way forward.

Masala films are often accused of giving their heroines a raw deal while focusing entirely on the hero...
(Cuts in) Yes, uneducated, non-liberated film writers and directors should be blamed for that. Also, this question would have been more relevant a few years ago when that was prevalent. As a director, I have always kept my stories real and characters balanced. Munna Michael belongs to Tiger, but it's also Nidhhi's film. I don't accept or encourage stories where the girl is nothing more than a cardboard. Shraddha Kapoor, Kriti Sanon and even Nidhhi will vouch for that.

Munna Michael and Baaghi ran into legal issues despite all your sincerity and effort. Does that demoralize you as a filmmaker?
It doesn't; I believe in our judiciary and the systems that the industry has set up. There were cases when we announced Munna Michael, but I was never scared. My team and I work on the screenplay for months to bring something novel to the audience. So, the best way out is to submit the script before the court and the result will be for everyone to see. But yes, these episodes irk me. There are a few who are interested in making films and there are some who do this for free publicity.

How much does criticism impact your work?
Constructive criticism helps. For example, after my first film, a critic had pointed out that the use of the word 'bitch' was not right. My screenplay writer and dialogue writer were girls who had no problem with the word, but I understood what the critic meant. I consciously became more careful since then. What upsets me is the lack of research and stereotyping mainstream directors. To quote another example, a critic accused me of plagiarism after my last outing. When the studio pointed out that film is an official adaptation, a fact that was never hidden from the press, the said critic took to social media to say that she 'was just informed by the studio that the film is an official adaptation'. No apology was tendered to me. Even the review was not retracted.

After a star-studded first film (Kambakkht Ishq), was it a conscious decision to choose newcomers for your later projects?
I was secretly praying to make Heropanti with new faces because I knew that if stars came on board, they might not place their trust in me. I also thought that making the film with newbies would bring larger glory to everyone involved. Today, I prefer to work with a mix of established actors and new faces, the way I have done with Munna Michael. Despite being a star, Nawazuddin Siddiqui doesn't behave like one. I've realised that I can't work with people who have baggage. Besides, I know how tough it is to get a break in any stream in Bollywood; I've slogged for years as an assistant. I'm a middle-class guy whose father was in this industry. I know how the cookie crumbles.

Why did you opt out of Baaghi 2?
After Baaghi, I was approached to do the sequel and the contract was sent home, but there was no concept or a script. It takes almost a year to structure a screenplay. By then, Tiger and I had plunged into Munna Michael. It would be unfair on my part to think that they would wait for me, but my best wishes are with the team.

Ahmed Khan, who is directing Baaghi 2, has worked with you as a choreographer. Any exchanges with him?
Nope. Honestly, I didn't expect it also. He was on my set one day and I treated him well. I realise the value of a break, especially when you are making a comeback.