Prakash Jha has no inclination to mince words, take stock of diplomacy or shy away from telling the truth. He is in fact, all heart and all passion. In conversation with ETimes, the filmmaker-producer-actor talks about some harsh truths plaguing the film fraternity right now. He shows a stark mirror to the crumbling star system of Bollywood and in the same breath he’s able to articulate about his new-found love and passion for acting. A fact that is evident with his latest release Matto Ki Saikal, where he plays the protagonist. Read on…

What is it about acting that you enjoy the most?

I have always enjoyed every film that I have done. If I am acting, I want to do it the right way. I was learning to act through several workshops. My process was primarily with my actors. You know, how do I communicate with them? Because I keep meeting actors who are trained or untrained, who are from theatre, some are age old actors. How do I communicate with them and tell them what exactly is required of that character? So, I used to go to classes and learn about it. When I decided that there are certain characters that I can do, it became one additional form of expression for me that I enjoy.

Tell us about your latest film as an actor – Matto Ki Saikal.
The story itself had blown me over. It is a story relevant to more than half of India. I wondered how this man wrote this story. He comes from theatre and kind of lives among these people. He wrote the story that all these people are laborers who build the infrastructure of the country. Our lives have become easier because of them. But we don’t even think about them. So, a little window opened to see what these people do, whose life revolves around a cycle. Their cycle and daughter are of the same age. They’re caught up with a lot of worries like earning a living, marrying off their daughter, treating an ailing wife. So, Matto Ki Saikal is a beautiful story between a man and his cycle.

I kept thinking for a long time about the beauty of this story. And then the director said that I should play Matto. I asked him, “From which angle do I look like Matto?” Then he said one thing that got stuck in my mind. He said, “I don’t see you as Matto not physically, but because you understand the man that is needed for Matto. The kind of films that you have made and the understanding that you have, only you can play Matto.” So, I said, “Let’s try it.” I went through a process for the next 4-5 months. Then I found Matto and I loved playing that character.

You shot 3 seasons of Aashram, and meanwhile you also made a feature film Pareeksha. How do you manage time and your roles and responsibilities?

I enjoy whatever work is on my platter for that day, whether it is writing, direction or acting. Right now, I’m scouting for locations in Lucknow and Allahabad for my daughter’s web series. Whatever I do, I enjoy it.

How did you persevere through the three seasons of Aashram because there were some challenges and hurdles there, but you did not react to that?

I reacted in my own way because I knew that I had to complete the job. There was no point in throwing my hands up. There will be stumbling blocks in your way. When I made Aarakshan, it was banned in UP, Punjab, and Andhra Pradesh. You’ll have to negotiate and fight if needed. There were some people who disrupted our shooting. Then the police and the government dealt with them. Our work resumed in a couple of hours. Humein apne kaam se matlab hai (We mind our own work).

Now there’s a boycott trend. Why are you bothered about that? You work on your craft, no? Tell a good story. Walk on the right path. They say films are not working. How will the films work? You can’t make real films in the corporate world of films and TV. Sirf bakwaas banta hai (Only crap gets made). They offer hundreds of crores to the actors. Then they want to make 3 films a year too. Where’s the time to work on a story? They get the rights to remakes. Nowadays they bring the director as well along with the remake rights.

Has the producer become a trader today?

Woh naukar bann gaya hai (The producer has become a servant). He has become a servant of the actors and the corporates. Where are the writers? Look at what the people who used to create content have been doing for the last 5 years. It is important to know who are the people who are making decisions on content production. They are not really content producers or creative people. Tell me, if a star has got a contract to do 4 films and has got 400 crores in his kitty, why would he bother about the content? Anyway, an actor is not a content producer. It’s the writer and director. If that writer and director takes time then they can create something good. But if the situation is such that in 3 months the production needs to start because the producer has the dates of actors, nothing good can come out.

So the filmmaking universe revolves around the star alone?

We are working around money. We are working around that we have put money to get the actor and the remake rights so that money will be created. It will not be created. Because the end product has to engage the audience. But it is not engaging the audience because they have already seen it. That is why things are not working.

You had mentioned to me earlier that even you struggle to cast stars. But OTT has given you the scope to cast whoever you want to.

There are 5-6 actors. Look at the condition of these actors. Why will they work in my films when they get 50 crores for doing one gutkha advertisement? The actors are selling gutkha. Can you imagine? What are these top, legendary actors doing?

We had gone to a school for location scouting. The principal of the school asked me what are you guys doing in the Mumbai film industry? The boys in our school are caught chewing gutkha. Roam around the North through Lucknow, Prayagraj and Mugalsarai, there are big hoardings put up where all our big stars are selling all types of gutkhas and paan masalas. What will the kids follow, tell me?

Has the era of movie stars come to an end?

I am not a judge on this matter. All I am saying is that it is our responsibility to give a serious thought on content production. People used to make films whether good or bad, but with a lot of passion. They would fight for their films. But all of that is gone now. Now they want to make projects. They have corporate funding that they want to utilize. Unless and until a star doesn’t sign their films their work won’t move ahead. Even if the star signs with them they don’t have original subjects so they get remake rights. This is what has been happening for the past few years.

The correction only requires us to look back, come together and create good content. We have innumerable stories in our society, mythology, history, and even fantasy. Unless and until we do that, we are doomed.

What is the solution for the content crisis? Are we not paying, treating and respecting the writers enough?

Everyone knows how to create content. It is not about the money. It is about identifying the right writers and the right content. Who will do that? There are five layers of executives sitting at the OTTs. You can’t imagine what type of comments you get when you submit a content. They are not content creators. They are not writers. I have not done research on where exactly these writers and content creators are hiding and how to bring them out. But there has to be a process through which good writers and good content can be created. That has to come out.

We should study the good films from the past 12-15 years that have done well and see how we should create content. We need to introspect. You can’t get good content out of a writer just by paying them well. You need to identify the potential. Uss mein dum hee nahi hoga toh kitna bhi paisa khila do kya likhega woh (If he/she doesn’t have the talent, no matter how much money you give them, will they be able to produce the goods)? People who understand content and writing should be consulted and respected. You have to understand what is good writing.

Do you feel that actors are not owning up to their films? If one film flops, they move on to the next one.

They don’t have time. An actor who had five flops, is shooting for 12 ad films. He’s getting 10 crores for each of them. There are people, corporates or whoever it is they are ready to buy him out. He is happy.

I think people who are responsible in the industry should sit together and think. If you’re asking me personally, my whole focus is on content creation. I get to make Aashram, Pareeksha or Matto Ki Saikal. I do my best to make sure that I do my work with honesty. Tell me what frivolous work have I done?

How important is commerce to you?

I make films with a budget of 5 crores as well as 2 crores. I have not worked with Netflix or Amazon because they don’t like my way of working. But MXPlayer, which nobody knew at that time, got me Aashram. It was an interesting subject, so I made the series. Matto Ki Saikal has been made under 2 crores. Its trailer got good reactions from people.

Coming back to the star system, how can the industry tackle that problem?

What can I say? These stars will not work. What do we do about the system? Unless and until we don’t correct our filmmaking process. The filmmaking process doesn’t start with money, it starts with the subject. It starts with the passion of making cinema. it can’t start with the 500-crore funding that you have got, so you can make anything. That’s what is happening.

Tell us about your upcoming projects. What’s happening on the Narsimha Rao project?

We will talk about it once it is made. I am working on two web series and two feature films, which I will be shooting next. I have not sat idle even for a day. I have been producing content constantly. I haven’t made a film with a big star in a while, but I have made other stuff. That’s fine, I’m happy about it. When stars take time out from selling gutkhas and want to focus on content, they will come to me automatically.

What’s your take on social media? Is it good or bad, helpful or not?

I don’t have any idea about social media. I don’t use social media. I stopped tweeting one and a half years ago. I can see social media’s impact though, because people keep talking about it. If your product is good, it won’t feel the need to be promoted by any government or people alike, nor can it be pulled down by anyone. If your film is good, people will recognize it and come out to see it.

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