‘If people walk out of Provoked not feeling anything, then I have failed’- Jag Mundhra

Jagmohan Mundhra, often referred to as a soft-porn filmmaker, is currently in India with Kiranjit Ahluwalia and producer Sunanda Murli for the pomotion of his new film Provoked.

With Provoked, Mundhra completes his trilogy themed on women centric issues, the first two being Kamla and Bawandar. In a freewheeling talk, Mundhra spoke to Businessofcinema.com about working with Aishwarya Rai, his determination to make Kiranjit’s story reach out to millions and his forthcoming film, Shoot On Sight.

What encouraged you to adapt the book, Circles of Light, into a film?
The one line in the boook, that made me decide I wanted to tell Kiranjit’s story was the one which said, ‘In prison, I feel free’, it gave me goosebumps when I first read it.

It takes a lot of courage for someone like Kiranjit to present herself to the media. She did that when she wrote the book, because she wanted to save other Kiranjits in the world from abuse. She wanted no situation in which anyone would need to take the extreme step of murdering her husband.

I went up to her and told her that no matter how successful a book is, its reach is limited. I said, “Cinema as a medium has the widest reach, and if I can take your message to a wider audience, I would like to do that.”

How did Kiranjit react when she saw her life story being played by Aishwarya Rai on celluloid?
Kiranjit first saw the film at Cannes, where she held Aishwarya’s hand and cried. It’s not easy to have your life open up in front of strangers.

What made you choose Aishwarya to portray Kiranjit’s character?
I did not choose Aishwarya Rai, she chose me. I did not even have any access to her because I have always made art films with Nandita Das and Shabana Azmi. Aishwarya was shooting for The Mistress of Spices in London when she met Mr Murli (producer of Rai’s earlier film, Jeans), who informed her that he was working on some projects with me.

Rai told Murli that she was impressed with my work in Bawandar, which she had seen when she had been hospitalised. I narrated the script of Provoked to her on 8 March 2005 and at once, she agreed to do the film. Of course, she could give me the dates only in 2007. Later, due to some cancellations and adjustments, she could give us two months in 2005 and we shot for 36 days at a stretch.         

Aishwarya’s presence has benefitted the film in more than one way…
True. After Aishwarya agreed to work in the film, the funding came through in no time. Her willingness to participate in this film will make it much more widely accessible. A large part of the audience, which would otherwise not go to watch a social issue oriented film will now do so because of Aishwarya. Naturally, the issue will also get more exposure because of her high brand recognition.

I thank Aishwarya for lending herself to a film that is different and doesn’t just make her look pretty.

Does it worry you that people will be biased when they walk out after watching the film?
We hope that our film can change opinions. If they walk out of the film not feeling anything, then I have failed as a filmmaker. Whether they like or dislike it, agree or disagree with it, they can not be indifferent to it. 
What research did you undertake prior to making this film?
I went to the two courts that punished Kiranjit and which set her free, and got all the documents and lawyers’ arguments. I also got access to the actual document of interrogation under the Public Information Act. On the basis of all the documents, I created the scenes which involve questioning, interrogation and the court scenes.

I knew I was making a feature film and not a documentary, so it was essential to select parts. By virtue of selecting some and leaving behind some parts, one can say that it is not entirely a true film, but the essence and facts of the story are true. I had to composite characters – for instance Nandita Das’ is a composite of three women.

Moreover, since i had made Nandita a victim in Bawandar, I wanted her to be the savior in Provoked.

Had you watched Aishwarya’s earlier films? What gave you the confidence that she would be able to pull off such a performance oriented role?
I had seen Raincoat. I feel that Aishwarya’s beauty is her currency and also her curse. Because of her beauty, nobody thinks beyond that. Even while I was talking to her about the film, I could see that all her expressions showed up in her eyes. My treatement too has been with close emphasis on her eyes. Whether there is love, joy, fear, triumph, panic – these emotions get expressed through her eyes. 

The only brief I gave her was that five minutes after the movie starts, I want people to forget that this is Aishwarya Rai.     

What’s your target audience for Provoked, and what business do you expect the film to do?
I know for a fact that Provoked is not going to do Dhoom:2 business. There is a segment of the audience for which this film is intended, and thankfully, the multiplexes segment the audience.

When I made Bawandar, there were no multiplexes, so the film had to survive in 1500 seat theatres. In the last five years, the audience taste has also undergone a change. I am hoping this film satisfies the audience that likes to see realistic cinema. Art cinema doesn’t necessarily have to be a slow paced film, I don’t think that is good cinema. I like to make fast paced and gripping films like I have done in Bawandar and Provoked and will do in Shoot On Sight too. I want to make Erin Brokowich in India.

Can you tell us something about your forthcoming film Shoot On Sight?
Shoot On Sight stars Naseeruddin Shah, Greta Scacchi, Om Puri, Gulshan Grover, Nafisa Ali, Laila Rouass, Peter Firth and Gary Stretch. The film will be shot from 21 May to 14 July in London.

It’s a film about a Muslim police officer in Scotland Yard and how his life changes after the bombings of 7 July in London. The racial profiling of Asians as potential Muslim terrorists resulted in innocent people getting shot.