Mansoor Khan is a Bollywood urban legend, for being the director who made four popular films and gave it up to open a homestay in Coonoor. In this rare interview, Khan talks about his cinema, reveals that Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar was supposed to be his first movie, that they shot an alternative, happy ending for Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak and that cousin Aamir Khan still hasn’t gotten over the fact that he cast Shah Rukh Khan in Josh. Excerpts:
What made you swap films for making cheese?
I was never ambitious about films. Though I did study engineering and computer science, I knew that a non-urban life would make me happy. Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar was the only film I wanted to make. I wanted it to be my first film.
Then how did Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (QSQT) become your first film?
I started writing Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar much before QSQT. I was like the character Sanjay Lal (played by Aamir). I was irresponsible and needed to learn about responsibility and the importance of valuing others. I wanted to make a small-scale film about this boy and his world but I wasn’t able to write it well. I stopped midway. By this time, my father (filmmaker Nasir Hussain) wanted to launch Aamir and he came up with the story of QSQT. I ended up directing it.
How did films happen?
I had zero interest in films. I would watch my father’s films only to criticise them. My father was a sport about it and would only want to know ki mazaa aaya ki nahin. I went for engineering but didn’t complete it. I’ve actually never completed anything in my life. Films happened in the process of running away from engineering.
I was always into gadgets and introduced video edit on a Sony recorder. I had great plans of doing alternative programming for Doordarshan, and even asked them if I could video-edit their ghazal programme so that it could be presented in a better way. I used to play the piano and drums and liked to visualise the music. That was one of the reasons I got into filmmaking. I realised that if I wanted the songs to look good, I’d probably need to make a film. In a way, I took up making films in order to redeem myself. I made a pilot film called Umberto and Amole Gupte (Stanley Ka Dabba director and Taare Zameen Par writer) acted in it. I wanted to see whether I could tell a story. My dad saw the film and asked me to direct QSQT.
Most of your films have daddy issues right from QSQT’s Papa kehte hain to Jo Jeeta… and then, of course, Akele Hum Akele Tum.
You got me there. I didn’t realise that before. Perhaps because emotionally, I find the father-son theme strong. But I can’t take the credit for Papa kehte hain. I only suggested to Majrooh (Sultanpuri) saab that the song is about a boy who is graduating and who doesn’t know what to do with his life. But since he’s a romantic, he feels his destiny is love. Majrooh saab came up with the line. I found the word “Papa” very tacky and wanted it changed. My dad told me it’s a very good line and convinced me to keep it.
You gave in to your dad for the song but you had to fight your way for the tragic ending in QSQT.
Though my father wrote the basic story, he gave me the freedom to tweak it. The first 11 scenes, till the titles roll, were exactly what he wrote. Then I took over. I took his landscape of star-crossed lovers but added the nuances in Raj and Rashmi’s characters.
In my mind, they were always meant to die but my dad didn’t like sad movies. He was known for his happy films. He felt the audience couldn’t handle sadness. He had made Baharon Ke Sapne, which was based on a story he had written in college. It was a serious film and it didn’t work. He had to re-shoot a happy ending for the film after two days. I never agreed with this decision. I’ve always believed that the fate of a film is one thing, while its integrity is another thing.
My father insisted on a happy ending for QSQT. We did try to have a scene where Goga Kapoor gets shot by the sharpshooter who was hired to kill Aamir, and then Aamir piles on the shooter and kills him. But when we were shooting the sequence, someone or the other would laugh on the sets because it looked so fake. This just made my resolve stronger.
Youngsters felt the lovers should die but the elders hated it. Since the film was about young people, my father decided to go with their verdict.
In contrast, how did the happy ending for Akele Hum Akele Tum come about?
I agree that I compromised (on that). By the time we made the film, Aamir and I had different points of view. I should have been firm. Those characters were never meant to be happy together, they could only be happy apart. I guess I lacked conviction. Even while casting, I felt Aamir looked too young to play a dad to a six-year-old. I wanted Anil Kapoor and Madhuri Dixit. There were date issues with Madhuri and my next choice was Manisha Koirala. Somehow, I couldn’t see Manisha with Anil, so I went ahead with Aamir.
The casting of Josh was like a film itself, wasn’t it? All three Khans—Aamir, Salman and Shah Rukh — were attached with the project at one time.
Yeah, I wanted SRK as Max and Aamir for Rahul’s role. I had narrated the story to Aamir. Without my telling him what role I wanted him to play, he started wearing bandanas and wristbands. He thought he was playing Max. I went to SRK, who said no because he was sure that Aamir would be playing Max. Everyone wanted to play Max. Even Kajol, who I wanted for Shirley’s role, got up after the narration and said, “I want to play Max”. But I felt SRK would be the best Max. When I told Aamir this, he said, “If that’s the case, I’m not in the film.” Then I went to Salman who had date issues. Then my producer Ratan Jain took charge and said he’d speak to SRK. That was it. He agreed, even to play a brother to Aishwarya Rai.
So after four films, what made you chuck it all and go to Coonoor?
It was just a “now or never” feeling. I moved to Mandwa first on my own and managed to convince my wife Tina to move with our two kids to somewhere more peaceful. I had always liked Coonoor. We moved here and Tina got interested in cheese-making and that’s how our farmstay, Acres Wild, happened. I consider myself lucky to have married the right woman and together we created our own world. I was never crazy about films, the way Aamir and Imran (Khan) are, so I could do it.
But was it easy to give up something you were successful at?
I’ve always been wary of success. It’s like a drug. Actors chase it even when they are ageing, and directors chase it even when they lose touch with the audience.
Don’t you miss the camera?
No. I get nightmares of shooting — that the sun is going down and I’m not able to shoot my portion for the day.
What is your connect with films these days? Do you watch films?
My connect is through Aamir, Kiran (Rao) and Imran. Aamir called me to fill in as creative producer for Jaane Tu…Ya Jaane Na. I had a purely supportive role for the film; Aamir wanted me to make sure that Abbas (Tyrewala) shoots the film the way it was written. I only watch films that Aamir or Imran force me to.
Since you’ve been associated with all three of them—what is your take on Aamir, Salman and Shah Rukh?
Of the three, Aamir has probably redefined himself the most, Salman is the luckiest of them all, while I think Shah Rukh needs to definitely redefine himself. Don’t get me wrong. I love SRK’s charisma and his screen presence but I feel his choice of scripts has let him down. I don’t know how his mind works — is he living up to his fans’ expectations, has his stardom become so huge that it affects his script choices? I think SRK is aiming for bigness, but I wish he would explore himself more.
Is there a cinema fight with Aamir that is yet to be resolved?
We totally don’t agree on the ending of Akele Hum… Aamir didn’t even like Jo Jeeta… He still feels he should have done Josh and I still feel that Shah Rukh was a better Max.
Name five films on your ‘eternal like’ list.
Raiders of the Lost Ark, Saaransh, Teesri Manzil, Breaking Away (people think I copied JJWS from it but I actually saw it after I wrote it) and Dil Chahta Hai.
Name some contemporary directors whose work you’ve liked.
Vishal Bhardwaj is quite good. I loved Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Sahib Biwi aur Gangster. Rajkumar Hirani is someone I’d like to connect with. 3 Idiots was quite a film — slightly OTT, yet it holds.
So you’ll never ever make another film again?
I won’t say never but I’m not trying to. I follow my heart and not filmmaking. I was always passing through films. I’m busy with my farm. We sell about eight kilos of cheese every day. I bake bread and Tina makes cheese. I give lectures at IIM-Bangalore and then there’s a book I am writing on oil, energy and economics.
What would you want your cinema legacy to be?
I’m not a very technical filmmaker. I have a poor sense of visual craft. It was never about the slick lensing and always about the sensibility and nuances in relationships.