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Neeraj Pandey: I’ve never believed in the star system, and my films have essentially been about the

Neeraj Pandey is a man of few words, who lets his films do the talking. He has successfully dabbled in writing, directing as well as producing films. With his fifth directorial venture, 'Aiyaary', all set to hit the screens, the director talks to BT about how writing is the most important aspect of filmmaking, why he likes keeping a low profile and how he doesn't feel that artistic expression is under any threat in the country. Excerpts...

Is 'Aiyaary' a quintessential Neeraj Pandey film?

The seeds of 'Aiyaary' were sown during the shoot of Baby (2015), when we were interacting with personnel from the Army and intelligence services. The title, 'Aiyaary', has been on my mind for a long time. It's from the fantasy novel, Chandrakanta, written by Devaki Nandan Khatri. The word means ultimate trickery. The title is apt for the story in which a Colonel (Manoj Bajpayee) plays mentor to a Major (Sidharth Malhotra) in the Indian Army. Sidharth looks up to Manoj's character, but the story reaches a turning point when they have conflicting views about a situation. When you make a film which evokes patriotism, do you also ensure that it's not jingoistic?

Absolutely. One should never lose the context in which the story is told and I don't have an agenda. However, when you make a film like 'Baby', you inadvertently speak about the country and the people who will go to any extent to protect it. Similarly, this film is about the Armed Forces and how they are serving the nation. So, it has patriotic fervour. Being a civilian, when you narrate a story about the Armed Forces, how do you keep it as real as possible?

If you are a responsible storyteller, you will ensure that nothing in a film like that is demeaning. In fact, I have more friends in the Indian Army than in the film industry, which proves that they have a sense of comfort when they share their experiences with me. They feel that I am worthy of their faith and trust. Also, my interest in narrating such stories stem from the fact that I have extended family in the Armed Forces. I grew up in a city which encouraged cultivating interest in all kinds of stories, but thrillers attracted me the most. Do you write scripts keeping the cast in mind? Also, with a significant body of work, there is a lot of expectation from your films. Do you feel the pressure?

I think writing a script with a certain cast in mind is a terrible way to pen a film. Firstly, one needs to be honest about the material, and somewhere down the line, you start seeing faces that fit the bill. Talking about pressure, I choose not to be aware of its trappings. For me, the story has always been paramount, and it will remain so. You also turned producer with your directorial debut, 'A Wednesday' and ever since, you have co-produced quite a few films. Does being a producer help you to maintain your creative integrity?

Nobody was willing to produce the first film that I directed. So, I became a producer by default and yes, it has empowered me. However, it also comes with a sense of responsibility because the stakes are higher with each film. It's a combination of risk and adventure, which I like. Unlike other filmmakers, you keep a low profile...

I would actually prefer a no-profile scenario (laughs). One of the key reasons is that basically I am a shy person. I feel comfortable about not being visible on social media platforms and to be honest, my handles are managed by my team. In fact, I opted for a verified account to put a stop to the number of fake accounts that had come up under my name. 'Toilet: Ek Prem Katha', which you co-produced, was successful at the box office. The issue that it dealt with was in accordance with what the current government was drawing people's attention to. But a section of people also viewed it as propaganda. With such social subjects, there's always that risk, isn't it?

The story was in the making for three-and-a-half to four years. After Siddharth Singh and Garima Wahal (the writers) first approached me around three years ago, we kept improvising the story with each draft. Akshay Kumar was keen on being a part of the film, though he had only heard the idea. But once he came on board, we had to tailor the script accordingly and that took time. Also, the problem highlighted in the film is not something new. A director will always be the captain of the ship but even today, the industry continues to be star-driven. Does it make the task of a director tougher in this scenario?

Since I write my own material, for me, the director is less important than the writer. I have a lot of regard for the writer. So, I believe the director has to listen to the writer and that in my case makes the process of filmmaking easier. I have never believed in the star system, and my films have essentially been about the content. The star is an enabler and pushes the film in a different orbit, but when we embark on a film, the content is paramount.

While your films are works of fiction, they are rooted in reality. But given the kind of opposition that was faced by a recent film, which was based on history, would you now be even more careful about what you write?

I have always been careful and cognisant of it. There is nothing new that I have to do in this regard. I am responsible when I speak for the characters in my films. That's not something that I have to attune myself to. More than being restricted, I feel responsible as a writer. ORIGINAL POST:

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