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Published: Verve Magazine, Features, October 2008
Photograph by Ritam Banerjee

After assisting with six films, and 10 years in the industry, Tarun Mansukhani debuts as a director with Dostana, releasing next month under the Dharma Productions banner. Sitanshi Talati-Parikh finds him full of steely determination, anticipation and solid allegiance to his mentor, Karan Johar

Director

The sharp, dapper man, just a shade over 30, seems more suited to the corporate world than Bollywood. With crispness of speech and meticulous attention to time, Tarun Mansukhani appears like a tightly wound elastic band – afraid to let go. It makes me ask him a number of times if he is nervous about his big release. “I haven’t thought about it, because I would’ve crumbled under that pressure. It is easier to think of it as just another film.”

Experience has made Mansukhani smarter. He quips, “I tell all my assistant directors that they can’t lie to me – I know all the tricks of the trade, I’ve played them all with Karan!” Waxing eloquent on a superb equation he shares with Karan Johar, the debut director paints a rosy picture. “Karan is the only producer in the world, who when you are hitting a deadline, tells you to relax and take your time. When you go over budget, he asks if it is justified, and if so, says, ‘No problem!’ It makes me want to ask him, ‘Are you sure?’”

Dostana, a romantic love triangle, starring Abhishek Bachchan, John Abraham and Priyanka Chopra, has been shot in Miami. During the shoot, Mansukhani recounts, Johar came to Miami for two weeks, and finally announced, ‘Look, I am really unemployed – I come, I shop and I eat. So I am going back to Mumbai to do more constructive work.’ And he left, not returning until the end of the film. The creative freedom, faith and trust provided by Johar, leaves the former singing praises of a perfect boss and perfect job. And yet, says Mansukhani, “I do not try to stay within Karan’s auteur. In fact, my deliberate decision is to combat what I have learnt – to break the school that we have developed for ourselves.”

While working on the story he has made a conscious effort to use everyday language, even if it is pedestrian language or Hinglish. While the film is youth-centric, it is not just the youth they want to appeal to. “There is an emotion that appeals to all age groups. It is not in its film-making or in its technicality or dialogues. We all have friends, our parents have had friends and our kids have friends. It may not be the dialogue that they might have spoken, or the language; but what is important is that they remember those friendships.”

Dostana is predominantly about the bond of friendship. Mansukhani, who studied in a boarding school, experienced deep friendships, giving him the idea for his first film. He brought in the premise of two men pretending to be gay to stay in an apartment, to make the story interesting. “It was a very conscious effort to not make fun of the gay community. You are not ribbing jokes about them or using them as a ploy.” A mother, who very subtly and with humour shows her acceptance of their sexual preference, adds a progressive element. So, another masala film with a social message? “We can all make art films at the end of the day, but there is a certain reach. Today this is what I would like to make. In the future, I may want to make an extremely gritty film, like Black Friday for instance.”

Talking about friendships, Johar and Mansukhani go back a long way. Johar went to school with Mansukhani’s sister, and when he was looking for an assistant for Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, he thought of him, who at the time was assisting television producer Anand Mahendroo. Mansukhani was not certain he wanted to be a part of commercial cinema – “I was just a Breach Candy boy who didn’t understand Shah Rukh and Kajol. Dilwale Dulhaniyan Le Jayenge was just another film for me.” When he took the FTII exam, confronted by questions on the direction of Swami Vivekanda Part II, he decided to work for Johar instead. The rest is history. The young director sees the future as very promising – making more films for Dharma, and eventually becoming a producer, financed by Dharma. “I don’t see myself breaking away from this family in any form. It is the only family I have known.”

Contrary to expectations, Mansukhani is not a die-hard cinema fan. Having studiously managed to avoid the classics, despite Johar’s repeated suggestions, he remarks unselfconsciously, “I stand clueless at a party when someone talks of classics like Guru Dutt and Satyajit Ray, and glibly put in my two bits, without knowing what they are talking about!” He prefers Sholay, Gadar or the more recent – admittedly candyfloss – films like Dilwale Dulhaniyan Le Jayenge and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. Quick to laugh at himself, he confides, “The only reason I go to the cinema is because my wife wants to watch a film. While I critique every other film aloud, I am silently taking notes – though no one knows that!”

The resilient director doesn’t give himself even a moment to take a break. Starting work soon with Johar on My Name Is Khan, due for release next year, he is matter of fact about his breakneck schedule. “We are addicted to films – we are not good at anything else. This is our only world.”

And juggling that attitude with a family life? He is quick to compliment his spouse – with whom he has been in a relationship for 12 years and married for three – on being the most understanding person in the world, especially after admitting he hasn’t been to family dinners, and hasn’t met most of her family! He even missed his sister’s wedding when he was busy with a shoot. “I hope that these sacrifices made will accomplish something – at the end of the day, these opportunities may not come to me later. This is what I need to do to make life happen.”

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