The Trailblazer

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At a time when much of Bollywood finds itself questioning its direction, Ram Gopal Varma has proved to be an answer. The fiery 42-year-old director scored critical praise and back to back hits with last year's gritty gangster movie Company and this summer's horror smash Bhoot (Ghost), which so scared its audience that one man had a heart attack while another is suing Varma for mental torture. Next March Varma is due to start shooting Ek (One) which, starring a roll call of Bollywood's biggest names and costing $20 million, is the most expensive and perhaps most eagerly anticipated Indian film of all time. As a producer, he has only increased his reputation for innovation. He released five films from his stable of 10 directors this year, including the well-received Darna Mana Hai (You Can't be Scared), a collection of six short stories, and Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon (I Want to be Madhuri Dixit). New Bollywood's director and producer of the moment spoke to TIME's Alex Perry in Bombay.TIME: What's happening to Bollywood?Varma: Bollywood is going through a generation change. For the last 15 years, song and dance romances and family dramas ruled and Bollywood became trapped into thinking that without songs, a film couldn't work, or even that films were just something to package around the songs. Music companies were even interfering with how they wanted the movie to go. Now there's a new set of filmmakers in town. I grew up with Western films and I always wondered why Bollywood never made films like that. Why do we always have to break into song? It doesn't make sense to a Western audience and I'm 42 years old, I live in this country and I've still not got used to it. With films like Bhoot, which was a huge hit but had no songs, we're breaking that forever.TIME: Have you had to fight to make the films you wanted?Varma: The resistance was there, and I've tried to convert people.At this point, Varma's mobile telephone rings. He checks the number and announces the caller is a film distributor in Dubai and indicates TIME should listen in.Varma [to distributor]: There's no music in the film, only background music. You won't really hear it... It's a student picture, correct... There's maybe three or four songs in the background but you won't really hear them...Varma [grinning, hand over phone, to TIME]: No songs! No songs! He's having a heart attack.Varma [to distributor]: Don't worry about it, OK? You're just buying it and selling it, right? ...Varma [aside to TIME]: I'm in that position now, you know? F--- you! Take it or get out!After a few pleasantries, Varma hangs up.TIME: What's the future for Bollywood?Varma: There's going to be a massive change. A lot of old filmmakers are going to go out of business. Anyone who looks at a film as a formula of one song, two comedy scenes and three action scenes, who doesn't look at the totality of the film, is lost now. Anyone who follows the old prudish traditions, of showing a bush's shaking leaves when they mean people are f---ing behind a tree, is gone. And anyone who doesn't follow the West is gone. For many people in the business, their pride won't let them. But following the West is not surrendering. Following the West, the best of the West, is following originality. Western innovation is superior, and I think we're just beginning to understand that. With my films, I'm targeting the urban multiplexes, the sophisticated media-savvy young crowd. Frankly, I couldn't give a f--- for the villages.