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R Madhavan on Rehnaa Hai Terre Dil Mein turning 20: 'We made sure my character never looked larger than life'

·12-min read

If you grew up in the '90s, the question is not whether you have watched Rehnaa Hai Terre Dil Mein, it is how many times you have watched it. The first Hindi film of its lead pair R Madhavan and Dia Mirza, it was a dud at the box office when it released two decades ago today on 19 October, 2001. But over the years, it has garnered an enviable following, thanks to its music, strong performances, and a love story unlike any other.

In this exclusive conversation, R Madhavan talks about his experience of working with Mirza and Saif Ali Khan, his character Madhav Shastri, why he does what he does, the film's unflattering reception upon release, its enduring popularity, and the possibility of a sequel.

You also starred in Minnale, the original Tamil film of which Rehnaa Hai Terre Dil Mein is the remake. Was it difficult to work on the same film in two different languages?

Interestingly, before Rehnaa Hai Terre Dil Mein, no actor had reshot their entire film in another language. Historically, it was the first. All other remakes were either dubbed or shot with some other actor. So I was unaware of the challenges of remaking your own film until I started working on Rehnaa Hai Terre Dil Mein.

Since you have to recreate the character, you get bogged down thinking about everything that had worked originally. Ideally, you should just be free, and do it without other pressures. So after a few movies, I decided not to reshoot my films again. If I had to shoot in two languages, I shot simultaneously and not one after the other. That was one of the reasons why I didn't do 3 Idiots in Tamil.

Rehnaa Hai Terre Dil Mein was your big Bollywood debut. What are your fondest memories of shooting the film?

Mr Vashu Bhagnani (the film's producer) took extraordinary care of us. He taught me the merits of thinking large and out-of-the-box. We shot Mumbai's exteriors in South Africa. People keep asking me where is the place where I proposed to Dia. It's in South Africa. Mr Bhagnani took bikes, autorickshaws, and people from India to South Africa because he thought it looked a lot like Mumbai, and the air was much cleaner. It was beautiful.

A still from Rehnaa Hai Terre Dil Mein
A still from Rehnaa Hai Terre Dil Mein

A still from Rehnaa Hai Terre Dil Mein

You became your character Madhav Shastri so fully that it is difficult to differentiate the two of you. Do you share any similarities with him?

There are a lot of similarities. I was that sort of a radical guy in college, I always found unique solutions to issues, and I was aggressive when it was required to be. A lot of me was part of Madhav Shastri.

How was the experience of working with Dia Mirza?

Dia was a newcomer and she was pretty as a princess. She had just won Miss Asia Pacific. She was doing two films €" one with Arjun Rampal (Deewaanapan), and one with me. I was very pleasantly surprised that despite it being her first film, she was able to give so much to it. She was full of grace, and completely committed. But she was a little skeptical about how it would turn out compared to Arjun's film because that had everything €" looks, grandeur, and glamour. She was leaning heavily on it.

I can never forget a visual of hers with all the Maori warriors in New Zealand, which was part of the title track's final version. She was wearing this golden dress and there was this golden light. It was twilight time. There were all these masculine-looking guys in the front, and the very angelic and feminine Dia dancing with them. To witness it in person was magical.

How was it with Saif Ali Khan?

Saif and I bonded during the college shoot in Nainital. I'd met him for the first time. I'd had only one release till then, Mani Ratnam's Alaipayuthey, but he'd seen my work. My wife Sarita and I were in awe of him because Saif was so regal, so classy. I remember he invited me over to his room one evening for a chat, and it was all lit up by candles. Saif has this very stylish way of doing everything. I learned a lot about how to live like a star from him. We'd have long conversations, and I remember after our first confrontation scene, he went over to Sarita and told her, "You know that your husband is a fantastic actor, right?" She will never forget that. She kept saying it was so genuine and generous of him.

A still from Rehnaa Hai Terre Dil Mein
A still from Rehnaa Hai Terre Dil Mein

A still from Rehnaa Hai Terre Dil Mein

The music of the film is as popular today as it was 20 years ago. What do you think has worked?

It is quite shocking. I didn't expect it. I knew 'Zara Zara' and 'Sach Keh Raha Hai Deewana' would be hits because they were blockbusters in Tamil as well. Strangely, the music had not been released before the film. We had a different version done by Mr Anu Malik and others. We'd asked the audience which version they liked, and we picturised that. We shot five versions of the title song, each composed by a different music director.

I think the songs are still relevant because they are still relatable, especially in small towns and mid-tier cities.

Mostly it's romantic songs that stand the test of time but 'Sach Keh Raha Hai Deewana'> became the voice of every boy with a broken heart. It still is.

Rehnaa Hai Terre Dil Mein was not a box office success but over the years, it has become a cult classic. Did you expect that kind of response on its release and the recognition that it has gained over time?

I wasn't expecting it to be the big disaster that it was at the box office. Harris Jayaraj (music composer) was so upset, he decided to never make music for Hindi films again. Everyone thought the music was very South Indian. So we had other versions of the songs released before the film. There was hardly any marketing. There was ambiguity about how the film should be released. It was released alongside Asoka (starring Shah Rukh Khan and Kareena Kapoor). So the overall confidence level on the film was not as exuberant. We were the underdogs.

Also, the media took a great number of potshots on everything about the film. The reviews were very limited, and whoever wrote screwed us. From their point of view, it wasn't ticking the boxes that a hit film should. So it died a premature death at the box office. However, much to my surprise, it ran for a 100 days at Mumbai's Chandan theatre. So I realised that there was something that people were relating to.

The film became what it is today posthumously. I think it's because of its story, relatability, and realism €" things that girls and boys could connect with and strangely, are still connecting with even after two decades. So we did get something right.

Madhav Shastri was not presented as the conventional hero. There was a lot of talk about how you looked in the film€¦

Yes, so much so that very early on in my career, I realised that I wasn't the kind of guy who'd ever be on the front cover of a big publication's magazine. And I haven't been till date. If you see Rehnaa Hai Terre Dil Mein's reviews, they took a lot of potshots at how I was fat, and how my clothes were really bad. I agree; some of the costumes were horrendous.

A still from Rehnaa Hai Terre Dil Mein
A still from Rehnaa Hai Terre Dil Mein

A still from Rehnaa Hai Terre Dil Mein

But not every hero needs to look a certain way. It was so reassuring to see someone on screen who looked like the people around us. It gave a lot of boys the confidence that they could get the girl too.

That was the intention. In the film, I never have the perfect hair. That's what Gautham (Menon, Rehnaa Hai Terre Dil Mein director) and I decided. We let Saif be the guy who always has the perfect hair, the perfect physique, the perfect everything. Madhav Shastri is the church mouse. He is the harfanmaula, the wild guy who doesn't give a rat's ass about how he looks.

But that was misinterpreted. They said I didn't look like a Hindi film hero. I was scruffy and sweaty with hair was all over the place. They were right. But we had decided that. If you're out in the wind, your hair is going to blow in the wrong direction. That's real. We wanted that. We wanted to drive home the fact that you could be someone like Madhav Shastri and still go after someone like Reena, maybe get snubbed or boxed in your nose. But who knows, she just may turn around and say yes to you. We wanted to make sure that at no time Madhav Shastri looks like somebody larger than life. And we faced a lot of flak for it.

It is very difficult not to like Madhav Shastri. However, the way he approaches the whole thing was pretty dubious€¦

You are not the only one to think like this. Let me explain to you and everyone else who keep criticising the dubious ways in which Madhav Shastri or guys at that time were finding ways to meet girls and woo them. Let me explain how it was. Unlike today, we didn't have many Western concepts. We didn't have places to go out for dates. Abroad, they have prom dances, places where guys and girls go to meet. They have the freedom to actually ask a girl out. In India, it wasn't like that at all. We were still throwing letters with stones inside them to get to talk to a girl. If the parameters of today existed then on how to approach a girl and how to win her over, there would have been no romances at all.

I'm not saying harass a girl €" I'm never going to advocate that. I don't think that's what we tried to show through our film. But there was no way to get in touch with a girl. How do you do it? In our time, there were no mobiles, no easy WhatsApp to ask, 'Hey, do you think we can get together?' Except for phone calls and letters, you didn't know how to get in touch with a girl€¦

Rehnaa Hai Terre Dil Mein is still very self-aware. It gives context to Madhav's doing. But do you not think filmmakers need to act responsibly when deciding what to glorify?

We showed what happened in colleges at that time. That's why it's still relatable. We can take as many wrong messages out of it as we want but at the end of the day, we took a negative situation and tried to make it positive. That was the message we were trying to send across. It was a negative situation where you lie to a girl and try to get to her using whatever means you could at that point in time.

But he never ever takes advantage of her vulnerability. That was something both Gautham and I were cautious of. We were trying to tell guys that if you truly respect a woman, you never take advantage. It's one thing to be a deewana and do adolescent jibes and stupid things to get attention but you never cross the line. He didn't either.

He tries to tell her several times that he loves her. She is the only woman in his life. It is not like he is pursuing many women. This was love. What do you do? Great romances of the world have stemmed from forbidden love. So to measure the challenges that we had as lover boys at that time with the yardsticks that are available today is one of the reasons why this criticism does not connect with the audience who are actually still watching the film and saying wow.

By no means am I ever glorifying or agreeing to glorify this. There are a lot of films that are not right but it's not an attempt on anybody's behalf to change society for the bad. We try to make a movie that, most of the time, is a reflection of society. And we try to question what you can do to make better of a bad or horrible circumstance that shouldn't be. We work very hard as storytellers to do that. The intention is never to mislead or take advantage of society and make money by glorifying the wrong stuff.

Are you open to Rehnaa Hai Terre Dil Mein getting remade or doing an age-appropriate version of it, maybe a sequel?

It's always a compliment when somebody remakes a film. Their major challenge would be that fans would compare it with what it was. As for making an age-appropriate sequel, I'd love to do it if we get a story that's current. If that happens, I'd love to get back with the original team and see what transpires. Reena and Madhav would be in their late 40s. It'll be good to see what they are doing, how they have brought up their kids, and the relationship between them. But we need to be very careful. We don't want to spoil the taste that the film has acquired after so many years. We'd rather have a positive, happy, and lasting memory of the film than trying something and falling flat on our faces.

When not reading books or watching films, Sneha Bengani writes about them. She tweets at @benganiwrites.

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