Sooraj Barjatya on Working With Amitabh Bachchan in ‘Uunchai,’ Salman Khan Project: ‘It Was Like a Want From My Soul’

Director Sooraj Barjatya, known for some of the Bollywood biggest hits including “Maine Pyar Kiya” (1989) and “Hum Aapke Hain Koun…!” (1994), is back with “Uunchai” (literally “Height”).

The film follows three friends in the twilights of their lives whose trek to the Everest Base Camp turns out to be a personal, emotional and spiritual journey as they battle their physical limitations and discover the true meaning of freedom. The cast includes Amitabh Bachchan, Danny Denzongpa, Anupam Kher, Boman Irani, Neena Gupta, Parineeti Chopra, Nafisa Ali and Sarika.

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“Uunchai,” produced by Barjatya’s banner Rajshri Productions, marks two firsts for the filmmaker. Hitherto known for romances revolving around the family unit, including “Maine Pyar Kiya,” “Hum Aapke Hain Koun…!,” “Main Prem Ki Diwani Hoon” (2003), “Vivah” (2006) and “Prem Ratan Dhan Payo” (2015), “Uunchai” is the first time Barjatya is departing from his favored genre, and he directs Indian cinema legend Bachchan for the first time.

The subject came to Barjatya in 2006 when the writer Sunil Gandhi pitched him a script about four friends in Delhi who are 65 plus, who’ve been friends for the last 50 years, and one of them dies. The other three trek up to the Everest Base Camp in his memory and get there with a lot of humor and realize how alive they are.

“I had no idea what the Everest Base Camp is – I googled and realized people climb even at the age of 70. And of course, this is not my style, so I wanted another director to direct and I looked at various options. And then the pandemic happened, and I just realized that it’s all about courage. That is the one emotion that is the hero. And then this subject didn’t leave me,” Barjatya told Variety. “Honestly, I’ve taken a step towards my own ‘Uunchai’ because I have never shot anywhere so much. It’s an outdoor film I’ve shot in Kanpur, Agra, Lucknow, Nepal, the hills at 7,000 feet. It doesn’t have my love story, doesn’t have those songs and dances. But it was like a want from my soul. And the biggest day was when I wrote it, and I got Amitabh Bachchan on board. That made my day.”

Bachchan, who has just turned 80, was 79 when “Uunchai” was filmed. The last time he worked with the Rajshri banner was on “Saudagar” (1973). “When you talk of courage, and when you talk of taking any step towards getting out of comfort zones, Mr. Bachchan is the epitome. At 79, if you look at what all he did for ‘Uunchai’- it is not just a climb, but day-to-day in between peak COVID-19 we shot this film,” Barjatya says. The filmmaker sent the script to the actor and subsequently got on a zoom call with him. After hearing Barjatya’s pitch, Bachchan said that he really liked a line of dialogue from the script – “We all have our Everest inside us,” and he was on board.

“Uunchai” happened when Barjatya was due to make another family drama with Salman Khan, for whom the filmmaker’s “Maine Pyar Kiya” was his breakout hit and they collaborated on three more successful films. “I called him [Khan] up and I told him that I’m switching to this subject because I really want to make it, so he had a big laugh and asked me where I will wander in the Himalayas,” said Barjatya. When Barjatya convinced Khan that this was really the story he wanted to tell at the time, the actor offered to play one of the parts, saying that he was already 56 years old and would act 15 years older.

Barjatya told Khan that he could cast him, but it would be difficult to leave his macho image behind. “It would look like Salman could lift Everest with his little finger – the idea was that it should look difficult and the characters may not be able to climb. So we had a big laugh,” said Barjatya. “You want to work with Salman every time but then some subject gnaws you. And now at my age [58] I want to respect the soul’s call.” Post “Uunchai,” Barjatya will resume writing the family drama, which will star Khan, and it will take another year to commence production, he estimates.

“Uunchai,” which bows theatrically Nov. 11, releases at a time when Bollywood films are underperforming at the box office and South Indian films have stolen a march on them. Barjatya says that only the South Indian hits are visible and those industries also have their fair share of failures. As for his own films, Barjatya says that the box office has continually surprised him because, apart from “Maine Pyar Kiya,” none of them opened big but slowly went on to become successful.

“When people come to see a Rajshri film, they come with a full family – there’s so much influence cinema can have. There are a lot of makers making a lot of kinds of movies, but I’m very keen to make my own little films, where I somehow am able to convey those [family] values,” said Barjatya. “My biggest challenge is not to sound preachy, which I can tend to be. So that’s why, in ‘Uunchai,’ through this 65 plus age group, I’m trying to convey various layers of little-little things, even to the younger generation. I’m trying.”

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