Fresh out of film school, Vidhu Vinod Chopra was at the Academy Awards in 1979 when his documentary short about child slum dwellers in Mumbai, India, "An Encounter With Faces," was nominated for an Oscar.
"I was too poor to rent a tuxedo," recalled Chopra in Los Angeles. "They said I could wear national dress. All I had was kurta pajamas [Indian sleepwear]. I sat next to Jane Fonda in my pajamas. I was brash enough to think I'd win, that I'd made the best movie ever."
He didn't win, but Chopra was hoping that the nomination and recognition would pave the way for him in Hollywood. That didn't happen. So he took a different route.
Chopra returned to India and made a string of highly popular Bollywood movies. Two of these, "3 Idiots" from 2009 and last year's "PK," broke box office records in India — "PK" with its global haul of more than $100 million stands as the highest-grossing Bollywood film of all time.
Still there was the enduring lure of Hollywood. Studios here started courting Chopra a few years ago. But he resisted, waiting for something that would "inspire and challenge" him.
Chopra finally landed on the right opportunity. His English-language debut, "Broken Horses," a $20-million action thriller from Reliance Entertainment starring Vincent D'Onofrio and Anton Yelchin, opens April 10. It was four years in the making and vastly different in tone and sensibility from his Indian films — so much so, that Chopra says it's like "Steven Spielberg going to Mars."
But it was a story that Chopra couldn't shake after a conversation he had several years ago with his longtime collaborator, Abhijat Joshi, who shares screenwriting credit on "Broken Horses."
"We were on a train from New York to Boston, comparing Martin Scorsese's 'The Departed,' which we had just seen, to the original Korean version," said Chopra. Joshi had the idea to take "Parinda," Chopra's 1989 movie set in the Indian underworld, and make a version for American audiences.
"We wanted to make an English film of our own movie," said the 62-year-old director, who still lives in Mumbai. "We were reasonably drunk and started writing on the train."
As in "Parinda," "Broken Horses" revolves around the lives of two brothers who end up on drastically divergent paths. Jacob Heckum (Yelchin) goes to New York to pursue a career as a classical violinist while big brother Buddy (Chris Marquette) stays behind in their dreary, dusty home town near the U.S.-Mexican border, where he aligns himself with local gangster Julius Hench (D'Onofrio). When Jacob returns home, he gets pulled in to his brother's nefarious dealings, imperiling his own life as well as Buddy's.
While Bollywood remains a prolific producer of movies, the industry there has a notoriously chaotic working style. Subhash Dhar, a producer on "Broken Horses," said that working within the Hollywood system was a refreshing change for Chopra.
"As good as Vinod is, his environment in India is often tough," said Dhar. "Now, he was able to operate in an environment where everything works like clockwork. If the call time is 6 a.m., the crew is there at 6. You need one horse, you have three. But the new environment didn't change his sensibility. Instead, his crew adapted to his sensibility. And what you see on-screen is an absolutely pure Hollywood movie."
A new direction
Chopra is known for exuberant, sentimental, warm-hearted films. His "3 Idiots" is a comedy-drama about two college friends who go off in search of a member of their previously close-knit trio, "PK" is a naive alien who lands on Earth and loses his way home, and "1942 A Love Story" is a lush and poignant tale of two lovers with opposing loyalties during the time of the partition of India.
So the gritty and tense tone of "Broken Horses" marks a startling departure for the filmmaker. Or at least that's certainly how it appears at the outset. But then Chopra's cultural proclivities come through: the love and loyalty that the siblings share, the notions of sacrifice, of honoring promises made long ago, of redemption. These are hallmarks of many Bollywood films, and the moving and finely wrought "Broken Horses" is infused with them.
"It's where I come from," said Chopra. "It's a film about brotherhood and family. It's a film that will bring you closer to your own family. I have honestly portrayed my own emotions into this movie. I come from that culture, and I don't become somebody else because now I'm speaking English."
When Chopra showed early drafts of the script to Hollywood luminaries, he left his name off. "I knew that if they were reading a film about an American border town, and they see Vidhu Vinod Chopra and Abhijat Joshi on the opening page, they will be checking my spelling on Page 3 and by Page 10 will be saying, 'What do these Bollywood guys know about Hollywood?'
"It's not just about me. I'm representing a huge community of people. The last thing I want is for somebody to say, 'Bollywood comes to Hollywood and makes a fool of himself.'"
Amitabh Jhunjhunwala, vice chairman of Reliance, the Mumbai-based distributor of "Broken Horses," is optimistic that the film will be embraced by U.S. audiences. "The film has been shot in the mold of a classic western with the theme of brotherly love underpinning it," said Jhunjhunwala. "And it is based entirely on Hollywood sensibilities."
Chopra noted that Bollywood films take narrative and stylistic leaps that are not part of the Hollywood filmmaking vocabulary.
"Bollywood is a unique storytelling style that incorporates song, dance, emotions and rarely sticks to a genre, so a Hindi film would typically include romance, drama, comedy, violence," said Chopra. "When the narrative stops and shifts to Switzerland for a song, the audience isn't fazed — that's part of the deal. It's the suspension of disbelief. That's not how Hollywood works."
"Broken Horses" was shot in Death Valley, Victorville and Jacumba, close to Mexico. Chopra spent a year traveling around California, Texas and Arizona to scout sets. But America remained an enigma to him, so he decided to focus on landscape rather than location.
"I didn't know America well at all," he said. "So I took the universal elements — wind, water, earth, sun — and made a movie in those elements. Water and mountains and earth are the same everywhere. If you have a house on a lake, it can be in California or Rajasthan."
And while predicated on border gang rivalries, the violence in the film is neither gratuitous nor gory. Indeed, it is almost poetic: When someone is shot early on in the film, a target practice sheet flutters gently on the victim, caressing him with only the vaguest hint of blood.
"It's all suggested," said Chopra. "You don't see blood oozing out. The woman I love and live with hates blood. So it boils down to me trying to please my wife, because I want her to see this movie."
It also boils down, said Chopra, to the memory of that young film school graduate who was suddenly at the Oscars, in his pajamas.
"It's still the child in me who had this crazy dream," said Chopra, who's sifting through scripts looking for his next project. "I let my childhood fantasy overrule my rational senses. That's the only reason this film exists."