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“I was drawn to the duality of the story”

From talking about adapting a book for her film, to shooting in Kashmir, to the selection of her cast, director Meghna Gulzar shares it all with Bhakti Mehta as she discusses her upcoming film Raazi

Of all the books out there, what was it about Calling Sehmat that prompted you to adapt it into a movie?

Movies made on books are not a new phenomenon. The one thing that got me was that it is very powerful. It talks about immense sacrifice and selflessness. We don’t live like that any more. Our narrative to the patriotism for the country is different today than what it is in the story, which was a very big draw for me.

Also, there is an inherent duality in the story and character. It shows that you are doing things for your country on account of patriotism but they may not always be right. I found the complexity of it very attractive. 

Why do you say adaptations are not a new phenomenon?

We have been dipping into our literature from the beginning, the Ramayana and the Mahabharat. Devdas has also been made. We have been dipping into our folklore for the longest time and I think it is very good. We think it is a recent phenomenon because we are adapting contemporary writers and their works.

I don’t agree with unauthorised adaptations. I would be very offended if somebody took a piece of my work and did an unauthorised adaptation of it. The world has become a smaller place due to the Internet. Never mind producers, the audience is now aware. There was a time when you could go into foreign films, pick up whatever you wanted and make whatever you wanted.

But, today the audience is aware. They will make the connect, arre yeh toh yeh film hai. So, it is a damn good thing. It has shaken filmmakers out of their laziness. They now have to create original content or do it the right way and give that person’s creative content the respect it deserves.

What was the process to get the film rights to Calling Sehmat?

Junglee Pictures tried to acquire the rights to this book but didn’t get it. Then there was another production house that approached me for the same book but that deal also didn’t close. By then, there was a rapport between me and the writer of Calling Sehmat, Harinder Sikka. He was very sure that regardless of who produces the film, only I would direct it. I told him that if he trusts me with the material, to let me just develop a story outline and take it to a studio. I had an understanding with the author; we had a commitment between us. I developed the story and took it to Junglee Pictures. After that, Junglee negotiated with the author and closed the deal. 

How did you find your leading lady Alia Bhatt for this movie?

When the other production house had approached me for this movie, I had already met Alia then. I had asked her if I could write the script with her in mind because, at that point, I didn’t even have a script. Still, she said yes. So, when it looked like it was being finalised and I knew that Alia would be playing this part, I got her on board, and with her came Dharma Productions too. 

Not many would have visualised Alia in this particular character.

The reason I chose Alia for this role is because I was not looking at her image. I was looking at her physicality. There is a fragility to her, a sort of delicateness which I wanted in my character, no matter what she is doing. Whether she is spying, fighting, doing espionage, I wanted fragility. This is the duality I was talking about. It is in the story, character and journey. 

Actually, all the actors came in very organically. Even at the story level, we knew that this film would need immense performance capabilities and that made it very clear as to which way one was looking at the casting. Ever since Talvar, I did not want to have frequently seen faces because then the connect between an actor and a character seems a little distant.

For example, for the role of Iqbal, which is Vicky Kaushal’s character, he was the only name that came to mind and I work on instinct. Luckily for me, the producers were okay with it and Vicky agreed to be a part of this film. On the face of it, one might wonder what he has to do in this film. But, truthfully, he is the anchor of my story. If he is not there, then Sehmat doesn’t have anyone to marry and go across the border to. 

What was it like to shoot in Kashmir for a sensitive subject like this?

It was beautiful shooting there. I went to Kashmir four times last year, three times for the shoot and once on a family vacation. And the irony of it really makes me sad. Now, a few people know me there because of the shoot. But, when I made my first or second trip, the drivers and the hotel people would keep asking me, ‘Aapko theek lag raha hai na yahan? Aisa nahin lag raha na ki kuch khatra hai?’ And I replied saying no, there is nothing like that. They are so conscious of all these things now, they are almost apologetic about it. It is really unfair.

If you look at it, Srinagar, Pahalgam or Gulmarg, you will see that this is not where the trouble is. The trouble is in other areas but then again, that kind of trouble is present all over our country. In the South, East and West. But, we spotlight this and elevate it because historically it is a long-running issue. But, so are a lot of other issues. I feel it’s unfair.

We didn’t have any trouble shooting at all. In fact, the locals went out of their way to help us. When we were shooting the wedding sequence, you need people, you need a crowd. They don’t have an industry there, no junior artistes’ association or anything. The local unit helped us by calling their friends, family members and relatives to come and be a part of this. They didn’t need to do that. What was in it for them? But, that’s the Kashmiri people for you.

As a filmmaker, you have never really been concerned with box office numbers.

Look at my history! Do you think I would be following box office numbers? The box office is a very unfamiliar animal to me. But, yes, it is very important because people’s money is involved. If somebody has invested their money and faith in you, you do want it to get redeemed, both literally and figuratively. It should be every filmmaker’s responsibility to work towards safeguarding the investment of the producer.

That is actually a priority and why I would even look at the box office numbers. But, do I sit and track them? No, I don’t. Whatever information I get from my producers and distributors, I am happy with that. After one point, you can never predict or control what a film can do. All you can do is control how you spend that money or execute the money that the producer has put into your film.

There are a lot of themes in the film. There is the thriller element, romance, drama, and this father-daughter bond. How do you balance it all within a spy thriller movie?

You are calling it a ‘spy thriller movie’; I am not calling it a ‘spy thriller movie’. (Laughs)

So, how would you categorise Raazi?

I don’t like categorising movies, honestly. I will tell you the perils of that. Yes, it does have a thriller element, yes she is a spy. But, the minute I say there is a human element and a drama element, psychologically the thing dips, achcha yeh toh waisi hi hogi. These words frighten me. The minute I say ‘thriller’, you expect Mission Impossible, which it also is not. I just know that it is a powerful story and it is an incredible, true story, which is our campaign line. That is what makes it poignant. And that is all that I will say.

How do you adapt a book into a two or three-hour film? How does the process work?

This is the first time I have adapted a book, so I can speak in reference to only this one. This book is extremely vast. It has, I can’t say four chapters, but it has four cycles in it, which can actually lend themselves to four films. But, we wanted to make one film.

So, I picked the core thread of this story, which is this girl’s journey. She was chosen, she agreed, her journey and the culmination of that journey. Yes, there are a lot of things that you can say in two sentences; she was trained and in two months she was married off. That is what the book says. But, you can’t say that in a film. You have to show in detail the growth of the character and that passage of time. This is where research comes in.

And research is not easy as it involves intelligence agencies and RAW, and they are not going to share their modus operandi with you. So, you have some conversation, some facts, some imagination. Aise karke you have to weave it together, keeping in mind the central core of the film.

When the first posters of the film came out… daughter, wife, spy as well as the 40-second teaser, where Alia’s character is on the phone… it was very innovative.

I am blessed to have a really smart marketing team behind the film. It makes a difference to the film as to how it is perceived by the people. We do our job but how it goes from me to the theatre, that journey is covered by the marketing team. I am blessed to have such a good marketing team between Dharma and Junglee.

The response to the trailer is incredible. What kind of response have you received?

It is frightening and overwhelming. We started off making one small film. It does have its points that will connect with the audience but with this intensity was unexpected. I just hope that all this energy translates positively for the film.

May 11 is almost here. What do you expect the people to take back from the film?

That is one question I cannot answer as I will be giving away the soul of the film. I can answer that after the film releases.

What are your expectations for the film?

As I said, it is important for me that the faith of my producers and their investment is redeemed. That is one. Then, everyone has worked very hard on this film. From the actors to the crew, my cinematographer, the production design team, and the direction team… we worked very hard. We have obsessed over details and yet shot this film in 48 days. I want that hard work to pay off in the sense that I want that hard work to be appreciated.

 

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