Manisha Koirala and director Sunaina Bhatnagar in conversation with Team Box Office India about their forthcoming film Dear Maya and the changing role of women in the film industry
Box Office India (BOI): Manisha, what was it about the script that made you want to be a part of Dear Maya?
Manisha Koirala (MK): Basically, the idea was new and something I had never heard or seen before. So it was the newness of the content that attracted me.
BOI: Sunaina, what prompted you to write this script? What was your inspiration?
Sunaina Bhatnagar (SB): I read something in the newspaper, which mentioned a woman who hadn’t stepped out of the house since 1984. She finally stepped out in 2014. That incident started the whole idea of Maya Devi. In fact, Maya Devi didn’t step out for 20 years and that is where the film begins.
BOI: Manisha, you said you liked the newness of the script but what was it about your character in particular that connected with you?
MK: As an artiste, one is always looking for something one has not done before. So, when Maya Devi’s character was given to me, I was intrigued by the fact that the lady had not stepped out of her home for 20 to 30 years, that she was living in some kind of cocoon feeling she was not deserving of love and had so many fears about the outer world… I thought that was new and challenging.
BOI: Sunaina, you have also written the film. When scripting a character as complex as this, what kind of back story do you keep in mind?
SB: I think the process happens simultaneously. So when I am writing it, I kind of already know why she is behaving in a certain way. I can visualise what has happened and the backstory is in my head. When I am directing it, that story is already there and is reinforced again and again. Because you spend a lot of time on the script, it’s not just one draft. You write three to four drafts to fine tune it. By the time you get to directing it, you are very clear.
BOI: Going back in time, how was your first meeting and narration?
MK: Well, I don’t know…
SB: (Cuts in) I had already sent her the script, so I didn’t give her a full-fledged narration. She had already read the script and I knew she had liked it. It was an easy meeting for both of us. Our first meeting wasn’t very script-specific.
MK: The script was well-written. It showed good thinking and had new content and we have such a good message at the end of it. So I loved it. When we met, we discussed what kind of people she wanted to get in. It felt like she had her heart in the right place. I felt really comfortable after meeting her.
BOI: Today, directors mail their scripts, compared to a decade ago when people approached you for a film. How has the process changed?
MK: It has changed a lot. One, I don’t remember reading so many scripts. Two, I mean, so many people wanted to meet and narrate their stories that we literally depended on our secretaries. We would only look at the stories passed on to our secretaries and everything was handled by them. And if we heard the entire narration, it was a big thing. In the ‘90s, we did movies based on a gut feeling. Mostly, it depended on the banner and then the director. Next, it was the heroine’s role or whether there were two heroes and one heroine, which was even better. I mean, these were the parameters we used to decide.
BOI: How has the role of women evolved in the industry?
MK: The ‘70s was a great time, when we saw many movies with strong female protagonists. Smita Patilji and ShabanaAzmiji had done some great work. I feel that time is coming back. During my time, I feel there were very few movies centred on females. Now, there is a Kahaani, there is a Queen… there are many films which have female protagonists. I absolutely believe it’s time for women to take centre stage, not only in movies but in all spheres of life.
BOI: As a director, why do you think we don’t see many women directors? Also, would you say it is hard for a woman director to convince producers?
SB: I think it’s hard for both men and women to make their first film. I know many men who are in the same boat as I am. But I think it is harder for women. You have to work twice as hard to be considered as equal to a guy. I have experienced this first-hand. Producers prefer to bet on a man than on a woman. When you take a closer look at things, you will realise that there are only two to three women directors who have made it without family connections.
BOI: In your opinion, how can this change?
SB: I think the women who do make it have to lead the way. They could create opportunities for other women too. Anurag Kashyap is my favourite example. After he made it, he brought in a thousand people into the industry and made it a little more of an equal place. Similarly, women who make it to that point have a responsibility to help other women get there.
BOI: Which directors have influenced your work?
SB: Obviously, Imtiaz (Ali) because I have learnt so many things from him. As far as being inspired, I like international directors like Alejandro Iñárritu and, in India, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra. He is one of my favorites and Rang De Basanti is my all-time favourite.
BOI: Manisha, you have worked with classic filmmakers and have been part of cult films too. What was it like to work with a new director?
MK: My experience was marvellous because she is so intelligent and so correct. Like I said, she is hard at right place. She has the sensibilities and creativity to create and write her story from just one incident, which is unusual, and to then create such a beautiful story from that. Instinctively, she does the right thing. So it was a great experience working with her.
SB: It’s a ‘pinch-me’ moment for me. That’s a big compliment coming from her.
BOI: Was there a pinch-me moment while shooting the film?
SB: All the time. I remember, there was this one shot in Delhi when we were in front of the Qutub Minar, Manisha Koirala was standing there, looking absolutely beautiful. I asked our Dop to stop for a minute and both of us just took a photo. I still have that picture. We took a picture of her from behind the camera and then we continued. We had many moments like that.
BOI: You have two young girls acting in the film. How were they cast and what were they like to work with?
MK: It was fantastic! And it made me realise just how far the younger generation has come. They are so bright. And I see this in every profession. Today’s kids… girls and boys are far more professional and want to give 100 per cent. They are so focused. I just love that energy. And these two bright girls were amazing, they are beautiful plus intelligent and talented and hardworking, and everything was perfect. I realised all this during the first reading itself. When they were reading, I said ‘wow!’ This is the level of work and performance needed in this film.
BOI: And how did you cast two bright young girls like them?
SB: It was a very long casting process. Mukesh Chhabra did the casting.
MK: (Cuts in) I think credit goes to you. You worked really hard and picked the right cast.
SB: Yes, I had a very clear idea of what each character was like. So I didn’t stop looking till I was 100 per cent sure that I had the right person. In real life too, the two of them are pretty similar to their characters. I was looking for that. So, yes, we worked really hard on getting the right cast.
BOI: Was your vision ever tainted because of the pressure of making a film and also because it was your first?
SB: I kept asking myself this same question all the time because you don’t want to make decisions that you might later regret. Now that I have finished the film, I think I have done the best I could possibly have done under the circumstances. It is the best that we could have done.
BOI: Manisha, you have faced some really tough situations in life and have dealt with them with strength. How has that changed you as an actor and your outlook as an actor?
MK: Honestly, I know there is a distinct change as an actor but I am unsure what it has done to me; I still have to get other people to tell me exactly. But I think I appreciate things much more and I work harder than I did before. Earlier, I didn’t do many rehearsals and I disliked too many retakes. Everything was more on the gut level and instinctive level.
SB: I don’t think there can be any change because you always performed brilliantly. I don’t think there is any room for change.
BOI: Next, you will be doing Sanjay Dutt’s biopic, where you portray Nargis’s character. How does it feel to bring to life such a great actor?
MK: I am super-nervous about trying to do it. We’ll be shooting at the end of the month. So, again, it will be rehearsals and rehearsals. I keep on doing that and getting into the character. It’s a special appearance; it’s not like a full-fledged role. It is a beautiful scene and I am looking forward to it.
BOI: And you are also doing Dibakar Banerjee’s…
MK: I finished that. Bombay Talkies part 2. It was an interesting concept, interesting mindset, but I love to work with directors of today’s generation. Everybody is trying on different levels, so for me it’s a great playground.
BOI: Now there are so many directors making different content… now we have short films, television serials and the Internet. As an actor, what kind of growth do you see?
MK: I think there is so much potential to work in different kinds of set-ups and different kinds of stories, and there is a lot of potential to grow as an actor. And, of course, there is a lot of responsibility too as everybody’s level of work is so good.
BOI: Will we see you experimenting or directing something or…
MK: I would love to someday, but not now.
BOI: Sunaina, we all know that Manisha is a brilliant actor. Having worked with her, what kind of director do you think she would make?
SB: I think she would be amazing at it. Directing requires sensitivity and an instinctive understanding of human emotions and depth. To be a brilliant actor, you have to have all those qualities that a director would have. A director might not have all the qualities that an actor has but an actor I think would have all those qualities.
MK: Can I debate about this? (Laughs) I feel I am used to movies. And, as an actor, we live such a good life. The hard work, really, takes place behind the camera. So I think being a director would be a thousand times harder than being a producer. We actors are a lazy lot.
SB: I am so caught up with this film right now that I want to make sure it releases well. After that, I will take a break and think about my next film. It’s a faraway thought.
MK: She is so young and has already written a film, made a film and released a film. That’s a huge thing. I think you should just enjoy this before getting into the next one.
BOI: It must have been quite a harrowing experience. Now that you are promoting the film, how would you define that experience?
SB: Like I said, that pinch-me thing happens all the time. I mean, everything is new. When we launched our trailer, that was a big pinch-me moment as well, so everything is a first and so everything has been very special so far. Now that we are promoting the film and I realised that the date was drawing closer and that people were going to see it. It is nerve-wracking and stomach-churning when you feel that, ‘Oh my God, very soon, people are going to watch it.’ So, yes, it’s a great feeling.
BOI: What can the audience expect from the film? And what can Manisha Koirala’s fans expect?
SB: Manisha Koirala’s fans will be very happy. For the audience, it’s a new story, it’s a slice-of-life thing. Most films work on a bigger scale, where everything is very dramatic and big incidents happen and big things happen. In this film, it’s about everyday life and how small things make our life and the moments that we live with other people and the relationships we share. I think this story is what most people can relate to, regardless of their age.
MK: I hope so. I really hope so. (Laughs).
BOI: And, lastly, since this is BOI, the obvious question… numbers, expectations, anything?
SB: You should ask her
MK: I have no idea (Laughs). We have done this movie with a lot of sweat, a lot of hard work and a lot of heart. We will have to let people decide what they think of it.
SB: Yes, they will have to decide. I firmly believe that good films always get an audience. I don’t think I can name a single film that was really good and that didn’t get an audience. So I am riding on that faith.