Writer-director Saket Chaudhary and co-writer Zeenat Lakhani, who are riding high on the success of their film Hindi Medium, in conversation with Box Office India
Box Office India (BOI): Did you guys expect your film to get a response like this?
Saket Chaudhary (SC): To a certain degree. We knew that people would like the film but this kind of response is quite overwhelming.
Zeenat Lakhani (ZL): No But we did feel that the film would strike a chord. We met people from a cross-section of society and realised that there was always someone who was wrestling with a dilemma like this. But the kind of feedback we have got, like Saket said, is overwhelming. People have been appreciating the film as it resonates with them. So it was quite nice.
BOI: Good content is always based on good research. What kind of research went into the making of this film?
ZL: We met a whole bunch of parents, a group from the middle class, those who had applied for admission. We met parents who had applied in 20 schools or 25 schools and had been rejected. They were desperate to get their kids to the top five or 10 schools. We also met the principals of those schools to understand the criteria they use to decide which kids to take and which to reject.
It was startling to see how much parents hankered after a good education for their children. Socio-economic background didn’t seem to matter; every parent wanted to send their kid to the best schools. We also met NGOs who helped parents fill out the admission forms because some of them had to be filled out and submitted online and there was no room for error.
SC: And we read about such issues across countries, and discovered that it is no different in America, Tokyo, China, South Korea and Pakistan. The name ‘Delhi Grammar School’ comes from a school in Karachi called ‘Karachi Grammar School’, which is also a top school in Karachi. So we sort of read every possible thing we could lay our hands on and used it to construct our story.
BOI: This is a universal subject. Where did the gem of an idea come from?
ZL: I had read an article in a newspaper about a man who ran a flourishing business but decided to do an MBA so that he would be qualified to get his daughter into a good nursery school. That triggered the idea and I shared it with Saket. People around him were, like, why would you do an MBA when you know how to run a business? But he felt that was the qualification that would get his daughter into the school. That sort of started it off.
So we started to read more about nursery admissions ke achha aise bhi hota hai. And the more we read, the more surprised we were. We were surprised at the effort parents are willing to make and the trials and tribulations they go through, and a whole world opened up. I guess that’s where the story took root and then we built on it.
BOI: Saket, it is every director’s dream to work with an actor like Irrfan. How did you approach him and how did the collaboration begin?
SC: When we started writing the script, we hadn’t fixed on any actors. The day we wrote the first introduction of the Raj Batra in the Chandani Chowk shop, triggered that Irrfan it is. I mean, no other actor can play this role because Irrfan, apart from his incredible talent, is also very convincing as a person, as somebody who is like us. That quality made him perfect for the character. His charisma and charm only added value to the character. We immediately knew we had to get him. And we were very fortunate that he said yes after the very first narration.
BOI: In an interview to Box Office India earlier, Irrfan had said that it was really important to get the casting right, for this film.
SC: (Cuts in) A script is still a script and to bring it alive you have to cast the best actors possible and the right actors possible. I think here, more or less, all the pieces fit together. Because a good actor doesn’t just convey your material; an actor adds so much to your material.
ZL: Yes, and when you have the right cast, that’s half the battle won. When you write a character, you are usually never fully satisfied with what happens, the way you visualised it, you can never say that jaisa socha tha waisa ho gaya. But when you get the right cast, they interpret it in their own way; they bring something to the character. So, getting the right cast is really half the battle won. And then they also feed off each other and can take the scene to a completely different level.
BOI: In the film, there were so many instances that seem impromptu, like during the ATM scene, where they are pulling each other…
SC: The ATM scene was in fact an impromptu scene. When Deepak (Dobriyal) came to meet us while we were casting, the scene didn’t exist. He told us that Irrfan had to go and take out money for his daughter and that he will go to an ATM. That sparked the idea. The interaction between Irrfan and Deepak was always impromptu. There is a line were Deepak looks at the security camera and says, ‘Hume paise nahi chahiye,’ and Irrfan grabbed the money and said, ‘Nahi, chahiye chahiye chahiye…’ They played off each other. With good actors, that’s what you need to do, you need to give them space to do what they need to do.
BOI: As a writer, how impressed were you by the actors in the film and, as a director, how did you manage to harness all that energy and put it across?
ZL: They take your lines and they make it their own. Irrfan sir has this habit of saying his lines before the scene till they become his. You would assume that since he is such an accomplished actor, he would read his lines once and that would be enough. But he keeps saying them aloud, and when he says those lines, they are no longer my lines, they are his. That’s the thing about actors like him. They take it to another level and you feel amazing… what you have written comes to life.
SC: Actors like Irrfan and Deepak and even Saba… their idea is to constantly keep finding themselves in the scene. And Deepak and Irrfan do that brilliantly. They figure out what that extra magic is that they can… the scene where he says, ‘Hum khandaani garib hai’, that was scripted, but then he goes on, “Hum khandaani garib hai, aisa nahi ki pehle amir the phir garib ho gaye phir amir ho gaye… nahi nahi hum shuddh garib hai.’ So that ‘shuddh garib’ came from Deepak. They are good actors because they constantly think of how they can improve the scene. And that helps you a lot.
ZL: Even in that scene where… in the pre-climax, where Deepak goes to Irrfan’s house. When we were reading the scene, they were in splits. They enjoy what they do. You can feel the energy that they put into the scene. It happened because they enjoyed that scene and then played it out with that level of energy.
BOI: The detailing in each scene… like when Deepak’s character takes a banana as a ‘thank you’ gift. Do you add little things like this, as a director?
SC: Credit for this goes to the production designer. We invited everybody to contribute, including people like the costume designer and production designer. So my production designer pointed out that a poor person thinks that flowers as a gift are a waste as they may be thrown away but bananas can be useful. So he suggested getting bananas. When you work with extremely talented people who are constantly thinking about the film they are working on brings those small magical moments to the film.
BOI: As a writer, you have seen him grow, and as a director you have seen her grow. With this film, how much do you think the other has evolved?
ZL: I have known Saket since Pyaar Ke Side Effects. So, the kind of material he has chosen for Hindi Medium made him step out of his comfort zone. Romantic comedy and humor come to him very easily. The dynamics between a couple is totally his space, like Pyaar Ke Side Effects or Shaadi Ke Side Effects. But with this, he has explored a different world. We went to three places in Delhi, first to Chandni Chowk, which has its own flavor; then Vasant Vihar, which is
upper-crust; and Bharat Nagar, which is a Trilokpuri kind of place. You had to be able to distinguish between those three places, not only in terms of look but also in terms of how the people speak, the way they dress, and the way they interact.
I think that was a leap of faith. You’re not only talking about one family who is trying to get their kid’s admission in the best schools; it’s a commentary on education, on classism, on Hindi vs English. So there were four other subjects. Considering all those things, I think Saket has evolved as a director.
SC: I think Zeenat has grown tremendously. We wrote Shaadi Ke Side Effects together and we both had to step out of our respective comfort zones. This film has so many layers apart from the basic relationships. Apart from the fact the story was hers and that the story originated with her. She read one article and created the idea. In fact, she was supposed to write the story independently. I was asked by the producer if I would like to direct the film. And I was, like, sure why not; it’s a good story, I’ll do it.
Apart from that, I think Zeenat has grown to the extent that she can now fight for herself. She has tremendous belief and she stands up for them. During Shaadi Ke Side Effects, I would say ‘do this’, and she was, like, he has directed Pyaar Ke Side Effects and he knows more. But now she is confident about her material and will fight for it. And, most of the time, she is right, and the scene will go that way. So I think her conviction in the material and understanding of scenes is growing tremendously.
ZL: The people we had, whether our DoP or production designer, everybody reacted to the material. They all felt for the material. They were not just coming to do their job; it struck a chord with them and was a story that needed to be told. We were very lucky to have people around us who believed in the script.
ZL: On some things, we were pretty much on the same page and on some things we weren’t. I can be a little strong-headed about the way I see things. But he is open enough and when convinced, he goes along with it.
If you really feel strongly about something, you have to assert yourself. Isn’t that the reason you are there? You are there to offer your point of view. At the end of the day, it’s the director’s decision but, as far as writing is concerned, I have an equal voice and if I feel strongly about something, I don’t let it go easily. Whether it’s the director, the actors or anybody else, I say my piece before a decision is taken.
BOI: Your previous films, Pyaar Ke Side Effects and Shaadi Ke Side Effects, and now Hindi Medium… All of them have a fun kind of tone. Will we see you experimenting with other genres?
SC: Every time I tell myself that I will attempt a different genre but end up making comedy. I always wanted to make action–thrillers and between every film, I write one. Hopefully after this one, I will attempt a thriller.
ZL: I don’t go by genre. I need to feel a connection with the subject, I need to feel that this is something I want to write about. You stay with the script for a really long time, so you really need to feel strongly enough to sustain your interest. If a story resonates with me, if I feel this is a story that needs to be told, the genre doesn’t matter.
BOI: What’s next for each of you?
SC: I have a bunch of ideas that I need to sort out. It’s strange, you know, failure can sometimes shake your confidence. So, like she said, you have to find that one idea which makes it worthwhile to invest the next two years of your life in it. I just have to find that one idea.