From making women swoon in Rang De Basanti to spooking the audience with his latest film The House Next Door, actor Siddharth talks to Team Box Office India about his love for the horror genre, his director and turning producer once again
You have been very choosy about your Bollywood projects. What made you change your mind about acting, writing and producing this film?
Basically, the director, Milind Rao, is Mani Ratnam sir’s associate director. Both of us started our careers together as assistant directors 16 years ago. We both love horror films and have always wondered why good horror films aren’t made in this country.
So we started writing one and it took us four years to complete the script. What excites me most about this film is that I can say that it is the best horror film that has been made in this country in a long time. There hasn’t been a great history of horror here but I hope this film will start a new trend.
What kind of horror films have you grown up watching? How did they inspire you?
As a kid, my mother exposed me to a lot of cinema. I started watching horror since I was five years old. We would watch horror films in the cinemas with our friends. I remember watching Omen when I was 10 years old, which is quite bizarre, and also The Exorcist.
Both Milind and I are huge fans of South East Asian horror films, especially South Korean and Japanese. In fact, The Ring has been an adaption of Hideo Nakata’s novel Ringu. There is such a thing as ‘original creation’ but it is impossible to come up with an original creation without being influenced by other films. We wanted to make a horror film where we would be able to pay homage to all the filmmakers who taught us about horror films. We wanted to create an aesthetic or a style of horror that would be unique to our country. That’s why this film is so exciting, because it is a film that we would love to show our contemporaries abroad and say this is our kind of horror. The Conjuring brought back a new fascination with horror films in this country.
Since this film is based on real incidents, what kind of research went into its making?
There are two reasons it took four years to make this film. Yes, it is based on a true story but it is not a gimmicky film in the sense that people might ask, ‘How can it be a horror film?’ While a lot of research went into it, the entire film is not a documentary. The root of the film is based in reality. It is from there that we started developing and fictionalising the story. We have taken a lot of liberty to make it the scariest film in the country.
The research took quite a long time because it is based on reality and we had to be sure of what we were making. I also learnt a lot as a filmmaker, actor, writer and producer. When you’re shooting on the sets, or going for the edits, you get a fair idea of whether it is doing justice to what you set out to do.
With horror, it is not enough to write it, to shoot it; you have to do the sound, the background score, VFX, the grading and only when you see all of it together, you are satisfied. Getting scared is a lot of fun, but scaring people is a lot of hard work. It has become a joke in this country to make a horror film; they are either horror comedies or full of sex. And neither of them is scary unless you find sex or comedy scary! We wanted people to gasp and scream while watching this film. Being scared is an incredible high. You always go back for more. Yes, there have been good films from Ramu’s (Ram Gopal Verma), particularly Bhoot, but of late, we’ve been fed only international horror.
Do you personally believe in supernatural events?
Between Milind and me, one of us is a believer, the other is a non-believer. A horror film should challenge your beliefs. The House Next Door will question your beliefs. Let’s say you are a believer in the supernatural, you will be forced to question your own beliefs. It takes only one second for the switch to happen. So I would say one of us is a believer in the supernatural and the other is extremely rational. The film is quite detailed and layered.
In Indian cinema, there is a lot of space for commercial films while content-driven films are also doing well. Do you think the horror genre needs to be explored some more?
This is a very important case study. If you look at the statistics, there is literally only one genre where it doesn’t matter who the star of the film is. It also doesn’t matter when you release it or how much marketing you do. I think the word ‘commercial’ is a very stupid word. When you flood a film in 10,000 theatres, even if it is the same crappy kind of film, everyone will watch it. That’s not commercial cinema, that’s nonsense. Only the horror genre multiplies on its own once the first show is over. I think horror is the most commercial genre. There is a reason I chose this film after working as a lead in over 30 films. It is supremely entertaining. Once it releases and the reviews are out, it will be termed ‘commercial’. Everybody is going to like it.
Often, when people shoot horror films, they experience strange things on the sets. Did that happen with you as well?
I think any set could turn out to be a horror experience, irrespective of the genre of the film being shot. The difference is, when you’re shooting a horror film people tend to get spooked easily. Milind and I are intense filmmakers because we have been best friends for so long and he is very specific about how he wants something to be. It was a very tightly run set.
We were shooting in Himachal, it was cold outside and the mist was coming out of our mouths. All this adds to the spookiness. For me, the toughest part was letting them know that there was nothing wrong with the set and that we could go back to work. The other difficult part was we were working with a child on the set; we had to make sure that we took extra care so that the little kid did not get scared. And that takes a little while. She came out like a real rock star. And if anything unusual happened, we would blame it on the ghost!
You have mostly favoured regional cinema, doing Tamil and Telegu films. Even this film is a multilingual film. Is there a specific reason for sticking to regional films?
It is the same reason actors here do not work in the South. There, we are popular and make a lot of money because it is a big market. Everybody wants to be at the top of their game. Whenever there is an exciting opportunity to cross over, I will. By the time I did Rang De Basanti, I was already an actor down South. And today I am excited to do a Hindi film because this is a film that the Hindi audience has not seen.
It was written in Hindi first. If you look at my filmography of the last 12 years, this is my fourth Hindi film. I would like to believe Rang De Basanti, Striker, Chasme Baddoor and The House Next Door reflect the filmography of an actor who believes in doing different films, not someone who is here to make a living.
A lot of films have a lot of myths. Are you trying to break any myths with this one?
After watching a horror film, you always try to pacify yourself, saying that if you ever encounter a ghost, you would chant the Hanuman Chalisa, take out The Bible, etc. We wanted to make a film where we didn’t have to do all these things! There is neither a white sari nor face. There is a new ethnic angle to this film, there is a backdrop anchoring this film. The main myth to break – and I hope this myth is broken – is that when you scare people too much, they don’t enjoy it and do not make it to the theatre. That’s the myth we wanted to break!
You are an accomplished actor along with being a musician, writer and producer. Any plans to direct a film?
I started as an assistant director; I grew up as a technician. The funny thing is that I have always known that I would direct a film but it is a specific calling. It will happen when it has to happen. Having said that, right now this is quite an enjoyable phase in my career. Production is a lot of fun because you get to create stuff from scratch. If I direct a film, I don’t think I would be able to do anything else for a year and a half.
How important is VFX today to make a successful horror film?
That is the other thing we have worked on. I’m not a big fan of bloated VFX films because I get bored when I realise that 98 per cent of the film is not real. People can say that I am saying this because I am a filmmaker and I know the technicalities. But that’s not it. As an audience also, you know that Mars is not exploding and falling on one guy’s face while Thor, who is on Jupiter, goes and does something. I mean, I like reading comic books but when I watch films, I want to see a story, the characters, the action and not just a spectacle.
When we were making The House Next Door, we knew that there would be VFX in the film but it had to be organic. Also, we are independent filmmakers. I didn’t set out to make a gynormous film. We set out to make a really scary film. So, if someone has watched the trailer, every time they got scared, there was VFX involved. And if they were scared, it means the VFX worked.
I know this is a big claim to make but I like to believe that the best kind of VFX is the one where you can’t tell whether was done by VFX. I think only independent cinema can do that and it’s great. With Hollywood films and the magnum opus films, they have the budgets to do pretty much everything in VFX and there is no thrill in that for me.
When I saw the first finished copy of The House Next Door, I felt that the VFX was where it needed to be. Will we get better with the next film? I think so. We have actually written a couple of sequels to this movie. The film was originally conceived with a lot of international technicians and we have worked with a lot of consultants. I have friends in Canada who have helped me with both VFX design and make-up, and friends in LA who have helped with a lot of technicalities. I think once we hit pay dirt with this film, the next time we will be able to involve a lot more people and take the film further into international waters.
And that’s where I think VFX gets even more interesting because I think they are used to spectacular VFX, you can’t mess with them. Indians generally are used to poor VFX because it is used as a tool to rescue things here. We have not done that; our VFX was on the script.
You said you are best friends with the director Milind Rao. How has your friendship grown over the years and did it change during the course of this film?
Milind is a very passionate filmmaker and what he is bringing to the table is a grammar and voice that is so original and unique. For a horror filmmaker to do that is really amazing. As far as my relationship with him is concerned, it has grown stronger and stronger over the 16 years that we have known each other. We have always wanted to make films that we are proud of and it’s great that we have a platform like this to do it with partners like Viacom 18.
We have fabulous actors working with us on this film and a technical team that has worked extremely hard. I am literally waiting for the film to come out because, after that, Milind can come out and spread his wings the way I expect him to because there is some brilliant stuff in that guy’s head and I hope to be a part of his process again, soon. For now, we are just two best friends waiting to watch our film in the theatre, where we can watch the audience scream.
What was it like working with your co-stars, Atul Kulkarni, Andrea Jeremiah, Khushi Hazaria and Anisha Victor?
They are a dream cast. When we wrote the film we had two actors on paper, Atul Kulkarni to play Paul D’Costa and Andrea Jeremiah to play Laxmi. I have worked with Andrea as a musician and she is a fantastic singer. I have always wanted to work with her as an actor. She has an amazing understanding of the character. I like women who portray women with strength and even in a moment of weakness or fear, don’t give up on their strength.
We were not showing a frail character who says main mar jaungi or main behosh ho jaungi bhoot dekh ke. I don’t think women behave like that. We wanted an actor who brings the strength of a woman to a horror film and she’s the pillar of the relationship in the film because the story is about a neurosurgeon and his wife and what happens to their life because of their new neighbours.
When we wrote the script, we had Andrea in mind and she has done a fantastic job. For Hindi audiences, firstly, she is drop-dead gorgeous and secondly, she is a great actor. So I am excited that I am introducing a talent who is already recognised and respected, to a new market.
About Atul Kulkarni… what can I say, yaar? I keep calling him a veteran. It has been 11 years since Rang De Basanti and I keep telling him that. And he tells me that it makes us both sound even older, which is true (Laughs). But Atul is a dear friend and we have stayed in touch all these years. I always wanted to collaborate with him again. He wasn’t given a chance to say yes or no because I told him that I had written this for him. And from the day he read this script, his passion for this film and his belief in what it is going to do, was amazing.
He would be on the set on days when he wasn’t required just so he could help us with everything. He would help Milind with a lot of nuances of staging. We also had a child on the set and Atul would always be there to take care of her, especially if we were doing a scary scene. Our friendship from RDB days carried over, making us feel like no time had passed.
The other actor who will be a breakout star after this film releases is Anisha Victor who plays the role of Jenny in the film. She is a young talent that we were very lucky to find and I am very excited for people to see what she has done in this film. The greatest thing about a horror film is to see somebody going through something and to feel what they are going through. I think Anisha has done a great job with that.
We have other actors too like Mr Suresh, who has done over 300 films in the South and Mr Prakash Belawadi, bringing his style to his part in the film. Khushi Hazaria, the little girl, has to be seen to be believed for how good she is. It’s an actor’s film. I consider myself a fairly decent actor and I found far superior actors in this whole ensemble. I am very proud of this cast and I think films should be cast for their script and not for how many theatres the film is releasing in.
You seem very confident about the film but there are other movies like Ittefaq and Ribbon releasing on the same day. In your opinion, does that influence business at the box office?
Let me give you a simple metaphor. What you hear about these films releasing on the same day has nothing to do with the people making the films. And here’s why I believe this. Unless you’re not ready for an examination, you won’t care what the person sitting next to you is writing. Both of you have the exam on the same day, so if you’re secure about your preparation, you will score well.
I think Indian cinema is big enough for these kinds of releases. If the film is good, it will be in the theatres and if it’s bad then it won’t. All the three films – Ittefaq, Ribbon and The House Next Door – have people who have worked equally hard on them. There is no filmmaker who will say, ‘Haan iss film mein maine kaam hi nahi kiya.’ Whether it is a good or bad film, there is a lot of effort that goes into it.
Ittefaq is made by a legacy production house and it has actors who are very popular. Ribbon stars Kalki Koechlin who is a wonderful artiste and The House Next Door is a project that I am very passionate about. November 3 is a good release date and I wish all of us good luck.
Tell us about your future projects.
I have three films that are under production and I am really tired (Laughs). I will hopefully finish them by February and take a break. We have already started writing a few films. We have set up a young writing group. Sometimes, all sorts of ridiculous ideas sound good. We also have the sequel to this film on the cards.