On his latest film, Kuchh Bheege Alfaaz, a light-hearted love story in the age of social media, director Onir with the cast Geetanjali Thapa and debutant Zain Khan Durrani talk to Team Box Office India
Box Office India (BOI): Onir, you are known for your intense dramas. What prompted you to write a light-hearted script like Kuchh Bheege Alfaaz?
Onir: The script was written by Abhishek Chatterjee, who introduced me to it. I fell in love with the love story and it flashbacked me to my college days, to my first love. It allowed me to re-experience those times. The script basically celebrates the beauty that lies within everyone. We are therefore celebrating the inner beauty of the film here.
Now people use social media to connect with other people and a new love story is born out of these platforms. According to me, the essence of life is timeless and I think today is the time we need to share some love because there is so much hate all around.
BOI: How did you get the actors on board?
Onir: I watched Geetanjali’s Liar’s Dice and was blown away by her performance. Besides, when I was reading the script, she was the only actor that came to mind and with whom I wanted to work. I met her in a coffee shop and I was very sure that she had to be Archana. I was very happy to hear that she said yes to my offer. The film is fortunate to have a beautiful actress like Geetanjali, who brings in the positivity that the character demands.
Zain, on the other hand, had come to me for an audition for Shab and I saw that he has a personality, voice and eyes of a certain depth. I remember requesting him to come to Bombay if he was interested in acting in the movies. He started assisting me during Shab and I could clearly see myself casting him in the character of Alfaaz. But this is the first film that I haven’t produced myself and I wanted him to go through the process. There were so many people who came for the audition, from Delhi, Bombay and even Karachi. It was the producers who said they wanted Zain for this film.
BOI: Zain and Geetanjali, what were your initial reactions when you were offered this film?
Geetanjali Thapa (GT): I read the script and I realised it was a great character to play as an actor, but to be honest, more than reading the script, I was more confident about my decision when I met Onir. He narrated the script to me and it gave me a different perspective on how I saw the film. And he was very excited about his script.
Zain Khan Durrani (ZKD): As an actor, you seldom get a script of your choice and I was very happy when I received a script. I fell in love with the romantic side of the story. There is a sensibility in his script and this is what I like about doing this movie. The script left me in tears. I also felt privileged to feature in a movie that would be directed by Onir. I have known him for three years and he is emotional and very intelligent. The way he depicts emotions and relationships in his movies is endearing.
Onir was the one who inspired me to have faith in myself and that helped me do this film. There was also a lot of Urdu that he introduced in the script, which was another reason I felt comfortable.
BOI: Can you tell us something about your characters and how they are different from each of you in real life?
GT: I am like Archana in many ways because she has her own insecurities but still wakes up early in the morning and sets her day right. She is super confident and I think I am confident and secure just like Archana is. There are some similarities but also differences.
ZKD: Alfaaz is a very romantic person and his character has been beautifully described by the role. I can relate to this character because I have grown up playing retro music and I love reading poetry. I think there are a lot of similarities when you look at characters because we can always find a little of us in them.
But there are other things, like back stories. I believe all of us have a different role to play in real life. Those are the little things we need to take care of when we play a character like this. I see different shades of Alfaaz in me, in many different ways.
BOI: What were the challenges you both faced while playing these characters?
GT: The only challenge we faced every day was waking up early and coming to Onir’s workshop. Every day, he would pester me to attend the workshops. They really helped me throughout this film and eventually when we went on floors we were super prepared. The other challenge I faced was to understand the characters. I wondered whether I would be able to think like Archana. We have literally bared our emotions in front of Onir and in the way we react to the characters’ dilemma. It wasn’t easy for us to open up so much because it meant you had to let go of your ego.
BOI: What was it like working with each other?
GT: Actually, we did not meet before or during the shoot.
ZKD: It happened very organically. The first time we met was the first time we meet in the film. Before that, we were kept away from each other. Our workshops happened in separate rooms and we were not allowed to see each other. We had never seen each other before the film. Having said that, yes, I was very curious and had to stifle my curiosity. Our director is super-strict about that. I don’t think we ever had a conversation outside our film or workshops till our shoot concluded. Her last day of the shoot was my first day of the shoot. So all of it happened very organically. It is only now, during promotions, that we are getting to know each other and bond.
BOI: Zain, voice is an integral part of your character since you are playing an RJ. Did you engage in any research or voice modulation training?
ZKD: I did not have to do much with my voice. In my initial years in Bombay, I used to take a couple of singing classes and that helped a lot. But this has more to do with expression. I had to observe a couple of RJs. When you are narrating something on the radio, it is just your voice and that intimate space that the voice enters with the listener. You have to be especially expressive. And, yes, a couple of RJs in Bombay were instrumental in teaching me a few little tricks on how to go about the business. It is a very intimate art. You have to sound as personal as possible and it should feel like the RJ is in a personal conversation with you and not the audience at large. These are some of the things I had to learn. That’s the best part of our profession, we get to learn so many things.
BOI: This is the first time you both have worked with Onir. What were your learnings?
GT: Oh, he is wonderful! He is a sweetheart to work with. He is extremely nice to his actors. I don’t know about the other departments. He keeps us away in a cocoon that he builds for us. Sometimes, there is a lot of stress at work or when things might not work out the way they should, he doesn’t let all that affect us. He always has a smile and an air of calm. As the director, he is the leader on the set. The energy he brings on the sets is the energy that everyone imbibes. If he is smiling, calm and happy, it makes us feel positive.
ZKD: I have worked with him for the last three years, so I am used to it. He believes in a lot of preparation before going on the sets to shoot. We actually shot the film in 19 days. And that was possible only because of the workshops. Everything was well settled before we started shooting. He just lets the actors be, he also helps the actors with the back story. I was often unprepared but he had his suggestions. Even when you are prepared, he has very intelligent and insightful suggestions to help you in your work. Often, when I lacked a certain nuance, he would come up with….. Is he smiling?
Onir: All I had to do was ask him to stop thinking about his looks. (Laughs)
BOI: Does the film have a special message for the audience?
Onir: I think every film has a special message. But the message has never been the focal point in the work I do. It is the story. Similarly, this is a story which really fascinated me. For example, in this film, one message would be that each one of us is beautiful. The minute you start celebrating that, everyone will look at that. All of us are constantly under pressure with all these beauty products that are flooding the market. You have to go to the gym, you have to get your hair right, and you are always required to look a certain way. Also, eat the correct food, wear certain colours and brands, otherwise you might not be considered attractive.
And that’s what happens in real life. The minute you look at someone’s photograph, you start talking about it, the illusion is broken. This story is about two people, one is broken inside, the other is just insecure about the way she looks, and how these two connect beyond physical appearance. It is true bonding because you are bonding from within, finding what your real identities are. This film celebrates the act of loving and your own beauty.
BOI: You are a director as well as a producer. What is your take on the business aspect of a film?
Onir: This is the first film I am not producing. I love what I do, I love making films. There are a few people who trust me. But I just cannot figure out this business. I think it is the longevity of my passion that keeps me going. If a film of mine earns 100 crores, I will still be me, and if it doesn’t earn 1 crore, I will still be me! Your work shouldn’t be defined by what happens at the box office in three weeks. I am proud that many of my films are still shown around the world and I would rather be a part of that.
BOI: Do you think films on the festival circuit benefit from the publicity they get, especially back home among the Indian audience?
Onir: Yes and no. Earlier, it was very helpful because there wasn’t any social media to create hype. The moment your film started travelling, people would talk about you more easily. Right now, they would rather talk about what one is wearing, the actress’ sarees, etc. It has become difficult to reach out. Today, a Newton became what it is because it went to a number of film festivals before it released in theatres. So it does help.
But why should it only be about this, about the hype? I am fortunate to have seen so many countries, to have interacted with so many people who you think won’t understand your cinema, your language, but you see them sitting in the theatre, crying and then come up to you, hug you and tell you how special your film was. That gives you so much energy, it gives you faith in yourself.
It is not just about creating buzz, it is about growing as a human being as well as growing as a filmmaker. You can interact with so many people. Here, where do you get to interact with other filmmakers or the audience? Never! So, this week, we have a screening at Kala Ghoda and I am really looking forward to interacting with the audience there. I am very excited about that. That is precious because you have people there, talking to you, asking you about your work. I feel very blessed that I can travel so much with my films.
GT: I really don’t understand the business aspect of films but as far as I know, when a film goes to film festivals, you are not only looking at the Indian market, you are also thinking about finding distributors, selling it to the European, North American and Latin American markets, among others. These are the various markets where you can sell satellite rights, distribution rights, etc. So it is not only about creating buzz, just as Onir said.
And, just like him, I too love the festival scene because I get to interact with so many filmmakers, actors, editors and others from the industry. Just going to a screening, sitting there for the Q & A round, talking about your work, why you are doing it, or even sitting as a member of the audience in a theatre watching so many films. I have learnt so much more about life. It has been quite educational because it helps you grow.
I wish we had more of that here. I wish we had more venues where we could watch films from around the world. Regional films should also be showcased at these festivals. We see such amazing regional films coming out these days with movies from the Marathi industry, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, etc going to festivals and creating a space for themselves. But the Indian audience doesn’t get to watch these films and that’s a shame. They are screened at the film festivals we have here and, sadly, they don’t always get a release in India.
BOI: Since we are talking about how more and more content-driven films are being made, Onir, do you think these movies help blur the line between so-called commercial and niche films?
Onir: I think that with platforms like Netflix and Amazon becoming increasingly popular, more and more people are getting used to world cinema. They are getting used to really good narratives on the web and that is great because it becomes a challenge for filmmakers. It pushes us to realise that you have to innovate, you have to change and you can’t keep telling those same old stories in the same manner over and over again. A lot of people are saying that with these new digital platforms, the audience will stop watching films in cinemas but I don’t believe that. I think it will only enrich cinema.
GT: Yes, it will surely set the bar high.
Onir: Absolutely. I celebrate it because I think if people are watching content like that, they will accept me more. (Laughs)
GT: And there are so many shows or movies we can watch on Netflix and not in cinemas. Given how things are in India, we cannot release certain films in theatres.
Onir: But the good thing is that the audience is getting to see it via other platforms. And, slowly, when these films do release in a better environment, the audience will have graduated to accepting other kinds of films. That is the beauty of what is happening around us right now.
BOI: What is your headspace currently, now that your film will be releasing next week?
Onir: I want it to make 200 crores! (Laughs)
GT: Hundred thousand crores. I don’t even know how many zeroes there are in that figure.
Onir: We have made this film with a lot of love, and coincidentally, it is releasing during Valentine’s Day week. I believe it is the only movie releasing at that time which celebrates love. It is young and it makes you smile. So, I am hopeful that people will relate to it because it uses everything that everyone is going through these days. The energy is positive so I feel positive.
GT: I hope people like it. It’s a peppy romance and a feel-good film. Plus, it is the Valentine’s Day weekend and people will like it because I absolutely enjoyed it. So, let’s see.
ZKD: I hope people come out of the theatres…
Onir: (Cuts In) …admiring him. That’s what he wants, for people to go, ‘Oh my God, who is this guy!’ He wants 10,000 more Instagram followers after the first show. (Laughs)
ZKD: No, yaar. I genuinely hope that people, after watching the movie, come out of theatres feeling like I did. It’s uplifting and beautiful. There is this beautiful thing of a classic romance wrapped in a new-age, social media package. I think we have all done it, we have all been on social media, we have tried our hand at dating on social media, we can all relate to it very well, and I think that will resonate with the audience. I just hope that after watching this film, people fall in love even more.
BOI: And what next, after the release of Kuchh Bheege Alfaz?
Onir: I am starting a film after this called Driving Lessons. This is a phase in my life where I am only celebrating love since that is also another love story. That movie is with Tannishtha Chatterjee and Ashish Bisht. I am looking forward to it.
GT: No, I seriously am going to just sleep. I am exhausted.
ZKD: Like they were saying, I just want to go out on the streets and be recognised by everyone. Apart from that, I just want to do good work like Onir does.
Onir: That is difficult because you have to get a good director again!