Nine years ago, a racy thriller sans any ‘starry’ attachments left an impression on one and all. The film was A Wednesday, which after so many years is still as fresh, entertaining and gripping as it was. Team Box Office India catches up with the men behind Friday Filmworks – Neeraj Pandey and Shital Bhatia – as they celebrate nine years of the film and discuss their journey from A Wednesday to now.
BOI: How would you describe your journey of the last nine years from A Wednesday to now?
Shital Bhatia (SB): Professionally, there have been a lot of changes and I would just say it has been a wonderful journey.
Neeraj Pandey (NP): Let me put it this way, we never knew we would end up surviving these nine years. So it has been exciting and fun. It has been a journey of self-belief and a lot of learnings, when things worked and when they didn’t.
BOI: A Wednesday lacked starpower; it depended solely on its powerful script. What made you believe it would click, and to go ahead with a project like this? Wasn’t it risky?
SB: We didn’t know whether it was going to click or not but we have always believed in content and still do. Our last film too was based on content rather than the star cast and we have always believed in that.
NP: Essentially, the key to all the projects we have picked up is the story, the script and what we wanted to say through that particular film. Because we were newcomers, we knew that we would not have the luxury or the advantage of having an A-list star cast. But what we had complete control over, was the content. We knew we had a good script and we had a good cast. We were excited by it. And chances are that when you have a good script and a good cast, the film will pull through. How much and how big, we had no idea back then. Not that we have any idea about that even now (laughs). We chase the same thing in the same manner. Combine a good script and a good cast and hope for the best.
BOI: It has worked with every movie you have done, be it Special 26, Rustom, Baby…
NP: Thank you. It is a very basic formula that we work on.
BOI: When you listen to a script, what is the one thing that makes you believe that this story will resonate with the audience?
NP: It is never one thing. It can’t be just one thing. It has to be a combination of things because we cannot be talking about the same thing for about two-and-a-half hours. But, of course, there has to be a line or a spine to it, one core idea. But you have to bring other elements that come together and become a two-and-ahalf- hour narrative. So, yeah, if I had to pinpoint that one thing, then it would be a dilemma. You chase a dilemma, whether it is that character’s or that nation’s or that protagonist’s or the writer’s. You are basically chasing a dilemma and stretching it into a good story and a good script.
BOI: Most of your films, be it Special 26, Rustom, M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha etc., have been inspired by or adapted from real events. What kind of research goes into such stories?
SB: That’s his department. He does the research.
NP: No, it isn’t just me, his contribution towards each film is a lot. The way we have worked so far is that once I have done all the research to put the story together, and once the final script is ready, I hand it over to him. Then Shital puts together the best HOD team, he brings on board the best crew possible. Individually, we believe that every crew head or HOD, for that matter, whether art, production or costumes… they all bring their best to the table. It is essentially about feeding off their best and collaborating, about focusing on the good parts and leaving out the bad parts. That’s how it has worked.
BOI: You have worked with Anupam Kher in most of your movies. What is your equation like with him?
NP: It has started to sound like an allegation (laughs). It has been wonderful. We are blessed to have worked with some of the best talents in the industry.
SB: Truly, it has been wonderful, with all our actors and crew.
NP: Yeah, we have worked with the same people again and again, provided they fit the bill each time, of course. Mr Kher has been a part of almost everything we have done. It is fun and a joy to work with him. We look up to him because every day is a learning experience with him on the set. Every time he comes up, even after nine years, he has something new to talk about and to teach us. Having said that, there has been so much to learn from every individual that we have worked with repeatedly or the newcomers we are working with right now. There is something or the other to take away.
BOI: How has your personal equation grown in these nine years?
NP: Terrible (laughs).
SB: We agree and we agree to disagree.
NP: Yes, if I agree to everything he says or if he agrees to everything I say, I don’t think we would have lasted nine years. The fact that he questions everything I do and there is a discussion on it, the fact that we keep talking about certain things, taking steps that need to be taken in the decisions that we make, that is the only route that can get us going. For me, that’s what works.
SB: It’s similar for me too. Like I said, we agree to disagree.
BOI: All your films have been perfectly cast. How do you manage to find just the right person for the right role?
SB: It is very easy. We get a casting director and he does the auditions (laughs).
NP: It is actually an open forum.
SB: We try and get someone to justify the characters. It doesn’t mean that simply because we know people, they will agree to do our film. Like, we were talking about Anupamji… he fits the bill for the characters and that is why he is there in so many of our films. He is just right for the characters he has played in all our films.
BOI: What was your perception of the industry when you started with A Wednesday and how has it changed?
SB: Well, I thought we were outsiders and I think we still are. We didn’t think too much about the industry back then and we still don’t. We don’t think too much about how the industry works. We operate in our own space.
NP: It is a place of work for us, that is how I would like to put it. You turn up and do your job. We are not very social people, so to speak, and that takes care of about 90 per cent of our problems. You don’t have to explain yourself to anyone, you don’t have to turn up for this person or that. We are happy doing what we do. Like I said, it is extremely critical that you respect your place of work and respect the profession you are in. We keep it very simple.
BOI: So many actors these days talk about how a director should allow them to have their space. How do you strike a balance between giving your actors space and guiding them to what you want from them?
NP: It depends on the individual. Sometimes people need instructions, while some don’t need too many instructions. It depends on the talent you are working with on a particular day. It is a part of man-management, what they bring to the table, what they bring to the set on that particular day. And then you negotiate your way. It is actually quite simple and I don’t know why people make such a big deal of it. It is a simple job that you are supposed to do. It is not that there is the weight of the world on you! There is a script in place, and as long as your team knows what they are supposed to do, it is very simple.
BOI: Where did the journey begin for the two of you?
SB: We had a television company earlier. But when the saas-bahu era happened, we couldn’t do it. So we closed the company and thought of making films. There’s nothing exciting about it. We met, we bonded.
NP: It is more like a marta kya na karta story.
BOI: But the connect is important too…
NP: The connect was already there because we had worked together for three to four years before we started the television company. So we sort of knew each other. And, again, any collaboration needs calibration, so you keep tuning in to the other person. That keeps happening on different projects. The key is to be open to it and understand the need for it.
BOI: What is the way forward, what plans do you have for your company, Friday Filmworks?
NP: That is one key thing, we have never made plans. The company happened by default. We wanted to make a film and no one was willing to fund it. So Shital suggested that we start a company and get going. At least we would get to do this particular film. We enjoyed the experience of working with so much freedom and space, and this led to another film and another and another. So we don’t look too far ahead. We have a few projects, Aiyaary being one of them, and another three to four projects are in various stages of development. Casting and scripting is going on.
BOI: You just said it was difficult to get finance for your first film. From there to being an established company where people have faith to come on board… How does that feel?
NP: To start with, you feel more responsible. It doesn’t sway us or give us a feeling ki chalte hain yaar, kuch karte hain kuch time pass mein. It makes us feel more accountable. And it is not only from the people who are investing in us; but also from the audience’s point of view. We are aware that we are not going to live up to those kinds of expectations all the time. It is that kind of business. Some stories go out, some stories don’t. But what we have in our control is our ability to give our best and invest in the right direction. That is essentially the key to what we are doing.
BOI: Lastly, we spoke about Aiyaary earlier. Can you tell us a little more about that?
NP: We are going to start the last schedule soon. After this interview, we will be heading to the airport, leaving for the last schedule. We will be wrapping work on the film in September and looking at a January 26, 2018, release. It is a mentor-protégé story, which has Sidharth Malhotra and Manoj Bajpayee. We have got a terrific ensemble, Naseer bhai (Naseeruddin Shah) comes back. Mr Kher is there again. Then we have Kumud (Mishra), Rakul (Preet) is there in the film. Pooja Chopra is there. It is a terrific ensemble and by far the biggest one we have worked with to date.