On The Same Wavelength

Leading lady Vidya Balan, who plays the title role in her next release Tumhari Sulu, along with director Suresh Triveni, in conversation with Team Box Office India

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BOI: When and how did the journey of this film begin?

Vidya Balan (VB): My brother-in-law, Kedar, told me that there was this ad filmmaker he had worked with who had an idea that he wanted to share with me. Kedar said the director wanted to meet me. I trust Kedar’s creative instincts and I was intrigued to know about this person and hence agreed to meet him. We sat for a narration and later thought he needed to make some changes in the script.

Suresh Triveni (ST): I am from the advertising field and I used to work for a shampoo brand. At the time, Vidya was in the top league in advertising and in South films. Since then, I have always followed her work. In 2005, after Parineeta, I was shooting a documentary and I got to interview her. But I always had this crazy desire to work with her.

Things changed when I met Kedar, and everything fell into place. I didn’t want to let go of this opportunity. I wanted to write a script and convince her to come on board. I got the chance to tell her the story in one line, that it was the story of a homemaker, and it kind of clicked with her. I took a sabbatical in January 2016 and started writing the script. After 30 days, I went back to Vidya, and she said yes! I cannot describe what it felt like to work with her.

BOI: Vidya, what is the one thing that intrigued you to do this film?

VB: The idea, you know, a story of a homemaker who lands herself a job as an RJ. I thought that could be funny. Though it was funny, it also touched me. It was a film full of heart. I have not done anything that is light-hearted in a while. And the way he narrated it… he is a fantastic narrator! Sometimes, I used to wonder whether I would be able to do the scene the way he was doing it. It came alive when he narrated the story to me. Then, of course, the way he fleshed out the script. I thought if he is as good a director as he is a narrator, then I am set!

BOI: You have shot the film very quickly. It seems as if you just started shooting it.

ST: I believe when you get an opportunity, there is no room for excuses. We got her dates and we fixed a schedule of 42 days. It was quite tough. For technicians, working 12 hours at a stretch is par for the course but not for actors, who have to keep switching emotions and performing in a single day in the Mumbai heat. It made me feel guilty. So the toughest part for the actors was the change in emotions.

VB: He brought his advertising discipline to this film. Everyone in every department knew the script like the back of their hands and was fully prepared. So there was only scope for spontaneity on the set. That was the only variable we were going to let in. The cast had done many readings and so there was nothing awkward between the team. The relationships were required to look real, Manav and I had to look like we had spent 12 years together. We couldn’t afford formal body language, even on the first day of the shoot. We did readings with every single actor, so everyone knew what they were doing. I think that discipline helped us complete the film in no time.

ST: As a director, you always have veto power, you can say, but bigger are the people who listen to it. And I was very fortunate with it. Ultimately, it is the energy of the entire team coming together, and I think that is the biggest learning for me from this film. And, when Vidya is around, you always have to be on your toes.

BOI: Vidya, your first film was with a debutant director, and Tumhari Sulu was also helmed by a debutant. You have worked with other young directors too. Is this deliberate?

VB: It’s just happened that way. Dada (Pradeep Sarkar) was the oldest debutant. He made his feature film debut at 50! It is not a choice or a studied decision. I just like to work with people who are hungry. It is very important for any director to be disciplined. Since I give a lot to a film, I feel the director too should be equally passionate, involved and invested as I am. Also, first-time directors tend to write the best scripts. They give so much of themselves to the process. 

BOI: Does that add to the responsibility you have to shoulder?

VB: No. They do their thing, I do my thing.

ST: We noticed every nuance… when she was even a little tired, or the smile was missing for even 5 minutes, we would feel the change on the sets.  Her responsibility was to keep the set alive. It was like watching an institution. Let me give you an example. There was a junior artiste who had a small role, and Vidya went up to him and asked him whether he was an actor. He replied, ‘No, I’m a junior artiste’ to which she said, ‘That means you are an actor.’ You should have seen how that uplifted him. As soon as the shot was taken, he turned around and asked me, “Shot kaisa tha!” She was able to motivate him to do a good job.

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BOI: Vidya, you are used to playing dark, sombre roles. How different was this character from the others you have played in the past?

VB: Completely different. I feel I was ready for it. I was waiting for it to happen. I always say that my choices probably reflect my state of mind. All the angst came out in the last few films, and I was ready to smile and laugh. Suresh said, ‘I haven’t seen you smile or laugh on screen, for the longest time.’ Even Ghanchakkar was a dark comedy and there was no scope for that. But this was a really happy character, someone who has zest for life. I think I wanted to feel that and I enjoyed every minute of it. I am someone who looks for a reason to feel happy, and with a character like this, I wanted to fly. There is a song in this film, Manva pank laga ke, I was literally like that. The whole experience was very joyous. 

BOI: Every character you play looks so credible on screen. It is hard to tell the difference between Vidya Balan and Sulu. How do you do that?

VB: Thank you, that is a lovely compliment. I don’t know, I think my directors take me to that place. It is just what the script inspires in me and what I understand of the person I will be playing. Maybe I just don’t like being myself all that much, so I am just running away into the characters I play!

ST: She is being very modest. She has this rare ability to humanise her character. Your script is like a body, and when someone like her performs, it gives the body a soul. There would be expressions that I would be missing when I see the take, and then when I see it on the edit, it is an entirely different thing and I am confused about which one to pick. At times, there would be just one shot, which might be just one look, and that would discount the next two scenes. It is unbelievable. I just told someone that hers is the performance of an actor who is possessed.

BOI: The idea of Sulu wearing a red cape has intrigued people. Who came up with that?

VB: Our director.

ST: I was with Tanishk Bagchi recording the song Manwa pankh laga ke. I was in the recording when this came to me. I had another idea to shoot that song but, suddenly, the Manwa pankh laga ke lyrics hit and I loved the thought of a housewife in a cape. I remember, when I wrote about this idea on our Whatsapp group, there was no argument about the change. Then when we were shooting – I will never forget this – Vidya was on a stool, on a trolley, while getting all decked up. The stool was actually visible in the shot because we wanted it to be seen. We didn’t want it to be a VFX shot. It had to show the simplicity of life. And for me, that one image paid homage to every homemaker because they aren’t less than any superhero. My mother, my wife, my bhabhi, Vidya here, everyone is a superhero. That is how the idea came to me. It is a tribute to all homemakers.

VB: There were two interesting things you added during the shoot – one was this superwoman moment and the other was the last shot of the trailer, which was my laugh. The one where the caller is laughing, I am laughing, and so on.

ST: You know, there were three lines in the script actually. But you could not narrate it. We wrote it like laugh, laugh, laugh. It doesn’t sound funny. But that shot has become the highlight. Vidya has laughed so many times through the promotions.

VB: Everyone has been asking me to laugh. I remember Suresh just telling me this scene on the set and we shot it in like 15 minutes, yaar. I thought it was a montage moment and I didn’t give it much thought. This was like before we wrap, just finish one small scene. Now it’s in the trailer and people love it. I am wowed. It’s the unexpected that grabs people.

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BOI: Vidya, you have always been known for your quirky style of promoting a movie. What do you have planned for Tumhari Sulu?

VB: Nothing quirky really because the character itself is so pagal that the madness will grab people. I think it already has, with just the trailer. Generally, my energy during promotions is very high because when I talk about Sulu, I can’t talk in a somber tone saying, ‘Sulu jo hai, ek grehani hai (Laughs).’ I am full of life and I talk about her and I think that is all you need.

BOI: Suresh, how much did your advertising background help during this process of making a feature film? And what did you have to unlearn?

ST: Before getting into feature films, the other part of the world kept warning me to be careful, it’s films, and all that. There was a time when I was very sceptical. This was well before production on the film began. Then I realised I was putting unnecessary pressure on myself. The ad industry and this one works in similar shifts. The advertising background did help me get my prep correct. We are so used to deadlines that we feel guilty when they aren’t met. That really helped.

In the advertising industry, you don’t ‘cut’ very quickly and in the first few days, Vidya said, ‘Suresh Triveni, cut toh bolo.’ I kept thinking, will it be too short because it was the opposite in advertising. After that passed, I began to enjoy the performances between Vidya and Manav.

They are all fantastic actors, including Vijay Mourya, Neha Dhupia, etc. Saying ‘cut’ was my biggest learning. But eventually you are telling a story and a story that needs to hold. I will not comment on my craft before the film has released because there is no point talking about it. Earlier I was doing 30 and 60 seconds. We have just done multiple 60 seconds tied together. That’s been the learning. The strangest thing is that when I work on ads, people say, don’t be filmi in your treatment because I do a lot of so-called quirky humourous ads. But, in Bollywood, people were don’t be like an ad person and decide karle karna kya hai.

BOI: Now that we are only a week away from the film’s release, how happy, anxious, apprehensive, etc are you?

VB: I have watched the film and I think we’ve made a good one. I was telling Suresh that it was the first time in my career that I was saying this, so I don’t know whether I should or should not be happy but I felt it when I watched the film.

ST: I want the film to talk and have its own journey. But I can say with conviction that I wouldn’t have swapped the last ten months of my life for anything in the world.

VB: Suresh, the BOI girls wanted to ask you, how did you manage to impress our co-producer Tanuj Garg?

ST: He’s been really good. I have no connections in the industry but he protected me in terms of making a film, putting it on a platform. I was very, very lucky that way. All the myths I had learnt from the outside world didn’t matter because the energy came together. Every film has its story and there are limitations. But I am fortunate to have had backing like this. Right from day one, whether in terms of music, schedules, or even the food on the sets, they have been supportive. Every detail matters.

VB: I must say it was so nice to see the producers pay the unit on time. While the atmosphere on the set was great thanks to Suresh, everyone was happy because, first, it was a good film and, second and most importantly, it was because they were being paid on time. In all my years in the industry, that is the one thing I have understood because that is what people are working so hard for.

BOI: Can you give us an example of such people (who don’t pay on time)?

VB: (Laughs) Bahut hai. They serve terrible food and don’t even provide people mineral water to drink. Let’s not go there.

ST: I want to share a brief example. Atul (Kasbekar) and the other producers would post pictures of, say, the camera team or a particular technician. The film was eventually about being acknowledged and if you can’t find it in your own home, around you, phir maza nahi aata. So we tried to tell the crew that you are not here just for the money, you are respected here.

VB: Like the focus-puller for example. He is one of the best I have worked with in the industry. He rarely lost focus. So Suresh said, let’s do a walk of fame for him. So we all held hands and made an arch, and made him walk through it. He was so happy and I was thinking everyone wants appreciation and acknowledgement. Suresh was giving it to them on and off the set, and Atul, Tanuj and Shanti would post about it. It came together beautifully. It’s an experience that I want to keep repeating, again and again.

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BOI: What’s next for both of you?

VB: I haven’t decided. After the release, I will revisit a couple of scripts that I liked and will take a final call.

ST: I don’t have anything right now but I will chase Vidya (Laughs). Apart from that, I have not thought about it a whole lot. I want to savour this moment as much as possible. Yes, if I do get a chance once again, why not? I just wanted to add that there are some people who have been so special to this film. Like Vijay Mourya and Manav Kaul. The way Manav acts and adds nuances to his performance, it’s terrific. Forget about my film, the chemistry between Vidya and Manav was mindblowing.

VB: Before I met Manav, I had a certain impression about theatre actors ki shayad thode khadoos hote hain. I thought they carried a chip on their shoulders. But he was open, he didn’t have any preconceived notions and we hit it off so well. It was such a joy to perform that way, looking into another actor’s eyes. Acting is about reacting, so the readings helped break the ice between all of us. Otherwise, you meet on the set and by the time you establish a bond, the film is over.

ST: Neha Dhupia was also excellent. Just to see them together, from different strata of society, was amazing. I could talk about this endlessly. My DOP, Saurabh Goswami, was great. I had a simple funda, whoever had the term ‘director’ in their designation, like music director, toh phir woh director hai. Each of them were exceptional. My DOP didn’t accept a single ad assignment 42 days before we shot, so that we could discuss break-downs of shots. I think that’s how the world should function, but I have heard that it doesn’t. I just want to mention these people and many more on this list. There’s nothing bigger than a team, nothing at all.

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