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Team Blackmail – producer and T-Series head honcho Bhushan Kumar, director Abhinay Deo, along with the cast Kirti Kulhari, Divya Dutta, Arunoday Singh, Pradhuman Singh and Anuja Sathe – talk to Team Box Office India about their upcoming movie

Box Office India (BOI): The general talk about Blackmail’s trailer is that it’s not only unexpected but also kind of shocking. What have you all heard about it?

Abhinay Deo (AD): From what we know, the response has been fantastic. We couldn’t have got better feedback than this. All in all, I feel the response has been tremendous so far and I hope it continues to be the same even after the film releases.

Bhushan Kumar (BK): Touch wood, the response to Blackmail’s trailer has been tremendously encouraging. The calls and SMSes I have received from the industry, friends and peers have been overwhelming. They are quite tickled by the film’s quirkiness. People have even asked if we could have a preview for them. Even the reaction of the potential audience on social media has been extremely welcoming. People are very surprised by the trailer and we can sense that they want to see the film to decode all that they have been finding uncanny in the trailer.   

Divya Dutta (DD): It has been lovely, especially since it is a quirky film coming from him (Abhinay), who has already given us a Delhi Belly. It is going to be as much fun. The trailer is being received so well and I think people have got the hang of it now. It feels great.

BOI: Abhinay, after your debut film, Delhi Belly, you have again ventured into the dark comedy space. What prompted you to get back to this genre?

AD: It was not a deliberate decision. I stayed away from dark comedies or black comedies all these years. There has to be a script that interests me. Delhi Belly was exceptionally good and I was waiting for another good comedy of that standard to come my way to even think about making a film like this.

When my producer Apurba (Sengupta) read the script that Parveez (Shaikh) had sent me, in two hours flat he called and said, ‘Abhinay, this the film.’ I read it and said, ‘We have to make it.’ The reason it intrigued me was that it was very relatable to the general audience.

It is a story about the layman. The audience can see themselves in it and the funny part about it is the very character of the film and script, which is so well fleshed out. Moreover, it is of a genre I am particularly fond of. So, all the pieces fit together so perfectly.

BOI: Bhushanji, T-Series is known to experiment with new genres and this is the first time you are producing a black comedy. Can you share that experience with us?

BK: Isn’t it just wonderful to pleasantly surprise the audience with something that they don’t expect from you? Initially, when we started film production, we were testing the waters. Now, we have been doing it for some time and obviously we are buoyant with the success that we witnessed last year with Tumhari Sulu and Hindi Medium. Both of them were totally content-driven films.

As cinematic storytellers, we want to tell all kinds of stories at T-Series. Abhinay is my neighbour and we have been discussing ideas for a few years. I am a big fan of what he achieved with Delhi Belly. When he narrated the idea of Blackmail to me, I knew at once that the audience would love another black comedy from the director of Delhi Belly and I knew that with this genre Abhinay would provide unique entertainment of the kind that only he can provide. I have watched the film and I know the audience will not be disappointed.  

BOI: How did all the actors get on board?

Kirti Kulhari (KK): I was shooting for Indu Sarkar when I got a call from Apurba, and was told about the character. They told me it was the role of a wife and asked if I would be interested in taking it up. I said, okay, that’s interesting because I did Indu Sarkar and Pink and I was kind of getting typecast in the industry. I was bored of doing serious and intense roles and was desperately looking for a break from that. And when this happened, and they called me for a reading of the script, it was very easy for me to decide that I wanted to do this role. I think I met Abhinay after that and we discussed it. In my head, I was, like, ye toh karna hi chahiye.

Anuja Sathe: I auditioned for the film three times and the last one was taken by the director. That’s how I got on board.

AD: Actually, let me tell you what happened. Her character Prabha took the longest to get cast. It was very tedious because I was convinced we needed a Maharashtrian to play the role. We usually take time to cast people but this took a long time.

Anuja Sathe: Yeah, it took a long time. I was kept waiting but I finally got on board.

DD: I was cast against the stereotype, and that excited me the most. Instead of asking me, you should ask the director what prompted him to cast me in this role. It is a crazy, mad role, something that I haven’t done before. The best thing was being directed by him. So, if I sat facing one direction, Abhinay would turn me around and say, why don’t you sit this way? That’s what made it so crazy. I finished the shoot laughing. I wanted to know what he was thinking when he cast me.

AD: There was this very difficult role, and without giving away too much about it, I can say that this character is completely nuts! She has a drinking problem. In my experience as a director, playing a person who is drunk is one of the most difficult things for an actor.

KK: It’s the scariest part.

AD: This is why I wanted someone of amazing calibre like her, and I am not saying this because she is here. And this is special because we have never seen her in comic roles. Comedy is about timing and a good actor is known for their timing. The other reason I cast her is that I wanted her to play Dolly, who was cast opposite Ranjit, who is Arunoday’s character and her husband in the film. I wanted the massive disparity between the two of them to show. If Ranjit is 6.5 feet tall and huge, I wanted Dolly to be the exact opposite.

Arunoday Singh (AS): I too auditioned three times for my role. As soon as I read the script, I knew it was far better than anything else that I had auditioned for in the last two years. It was unbelievable and I was convinced that I would not get it. People have a certain image of you and you get offers according to that image. And to get a call to audition for this part… I had planned to blackmail people to get the part, then I got the part and I didn’t have to do anything! (Laughs)

Pradhuman Singh (PS): I auditioned for the role and I got it.

AD: No, I have to tell you guys about this! The funniest thing is his part. This guy actually schemed for his role. He also happens to be the dialogue writer of the film. He wrote the first draft and he has this amazing way of reading his lines, the whole script. He doesn’t give you the dialogue to read; he sits in front of you and narrates the entire script. And every time he read it, we were in splits, especially when he would read Anand’s lines, his character. I am, like, what is going on! It was one of those fantastically planned schemes. The third time he read it, we were, like, actually there wouldn’t be a better person than him to play Anand.

PS: When I was writing the first draft, I was told that this character was supposed to be older. They were looking for someone who would look 45, but would sound younger. I thought to myself, chalo there is a chance for me to play the character. And then, very casually, Apurba told me I could audition for the part. I said, why not, I would love to. I think I got a call two days later.

AD: But, all of you, please watch the film and find out whether his character has the best lines. I am not kidding. He is so smart that Irrfan has no lines!

PS: I knew the character was being played by someone else. If there was any other part I would have loved to play, it would have been Arunoday’s.

AD: And he has done a fabulous job as well.

DD: The interesting part is that half of us sitting here haven’t shared screen space with each other.

PS: I was about to tell Abhinay that the next time he makes a film, he should have one scene with all the actors in it. Here, we don’t even know where the others are shooting, we can’t keep track of which scene has been shot and with whom.

AD: The best part is, the antagonist in the film is Arunoday, and the protagonist, let’s say is Irrfan. I think they are together for just one shot. Now you guys will keep looking for that scene. (Laughs)

BOI: One can’t figure out who the antagonist or the protagonist is. Those lines are blurred.

PS: I think credit for that goes to Parveez Shaikh for writing this, and Apurba and Abhinay who have come together to make this incredible film. Abhinay has lifted this film and used his fantastic imagination to great effect.

DD: I want to add that as actors, it is important to get the sur of the character right till you find out what you are. We would rehearse the lines and think, sur mila ki nahi? The sessions would take us up and down, and when we took it to the set, it used to work so well for us, starting something from scratch and taking that somewhere else. I think all of us just had a blast.

AS: There was barely any stress on the first day of the shoot because we really didn’t know what was going to happen on the first day. I usually never research my character on the first day.

AD: I distinctly remember the first shot was the bedroom scene… Arunoday and Kirti’s shot. It was not an easy scene to start with but the minute it started, we knew they had the right chemistry, which had come from the readings. All we had to do from there on was to make sure we kept that chemistry intact.

BOI: This looks like a film where everybody has a shade of grey; nobody is good or bad.

AD: It is high time we started mirroring what real life is all about because in real life, there is no black and white; only a lot of grey.

KK: That’s also the fun part!

PS: In the 70s, we used to make films that reflected what society was like back then. Then, in the late 70s or 80s, there was a one-man show in our films; one man who was romancing, doing the action and just about everything else, and that trend just kept going on and on. 

BOI: Bhushanji, you collaborate with other producers and production houses. Does that reduce the risk attached to a film? How do you decide whom to partner with?

BK: It does, to some extent, but honestly when you gel with somebody, you gel with somebody. It’s easier to work together when two individuals or production houses are creatively on the same wavelength. Having said that, creativity cannot exist in isolation; it has to be backed by a sound understanding of the business because neither me nor our co-producer would want to suffer a loss. It requires a bit of dil and dimaag. A fine balance is needed.

BOI: Our cinema usually uses slapstick comedy and filmmakers do not really experiment in the dark comedy space. For example, Kalakaandi received a lot of appreciation but didn’t make good numbers at the box office. Why do you think films like this fail?

AD: I can’t say anything about why some films fail but I can talk about the genre. While in the West, comedy is a much-appreciated genre, it is very different in India. In India, slapstick comedy works; it works very well. The question is, is that the only type of comedy that exists? Obviously not. We must accept that this straight-faced comedy or one where you do less but show more, that kind of comedy, is unexplored in our country. It is appreciated in India but we just don’t know enough about it.

Examples of this are films like Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, Dil Chahta Hai, Delhi Belly, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, etc. I can name so many films. Yes, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara and Dil Chahta Hai are not of the dark comedy genre but they do not have slapstick humour. But Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro released in the 80s and it was a dark, satirical comedy. It was fantastic and it was appreciated. There is an audience for it, it just needs to be tried.

BK: I, personally, enjoy watching dark comedies. One of my all-time favourites, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, is a dark comedy directed by the late Kundanji (Shah).  In the last ten years or so, our cinema has evolved tremendously and we are making all kinds of films in different languages, other than romance, action and thrillers. Parveez Shaikh, the screenwriter of our film, has crafted such a taut, compelling screenplay for Blackmail that Abhinay read the screenplay immediately and said, yes, this is it. As a company that is producing a dark comedy, I would be flattered if Blackmail kick-started a trend for more films in this genre.

KK: Black comedy is very difficult to write and to execute. It is a tricky space and that’s why most filmmakers don’t attempt it or get it right. Sure, there is an audience for it. Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro is a cult film but there are very few films like it because I don’t think filmmakers have it in them to do a good black comedy.

PS: I think knowledge also plays a part. How many people outside this room know what dark comedy is? When I talk about the majority of the audience, I am referring to, say, someone in Bhopal. For them, comedy is what we all know. Dialogue maara, people laugh, someone slips on a banana, people laugh, etc.

DD: They like to be fed stuff like that.

AS: The same banana that someone slips on. (Laughs)

PS: I believe that until we look at cinema as an art form, a form of entertainment, we won’t really appreciate it.

AD: The funny thing is we all know the meaning of dark and black but these words are completely misconstrued when it comes to comedy.

KK: Yes, people are actually afraid of it.

AD: They think khoon-kharaba hoga, kuch ajeeb cheezen hongi and stuff like that. They think it is violent and not for kids. In the West, the movies that the Coen brothers make are outstanding, a class apart. It is high time we started making movies like that in India. We need to understand that ‘dark’ is not synonymous with ‘expletives’ or ‘blood-thirsty’. 

AS: If there is a country waiting for dark comedy to evolve as a genre, it is India because everyday life here is just crazy.

AD: Oh my God! It happens to all of us. If it happens to us, it’s a tragedy, but if we watch somebody else do it, then it’s funny as hell.

PS: A 20-minute auto ride is a dark comedy because the auto driver tells you his life story. You get completely hooked.

AD: All you have to do is open the newspaper to find dark comedy. It’s enough to just read the headlines. The smaller reports in the paper are just so funny sometimes.

BOI: We would like to know a little about Irrfan’s part in the film.

AD: Irrfan is playing a character called Dev, who is a simple guy, a regular aam aadmi.

KK: Is the Aam Aadmi Party sponsoring the film?

AD: (Laughs). They should, na? That would be very funny. But coming back to Dev, he’s a simple guy working in an office, paying his EMIs, and married for 5-6 years. He’s just a regular, middle-class guy in this country. His character is shaped by a particular incident in his personal life and the roller-coaster ride that follows.

Right now, we all know that he is fighting a serious ailment. He has undergone treatment and is doing extremely well. In the film, he is outstanding. Words cannot describe his performance. He has very few lines, thanks to Pradhuman Singh. He has barely anything to hide behind in his role.

In films like this, every character is very open; they don’t have anywhere to hide. When I say this, I mean that he doesn’t have a role where he wears flamboyant clothes, has glamourous appearances or even an entry shot. Yet he has to portray a simple man’s life and the humour attached to it. He is just spectacular.

BOI: For the cast, what was it like working with him?

KK: It was great to meet him off the sets. He was very chilled out. But when he came on the set and we shot our first scene together, where I was not sleeping…

DD: (Laughs) She is making a point, Abhinay.

KK: No, it’s not funny. I am sleeping through half the film.

AD: But that’s the genius of your performance, na. You are still alive in the entire film.

KK: I am going to win an Oscar for my sleeping performance in this film. But coming back to Irrfan, I think it was a little intimidating for me initially, because he does comedy so well. His timing is amazing and he is very quirky. He has this sense of humour which is effortless. I was told that kuch alag karne ki koshish karo and I tried to do that but it didn’t work out. So I was, like, I will stick to what I can do and what I know. I’ll let him do what he is good at. It’s just great to work with a bunch of good actors.

Anuja Sathe: It is my first film and I was very nervous to work with Irrfan Khan. A week after I was cast in the film, I started shooting and the most difficult scene of them all was scheduled first. I was very nervous and I told Abhinay that I don’t know what I am doing. He said, don’t worry, everything will be fine. When we started shooting, I was star struck. I managed not to embarrass Abhinay. I kept looking at Irrfan’s eyes and wondered what to do. It took a while for me to get down to earth and start shooting.

BOI: Also, you had to intimidate him in that one scene that we saw in the trailer.

Anuja Sathe: Sab ne milke mujhe bahut daraaya tha. They told me this is your scene but he is the kind of an actor who will take it away from you and you will not even realise it. Everybody on the set had psyched me like this and I thought, what should I do? I couldn’t even speak to Abhinay because he was telling me what he expected from the scene and I was completely psyched throughout that scene. Somehow, I managed to do it in the end.

AD: What Anuja doesn’t know is that I had told Irrfan that she was very nervous and to please just play along. What was important was for me to be able to get the right emotion in the scene and I had to do what it took to achieve that. That’s why I asked Irrfan to play along.

In the scene, initially, he is supposed to be in control as he drags her out to talk to her and demand answers. Then, she is supposed to suddenly turn around, and that is what psyched her. I had told her that the sound of him turning around had to be audible to the person in the farthest corner of the set, so she needed to perform with gusto. In my opinion, this scene is one of the highlights of the film. The way Irrfan turned around in the film was outstanding. He suddenly became a cow, a bheegi billi type person. 

Anuja Sathe: I was observing Irrfan Khan closely and I noticed his unpredictability. In every take, he does something spontaneously. You have to be very attentive. I think this is when you challenge yourself as an actor. When you are so attentive that if he does something different, the scene turns into something else. Without really meaning to, he makes you a better actor.

DD: I too have experienced the same thing. I have done four movies with Irrfan before and I have played his wife in three of them. I know exactly what she is referring to when she talks about his unpredictability, and I totally fell in love with his eyes. They have mischief and naughtiness in them and you have to be able to catch it. When you play with it, you get the best reaction.

I remember the only time I saw Irrfan nervous was when we had to do a romantic scene. He was pacing outside nervously with his coffee and that made me very happy, for some reason. I remember we were shooting for the movie Dubai Return and Irrfan and I had rehearsed a scene one way. I also had to speak a language I am not fluent with, in the film. When we were shooting, Irrfan changed the course of what we had rehearsed and did something completely different. It left me trying to concentrate on my lines and on him, and that left me with an expression that was just perfect. I went across and hugged him for getting that out of me. He is awesome to work with and I am sorry we didn’t have any scenes together in this film. We only met during the initial readings and then for a photo session we did in the post. He is a blessing for any actor.

AS: This is my second film with Irrfan and we have done only one or half a scene together in both films. But I spent a lot of time with him off the set and I have never met an actor with so little ego and so much knowledge to offer. And he doesn’t try to show off, saying that main guru hoon, I will teach you. You learn stuff from your conversations with him. He gives you a nugget about your scene and then forgets about it. He puts you totally at ease. For somebody so talented and well-known, it is amazing to still be that way.

PS: (Cuts In) He is truly amazing.

BOI: Pradhuman, we hear that he was on your wish list of actors to work with.

PS: Oh yes! There are just a few names there, one was the late Om Puriji but that is not possible now. Then there is Naseer (Naseeruddin Shah) sahab, Irrfan Khan and Aamir Khan.

AS: Aamir Khan too?

PS: Aamir Khan, because his movies do so well, na! (Laughs). But, yes, these are the only people on my wish list. I can’t thank Abhinay, Apoorva and…

AS: (Cuts In) …and yourself! (Laughs)

PS: And myself, for giving me an opportunity to work with Irrfan. Whenever I used to look at him, I used to try to figure out what his process is. This film was more of a mystery drama for me because I have been trying to crack what his method is. I was taking mental notes that, okay, he looks left when he pauses, he does this at this time and that when he has to do this type of scene, etc. But I failed miserably to follow him. I realised that genius does not have a method. Genius just is!

There’s nothing obvious about what he does. If you think he will react in a certain way, and say a certain thing, he will change it and he does that in this pause that he takes. That is why I think he is the finest actor in this country. I think he is the only actor who can earn an Oscar for India. I hope he recovers quickly and comes back. 

BOI: Bhushanji, what was it like collaborating with Irrfan once again, after Hindi Medium?

BK: It is a blessing to have a committed actor like Irrfan. His approach to his craft is something else. Besides his vast work experience, he brings with him a deep understanding of human nature and its idiosyncrasies and he subtly incorporates what is required from time to time in the way he essays his characters. We saw him talkative and articulate in Hindi Medium. In Blackmail, Irrfan will demonstrate how much he can communicate through his silences and the pauses between his sentences. I am looking forward to doing more films with him.

BOI: Abhinay, music played a very important role in your last dark comedy, Delhi Belly, with its quirky nature. Now that you have teamed up with a music giant like T-Series, what role does music play in this film?

AD: Music, for any of my films, is a very important factor. I feel you cannot separate music from a film. I believe that music, whether the background score or the songs, can take the film forward. If it helps the story of the film, then it makes sense. When a song comes in where the story stops, the film stops, then you watch the song and then you resume watching the movie. I cannot understand that kind of music.

Amit Trivedi has done a spectacular job. There is one song that we released, which is Bewafa beauty starring Urmila Matondkar. This track is the only song that has been lip synced in the film. The song reveals the whole story of the film but you have to listen closely to the lyrics. It summarises the film in a nutshell. The song happens at a very crucial part of the film, where there is one more element that is added to the whole blackmail circuit. It’s a song which is happening when the characters of Anand and Prabha are together in the bar. It’s a song which, in my opinion, has the right amount of lip sync needed for the film. It helps take the story forward and, at the same time, it does not overpower the film.

There is a unique factor in this film album, which is inspired by Raj Kapoorji’s filmmaking style. I remember distinctly that in a film called Aag, which was his first directorial, the background score was later used in a song for Mera Naam Joker. He and his incredible team used to come up with the sound of the film. It used to be designed.

Of course, I am almost nothing compared to him but it is a great thing to learn and take away. We have tried to use an element of that in this film, in the way there are songs that are repeated in the film. So, it is the music of a song, a background score. It is used repeatedly but different versions of it, at different points. So, the film, as a narrative, has a musical flow. It has a musical narrative, which also takes the story one step forward. And it ends up entertaining you as well. That’s how important music is to me and my films. It is completely one with my films.

BK: Music has always played an important role in all our films. T-Series is a music company and, yes, we do many songs purely for commercial reasons. In Blackmail, there are songs that are pivotal to the plot. Like the song that we released, Bewafa beauty, is crucial in taking the story forward. This song, in a very cheeky way, essentially sums up the entire film. The entire team is extremely thankful to Urmila Matondkar for taking this song to another level with the way she has performed to the pointed lyrics by Amitabh Bhattacharya and music by Amit Trivedi.

AS: This is why my item number was taken out, where I was the item boy. It was amazing but it is not there now. (Laughs).

AD: Maybe people will see it in the Blu-ray version when the DVD comes out. (Laughs).

BOI: Bhushanji, the film is getting another solo release after Raid. Do you think the shifting of the other movies will benefit the movie?

BK: You are a trade magazine. You know the answer to this better than I do. (Laughs)

BOI: What do you want the audience to take back from the film?

AD: We want this film to reach the Oscars and Cannes.

PS: Yes, 300 crore, at least.

BK: Naturally, we want the audience to like the film because the entire team has worked very hard. Without batting an eyelid, I can say that this is my neighbour’s best work to date. Each actor in the film has performed exceedingly well. Irrfan is at his superlative best. I am positive the film will be appreciated.

AD: We want the best for this film. In all honesty, we, as a team, are very confident of what we have done. As a director, I am extremely grateful to the cast and crew who have helped me see my vision through. I can say very proudly that it is the best work I have done until now.

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