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“Hindi films tend to sugar-coat everything”

Shakun Batra, director of Kapoor & Sons, tells Team Box Office India why his film has hit all the right notes

Box Office India (BOI): Congratulations on the success of Kapoor & Sons. Were you expecting this kind of response?

Shakun Batra (SB): When we started making this film, we wanted to make sure that the budget would allow us to recover our costs. Since we thought it would be tough to recover the costs, we kept it really safe. And now, it feels great to see that it has turned out to be a commercially successful film. It also means I can continue to make films the way I want to make them. I no longer have to think ki agli picture mein Chikni chameli daalna padega.  (Laughs)

The kind of messages I am getting is overwhelming. I go to sleep with great messages; I wake up to great messages. It’s amazing and that’s a lovely feeling. Every day, I talk to Sidharth (Malhotra), Alia (Bhatt), Fawad (Khan) and Karan (Johar) and we are all getting some really nice reverts. The audience is reacting positively to the film and they are getting emotional.

I have received many messages and calls from industry people and the man I have always looked up to, Javed (Akhtar) saab, called me and said he was very touched. He said, ‘It is so good to see people coming back to making movies to express themselves, to emotionally connect with people.’ Somewhere, we had become very formulaic, so that call meant a lot to me. Similarly, I was touched by the way Mahesh Bhatt sir met when she watched the film at the trial.


BOI: We even saw pictures of him hugging you. What did he say?

SB: He said the film is a good reminder of what films should be like and what films can do. You know, they don’t have to be just a bunch of scenes so that people can laugh and give you a five-song count. Films can emotionally connect; they can tell you stories that are meaningful. That’s why his words matter so much to me.

Javed saab is a writer and Mr India and Haathi Mere Saathi were my all-time favourite films while growing up. That’s why, when you get a call from someone like him, it means a lot. He also said the funniest thing to me. I had worked with Farhan (Akhtar) for four years at Excel Entertainment. I said to him, ‘Javed saab, you might not remember but I have met you a few times when I used to work with Farhan.’ And he replied, ‘Arrey uss time mujhe thodi pata tha ki tum aisi picture banaoge.’ (Laughs)

BOI: Kapoor & Sons is not a typical Dharma Productions film. Was it difficult to convince Karan Johar?

SB: No, not at all. Karan is very open, as a producer. He is always looking for opportunities and fresh ideas. I don’t think there are a sufficient number of people who take material like this to him. We kind of assume that hatke picture hai toh Phantom bhejh dete hain. Karan is very receptive to ideas and is very progressive in his thinking. When I discussed the film with him, he told me, ‘Honestly, this is a niche film so let’s just make sure we are tight with its budget. We can’t indulge with a film like this, we will have to keep it tight.’ I always wanted to make it on a budget that would keep us safe. So he was very supportive of the idea and backed me in a way no one else would have. I feel like I am a part of Dharma Productions. I have been there for six years and have become part of the family. And I am very happy that we are all growing. We all want to go out there and do things that we want to do and are different. That is very important.

BOI: In the film, each character is carrying emotional baggage. While scripting, what was the inspiration for this?

SB: That’s exactly what I wanted to do. The idea was that most of these people have something they carry deep down, I call it the ‘unpeeled onion narrative’. What you see in the beginning is just the tip of the iceberg; you start to understand these people only gradually. It’s not that someone is out to achieve something. Little Miss Sunshine, for instance, is a film where they have to go somewhere and get something. Instead, this is a film about revelations. You reveal things slowly and that’s the beauty of it, So what you think of these characters in the beginning and what you think of them at the end are two different things because you have finally understood them. How you see Ratna’s (Pathak Shah) character and what you realise about the character, or how you see Fawad’s character and what you realise in the end is very different.

So the journey and the graph is in understanding people more deeply. So if I meet you again and again, I will get to know you more. Similarly, I wanted the audience to not be sure of who these people are in the beginning of the film. For instance, you think Fawad is very elegant but when the book scenario unfolds, you think, arey yeh toh chor hai. Then you are, like, book bhi nahi churayi, arey yeh toh gay nikla! The idea is for you to not be sure of who these people are.

For Rajat’s (Kapoor) character, you think, ‘kya yeh pura din ghar pe baitha rahta hain, paise bhi nahi kamata.’ Then, you are like, ‘Oh iski girlfriend hai! Arey kya kar raha hai yeh!’ Then you feel for him. So the idea is to make you think, in the beginning, that they are like this but then maybe they are more than this. This is how I always wanted the story to come across. I am very glad you bought up this question because I wanted to give the audience the emotional journey of the characters. Each of them is hiding something, except for Sidharth, who is merely hiding the fact that he is a bartender.


BOI: Talking about the gay angle… you have shown it in a very subtle way and you have not used the word ‘gay’ or ‘boyfriend’. Was that deliberate?

SB: Yes, I didn’t want to. I have always hated how gay characters are portrayed as stereotypes and they are there just for fun. So it was very important to break that image and to make you believe that this person is exactly like you and then say ’he happens to be gay’ so that you accept it.

Gay characters are always semi-written in the movies. I remember watching the movie The Wedding Banquet, where even though they are gay, they are very respectable characters. I wanted to make sure that all these characters have dignity, even though they are flawed, even though they have all made mistakes, and are hiding something.

To maintain their dignity, it was very important to avoid using the word ‘gay’. I didn’t want anybody in the audience to be like ‘Arey yeh kya gay nikla’ woh waise bhi bolne wale hain. Then why should we say it again? And I didn’t want to use shock value. You know, like, ‘Arrey dekha gay nikal gaya… dekha kya ho gaya.’ I was adamant I didn’t want to do that. In fact, I wanted to present it in such a way that if you miss it, so be it. It was not meant for you. Then, you would have to watch the movie a second time. That was the idea and I think Karan (Johar) and I both agreed that it had to be a whisper; it couldn’t be a scream. We went ahead with that approach and I think it worked.

BOI: Fawad Khan was not your first choice for the role. Are you happy that the other actors you had approached turned down the part?

SB: Very happy. Karan and I were talking about this… that I was sitting at home with the script, wondering who would play this character. No one wants to play a gay character. Now I tell Karan that if I had to go back in time and someone had told me I would have to wait a year to get Fawad Khan, then I would have waited because it was worth it. We have seen Fawad in Khoobsurat and a few shows, he brings so much freshness to the screen that you believe him as a person. I like that. I like how real it feels.


BOI: Your previous film, Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu (EMAET,) didn’t have a typical, happy ending…

SB: (Cuts in) Main bahut maayoos banda hoon and I do not like happy endings.  That is the reason I killed Rajat’s character in the film. On a serious note, I have always felt that in our Hindi films, we want everything to turn out well in the end. Humko sab kuch theek karna hai, bechare koi character ne pehele paanch minute mein galti ki hogi woh bhi ending tak sab theek kardega. I used to find it utterly ridiculous that everything works out for the best in the end. I have always found that odd.

So, I felt EMAET was a very optimistic film. Why should everything turn out right? Hindi films tend to sugar-coat everything and end things on a very happy note. Also, I believe there should be some truth to the subject in the end. Even if it is a little incorrect, it will connect if there is truth. I like to look for that truth and hopefully I will continue to be like that.


BOI: Speaking of Fawad’s character… why do you think people were reluctant to play that part?

SB: That is their personal choice and I can’t answer on their behalf. But I think we are so used to playing the ‘hero’ that when you question who the hero really is, a little fear creeps in. When you read the script of this film, you will realise that no one is the hero. I mean, even Ratna is the hero, Rishi Kapoor is the hero, Sidharth is the hero, Alia is the hero, Fawad is a hero and Rajat is also the hero. Everyone is a hero.

I think only Zoya’s (Akhtar) films are the kind where everyone can be a hero. When you read it like that, it can be confusing when you have other scripts, where you are playing a solo hero. That’s how I think; I cannot answer for anyone else. I must say that the actor who had to play this part had to do it with total conviction. He had to absolutely sure about what he had to do.


BOI: What about the other characters? What did the other actors bring to each of their respective parts?

SB: I think everyone brought themselves to the character they played, which is amazing. You need to own these characters. These characters are so flawed at some level that they cannot be essayed by people who think these are flawed characters. You have to play the part feeling ‘I’m right’. Otherwise you will never get it right. It was essential that these actors were mature enough to not judge these characters. You accept these characters. We have all been flawed and we have all made mistakes. We don’t go around saying, ‘Yaar mere se bahut badi galti ho gayi hai.’ Rather, you cover up your faults and blame them on other people. These characters are like that.

BOI: Were there workshops?

SB: We did some readings. The way we are sitting right now, we sat and read, read and read. We had some very long scenes, like the one with the plumber, which is eight to nine pages long. I think it is important that woh ek zehen mein baith jaye, it had to be part of your subconscious. You shouldn’t think, ‘Mera line kya hai’ because I wanted everyone to talk over each other. Spending time together really helped because, on the sets, everyone was comfortable with everyone else.


BOI: How open are you to improvisation on the sets?

SB: Very, I love it. But I don’t think improvisation can work if you don’t know what you want to do. You have to know where you are going and you can improvise to get there. Sometimes, people mistake improvisation for giving the characters the liberty to do whatever they wish. I think that doesn’t work; it can help only when you know what you are trying to achieve. All the actors and I were very clear about where we were trying to go. Then improvisation becomes easier and more fun.


BOI: Tell us about the Mandakini angle.

SB: When I was writing this, I kept wondering what I should give Rishi Kapoor… yeh buddhe ko kya doon? Everybody else had something or the other; he is in hospital. And while writing some of the funny scenes, it turned out the way it did. I didn’t overthink it. I just wrote it to be funny and I then I wrote that they would gift him a Mandakini cutout  as a birthday gift because I thought it would be funny. In hindsight, one may ask, ‘What I was thinking? But I didn’t think anything… I just wrote it that let’s give him Mandakini.


BOI: You mentioned a tight budget a couple of times. With all the creative and commercial constraints, how do you walk that line?

SB: I have never found the word ‘compromise’ too big. I think the idea is to know your priorities. Karan and I would say, ‘Okay, this is the film, this seems like a decent budget depending on how we spend it, how we prioritise and how we go with it.’ My last film was shot in 78 days and Kapoor & Sons in 58 days. Also, this film was shot mainly inside that one house. Actually, 70 per cent of the film was shot between Alia’s house, the Kapoor house and the hospital. So we realised we didn’t need much in terms of locations. In the hospital too, we used just one room and one or two establising shots. When you consider things like that, you can allocate your money smartly.


BOI: The trade tends to judge a director by the size of the budget he demands. Do you want to do a big-budget film now?

SB: No, actually after EMAET, everyone was like, Okay, now that we have made this love story, let’s make a bigger love story next, let’s do something else! And in my head, I was, like, ‘What are these guys talking about? I don’t want to make big film, I want to make a film which is big in depth, big in characters, big in story.’ I think a director should be weighed according to the intent and what he is trying to achieve. All my favourite directors, while growing up, were those who didn’t make big-budget films, Woody Allen has never made big films like (Martin) Scorsese or (Steven) Spielberg. Hrishikesh Mukherjee saab has never made a big film. They all made content-oriented films but wouldn’t you call them great directors? It’s just a different kind of storytelling; it’s not theatrical, it’s cinematic. It was while watching Woody Allen films that I realised that I enjoyed watching a climax that unfolds in a living room as opposed to a car chase.

I find action very tiring, kitni mehnat karni padti hai and even after that, if the movie is sh** it is like, ‘Oh my God, I blocked the highway, got 15 trucks, blew up a few cars, slogged in the heat.’ After all that, if someone says he has seen all that before, what do you do? I don’t know, I found myself enjoying people, they could be in a room, in a bathroom or in a kitchen. I enjoy people and I enjoy their conversations.


BOI: How do you strike a balance? Earlier, you mentioned that the climax in your film is not forced, where everything magically seems to work out. Still, your characters lingered in the hearts of the audience even after they left the cinema. How did you manage that, given that the Indian audience generally dosen’t like flawed characters?

SB: I don’t think too much of the audience (when I am writing). When I write a movie I want to watch, there will also be people like me who want to watch exactly the same thing. What we do is in the initial 15-20 minutes, we make the character very likeable. So, he loves kids, he also has a dog, he has a sports car, he is adventurous, and he comes in from the gym and takes the blessings of his mom. It makes you go, ‘Yeh kaun hai yaar!

I don’t go to the gym, nor do I have a dog or a sports car, so I thought I want to write something that is more relatable to me. I find it very weird that in earlier films, in the first 15 minutes, you used to feel that ‘yeh ladke se meri shaadi karva do’, so that had to go. But it is still happening with Fawad. When people look at his face, they say, ‘Get me married to this guy.’ So maybe I got it wrong! (Laughs)

BOI: Did you have an alternative ending in mind?

SB: Never. This was it, this was always the thing. I never read the ending in the beginning, when you are writing you don’t know how you are going to end it. You are, like, ‘What should I do?’ First, I thought about killing Rishi Kapoor but then I was, like, everyone is saying he will die soon anyway, then what? So I was, like, ‘Let’s kill the dad.’ It sounds funny but that’s how it happened.


BOI: You started your career with Excel Entertainment but, as a director, you are tied to Dharma Productions.

SB: I am very lucky that I have the best of both worlds. I am very close to Excel, I am very close to Farhan, Zoya and Ritesh (Sidhwani). I had just finished Rock On, I think, and I was working on my next script, and Excel had a long line-up that year. They were releasing four films, including Don 2. Talaash, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara… something like that. And, you know, Imran (Khan) is a dear friend, we became friends on Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na, and Imran was working with Karan Johar on I Hate Luv Storys. So Imran said, ‘You are waiting over there and I am sitting here with Karan. Should I just give the script to him as I have the script with me?’ I was, like, ‘Give it.’

I never thought that Karan would read my script and call me but, a week later, I met him and he said, ‘I like the script I am finishing My Name Is Khan in two months. Why don’t you do some re-writes, this is my idea, it’s just that this is not working, why don’t you rework the whole thing?’ I said, ‘Cool.’ I met him exactly two months later and he read the reworked script and he was, like, ‘Let’s make the film.’ I mean, what else could I say but ‘yes’? I spoke to Farhan, who was very supportive. He was, like, ‘Go ahead, make your film, that’s important.’


BOI: Where do you go from here, with your next film?

SB: That’s a tough question to answer. It’s like when, after I finished college, my dad asked me, ‘Ab kya karna hai?’ and I was, like… (shrugs).


BOI: But there might be a bunch of ideas in your head, stories that you have?

SB: I have a bunch of ideas but it’s time to sit down and take another look at the material and look at what I want to direct. It’s always very scary. I remember going through this after EMAET, I remember going through this after college, after film school. I am just, like, ‘What to do now?’

BOI: After Kapoor & Sons, no actor can make you wait.

SB: How do you know?! Kaise ho sakta hai yeh? Kabhi nahin ho sakta hai. I don’t believe in these things, I think anything can happen. I just hope they won’t make me wait for a year, that would be too much. I also hope I don’t make myself wait very long. I hope I don’t take too long to write my next script That would be nice.

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