Phobia lead actress Radhika Apte, director Pavan Kripalani and producer Viki Rajani on their thriller being relevant in the urban space
Box Office India (BOI): First, the obvious question, how was Phobia conceived?
Pavan Kripalani (PK): I regularly read the newspapers and incidents like these have been taking place for a while, especially in cities. So I was very keen on making a film that depicted urban terror and how and what paranoia does to someone. That is how the germ of Phobia came about.
BOI: Was Radhika your first choice for the role?
PK: She was the first person I pitched the idea to. I had a very basic beginning, middle and end to the story. I think that was when Badlapur was doing the rounds and I had watched that film. The editor of that film and all my films is the same (Pooja Ladha Surti), and she suggested that I talk to Radhika for this part. That’s how we got in touch.
BOI: What was it about the script that made you say ‘yes’?
Radhika Apte (RA): There were two things, actually. First, Pavan gave me a five-minute narration because it was only a brief idea at the time. But the twist in the tale was very interesting and I really liked it. I thought there was a lot of potential to develop it further, which he was doing anyway. Coincidently, at that time, I was working with a friend, trying to write something around panic disorder and we were doing extensive research for this. Pavan got back to me after a year.
PK: Yes, it took me a while to write the movie and to find someone to produce it. I told her about the film in detail only after everything had fallen in place.
PK: I think the concept came from the fact that people living in cities generally feel safer inside their homes. There is a growing sense of feeling unsafe and not trusting people, and while I was researching the film, I learnt about agoraphobia, where the person fears the ‘outside’. It fit in with something I wanted to explore as paranoia. The newspapers are always reporting incidents of mindless violence and I could relate to that sense of paranoia. I feel safest when I am at home and feel secure when my loved ones are at home. That sense of not going out of one’s home is where the journey of Phobia began.
Viki Rajani (VR): The concept is very fresh, Pavan is a talented director and we had a good performer on board with Radhika. We wanted to do something that was a little out of the way and not run-of-the-mill. Today, the tastes of the Indian audience have changed a lot and I think a film like this will appeal to them.
BOI: You have always experimented with films, be it 3G or Table No. 21….
VR: Yes, I have done different kinds of films and I will continue to do that. I did 3G, Table No. 21, Aa Dekhen Zara, and I did a commercial filmR… Rajkumar. We are announcing some more films shortly, which are, again, multi-genre films.
BOI: As a producer, do you also look at returns? 3G and Table No. 21 didn’t do very well at the box office.
VR: I think Table No. 21 made a big profit, and although 3G didn’t do all that well, but it averaged off from Table No 21 and we got a good rebate from Fiji, so the movie turned out very commercial as both of them made a profit on the table. You have to keep budgets in mind and then make movies.
BOI: After watching the Phobia trailer, some people say the film is a cross between thriller and horror. How would you describe its genre?
PK: There is nothing unexplained or supernatural in the film.
RA: Yes, agoraphobia is a biological disorder, not even a psychological one.
RA: Sometimes, it did get a little too much to take for almost a month but I enjoyed it. Every time you go to a new location, you have to get used to it and it has its own charm but when you are in a confined space, you grow so familiar with it that it starts to feel like home. It also helps because after you arrive in the morning, you can start work immediately. You don’t need to take any time to adjust.
BOI: Were there any workshops for this movie?
PK: Not too much, we just spoke a lot, we had long conversations about how to portray this very complex character.
RA: We had very interesting meetings. Since I used to do my own research, I would come with questions and Pooja, he and I would discuss different ways to do a certain scene or explore back stories or options. It was a lot of fun and we carried that throughout the shoot, which was very kind and patient of him. I spoke a lot!
PK: That was required. And kudos to Radhika because I am a very shy person.
RA: It was funny, actually. He used to hardly talk on the sets and there was a time when I went to Pooja and asked her, ‘Does he not like me?’ ‘Is he not liking anything I am doing?’ He never said a word! After taking a shot, he would be, like, ‘What’s the next shot?’ And I used to be, like, ‘But did I do okay?!’
RA: And then we spoke, after which he used to speak all the time!
PK: I am just a little reserved.
RA: Slowly, once I got to know him, we became good friends.
RA: I usually switch off and on very easily. We finished the shoot in 28 days and I still keep thinking about my character and what I could add to it. No character has impacted me as much as this one has. Also, it sometimes happens that I am offered a film whose subject mirrors an incident in my personal life. It is really bizarre!
PK: What’s happening now? (Laughs)
RA: I was shooting in London for Oysters and the same happened with Bombairiya and also with Phobia. I guess it’s about attracting similar energy.
BOI: Apart from the fact that your character has this phobia, what was the brief you were given?
RA: My character is called Mehek and she is extremely liberal and has no inhibitions. She is an artist and she lives alone in Mumbai. The language is very raw and everything is exactly how a girl in Mumbai lives. She is very bindaas, an outgoing woman who could never imagine in her wildest dreams that she could be so traumatised by a single incident. She is extremely intelligent but I think trauma takes over sometimes. And this is not just psychological, as I said.
There was this physiologist I was talking to about panic attacks, and he said it is like getting a fever; it is a biological reaction of the body to certain things. So, sometimes, when someone is experiencing a panic attack, they are fully aware of what’s happening and might say, ‘Give me 45 minutes and I will be all right.’ You understand what’s happening but it is neurological. People need to understand that we should not dismiss it by saying ‘pagal hai’; we need to get it treated by from a doctor just like we treat a fever.
RA: I don’t look at it that way, I don’t even look back. I look forward to everything that comes my way and whatever I choose, especially good work. People showed faith in me and that’s why I am doing films of so many different genres.
BOI: Do you consider the commercial viability of a project or only the creative aspect of a film?
RA: Commercial viability is crucial because if your film doesn’t make money, no one is going to invest again. Similarly, as an actor, you need to be commercially successful because only if your previous film worked will people invest in your next film. So, as an actor, one should definitely have commercial viability. But there is a limit to which I, as an actor, can compromise. I have certain rules which I will not break. Again, that doesn’t mean I can’t do a masala film; it just shouldn’t break certain rules which I have for myself. I mean, I don’t really like these categories. If you want to sell tickets, you want commercial success. But if the type of content makes it an ‘art film’, then that’s a problem. Personally, I don’t like this distinction.
BOI: Pavan, thriller and horror seem to be your preferred genres. Before Phobia, you had two horror films. What attracts you to these stories?
PK: They come naturally to me. There is no preconceived notion on how I want to do it all. If tomorrow I want to make a comedy I will make one. But thriller and horror come naturally to me.
BOI: Do you find it tough to sell your stories?
PK: Everything is tough to sell. Every genre should have content that will bring audiences to cinemas. It all depends on the story.
RA: I did a lot of research for this film. As I mentioned earlier, I was working on a similar project; only, that phobia was different. All I had to do now was focus my research on agoraphobia as I had been studying panic disorder. Also, I know a few people who suffer from agoraphobia and was therefore familiar with it. I also come from a family of doctors and I had a very good friend, who is a psychologist, on call whenever I needed him. I discussed a few things with him and studied more cases. We were doing a backstory for the character and there were some unexplained links, so my friend helped me clarify things.
My father is a neurosurgeon and he helped me understand the other side of it. There is another friend of mine who is a cartoonist and he has written a pocket book on panic disorder, and it’s really good. The first thing it says is: ‘Don’t panic if you get a panic attack.’ I also watched a lot of videos about how a person reacts and what happens to them during a panic attack. I also read a lot. I was trying to make it as real as I could.
BOI: Radhika, do you have a wish list of directors you want to work with?
RA: I do but I don’t want to name anyone because I have been blessed as I have worked with some fabulous directors. I can give you 10 names right now but will they want to work with me? So it is useless for me to constantly think of wanting to work with them. As I said, I have worked with some really fantastic directors but I have done only one film with each of them and I would like to work with them some more. The actor-director relationship is something you develop over time. It takes time to understand each other but once you develop that bond and comfort level, things become easier.
BOI: When you are marketing a low-profile film, what are the challenges
VR: We have come up with a very innovative plan. I think the web series and the introduction of all kinds of phobias clicked with everybody and it raised awareness on what phobia really is. We received a very good response on this. Then the trailer released, which carried our message forward and it introduced our movie. The response has been very positive so far. Right now, we are also doing things online and the integration is in sync with the movie.
PK: Credit for every good movie must go to its entire team. We had a great team on board. My editor, Pooja is someone I have worked with on all my movies and she has worked closely with Sriram (Raghavan) as well. She is the backbone for literally everything, she has not only edited the movie but also helped me write it. We also had a really good cinematographer, Jaya Krishna (Gummadi), who is absolutely amazing. His work is fresh and he is very collaborative. We spent months trying to figure out the look and feel of the film, getting the art right. And even the costumes, they really brought their
VR: And we had an actor who could hold each scene beautifully.
PK: Yes, that is a given. All of this actually pyramids up to her. (Laughs)
RA: They are laying it all on my shoulders because the film’s release is approaching. (Laughs)
PK: No, really, our idea was to not move the camera too much, to use a wide shot and let Radhika show off her acting skills. We held back as much as possible without trying to dramatise it or make it flashy. We wanted to keep it simple and unrestrained.
RA: I think it looks very good.
PK: Yeah, I think so too! (Laughs)
BOI: What’s next for all of you?
RA: Kabali will release soon and so will Parched. I finished shooting forAshram and Bombairiya is releasing this year. I have signed a few films that I will hopefully announce soon, at least one of them for sure.
PK: Writing, I am back to writing.