Our day began as any other regular Friday as the girls of Box Office India - Anita Britto, Bhakti Mehta and Titas Chowdhury - readied to reach office to face another day of closing a weekly issue with screams, laughs and frayed tempers thrown in good measure. Suddenly, a call comes, inviting us to the venue where Mission Mangal promotions were going on to interview Akshay Kumar. As the team raced (almost against time), battling the morning Mumbai traffic, we had no inkling that there was a surprise awaiting us. As we reached the venue, we were told that it is not only Akshay Kumar that we are interviewing (which we were fully prepared for) but also the four leading ladies of the film, Vidya Balan, Taapsee Pannu, Sonakshi Sinha and Nithya Menen (which we were not at all prepared for!). The BOI girls should have known by then that this would be anything but a regular interview. As we entered the banquet hall where the interviews were being held, we see some of the brightest talents of our country competing against each other in hold your breath… a make-shift game of ‘Lagori’! After the game ended, the Mission Mangal team and Team BOI sat down but the tennis ball that the stars were playing with still remained in Kumar’s hands. Here’s what happened next…
Bhakti: At the trailer launch, all of you said…
(Akshay pretending to throw the tennis ball at Bhakti)
Akshay: (Cuts in). If you drop the ball, then we won’t answer your question. I think you should keep your notebook aside and concentrate on catching the ball.
Akshay: No, continue Bhakti.
(The ball is passed to Vidya who then throws it at Taapsee)
Bhakti: (Scared of the ball being thrown at her during the question) You all said that this film is very significant to Indian cinema. What importance does it hold in your personal filmographies?
Vidya: If we are part of India’s first space film, it is already a huge achievement.
Akshay: Yes, that it is a very big thing and all of us are very proud of it.
Nithya: For me, it is extra special because it is also my first Hindi film.
Vidya: And I feel like it is my first film too. (Laughs)
Akshay: It is also my first film with Menen.
Akshay: Arre Lemon nahi, Menen!
Sonakshi: And I think that it is a great film to have in your filmography. It is a huge, massive achievement and that is the story that we are telling. So, it’s great. It is a very important and landmark film.
Vidya: Yes, absolutely!
Taapsee: I think we all did it so that we can be proud of the fact that this film, Mission Mangal will be in our filmography. That is definitely one common point among all of us to do this film. Hain na? Thik hai na, Akshay sir? Aapke liye thik hai?
Akshay: Arre, haan haan!
(Taapsee throws the ball to Titas who awkwardly catches it)
Vidya: And the thing is that Taapsee actually wants to show it to her children.
Taapsee: Oh yes! I want to show this film to my to-be children.
(Titas throws the ball to Akshay)
Bhakti: Akshay sir…
(Akshay sneakily pretends to throw the ball Bhakti, again)
Taapsee: Arre! You are troubling this poor girl and distracting her so much. Then if she asks ajeeb-garib questions you will only be like why are you asking all these things!
(Akshay mimics Bhakti trying to catch the ball)
Bhakti: This is what Akshay sir does, he always pulls my leg during interviews.
Taapsee: He does this to everyone! Sabki taange lambi kar denge khich-khich ke!
(Akshay finally throws the ball to Bhakti who also catches it awkwardly)
Akshay: Oh wow! You actually caught it!
Bhakti: I am too nervous not to.
(Sonakshi takes the ball from Bhakti and throws it away)
Taapsee: Phew! Thanks, Sona!
Sonakshi: Bhakti, you ask now.
Bhakti: Akshay sir, director Jagan Shakti mentioned this concept and you told him to write a script on this. What was the scope you saw in this story that prompted you to do so?
Akshay: I love the story. I did not think about the cast, the ensemble cast, how many people will be there in this. I just liked the story. I want to proudly say that this is my first science film and I got a chance to do this. It is actually a huge risk to take on as a producer also. So, when Jagan told me about how the whole space mission happened, I listen to him and I told him that to go away and come after one-and-a-half – two months. It was also because I wanted to get rid of him. (Laughs). But jokes apart, he went and then he did more research and made a whole screenplay out of it. That was it. We were ready with the film.
Anita: Was there anything more that you all had to research about?
Akshay: Batao batao....kahan gaye thhe, NASA and all other places.
Sonakshi: Individually, I do not think we needed to do much preparation other than the material that was given to us by our director, Jagan sir. He showed us documentaries and gave us a lot reading material. He explained all our characters in detail to all of us. All that was already there for us to go by and it was great that the other actors and I didn’t actually have to build a spaceship.
Vidya: I actually went to NASA.
(Sonakshi laughs and Vidya stares at her).
Akshay: She really did!
Taapsee: Yes, she went there.
Sonakshi: Oh sh**! Sorry.
Sonakshi: But Vidya, you went after the shooting was done.
Vidya: But that is something that people don’t know so it doesn’t matter. (Laughs)
Taapsee: She went there to check ki humne film mein sab theek kiya hai ki nahin.
Vidya: Yes, I did go to NASA after the film was over and it was great. That was not part of my preparation but I think Jagan had given us a lot of documents regarding it. And especially for someone like me, it was very helpful because I had no clue about the mission and the several physics terminologies. So, his research helped me a lot.
Bhakti: Nithya, what about you?
Vidya: She was a born scientist.
Akshay: No, but Nithya really is. Her parents are in the defence.
Vidya: What do you mean by ‘her parents are in defence’? When she was born, the nurse had actually said it.
Akshay: What did she say? Mubarak ho! Aapke ghar scientist paida huyi hai. (Laughs)
Nithya: That is not true. But yes, like Vidya said, I also feel the same. We were all given some material and we read through that. We had a video that was shown to us, which explained how the whole mission was done, how the satellite was launched, just to give us a basic idea of it, the process of it. I don’t think any of us delved too deep into it.
Taapsee: I remember that even when our narrations were happening so that we could understand the script properly, Jagan would draw things and explain it to us. He wanted to show us how it basically happened.
Bhakti: Seems like an interesting science lecture.
Sonakshi: Yeah, it actually was!
Vidya: Taapsee has been preparing for this role for a very long time, right?
Taapsee: Yes, I was 15-years-old.
Vidya: She started studying Engineering just for this. (Laughs)
Taapsee: There were some terms which were familiar to me from my Engineering days and that helped me mouth them easily. It would be a little difficult for me to otherwise deliver the dialogue. What happens is that when you are not familiar with some words, it feels awkward to say it. I don’t know how these guys managed it but they did a great job! I would have been awkward for sure.
Vidya: We also had Kirti (Kulhari) to tell us the right pronunciation for everything. (Laughs)
Akshay: But a lot of preparation that was done by our director Jagan and he was really good at it…
(Suddenly, everybody gasps as Sonakshi pushes Akshay, who actually falls down from his chair with a thud. The shock wears off as everyone starts laughing)
Taapsee: What is happening here today?
Sonakshi: Well, if people irritate me then that is what they get!
Taapsee: You know what?! She actually planned to do this. Let me tell you how it would have happened. Akshay sir would have told Sonakshi to do this and that is why it is getting recorded by someone there. See there, guys! And he has done this just to scare the three of you.
Nithya: Akshay sir, you are pranking the interviewers also, I thought it was just for the cast. You know he made the interviewer before you cry. Poor girl was about to sob.
Sonakshi: Yes, she actually cried.
Nithya: And then he felt super bad about it.
Akshay: But I was not telling her anything. She cried because…
Vidya: (Cuts in). She cried because you pretended to walk out of the interview. And because you did that she thought that she had offended you.
Akshay: No, no…I got offended because of you all.
Vidya: What?! Say that again.
(Vidya stares angrily at Akshay)
Akshay: I got offended because
of you all.
Vidya: Say that again.
Akshay: I got offended because of
Vidya: Say that again.
Akshay: I got offended because of you all.
Vidya: Say that again.
Akshay: Arre, have you gone deaf or what?! (Laughter erupts)
Sonakshi: Now you guys know how we shot for this film!
Bhakti: Yes, it seems so.
Taapsee: But it was really difficult to shoot this film.
Akshay: But Bhakti did not even try to save me when I was falling. I am sitting right in front of her, so she could have caught my leg and prevented me from falling down but she just wanted to sit there and give a dramatic reaction.
(Akshay mimics Bhakti’s shocked expression)
Sonakshi: You know we should have recorded their reactions.
Akshay: Bhakti, if you see your friend is falling down, are you going to help them or just sit and give shocked expressions?!
Bhakti: But I was shocked, sir! It was a knee-jerk reaction.
Akshay: Arre lekin taang toh pakad lo. Bacha toh lo kisi ko! (Everybody laughs).
Taapsee: Ufff! Akshay sir kya aap bhi? Uske haath mein phone tha na?
Akshay: Achcha chodo! Next question.
Anita: How did you all manage to make a serious film like Mission Mangal with this vibe that is so evident today?
Vidya: Ask the director how he managed with all of us.
Sonakshi: I am sure he had the toughest time.
Akshay: But who told you it is a serious film?
Sonakshi: Yes, it is not a serious film but maybe she is trying to say that it is a serious subject.
Akshay: On the contrary, Taapsee has a very comical role in the film. In the second trailer of the film which came out recently, did you not see what her entry shot was?
(Akshay mimics Taapsee’s scene in the movie)
Taapsee: But that was one of the best introduction scenes ever!
Vidya: But why are you such a realistic actress? You did not spare that poor man also!
Akshay: You know she must have practiced that scene? She brought two walnuts and just crushed them.
(And the mimicry continues)
Taapsee: I wanted to get deep into my character. I work very hard for every film. (Laughs)
Akshay: But now that poor man will not be able to have kids!
Taapsee: It’s okay. I will donate my kids to him.
Akshay: Yeh lo! Yeh toh aise bol rahi hai ki iske khudke 35-36 bachche pade hain.
Taapsee: When I have them, I will give them to him.
Akshay: I think this will be the end of these girls’ interview now.
Akshay: Arre but where is Vajir (Singh)? Why did you not get him?
Bhakti: He is not in town right now.
Akshay: Oh okay. C’mon ask the next question.
Taapsee: Sir, you are distracting us too much.
Akshay: Was I the one who was going on and on about how much you practiced for your entry scene?
Taapsee: But you know, it was Akshay sir who had actually written that scene.
Nithya: That is true.
Titas: Did you really write that scene?
(Akshay shakes his head)
Vidya: And if you see in the film, he has asked for credit there also. It actually says that the idea is by Akshay Kumar.
Taapsee: The moment that the scene comes, there will be a disclaimer saying that this scene was written by him.
Akshay: I will tell you who wrote it. You want to know?
Titas: Yes, of course.
Akshay: (Points at Vidya) It was her.
Vidya: I knew this was going to happen. Mujhe bada acha lagta hai ye sab karna. (Laughs)
Akshay: All the cheap scenes have been written by her only.
(Everyone laughs while Nithya sits quietly with a hand on her head)
Bhakti: Nithya, how do you feel being part of this madness?
Nithya: I am quiet because I am sick of this, I have had enough. After sometime I just feel exhausted and I am like, let them finish their banter.
Vidya: Hmmm… now that the film is over, she is saying all these things. Before this she would say how much care we took of her and all that.
Akshay: Forget about all this, the last thing she told me was, ‘Can I go?’ The film is coming out on August 15 and we are doing the promotions till August 14…
Nithya: Don’t say all these things! (Slouches in her chair)
Akshay: She actually told me if it is okay if she does not stay till the 14th, she wanted to leave.
Nithya: But you said okay.
Akshay: What else can I do about it? Do I have a choice?
Nithya: But you said it so nicely. You were like, ‘Okay go, no problem.’
Akshay: I said that because otherwise you will slap me.
Nithya: I just asked you. But really because it was like this, it was all really comfortable for me. Even though it was my first time in Bollywood…
Akshay: You know Nithya, I really love the way you talk. You talk very slowly.
Nithya: But I am a little tired now, that is why I am talking slowly.
Akshay: It is so early in the morning and you are tired already! It is just about 12 in the afternoon.
Nithya: But we have been talking since 9 am today!
Taapsee: Sir, ab bol le woh bechaari?! You are not letting her speak only.
Akshay: Oh sorry! Has she finished her answer?
Titas: Taapsee just said that you never let anyone speak.
Akshay: (Laughs). Okay, now I am all ears. Bolo, Nithya.
Nithya: Honestly, it was informal and warm and friendly. It was actually so smooth for me. Even though it was my first film, I never felt out of place.
Vidya: But it was out of space.
Akshay: Now you guys are not letting them ask questions. Pucho pucho.
Akshay: Hey, do not throw that ball at Bhakti.
Bhakti: (Ducking in fear). Sir, honestly we all have forgotten all the questions now.
Taapsee: Poor girls! You are making them forget their work sir!
Akshay: It is all because of Sonakshi, because she pushed me.
Taapsee: She has done only one thing. Anyway, you guys continue.
Bhakti: Even in the trailer, you relate to the women…
Vidya: (Cuts in) You know you always imagine that if someone is working on such an important mission, especially a scientist, would look a certain way. They would probably been in those lab coats or suits because it is also about power-dressing. But the ISRO scientists are as normal as the people we see everywhere, like any of our family members.
Taapsee: That is how they look.
Vidya: Yes! And yet they were behind such an important mission. And I think that is why they are so relatable. The interesting thing in this film is that they have their personal lives also and both, the mission and their lives, run parallel. You see them coping at different things on different fronts. Yet, they emerge triumphant in the end.
Taapsee: This was one of the briefs given by Jagan when we were starting out. He said that they should look so regular and ordinary that when you pass them, you should not even feel that there is something extraordinarily special about this person, in terms of their looks, their behaviour and their regular lives. That really helped us define our looks and know how we were going to be outside ISRO as well.
Sonakshi: Yes, it is the story about ordinary people doing something extraordinary at the end of the day. There is a woman who is a mother, there is a woman who is going to be a mother and there is someone who does not want any attachment in life and is part of a brash world. Each of them has such different personalities but they all come together for this one important and huge mission. They work towards that. It is a very good view on their personal and professional lives.
Titas: Did you meet scientists to prepare for your parts?
Vidya: No, I did not and I do not think anyone of us did. But we had a docket that had all the information that we needed and the references such as documentaries that we could watch on the subject. There were some nice videos that Jagan had shared with us. All of those helped us get an overview of the mission. I spoke to a scientist who also happens to be Jagan’s sister. She was part of the Mangalyaan.
Vidya: Yeah, she was part of the Mars mission. I actually wanted to understand from her about how she strikes that balance between being a homemaker and a scientist, the challenges that she faces and her work life at ISRO. I did that, but we did not meet any scientists as such.
Titas: Akshay sir, how important do you think it is for a film like Mission Mangal to be audience-friendly in terms of the scientific references and other technicalities?
Akshay: It is very important. I made this film so that my family could watch it. We want more and more people to come, watch and understand what our film is about, irrespective of whether they are educated or not. We want them to understand the true meaning of science, the story behind the Mars mission and how the scientists at ISRO applied the concept of home science and sent an expedition to Mars. What we have done is kept this film very ordinary as is evident from the scene where we are frying pooris and we realised that we can save fuel and then we decide that if the oil is already hot, there is no point of heating it further. There are many such theories that you will see in the film. If there is a person who does not understand a thing about science or rockets, even they will be able to grasp what is being shown through our film. We did not give a documentary feel to the film; we kept it entertaining. Even if we had to convey something, we have used words that everyone can understand; we have refrained from using pure English or pure Hindi.
Anita: Akshay sir, you have had such a storied career where you have seen both highs and lows. Keeping that in mind, how do you choose your scripts and decide what is next?
Akshay: I consider myself lucky that I get good subjects. There are times when I do not get good subjects also. And sometimes, I get terrible scripts, so much so that I do not feel like watching those films after they get made. Currently, everything is going pretty well. Let’s see what the future holds for me!
Vidya: Currently, things are indeed going great for you since you are surrounded by seven girls. How does it get any better? (Everyone laughs)
Akshay: That is why I said that everything is going pretty well.
Taapsee: And he says that we do not let him talk!
Akshay: We have six girls and (pointing at Vidya and himself) two men here. Vidya bhai saab, please do not talk to me in this way.
(Vidya bursts into laughter)
Bhakti: I cannot believe that he does not let anyone talk because he always puts his point in between.
Vidya: Yeah but…
Akshay: (Cuts in) I am very scared of Vidya. What if she starts doing kathak?
Titas: Nithya, in a recent interview, you had said that you are an actor first and then a heroine. You’re a big star in South and along with it come expectations and several things that you are required to do. How do you draw that line between being an actor and a star?
Nithya: Right from day one when I was not a star and nobody knew who I was to today, it has been the same thing for me. I knew that I can only be an actor and that has already been important to me. I never really wanted to be an actor and so I never tried too hard to do anything here. It was never like I wanted to make it as a star. If I did films, I wanted them to be substantial. My focus was something else. It was not about trying to be big and famous. These things were still unimportant to me. That is what kept driving me right from the beginning. Sometimes I am pushed into that other direction but I do not like it when I am forced to be a heroine or do things that are not me or they do not align with who I am. It has always been like that and I always come back to it. I like being only an actor.
Titas: And this thought keeps you going?
Nithya: Yes. This is what I can do best. I cannot do the other thing and be a heroine because I am not interested in it. I naturally gravitate towards doing the kind of subjects that are meaty. Then there is the pressure of why did I not do a certain film and why I am doing a small role. But you have to remember what you want to do and what keeps you happy. I remember a particular year when I did a lot of big films. I felt like I did not do anything, I felt empty inside. Then I paused and took a breath and I told myself that the work that I was doing was not making me happy. I go by the compass in my mind.
Anita: Will we see you doing more Hindi films?
Nithya: Sure! Why not? It is my profession (Smiles). I do not look at the language or the industry, it is about doing good films.
Bhakti: The lines in terms of language have anyway blurred now.
Nithya: I have already done films in so many languages. I work in four different languages. For me, Bollywood is just another language and another new space and it is exciting. I am looking forward to getting good content here.
Bhakti: The five of you are huge names. Is this important, especially in this day and age where we are exposed to global content, to constantly reinvent yourselves as actors with every new film?
Vidya: If you do not do it, it will be boring for yourself as an actor. It will also be boring and predictable for the audience because to keep seeing the same face, they then want the person to be doing different things. Doing different things keep both the actor and the audience stimulated.
Bhakti: Akshay sir, in our last interview you had said that the world perceives Hollywood in a certain way. How do you want India to be showcased through our films to the world?
Akshay: (Looks at everyone quizzically)
Vidya: (Looking at Akshay) How do you want India to be showcased through our films?
Akshay: I know! I understood what she asked.
Vidya: I think the past few films that he has done and Akshay, correct me if I am wrong…
Akshay: (Cuts in) You are never wrong, Vidya!
Vidya: I like that. That is the right answer. His films are probably reflective of how he sees the changing India and the modern man. Therefore, his films are headed in the right direction. He is making more films that are truly reflective of the ethos of our country.
Nithya: (Looking at Akshay) But she asked the question to you. Don’t you want to answer it?
Akshay: But I like what she said.
Sonakshi: You don’t even know what she said.
Bhakti: Would you like to add something, Akshay sir?
Akshay: No, nothing. Whatever she said is right.
Taapsee: Is that your answer?
Akshay: Yes, because she is right.
Sonakshi: Did you hear what she said?
Akshay: Yes, she asked me how I want India to be showcased.
Sonakshi: That is what was asked to you, not what Vidya answered.
Vidya: It is okay, Akshay and I have that understanding.
Titas: Sonakshi is behaving like a teacher.
Taapsee: No, our teacher is not here right now.
Vidya: Kirti is never there yaar!
Taapsee: Our teacher is very busy.
Sonakshi: Our teacher is very tired.
Bhakti: One that note, thank you so much!
Akshay: (Pointing to Anita) What is that tattoo on your wrist?
Anita: Dog paws. (Smiles).
Akshay: Do you have dogs?
Akshay: How many?
Anita: Two labs!
Akshay: You have two lambs?
Akshay: Okay. That is a good thing then. It would have been weird if you had lambs tattooed on your wrist.