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The Rising Mavericks

Producer-director of the upcoming film October, Shoojit Sircar and producer Ronnie Lahiri, talk about their intriguing film with Team Box Office India

Box Office India (BOI): Shoojit, how did October come about? How did it all start?

Shoojit Sircar (SS): It actually started long, long ago. The basic idea had been with me since 2004. It was based on a small, personal experience.

BOI: Even before Yahaan?

SS: When I was shooting Yahaan. A little moment from the film was a personal experience. It was with me since then. Juhi (Chaturvedi) and I would keep saying that we have created many kinds of stories and we wanted to create a relationship story too. We wanted to make something from the perspective of young people, who are just about 20 years old. And while writing Piku in 2014, the germ of an idea came in. 

And as soon as Juhi finished Piku, she started writing this story. It is a personal experience from her life as well and we also got some inspiration from newspaper clippings which depicted things happening at other places, other personal stories.

Then Juhi came up with this brilliant script of October. We were actually planning to shoot this film before Pink but were unable to finalise the cast and so we started with that film. We waited another year for the casting to fall in place. Then, after Varun (Dhawan) was cast, we wanted to shoot this movie before Judwaa 2 started filming. But when Varun heard the way I was looking at this film, he said he wanted to finish Judwaa 2 first so that he could dedicate himself to October. The film was to come out in 2016 but it was delayed.

BOI: How did the cast come on board for this film?

SS: I usually prefer a fresh cast for my films. Before Varun was finalised, the entire cast was on board. I met the leading lady, Banita Sandhu, who is from Wales when I did a commercial with her when Pink was being made. She played a college girl in the ad. As soon as I saw her, I clicked a picture and sent it to Ronnie (Lahiri) and Juhi. I told them this was the girl for the film and they all agreed. That’s how she was cast. The rest of the cast are people that either Ronnie, or Juhi or I already knew. Some of them were brought on board by my casting director with whom I have worked in all my films. Varun’s casting was accidental.

He wanted to meet me but we were unable to schedule a meeting for about a week. Then, one day, he called me and asked ke sir main aa jaun aaj? I was in Juhu and had to leave for Kolkata soon as I spend a lot of time there and told him to come over immediately as I had a flight to catch. He had just woken up and, on my insistence, came just as he was, in a dishevelled state. I have actually lived with the character of Dan for quite some time and as soon as he came in, everything just fit.

I had a completely different idea about Varun with the kind of films he does even though I haven’t watched his films. But from what I did know, he was not on our radar at all. Still, I saw a real character of mine in him. When you watch the film, you will know what I mean. He was just perfect. I asked him whether I could take a picture of him. He was surprised and replied that he had come casually. I sent the picture to Ronnie and Juhi and told them that he was Dan. They agreed and I immediately asked him if he would play the part. He said he wasn’t expecting that and was quite shocked. That is how the entire cast came together.

BOI: Ronnie, while casting, how much is it a creative call and how much is it a commercial call?

Ronnie Lahiri (RL): We usually take creative calls. Once the casting is done, we work out the budget backwards. If it is a big star, then it doesn’t mean my budget will increase. My production cost will remain the same. The star’s cost will go up. The economics are very simple. If the star is asking for say ‘x’ price, then I say that if you can guarantee that on a Friday and Saturday, you can take your fee from that. Let the film run on its own. If the star cannot guarantee that kind of box office performance, then it is better to have a fresh face in the film because the story is the hero.

SS: It’s very important to have a producer who thinks creatively. I understand that the producer has to think about his money and returns. I also know that cinema is an expensive art and needs lots of money. But it is very important to go by what the script demands, what the story is all about, what the content is all about and how to pitch it, rather than coming up with different formats to pitch it. It is something Ronnie has adapted and why he is producing all my films. We are on the same page because we know that nobody is bigger than the film.

BOI: All your films have a different main cast. Why is that?

SS: I am okay with a new cast in every film. I have nothing to fear. As I said, the hero of my film is the script. As soon as I have a bound script, I get excited about it. My team knows what scene is being shot, who is doing it, and I enjoy all of it behind the camera. The script is something I am sure of and I don’t bother about anything else.

BOI: But are you open to repeating leads?

SS: Yes, but only if the script demands it. There is no compulsion to work with actors I have worked with before. If my writer writes a script and it absolutely fits even Mr Bachchan or Deepika (Padukone) or Ayushmaan (Khurrana) or Irrfan, I will work with them. I have a rapport with them. We have worked like a very close-knit family, so they know my style and I too know them very well. I know what they can bring out on screen. Yes, of course, I will repeat lead actors if the script demands it.

BOI: One more striking fact about your filmography is that each succeeding film is different from the one before. Is that a deliberate decision?

SS: It is not too conscious a decision. My basic learning of the creative form is through theatre. Theatre teaches you how to make films that are relevant and to be conscious of your social environment and what is happening all around you. If there is a current topic that touches me, I want to give it my voice. A film is the writer’s and director’s voice. I don’t decide on a genre and then make a film in that genre. I discuss a couple of films with Ronnie and Juhi and we work on them only if we are all excited about them.

I don’t announce films just like that; only when I have a bound script. What happens is that you work on many scripts but they don’t always result in the kind of good cinema that you had envisioned. My cinema is absolutely driven by what touches me.

BOI: We all know that youth is a huge market for cinema, probably the most important market. You have a youth icon in Varun Dhawan as your male lead. What does the film have to offer the youth?

SS: Well, it is a film with a new story. Why do you come to watch a film? You come for the story. You forget your star in 10 minutes and then you only see the character. If I had to watch a star for two hours, I would definitely start yawning. Dekh liye tujhe, ab aage kya? Aage kya dikhaoge? You forget the hero in 5 minutes and you get into the character and the story.

Varun’s fans and admirers have a beautiful story to look forward to. It is a very personal story for me. Varun sometimes gets panicked by what I keep saying in the media but it is true that I don’t make films for anybody, I make them for myself. First, the film is for myself and my own people. Do we like this film or not? Do we want to watch this film or not? If we don’t like to watch our own films, how can we show them to the audience? So, I try to answer the questions ‘Do I like the film or not? Do I want to watch the film repeatedly or not?’ And with October, I have watched it many times and I want to see it many more times. That is what is in store for them.

BOI: What is the significance of the title October?

SS: You would have to watch the film to understand its title. Everything Juhi writes means something. Whether it is Vicky Donor or Piku or the dialogue of Madras Café, everything has some kind of relevance to the film. October has a very beautiful relevance to the film; it is something you have to experience because my films don’t have a story.

Piku didn’t have a story. It was about a father and daughter who fight all the time and the father is constipated. People kept asking me, iske aage kya hua? I say that iske aage yehi hua, uske aage bhi yehi hua and uske aage bhi yehi hua. October is the same. It is not the kind of story where one thing follows the other. There is just insight and emotion. We catch hold of that and go forward with it. You will find the relevance when you experience October.

BOI: Although the idea took a long time to become a script, the execution was pretty quick. Ronnie, can you just throw some light on that?

RL: We did some very extensive pre-production, which took 5-6 months. That is the key to how we work, which is, we take a lot of time scripting and on pre-production. But when we go into production, everyone from our light boys to our spot boys know exactly what needs to be done. Everyone is aware of every last detail. That saves a lot of time during the shoot.

Moreover, Shoojit has such clarity of vision that things move really quickly. I also want to give credit to Avikda (Avik Mukhopadhayay), our cinematographer. He has done a brilliant job. He is an adaptive cameraman who does not live in the past. He doesn’t say he wants these big lights, which take a lot of time. He would come, study the space and figure it out. He would take only 10-15 minutes to set up the lighting. Things like this save plenty of time. We finished in, what, 37 days?

SS: I think we actually overshot and should have completed it in 30-32 days.

RL: Piku was shot in 31 days.

SS: But as Ronnie said, Avikda is one of the finest cinematographers we have in our country right now. He is really the cameraman of modern cinema. The trailer alone has brought him appreciation, and people have said that the look and feel of the film is very international

BOI: You keep changing the cast in your films but Juhi Chaturvedi has been on board with you for a while.

SS: She is a brilliant writer. It is very hard to find writers of her calibre. She is evolved. She goes into complete research mode after our discussions. After our discussions, she cocoons herself for 5-6 months and doesn’t get in touch with anyone at all. She just writes and comes up with the first draft. After that, we keep discussing and working on it. She has that kind of focus.

The kind of cinema I want to make, what I believe in, the language… she has all of it. There is no one else but Juhi. We have known each other for a long time, since our advertising days in 2003. We have all worked together before making feature films. Her nuanced writing and the small things she captures, people’s behaviour, society, families, relationships… she picks up these details so beautifully and brings it alive on paper. It is not easy.

BOI: Shoojit, this is the first time you have worked with Varun Dhawan and this is Banita Sandhu’s first film too. What was it like to direct them?

SS: I had prepared them well before the shoot. I didn’t do conventional workshops with them. My workshops were very different. They were more on the lines of spiritualism and meditation. And that’s funny, which is something you will realise when you watch the film. I didn’t even give them the script to read in the beginning. I told them, first, talk to me, throw questions at me, let me answer them for you. I just filled the hard disk of their brains with all this.

Sometimes, they would get irritated and say, ‘Sir, we have understood it already’. But I would be, like, no, you still have to listen to what’s on my mind. The thing is that we live with the script for years while they live with it for just two months. It is very difficult for them to understand what we have gone through. They have to live the script just like we lived it.

It was easy on the sets. For me, the actors are most important on the set. I give them a lot of space in terms of their comfort level. This means that they perform only when they are ready. They can do all the rehearsals they want, there is no pressure that aaj abhi khatam karna hai. But there is a way that they adapted to me and came into our family. They liked the way we worked. Sometimes, Varun would finish a rehearsal, turn around and then ask for a take. Then, I would tell him that take toh ho gaya. He would be surprised that I had already filmed him during the rehearsal. Then he would say that he wanted one more take but would eventually agree that the previous shot was better! This is how the entire shoot happened. It was fun.

Banita is a very intelligent actress. She is sensible and sensitive in terms of the camera. Her eyes are very expressive. You don’t have to give her much to do; just one look from her can say so much. That was a big advantage for her. For Varun, it was difficult coming from the school of acting that he belongs to. From there, he came to my school, where you don’t have to do anything. You don’t have to act. Sometimes, he would say, ‘Sir maine toh acting kiya hi nahi hai’ and I would be like, ‘Haan wahi correct hai’. For him to come into this subtle world of performance took a little time but once he got into it, he was just brilliant. He was so raw and natural. I keep telling him that for me, this is actually his debut film.

BOI: You have mentioned how you had to mellow Varun when he used to speak loudly or mess up his hair or wrinkle his shirt. What were those experiences like?

SS: We are so used to costumes always being ready and ironed before the shot. Now, if the scene is about my actor waking up in the morning, it has to look real as we are making a realistic film. Varun’s hair was being done properly and I was, like, what is this! Who has such neat hair? So, I had to mellow him in that way.

I would tell him, you are sitting right next to me and you don’t have to shout, the camera is there and the sound can be captured easily without you putting in too much effort. In our films, everything has to be blatantly visible and audible. There were many times we shot him saying his lines with his back to the camera. He would ask me why he wasn’t facing the camera and I would calm him, saying I had got the shot.

BOI: The trailer is very intriguing and doesn’t reveal much about the film. What is the response you have received so far?

SS: I think the answer is in the question itself. People are both very intrigued and confused. The trailer is supposed to do that, to build curiosity, but no one has said that they didn’t like the trailer; everyone is quite impressed with it. They say they like it but they are not able to understand much about the film from the trailer. I said, yeah, obviously I cannot give away much about my film in the trailer.

People who like my kind of films have responded beautifully. I haven’t come across any negative comments. They find it fresh and have reacted positively. There is something in the film. I think that’s what a trailer should do; it should intrigue them and they should go and watch the film, regardless of whether or not they know the actual story.

BOI: The music of the film is already very popular, especially the theme of the film. Can you tell us a little about the music?

SS: I believe a lot in theme tracks. And this film has an original score by Shantanu Moitra. The theme track was created while we were on our way to shoot. Shantanu thought it would be a good idea to give the theme music to all the actors. He thought they could listen to it and it would be a little easier for me to take the shots. So, it was created just before the shoot. The film is largely based on the background score. The songs are largely promotional numbers, but the background score plays a very big role in this film. Shantanu has done a wonderful job.

BOI: All your previous films had studios attached to them… Sony for Piku and Madras Café had Viacom. Is there any reason you are going it alone this time?

RL: It all started with Pink. After Piku, when we decided to produce Pink, Shoojit was a part of the creative team. The studios that were backing the films were looking at them as ‘projects’ and were willing to take up a project if Shoojit Sircar’s name was attached to them as director. They didn’t have any faith in the project itself. They said they would like to come on board Shoojit’s next film, regardless of the actual film.

So, we did Pink ourselves and we figured out a way to do it. Since we had never done marketing and distribution before, we thought they were some kind of rocket science. But, at the end of the day, we realised it was just common sense. We asked, why do we need somebody else? And that way, he can tell the kind of stories he wants to.

With a studio, somewhere down the line, they say that since they are investing their money in the film, we would be answerable to them. Here, we do it our own way and luckily we believe in the same kind of cinema. I think it is a much more peaceful space to work in.

BOI: Is that the strategy of Rising Sun for upcoming ventures as well?

SS: Look, he is not bothered about the returns. (Laughs).

RL: If it is a good film, the money comes in. A film is a hit or a flop on the Excel sheet, before it even goes on the floors because it is the budget that determines its outcome. Talking about certain films, the budgeting was to be made according to the script, not according to the star or the director. I cannot base my film October on Varun’s Judwaa record, and Shoojit’s Piku record and set aside a production budget of Rs 80 crore. I can recover that much in terms of data mining, but why should I? I know this is a different subject. So, we will make the film based on this subject.

BOI: With total freedom and both of you being on the same page, isn’t there a risk of losing perspective on reality in terms of the creative calls?

SS: No, why? We all are exposed to world cinema. The kind of films I like to watch is my reality check! My reality check is whether or not I buy tickets for a film. I know boss yeh ho raha hai duniya mein, main bhi dekh raha hoon kya ho raha hai duniya mein! Everything is on the phone itself. I don’t need any separate reality check. I need a reality check in my scripts. If somebody wants to offer inputs that would make the subject of the film better, I am up for it. But, if someone were to tell me that I am doing the wrong thing based on some random theory, that is something I absolutely don’t accept.

We faced that during Pink and that is the reason I became angry. This isn’t the way we treat cinema. I am not a part of any profit-sharing organisation. I just take my fees, which is my hard work, and make a film. That’s what matters to me. I just hope people will like what I make because they trust my vision. This is a director’s medium. Five log milke film banayenge toh khichdi banega. We have been okay up until now.

RL: We have a very democratic set-up. It is not like what he says is cast in stone. Even a spot boy has the right to tell him what he thinks and he will listen to him. We may or may not act on every suggestion but everyone listens to the whole team. Everyone is a sounding board.

SS: All my assistant directors or the costume team or the art director tell me if they find something wrong. In fact, there was a spot boy in Piku, who came up to me regarding a shot and I went up and discussed his suggestion with my edit team. We are open to all kinds of reality checks. So far, I believe we have taken the right decisions.

RL: I think it is just common sense. You cannot lose touch with reality. We still go around in autos, we see what is happening on Linking Road. We are not confined to our office and the sets and are cut off from the real world. I still speak to an autowala about the kind of problems he is facing. When I am going on a long ride, I generally begin with a question and then he goes on about what happens in the country, what he is not happy with, about politics, the favourite pastime of every Indian. That’s how we get to know the pulse of the people.

SS: From the business point of view, all my films have the kind of budgets which I feel nobody in Bollywood can work with. They are very tight and small. People cannot understand how I made Madras Café. If I had given the film to someone else, the budget would have soared ten times.

RL: It is all about planning and an experienced crew. The important thing is that everyone views it as their own film. They work as a family and they take pride in the film. It’s not just Shoojit Sircar’s film or my film, it is their film.

SS: Shaadi bhi toh hota hai chhote budget mein. (Laughs)

BOI: In so many ways, Vicky Donor was a trend-setter for unconventional content. It also had no big stars and it did well. Do you think the market has changed, with films like Pink being appreciated?

SS: No, I feel that people are exposed to these kinds of film now. They were always ready for those films. I have seen films like this in the 70s, 80s and the 90s, from Mrinal Sen, to Ketan Mehta, Shyam Benegal, Sai Paranjpye and Hrisikesh Mukherjee and Tapan Sinha’s films. I have seen Garam Hawa, I have seen films like that. And back then, they didn’t get many cinema halls because usmein naach gaana tha hi nahi. Theatre walo ko naach gaana chahiye tha. Those films would release in an obscure cinema hall, and only people who liked films like that went and saw them. The difference is that those kinds of films are releasing all over the country now, in Andheri, in Chandan theatre, in Indore or Kanpur, and everybody is watching them. I had never dreamt that films like Piku or Vicky Donor would receive so much love. I knew that people would come to watch it though.

RL: It is also the relatability of the character. They are always around in our neighborhood. That is very important in today’s times.

BOI: This indicates that the market is evolving. 20 years ago, it wasn’t possible to show Bachchan sahab as a constipated man.

SS: I disagree a little. The market has evolved but Hrishida (Hrisikesh Mukherjee) did it. Bimal Roy did it. Basu Chatterjee did it. If you see a simple film like the old Golmaal, and if you see what Utpal Dutt has done in the film, he was just another Bhaskar Banerjee (Amitabh Bachchan in Piku). The character in Golmaal wouldn’t let his daughter meet anyone. It was on similar lines as Piku.

RL: The audience was always open to such content; it is the industry that cast the actors in a certain mould. That’s the problem.

SS: How did a film like Hindi Medium work? This film is every family’s problem and that’s how they connected with it. A lot of pundits told me that this is not going to work and look where it went. The audience is responding to everything and I feel this is a good time for films. All the films are surviving.

RL: This year started brilliantly. Every film is working and that is the best thing about the industry.

BOI: Two weeks away from the release of your film, what are your expectations?

SS: I don’t have too many expectations. I am very conservative. I made a film titled October, and my job was to create a trailer. I did it, I have shown it to people and I hope people want to watch the film because it looks unusual. It is definitely not a conventional story, it is an unusual slice-of-life film. It is a short-duration film… 1 hour 45 minutes. 

RL: I am pretty much on the same page; I have seen the film many times, it is a very relatable story. The connect will be very strong with the audience. In terms of business, I hope it gets decent numbers. I personally don’t like talking about numbers. 

SS: I am happy with whatever numbers it gets!

RL: I think the love that the film gets is more important than the numbers it notches up. I hope more and more people watch the film and love the film.

SS: Wherever I go, somebody… or every girl I meet tells me that they are the Piku in their house. ‘My grandmother is like Bhaskar’, etc. So, I am not worried about the numbers. For me, it is exciting that people can relate to it.

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