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The Scent of a Woman

The talented trio! Huma Qureshi, Kalki Koechlin and Radhika Apte in conversation with team Box Office India

BOI: Do you think the industry has changed for the better as far as actresses go?

Huma Qureshi (HQ): Earlier, it would just be roles like ‘damsel in distress’ or the hottie next to the hero. I think now there is a more evolved sense of looking at women characters. And it’s not that we should have only women-centric films but there are movies like Badlapur which have strong female roles. There was an effort to portray more real, more fleshed-out kind of characters in the film. So, I think because these films are also doing well commercially, people are now thinking of giving such movies a chance. I think it was long overdue if nothing else.

Radhika Apte (RA): Yes I agree, but I also think that changes in society are being reflected in the film industry. There was a time when this industry was considered a taboo for women. Similarly, women in society were meant for a particular reason and did jobs with less exposure. With society opening up, film industry too is opening up.

HQ: Absolutely. I mean today when there is a rape incident or something similar, people don’t try to hush the news down anymore. There is a very strong social voice that speaks out against these things and there are strong public opinions. If something like this happens, regular people are stepping out of their comfort zone and taking action. They are taking a stand on it. So, somewhere that has to impact our movies too because films which are considered to be a safe bet are no longer doing well. People are really looking for a change. Even rom-com kind of movies need to evolve at some point and at some level. I mean everyone loves a good rom-com but there can actually be another way of treating it.

Kalki Koechlin (KK): Haan, so much is being said already. (Laughs)

HQ to KK: Over to you now.

KK: Yes, now I think women characters are being used to forward the plot. Like earlier, the case usually was that a woman was there simply for the dance and the romance but didn’t take the plot forward very much. I believe that concept is now being accommodated into the script writing. I think Queen did a lot to break this sort of idea that women can’t be the main hero or the protagonist of the film. Even now with Margarita With A Straw, when people meet me they ask me stuff like hero kaun hai film mein, and I say main hu and they accept that. Though we still have a long way to go but this is a good start.

RA: I think there was also a time when the moment you mention a woman-centric film people would cringe. They would think it is an NGO film or an art film. But now, it is a fact that you can make a woman-centric film with both commercial viability and entertainment.

HQ: True. Ultimately people want to be entertained. You go to the cinemas because you want to laugh, cry and be entertained. And I guess what people have realised is that you can’t only be entertained or only have content or soul. You can have both.

KK: I think the idea is that our stories need to include women. You know it is great to have a Queen but it is also important that whatever stories we tell should have very real women characters and not just stereotypes. If we have a sex story, a thriller or a horror film, the woman is stereotyped as a vamp or something like that. The idea should be to have more and more women do very ordinary kind of roles. I mean you have women taxi drivers, then why don’t we show that in our films. And why is it that small roles rarely include women. And if they happen to be there then they are like ‘Aunty ji’and don’t even have a name! Take for example the role of a mother-in-law. She won’t have a name even if she has a valid four to five scenes in the film. You know it’s all about content and that is starting to happen with better writing.

RA: I also think that we had these compartments where the good woman is feminine, beautiful and with good morals while the bad woman is manlier and someone with questionable character. I personally disagree with this whole concept.

HQ: Suddenly the modern Indian heroine has become too liberated. She has sex before marriage, is cool and confident and ready to take a stand. She is no longer coy and quiet.

RA: She is grey right in the middle. No black no white but shades of both.

BOI: Being a young female actor do you think this is the best time to be in the industry?

KK: I don’t know. I have not been around in any other times. (Laughs)

BOI: But more opportunities are coming your way.

KK: Yes, it is a good time. We are enjoying it and it is great.

HQ: I just want to say that every week I get more and more inspired. I see my contemporaries do some really cool work and feel they are pushing the envelope ahead with every film… like Queen, Hunterrr or Margarita With A Straw. And everyone is taking big risks. Earlier people would be wary of taking such leaps. Even men, for that matter. In the past, actors were very caught up with their image but now suddenly they feel the need to break out of it. I think people don’t care about images anymore. They are just putting themselves out there and doing experimental stuff. Sometimes it pays off, sometimes it doesn’t. It is just good that everyone is trying.

KK: I think there has been a big jump in society from our mothers’ generation as they didn’t have much to do but be at home which is kind of sad. So, their entire focus was their children. It is not negating what they did as it was wonderful of them but I think then there was no other option for a woman except to be the best she could be at home. Now there are more and more women out there who are educated and are working. It is actually a question about the society not quite being ready for it. I think it is such a jump especially if you think about it and this is where I want to bring you guys in. Men sort of are used to having the mother at home but the women they are marrying now have jobs. So, it is very difficult for them to accept this. I meet a lot of men in their thirties and forties who are used to having the mother at home who makes them paranthas and now they have a wife who is working and they are like are yaar who is going to make my paranthas. What do you guys feel about this?

Vajir Singh (VS): I am in my twenties so I don’t know. (Laughs)

Nitin Tej Ahuja (NTA): Order home delivery.

HQ: Early twenties. (Laughs)

KK: But what do you think of this woman of today? Actresses in today’s industry?

VS: You know, today’s generation of actresses is willing to take up challenging roles even in the early stage of their careers. Even men, for that matter. For instance, in Badlapur, Varun (Dhawan) is not the hero of the film as there is no hero in the film. They all are characters. Be it you two (Huma and Radhika) or Divya (Dutta) or Vinay (Pathak) or whoever. So people are making character-driven films and it is a fact that actors today are paying more importance to playing a character rather than running after hero roles.

HQ: See, today’s youth has also watched that kind of cinema.

KK: I agree. What you are saying is that there is no difference between male and female. The change is happening for both the genders which I think is the way forward for women empowerment. It shouldn’t be a man versus woman issue which it often is pegged as. It should be about both genders being treated as equals.

RA: And I think if you don’t change with time then you are just going to get stuck. Now people are realising that and taking more and more risks. You can’t stay stuck in the '80s and '90s kind of cinema any more.

HQ: Also we are watching all sorts of Hollywood films in our country which are doing well at our box-office and making crores. And today, as somebody who watches a lot of British and Hollywood television shows, I know our country has a young multiplex audience willing to go and watch edgy content. It has grown up loving our kind of cinema but now needs something more. And as an actor I don’t know how to manage as it gets repetitive after a time.

KK: I also think that the way films are being made now is different, like money is being invested from outside as well. Earlier, it was a small industry with only some families in control. But now there are many investors. You Know Manish Mundra who produced Aankhon Dekhi? Now he is producing my film Waiting and also producing Neeraj Ghaywan’s film. So he has suddenly emerged out of nowhere.

There are more and more investors interested in content and I think there is a lot of money being generated in India by local businessmen and women who want to invest creatively. I think this has given more freedom to people not necessarily connected to the industry. So, these small films are also making it even though eventually not big. Like in Hollywood they made a horror film called Paranormal Activity which was really low budget and completely based on content. Similar things have started happening here also like the recent Dum Laga Ke Haisha which may have had a strong backing but it was a low-profile film in terms of cast. I think these things are happening because of the financial changes.

RA: A lot of people from our industry today are interested in sending their films to festivals and doing the rounds of various countries to understand their film culture. So people outside now know about Indian films. That is a ‘cool thing’ you know and not in the wrong way. More and more people now want to be in these circuits. With social media being so active, the world has become smaller and everyone is aware of everyone. Collaborations are happening, people are going abroad and getting financers from there. It is sort of coming together.

BOI: You guys have been to many festivals. So how does an investor over there look at a Hindi film?

KK: For a long time Bollywood was not on their list because they made serious cinema and they would be like ‘we are not interested’ with so many songs, etc. So, for a while there was a tag on Bollywood cinema - it’s just a cabaret, bunch of songs and romance. But that has changed a huge way in the last five years with films like Gangs Of Wasseypur going to Cannes, The Lunchbox making so much money abroad and being a huge hit in France.

Many of my French friends ask me to get them those tiffins (dabbas). So it has become very popular over there. This is a sign of awareness abroad and we have to show them that there is other stuff also being made in India. Also this whole mass-based concept of making a box-office hit is in a very unpredictable space now because earlier, you knew if you have 10 songs and certain actors no matter what the script is the film will be a hit whereas today that’s not happening every time. So when you are investing Rs 60 crore you want that money back. Hence, no one wants to repeat mistakes.

I have a friend Hussain Dalal who was actually an actor but now his life is taken over by writing as he is making good money through it. He wrote Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, Happy Ending, 2 States and a few more. So suddenly writing has become very essential. Now he has bought a car and we are like wow you bought a car. Now there is value for content.

BOI: So content is changing, society is changing but do you think when it comes to professionalism in the industry, is it the same or that has also changed given a gender?

HQ: Given a gender you will not make as much as your male contemporaries are making. That goes with any profession and I don’t think film industry is any different.

KK: (Cuts in) And this is the same in Hollywood or any other cinema industry. There was Patricia Arquette who spoke about this at the Oscars this year and there was Emma Watson who spoke about it at the UN. It’s a worldwide problem of a woman not being paid as much for doing the same amount of work as a male. I think that is an essential component which needs to be changed in our society. If that doesn’t change then it is an issue.

HQ: Exactly! Because we are in a medium which influences the society so if things change here then they will also change in other fields.

KK: By the characters we play we will get better one day, man! If you’re earning less then you’re never going to be on the top whether you’re the head of an advertising company or a production house. Finance is patriarchal always then it will remain patriarchal. Advertising is a big example of this - to sell a car you have to place a pretty woman in front. Why can’t we have a naked man sell a car? I would love to buy that car.

BOI: One thing that is common to you all three is that you don’t have a filmy background but still you made a mark. How was that possible?

KK: (Laughs) I think combination of luck and good looks.

RA: And I think patience also. We have given five auditions in a day. Every morning I used to be in Aaram Nagar and a place near Shreeji Restaurant, you know that dirty place where all these audition happens. And then they will react like nahi nahi tum nahi chahiye, humko 21 saal ki ladki chahiye. The selection is sometimes on the basis of height and colour.

HQ: Tum fit nahi ho, humein young ladki log chahiye.

KK: My friend was crying one day. She told me they told her ‘you look like a gaonwali, we want a modern girl’.

RA: But we all have been through that process. When you come to a new city, then you start meeting people and through your connections you make more connections and give as many auditions as you can. So been there, done that!

HQ: We have done all of this… carrying more than two dresses at a time, moving from one audition to another. Never had a backup like if something goes wrong call your dad and he will sort out everything. Even till date if something goes wrong I keep wondering who do I call, how do I solve it? But it’s like I am learning on my own and it’s fun. It also validates the artist in us.

RA: Unless you’re really lucky, you could take around five to six years to get that recognition or at least make a mark. And if you are in your 20s then you are also losing out on crucial time as well. A lot of actors from other countries are sort of looked up to if they started their filmy career at the age of 19-20. I think that’s a very crucial year to start your career.

KK: (Cuts in) But having said that, an actress in France starts her career at the age of 35. And a young actress is 35. So there are different concepts in different places.

RA: (Cuts in) No, that is also fine but what I am saying is then you learn a lot.

HQ: Here it’s also a lot of beauty and how one looks.

RA: Yeah!

KK: I was told I have five years left in my career and I should hurry up and do as much work as I can. So I was like okay only five years. And I need to find a backup career as well, that is what do I do after five years.

HQ: Meryl Streep is an example.

KK: Yes, that is just a concept in our industry that as a woman you have an expiry date whereas men are still working when in the eighties. So I think that needs to change.

RA: Now things are changing because stories being written do not need a woman only as a glamour quotient in a film. Like Madhuri Dixit, Sridevi doing roles they want to do.

HQ: I can’t romance a 19-year-old boy so I need to romance someone who will match my age.

RA: It is also the same thing to go with the change, women getting married, having children. It is just regarded as a full stop.

KK: Changes like… will you end your career or change the kind of roles you do now that you’re married? Those kinds of questions are very lousy.

HQ: I guess those questions also come because a majority of our country goes through all that. It is annoying but they go through it.

KK: It comes from a society and from the fact that we think before you are married you are free to do whatever you want irresponsibly and then get married and be responsible. This is such a wrong way to think of life. Responsibility is engraved in us right from our childhood and needs to be continued till you die. It doesn’t work like that people are complex and we need to address that complexity from the young age and the way parents educate or not educate this days. But I feel this education plays a huge part in how we grow up. Education and awareness about the right of women or to be better.

BOI: What do you think about each other as actors?

HQ: I think both Kalki and I know what we think about that, we are done with back slapping.

KK: I saw Radhika for the first time in Onir’s film I Am. I had some problem with the film but I was like who is this girl, she is so cool, a rebel and all. And then we met up and she was like anything but a rebel. She thinks about everything she does.

HQ: She is like ‘Oh God, I have to think about what I do’.

KK: I see her from there to Hunterr and I love the way she acts, she is so natural.

RA: Thanks Kalki, I love you too.

KK: Of course Huma I know. We got to hang out together during Gangs of Wasseypur.

HQ: The first time we met was during an ad shoot, the Samsung mobile commercial.

KK: Oh yes, correct. But I think we bonded on Wasseypur shoot eating apple pie. But yes, I think in Wasseypur she stands out completely like a sex bomb, a ruling gangster.

HQ: Somebody gag this woman.

RA: When I saw Wasseypur, I thought of google-ing you up. I am like who is this woman and totally hot. I admire Nawaaz (Nawazudin Siddiqui) a lot and you ate him.

HQ: Will you say that again.

RA: I am serious. If I see you together, I will look at you. I said this to Nawaz as well. Your presence was incredible. I think Kalki I admire and then we did a film together.

KK: Ohh that! (Laughs)

HQ: We want to know which is this crazy film, everybody wants to know, nation wants to know which film you two did together.

KK: It didn’t release.

RR: Oh I forgot the name.

KK: It was a call center kind of film called Online.

RA: It never finished, never released but we worked together. There was this one night shoot that’s when we got to know each other. There is a scene where the hero is leaving and she kisses me on the cheek to say bye.

KK: I have no memory of it.

RA: Clear.

HQ: Clearly you are much better on screen.

RA: Clearly I remember the kiss and all.

KK: I am the next Emraan Hashmi.

RA: But then I saw her performance in Margarita With A Straw and I was like ‘whatever you want am ready to give you but tell me how did you do that’. Because she is incredible in the role.

HQ: About Kalki, I don’t know how to praise as an actor but I can add to what has been said. I spent time with her when she was preparing for Margarita. She came to Delhi and she spent time with the person with cerebral palsy, learning the muscle movement and all. The amount of dedication this girl puts in. Whatever she is doing, she does it very passionately.

KK: Well done guys, all of you.

BOI: And lastly, you seem to be bonding and all, so do you think someone should offer you three Charlie’s Angels.

KK: Charlie’s Angels. That will be like kick-ass. I keep begging the media that please can you put this idea across and someone can produce.

RA: Someone should think about it, definitely.

HQ: I think it’s a very good idea.

KK: Because I also feel that woman-oriented films shouldn’t always be serious. There should be normal commercial rom-com, action movies all including women. And why not?

RA: Also, if there is a film with three women fighting and three men fighting, which film will you go to?

HQ: Point rested.

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