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To Be Or Not To Be Ecstatic

Team Haider, director Vishal Bhardwaj and Amrita Pandey, VP & Head, Marketing and Distribution, Studios, Disney India in conversation with team Box Office India

Box Office India (BOI): Are you happy now?

Vishal Bhardwaj (VB): Yes, I am very happy.

BOI: Are you satisfied with the film’s reviews and its collections?

VB: I attribute this reaction to Maqbool. All my friends in the industry and even people who don’t like my kind of cinema have praised Haider.

BOI: What did you do differently this time?

VB: Nothing, really. I did the same thing. (Laughs)

BOI: Do you think the audience has grown?

VB: No, I think I have grown.

BOI: When UTV decided to back Haider, a lot of people asked you whether it was the right decision.

Amrita Pandey (AP): Did they? Who were these people? I want to know. (Laughs)

BOI: How does it feel now?

AP: It’s a great feeling. We are all very happy. We have worked with Vishal so many times…

VB: Yes, I have made eight films, of which four were with UTV.

AP: I remember it was Dussera and we were talking about the script and what he had done with the film. He has taken this film several notches higher. I remember how excited I was after seeing the first few scenes he had shot.

BOI: You had said it was very difficult for UTV to come on board for a film like Haider. Why did you say that?

AP: Did I say that? I don’t think so. (Laughs) I think it was a very natural progression for us.

VB: Yeah, during the very first narration, Sid (Siddharth Roy Kapur), Ronnie (Screwvala) and Amrita agreed.

AP: We met for the first time in July and began rolling during Dussera.

BOI: Has the result exceeded your expectations?

AP: The unanimous response has been overwhelmingly positive. We all loved it and we knew that people like us would love it. The amazing thing is that everyone in the industry loved the film.

BOI: Vishal, what was it about Shahid Kapoor that made you cast him in the lead role?

VB: Many things. First, he wanted to do a film with me and had been talking to me about it for the last 18 months. I wanted to take a star who wouldn’t charge money and who would erase that blot ki film acchi hai par sasti honi chahiye. I had been hearing that for a long time and was fed up with it. So that was the main reason. Next, I wanted someone who would give a hundred-per cent commitment. And I wanted him to go bald and he agreed to everything. I think Shahid is a very good actor and is, in fact, the best actor in his age group.

BOI: For any actor who portrays the role of Hamlet, ‘to be or not to be’ is the most important scene. How difficult was it for you and Shahid to execute that scene?

VB: The tough part was writing the scene, baaki execute karna toh uske writing mein already tha hi. There were many options to ‘to be or not to be’, and we used many variations in the film, which we retained. Like, hum hain ki hum hain nahi, hai ke hain nahi and main hoon ke hoon nahi… But main rahoon ki main nahi was the closest. So execution was not as big a challenge as writing was. There was a poetic rendition in it, which we made Shahid aware of during our preparation.

BOI: Was it difficult to convince Tabu to play Shahid’s mother?

VB: Yes. And thank God she was convinced. Now she too must be thanking God that she agreed to do it because she has been receiving much acclaim. In their review, The New York Times said the film should have been called Ghazala. That’s the biggest compliment an actor can get.

BOI: How did you convince her?

VB: Actually I didn’t have a choice. Mere paas koi aur tha nahi and, more importantly, she was able to see Gertrude’s character. But she was also wondering how she would play the role of Shahid’s mother because Shahid started his career very early and he has been around a while. The problem is, in India, we tend to categorise actors that once you play a mother, you always get roles like that. We tend to make fun of people, saying tumne Shahid ki maa ka role play kiya hai. One day, she told me that ab toh bas, Shah Rukh ki mother ka role play karna reh gaya hai. (Laughs)

We argued so much over this that we even stopped talking to each other for a few days. But once we calmed down, I thought I shouldn’t let my ego get in the way of my work. So I went back to her and said, ‘Look at the role of Ghazala, not as Shahid’s mother but as the character Gertrude, because Shahid will not look like Shahid Kapoor. It won’t seem as though this is Shahid Kapoor. He will be like any other character, he will be like Haider. I gave her one more option, to charge me as much as she wanted.

BOI: What was her response when she saw it?

VB: She didn’t like it, initially. I think that’s her way of experiencing catharsis. Every actor has their own ways. For instance, Kay Kay didn’t like himself on screen either. So I thought maybe all the actors have this method. Pehle apne aap ko napasand kar lo phir apni taarefein suno.

BOI: Your have portrayed the Oedipus complex very blatantly in the film. Did Tabu have any apprehensions with those scenes?

VB: No. In fact, these were the key things that attracted her to the role!

BOI: How did the Censor Board react to it?

VB: They didn’t have any objections. I was expecting them to say something, especially the scene where the mother kisses the son. But it was done in such a natural way that it didnt seem replusive at all. When we were shooting, I did have my apprehensions and I wondered how that scene would look eventually. But the way Tabu managed to create this beautiful, invisible vibe in that scene that you can’t pinpoint why it does not look repulsive.

BOI: What was UTV’s reaction when they saw the film?

VB: We were very happy. It exceeded our expectations. It was like magic and we were blown away when we watched it.

BOI: Were you sure the film would do well?

VB: A week earlier, we were wondering whether to show it to the industry or not. At that stage, as a director, you lose perspective and you look through the eyes of other people. But I was not in favour of showing it. I thought waise bhi bahut mazaak udta hai, so there is no point in screening the film earlier. But Sid and Amrita were both so confident. One day, Sid called me and he, Amrita and I were on a conference call. I was still apprehensive, so they said we should show it to the audience and go all out on the front foot and own this film, and be proud of it. Jisko acchi lagegi, it’s good, and even if they speak ill of it, we shouldn’t care. That’s when I realised I was the one behaving like a producer and they were behaving like a director. So I called Sid and told him that directors usually want to show their films to people and like to get praised. Praise hi milta hai, gaali toh milti nahi. So I told him that it was his call, and if he wanted to show the film, we should start that day itself. It was shown and appreciated by fellow filmmakers.

BOI: Amrita, why did you decide to back the film and what made you release it alongside Bang Bang?

AP: When we got the film, there was a narration and we loved it. We watched a few shots which he had shot of the first half, because they had completed the autmn schedule of the film. We were completely blown away. I think our sensibilities were the same and our chemistry matched. So we were all very confident. So we met towards the release, when we had announced Phantom, and we were not sure when to release but we were sure we wanted a strong weekend. We thought there could be no better day than this weekend because it was a five-day weekend. It was the best weekend of the year and the longest weekend before Diwali. So we all felt we should go for it.

BOI: You started promoting the film very early.

AP: Yes, we did. We did that because Vishal was travelling.

VB: And Shahid was also shooting.

AP: We cracked such a good trailer that we felt we should make the most of it. At that time, I remember, there was a trailer releasing every week, but we were confident. Moreover, Vishal was travelling a little later and we wanted Vishal and Shahid for the launch. So we launched the trailer on July 7. The trade asked us why we were launching the trailer so early and pointed out that we did not need such a long run-up for this film. But we went ahead anyway. We decided to go with our gut and the decision worked in our favour as the songs in the trailer picked up well with the audience.

BOI: Vishal, Amrita told us, you went to London to do the background score?

VB: I have been trying to do that all my life. By the time a film reaches post, the budget is over and going to London is expensive, you know. So, this time, I set aside a sum from the budget just like I did for the music. Since I am a music composer, I know budgets and I told my production guys I needed the money for my songs and that I would be doing those songs in the post. I didn’t tell them I needed it for background score because then they would have said ‘no’. So, I had to lie to my own production guy!

BOI: You knew the background score for this film was very important.

VB: It’s important for every film. I have been trying to achieve this kind of background score for a long time. It’s a special term called ‘quartet’, where you have four musicians, any four musicians.

Usually, in classic terms, a quartet comprises four strings, which could be two violins, one viola and one cello but one can include only four musicians. It’s a very old, classic form. Either you go with a harmony orchestra, like, an 80-piece orchestra, which many have done, like Dhoom 3 did a Philharmonic Orchestra. But, when I watched these films as a music composer, it did not stand out. I felt the key lay in the opposite direction. I wanted to go as minimalistic as possible and focus more on textures, which we have stopped doing because we need so much underlining in our music that we have started using a lot of rhythm, a lot of music and a lot of musicians. That’s why I took that other route.

I did the same thing with Maachis. In those days, the more violins you used in a song, the bigger your reputation as a composer. But I went in the opposite direction. We worked on textures. Like, in Haider, most of the time there is a voice humming, and that voice is of a Western singer. I told her I wanted it to sound like wind passing through bamboos, not a shrinking voice. That’s how we textured it.

In London, I could only afford one shift and one shift for them is only three hours long. But we hired possibly the best musicians in the world. They are super-expensive but the best. So I did only one three-hour shift in London and, during those three hours, we recorded 24 minutes of music. According to their calculations, one can record eight minutes of music in an hour. They are the best musicians, the London Symphony Orchestra. I believe these small things made a big difference to the songs of the film.

BOI: How did you conceptualise the Salman and Salman characters?

VB: Actually, we thought about it when we were working on Curfewed Night written by Basharat Peer, who has also written the film with me. In that book, there was a scene, which I wish I had used in the film but couldn’t. When Salman Khan’s film Tere Naam released, his hairstyle became famous all over India and he is one actor who has a huge fan following in Kashmir. Everyone in Kashmir adopted that hairstyle. In fact, there was this one militant who had this hairstyle too, so much so that people started calling him Tere Naam. He was a philanderer and used to loiter outside girls’ schools. In fact, he was killed because of this. That’s what attracted me… how much people there love Salman.

So in the original Hamlet, there are two characters called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, on whom I modelled the Salman and Salman characters. There was also a film called Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. It’s a very famous film and they are very famous characters. So the Salman-Salman character was inspired by that. Also, we are very big fans of Tintin. So, one day, one of my associates, Aditya (Nimbalkar), said, ‘Let’s base these characters on Thomson and Thompson from Tintin.’ So from Tere Naam to Tintin to Salman-Salman...

When I was being interviewed recently, I realised that all my films had these two characters in their sub-plots. In Makdee, there were two cops called Santa Banta, in Omkara, Saif (Ali Khan) and Deepak’s (Dobriyal) characters, in Maqbool, Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri’s characters.

BOI: The first half of the film is much shorter than the second half. Did you intentionally position the intermission that way?

VB: Irrfan’s entry was the interval point. Firstly, I was taking a huge liberty because the Hamlet play, from where it starts, that was my interval point. I did exactly the opposite; the ghost enters in the first half. We needed a point where people could be hooked. And length is a matter of perception, so even a 20-minute short film could seem 200 minutes long. Films like Titanic or The Wolf Of Wall Street didn’t seem three hours long.

BOI: Amrita, how involved was UTV in the making of this film?

AP: He made the film. We were involved in marketing it. We actually came in after he finished the film. We put it together and made the trailer along with him. We were all very proud of the film. We just made sure everything went well, like choosing the biggest weekend of the year. In fact, the promo hit the jackpot. We made sure the film reached out to the audience.

BOI: Vishal, most of your films are set in Uttar Pradesh. Were there any challenges in choosing Kashmir as the backdrop of Haider?

VB: It was very difficult. I had never been to Kashmir before I decided to make this film. So I went there in April last year, when there was a festival being celebrated. On the way to Pahalgam, there is a dargah where people go with mashaals at night. The mashaals burns all night long. Then, along with Basharat, I started meeting people and learning about their culture. That’s when I realised they speak words like ‘loved’, ‘checked’, with a unique accent. So many films have been based in Kashmir but no one has paid attention to those nuances. So I decided to do that. Since they speak Urdu, the half-vowel is missing. I had to literally go back in time with my writer.

BOI: Were there any compliments that touched your heart?

VB: There are so many, but one message from my very dear friend Piyush (Mishra) touched me most. He is a man who speaks from his heart and we go back a long way. He was there in Maqbool. So, when we meet at parties, he says, ‘Ban gaye tum log director aata jaata kuch nahi hai’. In fact, when I met him at Kangana’s (Ranaut) party, he asked me ‘what is my Hamlet about’ as he was also writing it for someone else. He asked me why I had announced Hamlet and I told him ‘because Tigmanshu Dhulia and Onir had announced a film based on Hamlet and I wanted to make it first’. I told him what my Hamlet was about and he gave me a few gaalis. I invited him to watch it for the special screening but he refused to come and said he would watch it at the cinema.

After he watched the film, he sent me a message, saying, ‘Teri itni lambi umar ho ke tu marne ko taras jaaye.’ He also said there was no need for me to reply to his message. Friendship is like that! Anurag (Kashyap) messaged me around 11 pm and said that Piyush bhai had sent this message, ‘Anurag Kashyap mujhe umeed nahi thi ke mere zinda rehete Hindustan mein aisi film ban sakti hai, ban gayi ab hume Vishal ka shukriya ada karna chahiye’. If I were to say something back to Piyush, he would vanish from my life for a year. But I told Anurag that I would message Piyush. Anurag said, ‘No don’t, because he won’t speak to me for a year too.’ So I received messages like this from fellow filmmakers. Rakeysh (Omprakash Mehra) sent me a very poetic message too, which I am embarrassed to share. I mean, I am trying to be very grounded and I am trying not to identify my film with the praise I have received.

BOI: Amrita, what kind of response is the studio receiving for promoting cinema like this?

AP: We genuinely feel proud and the fact that it is his film… The last time we felt like this was really long ago. Full credit to him. He is too humble. I could name six more filmmakers who said special things to him.

VB: (Cuts in) Yes, we can take their names… Anurag Basu and Hansal (Mehta)…

AP: He wrote an open letter to you.

VB: Yes, it gets so embarrassing…

AP: He is too modest. You know, for one of the screenings, he was not present and his phone was not reachable so people took his landline number to call him.

VB: I feel it is very embarrassing to stand outside after the trial show.

AP: He was never there and people were asking where he was. At the book launch, where we launched the three books – Haider, Omkara and Maqbool – it was very moving to watch the actors from the respective films talk about him so affectionately, just two days before the release of Haider. The respect they have for him is amazing.

BOI: Did you do any cinema visits to gauge the public’s response?

VB: We visited Delhi and Amrita and I were confused as the screening we saw here in Mumbai and the one in Delhi were 40 per cent different from each other. It was dull and murky and we couldn’t see anything. Even earlier, I’ve had people coming up to me and say, ‘Aap dark film banate ho’ and I realised what they meant later, that woh films dikhne mein dark hain, not the genre! I always felt that dark meant a tragic ending but when most people say ‘dark’, they mean they can’t see anything! So this time with Haider, I was very cautious and I told my DoP I had not written any night scenes. So I felt, this time, no one would be able to call my film ‘dark’. But when we saw the film at a screening in Delhi, the projection was very dark. We rushed to the projection room and the projectionist said it was due to the new equipment they had at PVR. The next day, the film looked fine. We also had one screening for the cast and crew a day before the release, and the same thing happened – it was dark. So in a state of panic, I wrote a long email to Ajay Bijli (Chairman and Managing Director, PVR Ltd).

The lab explained to me that it was not their fault. It was very sweet of Ajay to call his entire technical team at 7:30 in the morning, as the first shows were to start at 9 am, to the PVR ECX property. I went there too and we figured out the technical issue. The matter was sorted out in half an hour. The manager told me the 9 am show was house full. My associate editor, Aalaap (Majgavkar) and I thought mujhe khush karne ke liye jhooth bol raha hai yeh. Alaap took him aside and asked why he was fooling us. So the manager took out his chart and showed that only four seats were vacant. It was 8:15 am and by 8:30 am, this show would be house full for sure. I couldn’t believe my film was running house full, that too, the first day first show. I messaged Ajay later to tell him how sweet his staff was as they had solved the problem and later even got an audience for my film. (Laughs)

So that was my first and last visit. I was there for the 9 am show, which I saw for 15 to 20 minutes. Then I went to Cinemax and I saw the print there too and I was assured.

BOI: Many filmmakers have an interactive session with audiences after their film’s screening.

VB: This happens when a film works well at the box office as it feels good to have the audience reacting to it. I tried it once with a film I made and it is sometimes upsetting. If someone in the auditorium starts talking, you feel they should just watch the film. When Omkara released, I felt very bad when someone was talking during the screening. Mani Ratnam told me this that one should never go to a cinema hall to watch one’s own film. He said when a slow scene starts to roll, one feels like walking into the projection room and fast-forwarding the scene so that people don’t get bored!

BOI: What about interacting with the audience after the screening?

VB: It is too late to do anything about that. You can’t alter what you have already made. It is better to seek a reaction before the release so that you can at least change things they don’t like. Teer nikal gaya abhi who wapis toh nahi aa sakta.

BOI: Amrita, what response did you receive on Thursday?

AP: At around 8:30 am, I was woken up by Vishal’s call saying PVR ECX first show is house full. That was the first reaction I got. I kept calling our distribution guys and the morning shows were receiving a good response. We were prepared to start the day at a slower pace and gradually have it grow. But since Thursday was a holiday, the response was insane. We release around 20 films a year in languages other than Hindi, so we see a lot of different reactions. So, for us, the response to this film was incredible. We had theatre owners calling us and people calling us about the real reviews from the audience and their reactions.

BOI: Vishal, did you keep tabs on the film’s collections?

VB: When we started the film, I asked them to tell me the cost of the film. So no matter what the first-day numbers or reviews, we could still have a drink together and celebrate. So we worked backwards from there. That is the most important thing while making a film… it should be economically viable.

BOI: What is more satisfying, making a film or the appreciation it gets you?

VB: Anyone who says they don’t make films to be appreciated, they are lying. In any artistic medium, art wants to be appreciated. Otherwise, you wouldn’t enter the public domain. Artists like Van Gogh even cut off their ears for their work. So, we make films also to be appreciated and to show that you are more observant, more sensitive and more creative than others.


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