After winning everybody’s hearts and two awards at Cannes, Masaan is all set to release in India next week. The excited team – director Neeraj Ghaywan and lead actors Richa Chadda, Shweta Tripathi and Vicky Kaushal – in conversation with team Box Office India
Box Office India (BOI): Richa, how did the journey of Masaan start for you?
Richa Chadda (RC): Namaste, my name is Richa Chadda and I came to Mumbai from Delhi to become an actress. My director Neeraj Ghaywan gave me this opportunity to be a part of this film. With us, we have Vicky (Kaushal) who marks his debut with the film and I believe his is the most promising debut of the year. I’ve fallen in love with him and the film because of him. Then we have Shweta (Tripathi), an award-winning actress from IFFLA (Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles) for another film Haramkhor, which will also release soon. Masaan is her debut because this film is releasing before that film. And we all get along very well.
NG: Well, it started around six to seven years ago, when I had a corporate job. I was travelling to work with a colleague and he told me about these ghats in Benaras where they cremate bodies. For them, it is routine and they do it throughout the day and throughout the night. It doesn’t stop. What fascinated me about this place was that only men are allowed there. How can a person endure so much and what must they be thinking while doing this? What kind of outlook towards the world does he have? How would they appreciate the quality of life?
These were the thoughts that came to my mind and I immediately constructed a short story around it. I told my colleague about the story and forgot about it but somewhere in my subconscious, the story haunted me and pushed me to make this film. So a year-and-a-half later I quit my job with Hindustan Times, where I was working as an online marketing professional. The passion for cinema grew and I really wanted to pursue film marketing but that didn’t happen. To cut a long story short, when I quit my job, I pursued the short story and turned it into a script. I wrote 20 to 30 pages and they were hideous. It was so bad that now I don’t even want to look at it.
Things started to shape up and get moving only after Varun Grover came on board. He wrote the film. During this time, I was also assisting Anurag Kashyap on Gangs Of Wasseypur. That was like a two-and-a-half year film school for me.
BOI: What were you doing in Gangs Of Wasseypur?
NG: I was an assistant.
RC: He kept tabs on the continuity.
NG: Yes, if you want to be precise.
RC: I know because he used to come and tell me before each take.
NG: Yes, it was great. I mean, for my first film, I got to do research and handle continuity and ended up being a part of post-production as well. So while working on the two parts of the film, I learnt a lot.
RC: Till three months ago, when Masaan was going to Cannes, Neeraj was working on the Making Of Gangs Of Wasseypur DVD Director’s Cut and calling us to dub till March as it was releasing in the US. So we all moved on but he didn’t.
NG: We were shooting Masaan and one day I had to work on Gangs Of Wasseypur. It feels like I will always be an AD for that film. During that time, I was also making a short film. The reason Varun came on board was because I give a lot of importance to realism and the characters because you know that such characters exist somewhere. The characters that these guys have portrayed in the film exist in some space and I wanted to be honest to them. Hence the research and detailing of the script. I was not familiar with Benaras as I had not lived there. I have lived in Hyderabad, Pune and Delhi. So I thought I shouldn’t get into it myself. Varun, although not from UP, has spent a lot of time in Benaras. Varun and I have a weird chemistry. He and I both come from an educated middle-class background and we are both engineers. So our value system is very similar, our worldview is the same and that made for a good collaboration. When he came on board, we set off to Benaras and stayed there for a month and a half. We had a story template but after we did our research, it changed the story as it brought a lot of perspective to the script. When we took our research and collated it with the story, Varun wrote the screenplay.
NG: Richa and Shweta were written in. For me, Richa represents an actor who is extremely intelligent and has a great sense of humour, which makes her so much easier to have a conversation with. She is very easy to talk to and throughout the film it has been like a co-creation with the actors. So the actor and I have both arrived at the character together. I had a huge thing about my actors getting the right approach to their characters, whether body language or linguistics. Hence Richa was always my first choice.
Shweta’s character Shalu Gupta, represents the ideal small-town beauty. In small towns, it is not a tall lanky model who is attractive; for them an angelic face is attractive. Small-town guys look at her and tell their friends, ‘Yeh teri bhabhi hai, iss se dur rahiyo.’ Also, women are a lot more perceptive and intelligent than the men are. That is how the characters have been written. Coming to Vicky’s character, he plays Deepak. He is the Dom family boy who goes to college and falls in love with Shalu. Now his casting was very interesting because he and I were assistants on Gangs Of Wasseypur. We became great friends too.
At that time, Rajkummar Rao was to play this character but the dates didn’t work out. And Vicky did one audition which was so good that I cannot forget it. It blew me away as it was such a contradiction to the memory I had of him, the assistant director I knew. Then, for a few years, he disappeared. We met again three years later, when I was doing the post- production of Wasseypur. I asked him. ‘When did you grow up so much?’ His character is the one who is extremely rooted and culturally someone had to be very sharp to play that part. He worked on the character and spent time on the ghats.
Sanjai Mishra’s part was to be played by Manoj Bajpayee. He somehow wanted to be part of the film but, again, there were date issues. Actually, there is a sequence in the film which had a huge Durga pooja set-up. Since we shot that sequence during real festival, we had to shoot during that month. So those dates were sacrosanct. Manoj Bajpayee didn’t happen so we asked Sanjai Mishraji, who was to play this other character. But when I met him, I spent an entire day with him, I narrated the entire story to him for almost four hours.
That day, he started speaking to me in Bhojpuri as he belongs to Benaras. He knew everything about the Benaras ghats. And he comes across as a very warm and affectionate father and is also extremely naughty. I could see my character in him and I knew he would be best suited to play this role. Then we have a scene where these small guys jump into the water and start collecting coins. We wanted someone who from there because Mumbai kids end up being irritatingly cute! Thankfully, we found that boy and we auditioned in Benaras. That was the casting process.
BOI: Individually, what was it about Masaan that attracted you guys to take up the film?
RC: I just had to do it. Ever since Neeraj started developing the story, he began discussing it to me. That’s how I knew when the final draft was ready and that he was struggling to find funding. And, mainly, the story is so strong that I had to do the film. It’s a very mature role; characters like that don’t come along very often.
RC: I was telling him that I used to feel very agitated and restless during the initial days of the shoot. I realised only later that my character and I had absolutely nothing in common. She (Devi, her character) is very introverted whereas I am outgoing and talkative. So while playing the character, I was initially very frustrated. Then, I realised that it was perhaps because my character had no output or life or any lines that I felt so agitated playing that role. I have just two pages of dialogue during the entire film.
NG: When you don’t have lines, it’s very challenging, and she did an outstanding job. You have to communicate through your silence and eyes.
RC: Yes, I had to detox from the film after I finished shooting. After the shoot, I went to Goa as it was a very difficult role to play. And while shooting, I did not understand why I felt the way I did. I was very confused because I would think, these people have been assistant directors on the sets of Gangs… they never irritated me then, so why are they irritating me now. Then I realised something… there comes a point in my character’s life – and I had the benefit of shooting chronologically so it’s there at the end in the film and even while shooting, it was filmed at the end – where there is a catharsis of sorts. After that, I was okay even in real life.
VK (Vicky Kaushal): Neeraj and I knew each other from Gangs… so we knew how we work, we knew each other’s sensibilities, also what kind of people we are and what kind of films we like. We also both come from the same school of cinema, that of Anurag Kashyap. So there was no question of saying yes or no to Neeraj. It was always about Masaan saying yes to me. I remember him calling me and discussing what was happening in his life. At the end of that conversation, he told me ‘Tu mera Deepak hai.’ It took me some time for it to sink in that he had finalised me for the film. But only once I was cast did I get to read the script.
ST: As soon as I got to know he was playing the lead, I called him up and realised he hadn’t read the script. I kept pushing him t finish reading it because when I read the script, I loved his part most.
VK: It was all about innocent love. But I was also worried because I had never seen that world, I had never met someone who worked in a shamshaan, I had no idea what their lives were like. I had never been to Benaras. So I was very nervous about whether I would be able to get into the character. Initially, you struggle to get a good film but when you are cast, that nervousness you keep wondering whether you will be able to do it not. But Neeraj stood by me and guided me throughout. We went to Benaras. I spent months there learning how people there behave and I also learnt the dialect. Then there were workshops which helped me get into the character. Once we started rolling, it was not difficult.
ST: Neeraj gave me a narration in his office and it was my character that made me say yes instantly. I fell in love with her. But while reading the script, I also fell in love with Devi’s character, which is played by Richa. All the characters have been sketched very beautifully and there is so much about them. you can deliver so much in just one single scene. So I said yes.
BOI: Were you jealous that Richa had a better role than you?
ST: But of course she would. She is senior to me and, besides, I don’t think anyone else could have played it better than she. She is a brilliant actress and I respect her. (Laughs)
RC: As actors, you always feel, ‘Arre, isko yeh karne mil gaya.’ Like Vicky has got this amazing scene in the film from where the entire story takes a turn. I am still jealous as to why his character and not mine got that scene. There is this scene where Shalu’s (Shweta Tripathi) character looks very pretty and I kept wondering why I don’t have any make-up in the film. So things like that keep running through every actor’s mind.
NG: We worked as a team and were all there to encourage each other. For instance, Vicky and Shweta were newcomers and during the workshops they developed good chemistry. It was like our first film and the cast and crew was like a family.
RC: Because we worked together in Gangs… this was my first big film. It was a big film for me, so I was very nervous and they all stood by me throughout. When I finished shooting for Gangs… I gave each one a ‘thank you’ note by giving them postcards. And I worked with the same family in Masaan.
ST: It was like a dream sequence for all of us. We were shocked, thrilled and excited. We didn’t know what was happening but we were very happy. When we got to know we had won an award, it took some time for the news to sink in. It was an amazing feeling. Those 10 days were outstanding.
RC: It was amazing the way we were received.
VK: After coming back, we didn’t know India mein kya ho raha hai, but here everyone was praising the film and it was trending on Twitter and everybody knew about it. There were people saying we did India proud. We didn’t expect it to be this huge.
NG: Hua yeh ki the standing ovation happened (after the screening at Cannes) and then everybody left, nobody thought of the awards.
RC: Hamne wahan tak socha hi nahi tha.
NG: So, everybody left and I stayed back because I wanted to watch some more films. I was the only one from the team who had stayed back.
RC: When we were boarding the flight back, Neeraj called me and he was, like, ‘Yahan pe mausam bahot acha hai and ye ho raha hai, woh ho raha hai…acha listen, we won an award. I was like, what!
VK: He always does that! That is how I got my part. I remember I was thinking, ‘Gayi film, kuch khabar nahin aayi hai.’ Then, after a week, he calls from Benaras and, for the first half hour, he talked about what was happening in Benaras. And I thought I had lost the film aur yeh toh bas as a dost call kar raha hai and then suddenly he tells me, ‘You are my Deepak.’
NG: Pehla award hua and these guys were at the airport.
ST: Suddenly, she was screaming and I was, like, what happened to her? Aur saare angrez dekh rahe hai.
NG: In fact, even I didn’t know about the award but my producer, Melita, she said if they have invited us for the ceremony, it might mean something. And, I was like, ‘You are kidding me!’ I went there and the first award we got was the FIPRESCI award, where critics from around the world pick up a film from each section. So from the UN Certain Regard section, they picked Masaan.
I was very surprised because there were 22 films in that section. So that happened and then I spoke about how after 26 years, a film from India was receiving this award. Then they called me for the cocktail party and, at the party, Melita said they were inviting us for the main event. I assumed that they generally call all directors for the main event. We went and the head of directors came up to us and said that I had bagged the Promising Future Award. It was my second award and I was thanking my entire team. The audience was laughing at me for having taken so many names.
ST: You should see that video.
VK: Agar Richa hoti toh definitely naam bhool jaati.
RC: No, no. I would have taken everybody’s name, even my spotboy’s.
VK: Kya naam tha?
BOI: Of course, it was a happy ending but you found it easy to make the film…
RC: Easy! Who said it was easy?
NG: It was a long process.
RC: Two years.
NG: Yeah, it was a long process to find financiers because Phantom is like my home company. Vikram (Vikramaditya Motwane) and Anurag were constantly telling me exactly what to do, like going to Sundance. So Sundance jaane se pehle any financier that I met couldn’t visualise the world I was seeing. They would say it’s interesting but there was that constant expression that one gets when you go to a financier. Phantom gave me some money and I shot a promotional video.
RC: We shot in Versova.
NG: Yes, and I made it look like the Ganga! Actually, what you see in the poster was shot at Versova. That video really helped me when we went to Sundance. They host a round table with 15-odd financiers and producers. So you do a 15-minute pitch and then move to another table. Everyone was excited and they gave me their card. Guneet (Monga) came with me and we pitched it together. Guneet and Anurag knew Melita, my producer and financer from France. So Guneet took the script to Melita and she took it to Cannes. Actually, Melita’s late husband was the most prolific producer in France. She wanted to start a company and she made this her first film. There, things were going very well but back in India, we weren’t getting anyone to finance the film. I mean, there was Phantom and Guneet was there to take it international but it was only when Manish Mundra came on board that things started moving.
Varun had narrated the script to him and he said yes in less than 24 hours. ‘Yes, no matter what, I am doing this film.’ That was a huge relief and then Melita and her partner Marie-Jeanne with Guneet took the film to this very huge and special fund where films from all over the world apply. There are these directors from Europe who decide which film to pick and they picked Masaan as their first film from 3,000 applications. So with six producers on board, we became quite big, I think.
RC: Love, they will give us love.
NG: I think from the day we were started, we were never pressured by expectations. We are very encouraged by the response. There is a popular perception of festival films being boring. But like The Lunchbox did, even this film will break all barriers. It will cut across all classes. Once, I actually called my driver, cook and 15 people from different walks of life and showed them Masaan. I told them to give me their feedback and I also told them they were free to walk out if they didn’t like it. They were so happy that they told me that I should make a sequel soon.
BOI: Will there be a Part 2?