Hindi films tend to sugar-coat everything
Shakun Batra, director of Kapoor & Sons, opens up on why his film has hit all the right notes, even with a fixed budget and imperfect characters.
Box Office India (BOI): Congratulations on the success of Kapoor & Sons. Were you expecting this kind of response?
Shakun Batra (SB): When we started making this film, we wanted to make sure that the budget would allow us to recover our costs. Since we thought it would be tough to recover the costs, we kept it really safe. And now, it feels great to see that it has turned out to be a commercially successful film. It also means that I can continue to make films the way I want to make them. I no longer have to think ki agli picture mein Chikni chameli daalna padega. (Laughs)
The kind of messages I am getting is overwhelming. I go to sleep with great messages; I wake up to great messages. It’s amazing and that’s a lovely feeling. Every day, I talk to Sidharth (Malhotra), Alia (Bhatt), Fawad (Khan) and Karan (Johar) and we are all getting some really nice reverts. The audience is reacting positively to the film and they are getting emotional. I have received many messages and calls from industry people and the man I have always looked up to, Javed (Akhtar) saab, called me and said he was very touched. He said, ‘It is so good to see people coming back to making movies to express themselves, to emotionally connect with people.’ Somewhere, we had become very formulaic, so that call meant a lot to me.
BOI: Kapoor & Sons is not a typical Dharma Productions film. Was it difficult to convince Karan Johar?
SB: No, not at all. Karan is very open, as a producer. He is always looking for opportunities and fresh ideas. I don’t think there are a sufficient number of people who take material like this to him. We kind of assume that hatke picture hai toh Phantom bhejh dete hain. Karan is very receptive to ideas and is very progressive in his thinking. When I discussed the film with him, he told me, ‘Honestly, this is a niche film so let’s just make sure we are tight with its budget. We can’t indulge with a film like this, we will have to keep it tight.’ I always wanted to make it on a budget that would keep us safe. So he was very supportive of the idea and backed me in a way no one else would have. I feel like I am a part of Dharma Productions. I have been there for six years and have become part of the family.
BOI: In the film, each character is carrying emotional baggage. While scripting, what was the inspiration for this?
SB: That’s exactly what I wanted to do. The idea was that most of these people have something they carry deep down, I call it the ‘unpeeled onion narrative’. What you see in the beginning is just the tip of the iceberg; you start to understand these people only gradually. It’s not that someone is out to achieve something. Little Miss Sunshine, for instance, is a film where they have to go somewhere and get something. Instead, this is a film about revelations. You reveal things slowly and that’s the beauty of it. So what you think of these characters in the beginning and what you think of them at the end are two different things because you have finally understood them. How you see Ratna’s (Pathak Shah) character and what you realise about the character, or how you see Fawad’s character and what you realise in the end is very different. So the journey and the graph is in understanding people more deeply. So if I meet you again and again, I will get to know you more. Similarly, I wanted the audience to not be sure of who these people are in the beginning of the film. For instance, you think Fawad is very elegant but when the book scenario unfolds, you think, arey yeh toh chor hai. Then you are, like, book bhi nahi churayi, arey yeh toh gay nikla! The idea is for you to not be sure of who these people are.
For Rajat’s (Kapoor) character, you think, ‘kya yeh pura din ghar pe baitha rahta hain, paise bhi nahi kamata.’ Then, you are like, ‘Oh iski girlfriend hai! Arey kya kar raha hai yeh!’ Then you feel for him. So the idea is to make you think, in the beginning, that they are like this but then maybe they are more than this. This is how I always wanted the story to come across. Each of them is hiding something, except for Sidharth, who is merely hiding the fact that he is a bartender.
BOI: Talking about the gay angle… you have shown it in a very subtle way and you have not used the word ‘gay’ or ‘boyfriend’. Was that deliberate?
SB: Yes, I didn’t want to. I have always hated how gay characters are portrayed as stereotypes and they are there just for fun. So it was very important to break that image and to make you believe that this person is exactly like you and then say ‘he happens to be gay’ so that you accept it.
Gay characters are always semi-written in the movies. I remember watching the movie The Wedding Banquet, where even though they are gay, they are very respectable characters. I wanted to make sure that all these characters have dignity, even though they are flawed, even though they have all made mistakes, and are hiding something.
To maintain their dignity, it was very important to avoid using the word ‘gay’. I didn’t want anybody in the audience to be like ‘Arey yeh kya gay nikla’ woh waise bhi bolne wale hain. Then why should we say it again? And I didn’t want to use shock value. You know, like, ‘Arrey dekha gay nikal gaya… dekha kya ho gaya.’ I was adamant I didn’t want to do that. In fact, I wanted to present it in such a way that if you miss it, so be it. It was not meant for you. Then, you would have to watch the movie a second time.
BOI: Fawad Khan was not your first choice for the role. Are you happy that the other actors you had approached turned down the part?
SB: Very happy. Karan and I were talking about this… that I was sitting at home with the script, wondering who would play this character. Now I tell Karan that if I had to go back in time and someone had told me I would have to wait a year to get Fawad Khan, then I would have waited because it was worth it. We have seen Fawad in Khoobsurat and a few shows, he brings so much freshness to the screen that you believe him as a person. I like that. I like how real it feels.
BOI: Speaking of Fawad’s character… why do you think people were reluctant to play that part?
SB: That is their personal choice and I can’t answer on their behalf. But I think we are so used to playing the ‘hero’ that when you question who the hero really is, a little fear creeps in. When you read the script of this film, you will realise that no one is the hero. I mean, even Ratna is the hero, Rishi Kapoor is the hero, Sidharth is the hero, Alia is the hero, Fawad is a hero and Rajat is also the hero. Everyone is a hero. I think only Zoya’s (Akhtar) films are the kind where everyone can be a hero. When you read it like that, it can be confusing when you have other scripts, where you are playing a solo hero. That’s how I think; I cannot answer for anyone else. I must say that the actor who had to play this part had to do it with total conviction. He had to absolutely sure about what he had to do.
BOI: What about the other characters? What did the other actors bring to each of their respective parts?
SB: I think everyone brought themselves to the character they played, which is amazing. You need to own these characters. These characters are so flawed at some level that they cannot be essayed by people who think these are flawed characters. You have to play the part feeling ‘I’m right’. Otherwise you will never get it right. It was essential that these actors were mature enough to not judge these characters. You accept these characters. We have all been flawed and we have all made mistakes. We don’t go around saying, ‘Yaar mere se bahut badi galti ho gayi hai.’ Rather, you cover up your faults and blame them on other people. These characters are like that.
BOI: Tell us about the Mandakini angle.
SB: When I was writing this, I kept wondering what I should give Rishi Kapoor… yeh buddhe ko kya doon? Everybody else had something or the other; he is in hospital. And while writing some of the funny scenes, it turned out the way it did. I didn’t overthink it. I just wrote it to be funny and I then I wrote that they would gift him a Mandakini cutout as a birthday gift because I thought it would be funny. In hindsight, one may ask, ‘What I was thinking? But I didn’t think anything… I just wrote it that let’s give him Mandakini.
BOI: You mentioned a tight budget a couple of times. With all the creative and commercial constraints, how do you walk that line?
SB: I have never found the word ‘compromise’ too big. I think the idea is to know your priorities. Karan and I would say, ‘Okay, this is the film, this seems like a decent budget depending on how we spend it, how we prioritise and how we go with it.’ My last film was shot in 78 days and Kapoor & Sons in 58 days. Also, this film was shot mainly inside that one house. Actually, 70 per cent of the film was shot between Alia’s house, the Kapoor house and the hospital. So we realised we didn’t need much in terms of locations. In the hospital too, we used just one room and one or two establising shots. When you consider things like that, you can allocate your money smartly.
BOI: The trade tends to judge a director by the size of the budget he demands. Do you want to do a big-budget film now?
SB: No, actually after Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu everyone was like, ‘Okay, now that we have made this love story, let’s make a bigger love story next, let’s do something else!’ And in my head, I was, like, ‘What are these guys talking about? I don’t want to make big film, I want to make a film which is big in depth, big in characters, big in story.’ I think a director should be weighed according to the intent and what he is trying to achieve. All my favourite directors, while growing up, were those who didn’t make big-budget films, Woody Allen has never made big films like (Martin) Scorsese or (Steven) Spielberg. Hrishikesh Mukherjee saab has never made a big film. They all made content-oriented films but wouldn’t you call them great directors? It’s just a different kind of storytelling; it’s not theatrical, it’s cinematic. It was while watching Woody Allen films that I realised that I enjoyed watching a climax that unfolds in a living room as opposed to a car chase. I find action very tiring, kitni mehnat karni padti hai and even after that, if the movie is sh** it is like, ‘Oh my God, I blocked the highway, got 15 trucks, blew up a few cars, slogged in the heat.’ After all that, if someone says he has seen all that before, what do you do? I don’t know, I found myself enjoying people, they could be in a room, in a bathroom or in a kitchen. I enjoy people and I enjoy their conversations.
BOI: After Kapoor & Sons, no actor can make you wait.
SB: How do you know?! Kaise ho sakta hai yeh? Kabhi nahin ho sakta hai. I don’t believe in these things, I think anything can happen. I just hope they won’t make me wait for a year, that would be too much.
I also hope I don’t make myself wait very long. I hope I don’t take too long to write my next script.