Box Office India (BOI): Why did you decide to produce and write this film?
Harry Sachdeva (HS): Every home in Delhi has a story relating to 1984. Some lost their loved ones, their homes and everything was destroyed. That happened once in 1947 and then in 1984. We grew up listening to stories of ‘84. Being Sikh, I remember my mother dressing up in a skirt and a small kurta and woh guth banake during those horrible four to five days.
Those haunting memories remained. We started meeting the people of 1984, those who were actively involved in the events of that time. There is a colony of 450 families, many of whom are widows living there. Everybody had a sad story of how it happened and what it led to.
While doing our research and meeting journalists and victims, we came across families who have chronicled their stories in diaries. I requested them for their notes and they agreed to let me read them. Close to the release of the film, we will reveal the identity of the real family (on whose story we have based the movie).
This story had a unique angle. A Sikh was killed almost every minute on the streets of Delhi. If non-Sikhs, like Hindus and Muslims had not given them shelter, the number would have been higher. There were people as shown in the film, who risked their lives, like Phulkaji and Kailashji, who saved three young girls by hiding them under the bed for four days. That’s the kind of risk people took to save the Sikhs.
I felt this story should be told on the big screen. In the last 31 years, I have not seen a film made on 31st October 1984. It’s been discussed all over the world and, still, justice has not been done in all this while. All people do is talk. We have no culprits, no prosecution and no punishment has been meted out.
BOI: Vir Das is known for comic roles. Why did you cast him in this film?
HS: It was a decision my director and I took as we wanted someone who could show the flipside of the story. We screen-tested him and also selected him for his commitment. He gained weight for this film and grew a beard. He has performed really well and I am so glad we took this decision.
BOI: How did Soha come on board?
HS: Soha looks like a real-life character. I have been a fan of hers since Rang De Basanti, which I have watched 40 to 50 times.
Soha Ali Khan (SK): What rubbish! No one has the time to watch a Hindi film 40 to 50 times.
HS: I have watched Baiju Bawra 150 times. My dad was very fond of it and we used to play the song, ‘Mohe bhool gaye sawariya’ on the tape recorder. When we like something, we love it to watch it again and again.
BOI: Soha, what was your reaction when you heard the script for the first time?
SK: When I heard that there was a story on this subject, I was interested because I was a History student and am a History buff. I also knew that mainstream cinema had not yet tackled the 1984 riots as a subject. I thought it would be a challenging film to make but I wanted to understand the script when I got to know that the writer and the producer were one and the same and someone from the Sikh community.
I wanted to understand the film’s message and whether the film had a personal agenda. I have a lot of friends who are Sikhs. Some of them may not feel good if we reopened their wounds after 32 years. So I wanted to be very sure about what I was getting into.
When I read the script and met the director, I realised the film was very positive. I think this film is very relevant in this polarised climate. It makes us realise who we are, that we are human beings first, and that we are Indians.
There are many points in Indian history where a particular community is targeted. It’s not about religion; it’s never about religion. It’s about a handful of people using a large number of people to achieve their own objectives. That’s what happened in 1984 and that’s what happens every single time. That’s why it is relevant to make this film today.
As Harry said, most of us know the bad things that happened during those three days but not many know how people put their families and lives at risk to save members of the Sikh community.
BOI: What did you like about the character?
SK: For me, it’s a big role. I feel a sense of responsibility with this film. I know a lot of things ride on my shoulders in terms of my performance. That’s always challenging for an actor. With Rang De Basanti, the film was not riding on me. There was a very able dream team of people behind the film. This is a smaller film with the same amount of heart. I wanted to be a part of this. Also, as an actor, you want to do something impactful through your work and you want people to remember you.
BOI: When you were penning the characters, did you use your own instincts since you belong to the Sikh community or did you just go with the story you already had?
HS: That wasn’t required as the story of that family had powerful highs and lows. Eventually, when you want to show a true story, you want it to be as authentic as possible. That’s the reason we chose an authentic location, which we couldn’t find in Delhi since it is so urban. So we chose a village called Ghungrana near Ludhiana. That village looks like Delhi in terms of houses, roads and vendors. A lot of research has gone into this film and we wanted to keep it very real.
BOI: Apart from the script, did you do any extra research of your own for this role?
SK: It is always important for everybody who does a film on a real life story or incident to know the context and the background thoroughly. I was familiar with it but I wanted to re-read and re-understand it, meet people who were affected by the riots. There are still many such people in India today. So, I had conversations with people and met members of the family that we are playing on the screen.
On the other hand, I didn’t want to over-prepare because what’s happening to the family on screen is a complete 24-to-36-hour story. There is a lot of bewilderment, confusion and lack of understanding about what is happening. Preparing wouldn’t have helped my performance. It wouldn’t have helped to know that Indra Gandhi had been assassinated, that her Sikh bodyguards were her killers and about the backlash that took place.
It was important to get the costumes and the look right. Visually, you have to be credible and, beyond that, it’s an emotional world, where you have to imagine how you would react if this had happened to you. So there isn’t any more prep you can do. You have to be in the moment and feel it.
BOI: You have written the script yourself. What made you choose another director and have someone else come on board?
HS: Honestly, I so wanted to direct this film but when you meet so many people and families, you get very emotional and I wanted someone who would be neutral. I was introduced to Shivaji (Patil) at the National Awards function ceremony. When I spoke to him about 1984 he didn’t know much about it. That was interesting because he could look at the subject from a fresh perspective and do justice to the film. That’s why I signed Shivaji.
BOI: Today, the audience has evolved and is accepting of different genres but, at the same time, our society has also moved in the opposite direction. Does that concern you in terms of how they might perceive your film?
SK: The audience and society are one and the same. People have an appetite for realistic films, biopics, something witty and unconventional, something that is not the typical hero-and-heroine romantic story. I have a lot of faith in our audience and consequently in our society.
I understand that a lot of them are very young. When they think ‘period film’, they are not interested in the costumes and drama. If it is an intense film, they say, ‘Arey, I want to watch something light and comical.’ At the end of the day, people like to be moved by cinema; they don’t want to laugh only. They don’t mind crying but the story needs to be real and something that they are able to connect with. I think they will like this film because it will be able to move them emotionally.
Whenever possible and switch off. I have done many films were my fiancé has died and lots of other people have died, so I am used to crying. I used to give myself so much to it. Sometimes it used to be a back shot and you realise all you can see is a wide shot and you are asking,lens kya lagaya hai? 100 lagaya hai? Achcha isme actually rona padega. Otherwise, you are mechanical and choreographed. These are tricks of the trade that you learn quickly to conserve your energy.
BOI: The promo of your film has released. Are you happy with your product?
HS: Yes, I definitely am. I am happy the audiences are reacting to it. Most of it is positive and it encourages you to make more movies like this.
BOI: What’s next for you?
HS: Again, a controversial story, one of the most hyped Indian cases. We have bought the rights to it recently and will reveal it as soon as we have our main lead.
BOI: Are you directing this film?
HS: Yes, I am.
BOI: What’s next for you, Soha?
SK: Again something controversial (Laughs) but I can’t tell you as it is too soon. Announcing a film should be left to the producer. I am reading two scripts and I like both of them. There is a long way to go. Also, Kunal and I started a production company called Renegate Films and we are also co-producing something which is in the real space, controversial space. I am neither directing, nor acting in it.
BOI: Soha, you are very selective about the films you do. We see you on screen far less. With Hindi cinema changing, are we going to see more of you?
SK: You can only choose from what is offered to you. I wish I was offered more good roles and films. I think once we open this production company, we will be able to generate some content but we don’t want to generate content for ourselves because I think that takes away the credibility of the project.
There are a couple of things I am interested in. One thing is feature films and the other is digital content, which I understand a lot of people are getting into. I am very apprehensive because this is just the first wave.
I think by the end of the first wave, we will realise who actually are the good players. I will have to wait and see but, certainly, there is a lot to do.