5 years after Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd, Reema Kagti is back with the much awaited Talaash. Reema Kagti speaks to Sayan Bhattacharya just before the release of Talaash.
Since you are 2 films old now, from a quirky romance to a suspense drama… what should one expect from a Reema Kagti film?
Well, I hope you can always expect a good story, whatever genre it maybe. Like these 2 films are generically different films but the difference wasn’t conscious. For me, it’s really the story that I kind of fall in love with and that takes me wherever, while I am writing the screenplay.
So what kind of materials draws you most?
Again… I mean it’s hard to say but I do get a lot of ideas from the newspaper. Real life, you know… like the next one I am writing is based on a polygamist. The genesis of the idea was a small newspaper report I read, not that the film will be based on him. Talaash came from something Zoya said to me. It’s based on something that happened to her. Honemoon started with the superhero story. I had written that as a short story. Then I started weaving the real characters around the superhero couple and made it into a feature script. So it’s hard to say from where you get inspired, you know…
In a promotional, you said that Talaash is based on an urban legend, what do you mean?
Urban legend would mean mysterious rumours that are passed on, not really factual stuff but a friend of a friend heard a story… that kind of a zone. Again, since it’s a suspense drama, I don’t want to shoot myself in the foot and give you more details!
Tell me about the music, especially because it’s in a suspense film.
The music is by Ram Sampath and he did the background score as well. We tried to approach the soundtrack as something organic to the film we were making. You must have heard the tracks. We tried to write them into the screenplay.
As in they take the story forward?
Yes. Yes…So if I chopped off the songs, you would miss something.
There have been a lot of stories on the film being postponed?
Originally we had planned to release the film on 1st June but sometime in February, we took a call that it was cutting it too fine. Honestly, I finished working on the film only a few days back. So the way I look at it, we took the time we needed.
So it wasn’t about Satyameva Jayate (Aamir Khan’s TV series)?
See, there were a series of reasons. I needed some time out because of a personal loss. I lost my dad in the middle of the shoot. Then we started shooting and the underwater scenes did not work and we had to take it to London which took time. Originally, we had planned to complete the shoot in July but the shoot continued in bits till November. The edit was difficult to crack; it took more time than I had anticipated. Then there was a fire at Aamir’s set. I won’t say he delayed it but when you work with people, then there different timelines and they are constantly changing and then you have to adjust for everybody.
In terms of locations, you went to London only for the underwater sequence?
Yeah, we went to London only for the underwater sequence. We went to the Pinewood Underwater Stage, which, I don’t know if you know, is like an institution of filmmaking; all the Bond films, all the Batman films… till date it is the biggest studio in England. And yeah, for me it was really wonderful to be there. On the first day, I remember, not only me but the entire crew were clicking pictures against any Pinewood board they could find (laughs). For people involved with cinema, it’s like a hallowed space.
And there was an incident with Rani Mukherjee getting really scared. What was that?
It was a sequence we were shooting out in the lake. She got into the water, I will have to be fair to her, she was very brave. But I think it was sort of temporarily chickening out when she actually saw the lake. All three of them need to swim in the film. Kareena had swum before. But Aamir and Rani learnt to swim forTalaash. Aamir, being Aamir, did it very diligently and I was taken aback. I was there in the morning, he came and put on his gear, literally jumped into the lake and swam out with his safety crew. Rani then comes and tells me that she has been practising diligently and is an wonderful swimmer. And as we are closer, she goes like, “You know, I am really good at floating”… and by the time we get to the lake, she is like, “I can’t even float” (laughs). I think that after that temporary panic… also the action guys were verygood, they are used to working with actors who are not comfortable in water, have just picked up swimming. So, they were very good with her and she also kind of got used to it and went on to perform the scene excellently well. She was very comfortable.
Tell me something about your growing up years in Assam and cinema, the way it shaped you…
I was always a film buff and I grew up in the 80s; which was, I think, the worst period for the Hindi film industry. My parents never really watched that many Hindi films as such. My Dad never did. My Mum sometimes did. I got sent with the nanny or the cook or mali. I was always fascinated with films. Writing came to me a little more naturally, by the time I was 7 or 8, I was writing short stories for myself, and plays. I remember when I was in class IX, I bunked school and went and watched a film that was watched Salaam Bombay, and it was the first time I remember consciously saying to myself that I think I want to make films.
What kind of books you grew up reading?
The thing is I was a precocious child. I remember being slapped by my Dad… I was 8 or 9 years old and I was trying to read Kramer versus Kramer and there were also other adult novels that Dad asked me not to look at. You know like Sidney Sheldon and all those, they are kind of OK, but one or two pages in the middle could be really raunchy (laughs). So I was told to stay away from all of these. But honestly, by the time I was 10 or 11, I had covered almost the entire pulp circuit in my parents’ library. I love reading and it comes to me really naturally. I prefer fiction.
You have worked as an AD with Kaizad Gustad, Ashutosh Guwarikar and Mira Nair. Tell me some experiences of working as an AD with them.
My AD career spanned over 8 years, I started off with Rajat Kapoor, then I did Kaizad Gustad’s filmBombay Boys, I worked with Farhan, I have worked with Mira, I worked with Honey Irani; Farhan and Zoya’s mother. She did a film called Armaan… Working as an AD is a very hectic job, you know. It’s like being a chicken with its head cut off. You are just running around the set. But it does give you a very good vantage point into the filmmaking process. Since I did not have any film school education, it really helped me in the sense that I got familiar with the process. When you are an AD, the crew knows you, you know them, the actors know you, in that sense definitely helped me move towards direction. You can’t just come in and direct, it’s a bit intense. So, you do need some kind of training. I look at my AD years as my training period.
And was it a conscious effort to work from one set to another?
When I joined about 8-10 years ago, things were very very different. The industry wasn’t the place it is today. With the multiplexes, the market changing. People still don’t know what the reach is, it is still changing. With each film, nameless crores have been crossed. You know… the market has been widening and deepening in a way nobody could have imagined. So, for me, the focus was always on finding interesting projects. When I joined, traditionally ADs would join a director and remain his slave for the next how many ever years. Also you know sync sound was coming in the country at that point, that fascinated me, I wanted to learn how to films like that. Then I went into projects where the script was interesting, or I felt nice to be a part of that project, I chose my projects as an AD in a way that I would learn from them.
Going back to your Assam days, did you complete your schooling from Assam?
No, I went to boarding school. I was in Loreto, Shillong till class 6 and then I went to Delhi Public School, R.K.Puram, I did my class 10 there, and then I moved to Mumbai. It wasn’t really a career decision, in Delhi, I would have been in school, in Mumbai it was junior college. So, I wanted to move out of school and joined Sophia College and also went on to do my graduation from there. At that point of time, I started speaking to my parents about wanting to do films, my Dad was horrified. He was disappointed. He felt that I had a lot of promise and I was going to a way, irrelevant. But whatever, I really wanted to do this and kind of stuck on, he insisted that I should get some formal training in filmmaking as that would help me, so thanks to him, I kept applying to FTI for about 3 years, never got in (laughs). In the meantime, I did do a media course from Sophia Polytechnic called the Social Communication Media course. I think that course was really good for me, because it encapsulated in a year, all that was out there and gave me some kind of perspective, which was important.
How did your father react to Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd.?
He liked it, he really did. I think he started coming around… I remember taking to him to watch Lagaan, and he was really grumpy. I was like “C’mon, you have to go, I have worked on the film.” And similarly with Dil Chahta Hai, so, then when he realised that I was not going to do those 80s sort of films (laughs), when he saw that there was something here that I was trying to do, he came around. He was happy. I lost him in the middle of Talaash, but he was happy.
Tell me something about your favourite filmmakers and films?
I am a film buff, and I watch films from all over the world. Give me any well-made film, and I would love to watch it. I don’t enjoy horror and gore, I don’t enjoy love stories that are just about a guy getting a girl or a girl getting a guy with absolutely no layers. That kind of film really bores me, but apart from that, I will watch any well-made film.
Any filmmaker you look up to?
There are tonnes actually. Currently in India, these are really exciting times. There are several people’s works that I like. I love Anurag Kashyap’s works, I think Dibakar Banerjee is really talented, Zoya Akhtar is very talented. I like Farhan too, I like Vishal Bharadwaj’s works too. Again Scorsese, there are bunch of these Hollywood directors, then there are these art house Hollywood directors I like, Gus Van Sant, Harmony Korine, then the whole Iranian movement, which is fascinating. Then there are these really interesting films coming out of South-East Asia.
Experience of partnering Zoya Akhtar, considering the fact that both of you are filmmakers?
Well, Zoya and me, we co-write. This process of writing together for us is very organic. We met when we were both ADs, we became friends and this is something we used to do in our free time. First film we worked on together was Bombay Boys, and that is when we became friends. There were a lot of common grounds and writing was one of them. In our free time for fun, we used to bounce ideas which we could develop into story ideas and script ideas. So, now I feel very fortunate to be paid to do what I was doing with my friend for fun, back then. That is how the writing with Zoya came along.
When you say that a filmmaker has to be androgynous (at a session at Thinkfest), it is a very interesting comment…
Your perspective is a very different perspective as a filmmaker.
So does art transcend gender?
For me, at the base, art is human activity. It’s one of the few things that we do which is not survival related. You know what I am saying, right? It’s something we do as a race, creating something that really sets us apart from animals. Even in my films, I have a very humanist approach. In my thinking also, I don’t think I would call myself a feminist. It’s not that I don’t have my sympathies with the feminist cause and my empathies with the feminist cause. See, the place that I come from, the Hindi film industry; which is traditionally as it is, the point of the matter is that even from a space like that, there are three female directors – me, Zoya and Anusha on a panel (a session with the 3 directors at Thinkfest). Please don’t forget that we have come from that Hindi film industry. I do believe that art does go beyond cultural borders and human borders, gender.
But doesn’t your social conditioning, your history seep into your work?
Of course, it does. That’s the personal element. But what I am saying is that there’s no rule in the book saying that just because I am a woman making a film, it won’t misogynist, or if a man is making the film, it will be misogynist. What we are looking for here are sensible and good people, people who will justify their worth; people who will work hard and put up a good effort. I often get asked if I consciously choose to work with women. No. I choose to work with who I feel is the best person for the job. Doesn’t matter to me whether they are man or woman, what religion, what caste, creed… no. The only thing I care about is ‘Can you do your job?’ It’s as simple as that.
Considering the crisis that Assam went through this year, do you ever see yourself making a film on the political crisis in Assam and the Northeastern crisis?
Crisis in Assam hasn’t been so only for the last year, it’s been there from the 70s; from the time of my birth. Yes, I do feel very very drawn towards the North East, that is where I am from, that’s my home, that is where my roots are. I would love to do something professionally too, come up with a story from Assam. Right now, there is nothing on the cards, but I would love to.
Have you seen India’s Oscar entry for this year?
No, I have not seen this year’s Oscar entry from India, but on the net I did see Barfi’s…
The plagiarism attacks?
Yeah. I really don’t know what to say about that. If you ask me, it’s a bit of a slap on the face of critics. I think it is shocking that not even a single critic picked up on this. And having said that, let me make myself clear, I have met Anurag Basu and I think he is a great guy. And I have nothing against him. I think he is doing anything that many others in the Hindi film industry are not doing. People are, in fact, picking up entire films. Two years ago, I don’t want to take names, they didn’t even bother to change the name of the film. The original and the plagiarised remake have the same name. So, coming from a situation like that, I am not saying this gentleman is a plagiarist. If you compare his films to a lot of other films, you will probably find much more originality in Barfi. Again I am saying that hypothetically. I haven’t seen the film, but from what I have picked up on the net, it’s a bit shocking that no one really picked up on it.
The reviews were glowing…
Your reviews can be glowing, but you have to mention the déjà vu effect. I think the fact that the reviewers and critics didn’t mention it was not that they let it go, but rather an oversight. I don’t think anybody saw it. I think critics have a very important role to play in explaining art or whatever medium they are handling to the public. But again, looking at film critics in India and film journalism in India, nobody is focusing on the real issues, it’s very sensationalist and comes from a complete non-understanding of how filmmaking works.