Sriram Raghavan and Pooja Ladha Surti have been partners in crime since his movie debut Ek Hasina Thi in 2004. Raghavan and Surti wrote the screenplay together, and since then, they have collaborated formally and informally on Johnny Gaddaar (2007), Agent Vinod and his latest movie Badlapur.

Film is the most industrial of all the arts, requiring both an assembly line and a hierarchy to keep the dream factory running smoothly. Several filmmakers have built lasting professional alliances that contribute significantly to their cinematic vision. Nearly all of Ingmar Bergman’s films were shot by Sven Nykvist; Satyajit Ray worked only with editor Dulal Dutta and mostly with production designer Bansi Chandragupta; Thelma Schoonmaker has edited all but three of Martin Scorsese’s features, just as Roger Deakins has shot most of the Coen brothers’ movies. Hindi cinema has seen fruitful collaborations between writers (such as Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar) and music composers (Shankar-Jaikishan, Laxmikant Pyarelal, Jatin-Lalit).

Raghavan and Surti are big fans of the conventions of the crime genre, such as its crisp dialogue, characters trapped in situations, and flexible morality. Over the years, they have worked out a rhythm to overcome differences and disagreements and play to their respective strengths. In a conversation with ahead of the February 20 release of Badlapur, the collaborators take apart the movies they have worked on and shed light on their filmmaking process.

Ek Hasina Thi and the discovery of a working rhythm
In Ek Hasina Thi, Urmila Matondkar’s character is set up by Saif Ali Khan into committing a crime. She is sentenced to prison, from where she escapes and takes her revenge. Produced by Ram Gopal Varma, Ek Hasina Thi showcased Khan’s acting talent and set up Raghavan as a filmmaker to look out for. Until then, he had directed the telefilm Raman Raghav and worked on such TV shows as Aahat and CID.

Ladha Surti: In 2001, I was working as a producer with the television channel NDTV. I had met RGV [Ram Gopal Varma] for a story and he asked me to look at a script. Within a few minutes, he said, why don’t you write something? I had no idea how to write a screenplay, so I wrote whatever came in my head. He said the movie would star Urmila, and I thought he would be directing it.

Sriram came in one day. He was supposed to be doing Shool for RGV, but he was threatening to walk out of the project. RGV thought he was crazy. When Sriram came on board, I thought he would tell me my writing was good, but instead he said, let’s start from the first page. We had a basic draft, but it got reworked in many ways. Sriram said the opening was too verbose, it was a lot of text, and asked what he was going to shoot.

Raghavan: RGV had watched Raman Raghav and he wanted me to make a film for him. He offered me Shool, which Anurag Kashyap was originally supposed to do. I was working on the television series Aahat at the time. Anurag didn’t end up doing the film.

I thought some parts of Shool were good, but I said I needed a month’s work on it. RGV looked at me like I was a fool, and that was the end of Shool. He called me only after two years. There was a proposed biopic on [controversial Mumbai encounter cop] Daya Pawar, called Daya. Ramu [Varma] was editing Company at the time. He wanted Nana Patekar, but I felt that Anil Kapoor would be more interesting. I did some work on the film, which eventually became Ab Tak Chappan, but for some reason, it got delayed. When RGV told me, my face fell. He must have thought that I was feeling very bad. I was then given this novella [Pooja’s screenplay].

There were two or three things I liked – the story was set in a prison for women, for example. But it also meandered and there was no second half. I was also trying to avoid the love story angle, which was too regular. Ramu had great inputs. He gave the pace to the love story. He had a collaborator’s approach.

Ladha Surti: I remember Ramu saying that Raman Raghav surprised me each time, and I hope Ek Hasina Thi surprises me too.

We were hearing stories of another RGV production that he was supposed to have been ghost directing. Sriram said, “If Ramu comes on our set and says ‘roll camera’, I will lie down on the studio floor and roll out of there. Thankfully, that never happened. RGV was phenomenal. He trusted Sriram entirely.

Raghavan: Because Pooja had written the story and used to be on the sets a lot, I asked her to work with me. We discovered common elements, such as Hindi movies and songs. Sanjib Datta was editing Ek Hasina Thi. Pooja used to comment on the material since she had written it. She knew which were the proper shots and the ng ones [not good i.e. unusable]. I found that remarkable.

We did have arguments, of course. We would sometimes be at each other’s throats. But we would eventually get the scene. The movie came out of something that could not have possible alone.

Ladha Surti: That used to zap me about Sriram. Every single person who was literate would be asked to contribute an idea. Ramu used to joke that if we had tried to make Sholay, it would never have happened.

Johnny Gaddaar, two heads rather than one
The next collaboration was Johnny Gaddaar in 2007. Surti earned her first credit as editor and also served as associate director. A gang of smugglers led by Dharmendra is asked to transport a large consignment of cash by Govind Namdeo’s corrupt cop. Vikram (Neil Nitin Mukesh), who is having an affair with his partner’s wife Mini (Rimi Sen), gets greedy and double-crosses his partners. Johnny Gaddaar performed respectably in cinemas and boosted Raghavan’s reputation as an avid pupil of American film noir. Surti co-wrote and edited the film. The voice that hums “Mora Gora Aang Lai Le” in the sequence in which Sheshadri dies is also Surti’s.

Raghavan: I was originally supposed to make Johnny Gaddaar in 1995 for the television channel BiTV. The bulk of our good scenes came from sitting in this or that room and chatting about them. Are you sure, are you sure? We would ask a third person this question, and that’s how we wrote the film.

Ladha Surti: I was terrified about editing the movie. Sriram told me that if Ramu had taken a chance on him, he could take a chance on me too.

Raghavan: It was Ramu who taught me economy. The precision in dialogue came from his best work. There were Salim and Javed of course, but they were a bit bombastic. I remember in Ek Hasina Thi, the judge originally reads out the sentence against Urmila and says “Saat saal qaid-e-bamashakat” (seven years rigorous imprisonment) and Ramu said, fuck these lines, cross them out!

We write in Hindi in the Roman script. Pooja’s Hindi is better than mine. I know the precision of what I want, I know what is working and isn’t. A lot of it comes from spitballing. Sometimes, some of our best stuff comes out of a shoot.

Ladha Surti: We initially tried working with dialogue writers, but we were aghast with that they came up with.

Raghavan: One poor chap kept working and working but it wasn’t happening. Then he came to see me, gave me a copy of Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi, and left.

Ladha Surti: Whenever we are stuck, we call [writer and lyricist] Jaideep Sahni.

Raghavan: Sometimes, CK Muraleedharan [the cinematographer of Ek Hasina Thi, Johnny Gaddaar and Agent Vinod] contributes dialogue. He has a mad sense of humour.

I usually take Pooja’s word [opinion]. When I am shooting scenes, I like her to be on the sets. It gives me another head and takes the pressure off the shoot.

Ladha Surti: I go on almost every shoot. I sit at the monitor. When Dharamji [Dharmendra] finished a shot during Johnny Gaddaar, Sriram called out for me. Dharamji commented, “Abhi tak toh kuch bola nahin hai, ek aur kar lete hain.” (He hasn’t said anything so far, but let’s do another shot anyway.)

Raghavan: When I am doing an emotional scene or a lovemaking scene, I tend to minimalise or cut too close to the bone. Pooja will keep saying, let’s keep this or that expression, it’s nice. Sometimes, she also talks to the actors, although there can be contradictions at times.

Ladha Surti: I am fortunate to have this space, where your director says it’s perfectly okay to interact with the actors.

Raghavan: The more we get to know each other, the more we fight.

Ladha Surti: Nowadays, it is a little less polite.

As far as the writing is concerned, I give myself no points. I will go with him in the direction he suggests. I get emotional about the edits. I say, either you trust me or this is not going to work out. That said, there is little to argue about with Sriram. My only contention is that sometimes, Sriram will write heart-on-the-sleeve characters that express themselves freely, but then he will find ways to hold them back. He is also phenomenal about the way he paints himself into a corner and then works his way out of it.

Raghavan: Out of fights, lots of good ideas emerge. There is the scene in Johnny Gaddaar in which Dharmendra drops Shiva’s character to the station. I was very excited with shooting on the train, I was thinking of doing it on the lines of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Un Flic. Pooja said some of the shots were shaky, and I remember telling her that an editor should never complain about the nature of the material. From there came the idea that we should randomly cut between the various shots for effect.

Agent Vinod, the spy whom nobody loved
In 2012 Raghavan collaborated with Arijit Biswas for a spy thriller that was a tribute to previous entries in the genres. In Agent Vinod, Saif Ali Khan plays the dapper spook who crosses borders and the paths of various criminals in his endeavour to save India from a nuclear bomb. He is helped by a Pakistani spy (Kareena Kapoor). The movie got middling to poor reviews, especially for its length, and made no dent on the box office.

Raghavan: Agent Vinod was too baggy. The audience never cracked it. I don’t know what overconfidence or idiocy I possessed at the time. We packed in too much. The movie was edited and shot over a period, and when the whole thing came together, we hardly had any time to watch it. At the rough cut phase, people gave us feedback about the scale, but I could not figure out what was happening. A month before the release, I still had three days of shooting left!

Dinesh [Vijan, producer of Agent Vinod and Badlapur] said I should perhaps involve another editor. Pooja was definitely upset. She and I had other arguments. For instance, she recommended killing off Kareena Kapoor’s character earlier. But I forgot that instinctive approach. When I finally saw the movie, I realised that it was exhausting. I knew there many things were not working out, but there were 20 things that were good too.

Ladha Surti: We have had these awful moments when I have said to Sriram, I don’t work with you again – especially during Agent Vinod. I remember saying, please fire me, and better luck in getting a better editor than me! Sriram, of course, never says such things.

Agent Vinod was very long and unwieldy. My own impression is that we had good intentions, and in trying to do fulfil them, we bit off more than we could chew. I had a two hour and 44 minute cut, and the suggested replacement editor made it two hours and 42 minutes. I said, WTF.

I personally didn’t care for the action. Agent Vinod had things that Sriram would not normally put into a movie. I found the opening action sequence to be crummy but my kid loves it, and I am happy he does.

Raghavan: It’s the kind of movie that the viewer cannot understand but also cannot forgive – it’s like taking people to a buffet and not allowing them leave. Agent Vinod was a great learning experience for me. I decided that henceforth, I would never do an action scene that I could not help design in some way.

Badlapur, revenge and getting the balance right
Raghavan’s latest movie Badlapur is adapted from a story by Italian writer Massimo Carlotto. Raghu (Varun Dhawan), a middle-class professional whose wife and son are accidentally killed during a bank robbery, goes after one of the robbers, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who he believes pulled the trigger on his wife. Surti edited  the vendetta thriller, which Raghavan co-wrote with Agent Vinod contributor Arijit Biswas.

Raghavan: I was reading a lot after Agent Vinod. I read a story by Massimo Carlotto, told Pooja and Arijit about what I had read about so far and asked them to tell me what they now thought would happen.

By the time I finished the story, I felt odd. A neighbour came over, she writes for television and …

Ladha Surti: [interrupting] Arijit and I have a joke that all of us are Sriram script whores.

Raghavan: So I told the neighbour about the story and she said, this is what you have to work on next.

Ladha Surti: Nothing had been exciting him in terms of stories and suddenly, he was involved with this particular one. I felt that it was an extremely emotional story, and the tragedy is also absolutely rivetting.

Raghavan: Lots of people we shared the story with said they didn’t like it, that it was too dark. They asked, why are you making another potential flop?

I like cinema that is rooted in a certain kind of reality, stories of people in stylised situations.

Dinesh told me, if you promise not to dilute the movie, go ahead and make it.

Ladha Surti: I like stories that are intimate, where there are details about what happens to a character. I don’t watch as many films as Sriram, but I do read a lot. I remember sharing ideas with Sriram during Ek Hasina Thi and he would say, it has been done before. It took me a while to understand what he was saying. Sriram is constantly watching movies, not to pick up anything, but to see how people tell stories in a certain way.

I am terrified of showing him my first cut. On one level, I want him up jump up and down and say, this is so good, but he will only tell me what is not working. I don’t take it to heart any more. I genuinely feel that this is a teacher-student kind of space. I am not saying this to pay lip service – it is clear in my head that he knows a whole lot more than I do. But there are places where I will dig my heels in and say, I want this as far as the emotional graph goes.

Raghavan: I don’t think there is any teacher-student thing – it’s collaborative. Badlapur was a 100 minutes at the story stage, and now it’s two hours and nine minutes or so. When Pooja said the first half is only this much, I thought to myself the first time, what the hell has she done!

Then there were things that working that I didn’t think would work, such as the lengthy stay on shots. I know it sounds like we are fighting, but when you have certain thoughts, you tend to go into different zones. The thing is that I know she has the right movie in her head.

Could we make films without each other? It will be tough.

Ladha Surti: I have also edited other projects, such as Ragini MMS, and Darr @ The Mall, and I am working on Yash Raj Films’ Bank-Chor. Working with another person isn’t the same thing. On outside projects, I need to adjust to a lot of things that I take for granted with Sriram. Editing his movies is not about putting random shots – so much thought has gone into the shooting that I know where we are going with it at the time of the edit. I think Sriram will make terrific films with whoever he makes them with.