For his new Marathi film Vazandar, director Sachin Kundalkar has channelled his own body issues. Vazandar (Heavyweight) is a comedy about two best friends, played by Priya Bapat and Sai Tamhankar, who struggle with weight loss. They try to fit into socially accepted beauty standards and finally find their self-worth through a series of liberating adventures. Vazandar will be released on November 11 with English subtitles.
Kundalkar, a playwright, novelist and filmmaker, made his debut with the Marathi short film Out Of The Box in 2000. His first full-length feature was Restaurant in 2006, and he won the National Film Award in screenwriting for Gandha (2009). In 2012, Kundalkar reworked the first story in the multi-episode Gandha for his only Hindi film, Aiyyaa, starring Rani Mukerji and Prithviraj. The movie’s failure sent Kundalkar back to Marathi cinema, but he will return if he is allowed to follow his vision, he tells Scroll.in.
What is the genesis of ‘Vazandar’?
I am fat, so the film’s story actually began with me. It was born of the experiences of people making fun of me, then of myself making fun of me, then me trying to lose weight and then people trying to lose my weight. When I came to Mumbai, I realised how important it was to look good. That is a compulsion most big cities put on you. When we are looking in the mirror, we are always comparing ourselves to a film personality.
The main theme of the film is the standards of physical beauty created by glamour magazines. People outside big cities are a little innocent, they believe in the printed word. They believe in following the beauty regime of film stars.
The reasons for this film are the ways I dealt with my inferiority complex. I am fit. I can run, I can climb and it has nothing to do with my obesity. That’s a different issue. When I started making the film, it was a thought to look beyond fat. It is meant for people who are bald, who wear spectacles, who are dark and short, or even have a belly and are still able to look good. It has been years since someone told me that I look good. That’s why I made this film.
When I narrated my concept to my colleagues and friends, everyone connected with it. Vazandar is the slowest script I have written. I write the story, screenplay and dialogue, so for me the process is organic and I have gone over it again and again, taking my time to flesh it out.
What were the challenges in casting for the film?
Both my actors are the biggest and most spoken about in Marathi cinema right now. This is my second film with Priya Bapat. We worked in Happy Journey (2014). She will do anything for me because she trusts me. Sai Tamhankar is a mystery. She does eight to ten films a year. I still feel that her best is yet to come.
One day I called Sai for a script narration over coffee and before she came, I was rehearsing how to ask her, “Will you put on weight for my film?”, because I knew that the minute I asked that, she would leave. So when she came to the coffee shop, I spoke of everything except what I really wanted to ask her.
Eventually she got frustrated and asked, “What is it? Why are you not narrating the story?” How could I without knowing whether she would agree? Reluctantly, I asked her and she said yes. She is the most glamourous film star we have in Marathi cinema. She was brave to take on the role, was a thorough professional and she carried it off well.
In ‘Vazandar’ you have cast the actresses against type. How did they react?
I actually switched the roles they were expecting to be offered. Priya’s image in the industry is that of a good girl and Sai is known for being a fashionable person. So I did a role reversal, giving Priya the role of a glamourous girl and I made Sai a housewife. The only objection Sai had was, “Oh my god, one more role in a saree”. She said I would have to make another film with her where she can carry off couture outfits.
Hindi film heroines are too insecure to try out new things, except a few. This courage is there only in regional heroines, especially in Kerala and Maharashtra, where cinema is more mature in terms of storytelling. I am happy with the film because I could do it with these two actors. No A-list stars would put themselves through this.
You wanted to assist filmmaker Ashutosh Gowariker while you were still in school. Is that true?
Ashutosh Gowariker is a distant cousin. There are two reasons why I am making films. There is Yash ji [Chopra], of course, because I have spent my entire childhood watching Chandni (1989). I am a big, big fan of his films. When I went to study filmmaking at the Film and Television Institute and even to Paris, I told myself that I will not put Yash ji out of my mind.
When Ashutosh made Baazi (1995), I was in the tenth standard. I thought that he was a phone call away, so why not join him and learn filmmaking from him? I went to see him and he totally dashed my hopes. He said, “Go back, don’t come until you finish your graduation. You are 14 years old and you can’t be assisting me on the sets”. He is extremely protective and a thorough gentleman. He has been a constant source of inspiration and support for me throughout my journey as a filmmaker.
You wrote your first novel ‘Cobalt Blue’ at the age of 22. How did that happen?
I think stories come to me very easily. I don’t always have a form to begin with. I have done plays, short stories, film, and written a novel. I write for six hours everyday and decide the form later. Stories are flowing through me. It’s something I continue till today. When I was 21-22, the force was much more to keep writing. I was young and restless, so writing became my only occupation. The book Cobalt Blue was born out of my loneliness. I had just shifted to Mumbai from Pune. The loneliness in the book is autobiographical.
How did ‘Aiyyaa‘ come about?
Anurag Kashyap saw my Marathi film Gandha (2009) and loved the first story in the film and he said, “It’s so beautiful, will you remake it or will you let me do it in Hindi?” He pushed me to write the script and said he would produce it.
Was Rani Mukerji your first choice for the role of Meenakshi in ‘Aiyyaa’?
Absolutely. She was the first and only choice. There is a funny incident of how that happened. Anurag wanted to pitch the film to UTV Motion Pictures. He called me and asked me who I wanted for the main lead. I said the Rani in Yuva (2004), that’s the kind of girl I want. Then one day, he called me at 3am when I was fast asleep. He said, “Rani wants to meet you tomorrow”. I said, “Who, Ronnie?” [UTV head] “Get up idiot, Rani Mukerji wants to meet you”. I had to run immediately.
‘Aiyyaa’ was an unusual film with its mix of romance and whacky humour. Were you inspired by anything in particular?
Aiyaa was inspired from the book Alice in Wonderland. I am a big fan of Pedro Almodovar’s films. There are two films that have impacted me a lot. Wong Kar-wai’s In The Mood For Love and Almodovar’s All About My Mother. I wanted to bring the whole element of the Spanish madness of Almodovar’s films in Aiyaa, which reflected in Meenakshi’s crazy world.
I also decided to make the Hindi version more physical than the Marathi version where the story was about the subtle sensuality of the element of smell. In the Hindi version, I made the man an object of desire where the woman is choosing him for his smell. The idea was to take it from an emotional level to a physical level.
Did the failure of ‘Aiyyaa’ dissuade you from making another Hindi film?
The film did not work at the box office. It polarised audiences. They either loved it or hated it. I had no clue what happens when a film does not work. It was my first film and I was so free, so enthusiastic. My producer and actors supported me. Now I will be more careful.
I have realised that you have to impress the audience in three days. I am not cut to entertain North India. When I made Aiyaa, I was incapable of that thought.
Has the situation changed in the last few years?
After watching Kapoor & Sons, I feel there is a space being created for good cinema. More sensitive, more personal, no shouting, not garish, no muscle-flexing cinema will work now.
I am extremely keen to work on the digital platform. I want to create web series. This compulsion of pleasing theatre owners and audiences in the first three days tires me. If I am not able to prove myself from Friday to Monday, then I am out of the game. I would rather create something that will keep circulating on the internet. The platform also gives me the liberty to take risks with my subjects. I am very interested in making low-budget, sensible films in Hindi the way I make them in Marathi.
What are you writing next?
I love food. My first film was called Restaurant (2006). I wanted to become a chef. I am writing another food film right now. Vazandar is a food film but it is anti-food. The next one is a fatty food film.
Who would you like to pitch it to?
I somehow feel that Karan Johar can change this world. He changed this world once and he will do it again. He is the new Yash Chopra. He is producing some sensible films. I would love to pitch it to him.