The Hindi film industry ducked its share of bouncers in 2016: censorship, plagiarism charges, hand-wringing about over-budgeted and under-earning productions, and a final, late-year kick in the teeth in the form of demonetisation. Filmmakers clutched at sequels and sensationalism with mixed results, and only a few of the bets paid off.
We spoke to five filmmakers behind the most accomplished and interesting films of the year: Kapoor & Sons, Neerja, Nil Battey Sannata, Happy Bhaag Jayegi and Pink. Each of these films were deft dramas exploring characters living in real worlds and grappling with identifiable problems, and each of them carried an unmistakable directorial stamp.
Shakun Batra on Kapoor & Sons
Kapoor & Sons is an important step in the direction I would really want to go – towards things I want to do. And I feel I am getting closer and closer to my destination. The audience does not care for the cinematic ground that one covers, they do not measure those distances. I know I wanted to tell this story and am happy to have had solid collaborators to make it happen.
It is overwhelming to see people revisiting the film months after its release. They tell me it makes them feel good. All we wanted is to make an honest film and one that lingers long after you walk out of the theatre.
My films are a reflection of who I was when I wrote the stories. Ekk Main Aur Ekk Tu was me at 25 or 26. I was 30 when I wrote Kapoor & Sons. In a way I am glad I am not stuck on repeating myself.
The thing about a filmmaker’s journey is that you don’t know what you may hit upon when you are writing the film or shooting it. Some of these moments happened when Alia Bhatt talks about her parents’ death and the moment Fawad Khan catches his father in the other woman’s house. While writing, I knew how these were both pivotal to the story. But I was also keen to see how they would turn out and was happy when they resonated with audiences.
That and the final scene where the family gets Rajat Kapoor’s cut-out for the photograph was special. I knew it was important but was a little anxious and hoped it would turn out all right. Thankfully, it turned out to be exactly the way I had visualised it.
The fact that six months after their release, people are rediscovering our film, says a lot about what really touched the audiences in an era of junk food. The response to the film was incredible, but I have moved on.
Ram Madhvani on Neerja
Neerja is not my first film, Let’s Talk in 2002 was. But for all these years it would seem as though I was waiting to make Neerja, or it was waiting to happen to me. In between, I did try to work on a project with Vidhu Vinod Chopra. It was a sci-fi fantasy and Swanand Kirkire was writing the dialogue. But after two years, we realised it is not something we would like to pursue. And then Atul Kasbekar called to ask me if I was interested in making a film on Neerja Bhanot. I realised she was a close friend of a friend and one of my business partners had shot her last commercial before she boarded that doomed flight. We also discovered in the process that not only did we have common friends, we also liked the same kind of music. It was as if I knew her.
Il Postino [Michael Radford’s film about a postman discovering poetry with Chilean poet Pablo Neruda] is an important film for me, and an inspirational source for Neerja, especially in the way the former handles death and separation towards the end. The other point of reference is Neerja’s mother herself.
Before I met Neerja’s mother, Rama, I had imagined the film to be about a hijack. But after I met her, I realised it had to be the story of a mother and daughter. Being a father, what struck me was how a parent dealt with this kind of bereavement, how they coped with the loss of their child. I realised she had handled it with dignity.
We wrote the film after meeting her and she was with us right through till the end in spirit, encouraging us and blessing us. The way she had handled her deep personal loss was inspiring. She even gave us the voice recordings of Neerja practising her on-board announcement, which we used in the promotional campaign.
What I find so amazing was how people embraced the values that Neerja and her family represented. Some said they went back home and hugged their mothers. Others said they were inspired by the way she carried herself.
The way Neerja defeated death was how Rajesh Khanna’s characters used to be written. The writers always made him seem bigger than death, and that is how we wanted to tell this story.
I wish to be a part of popular culture – water cooler conversations. Two people travelling on a local train talking about Neerja, and what she had done – that is what I want to achieve and that was the intention of the film.
Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari on Nil Battey Sannata
Nil Battey Sannata was my first film after my years in advertising, and it has to be special. It was an important story that needed to reach audiences. It didn’t matter how I was going to tell it, but how it would travel.
What inspired me also was the girl child film I made for Kaun Banega Crorepati season 6. The engagement with the audience I enjoyed got me thinking that I need to tell more such stories. I knew I had to explore middle India, about people like you and me. My story had to be rooted in this reality, about someone you meet next door. Nothing surreal, not a makeshift world – which may be entertaining – but not what I want to say.
In advertising, you only meet people with a certain psychography but more than 80 per cent of the country belongs to the SEC B and B Plus categories. These are the people who need to get inspired by anything that can also make them laugh.
My twin kids were three years old when I decided to make the film. I have had women, girls coming up to me and saying that I may have set an example by coming out of my comfort zone. Nil Battey Sannata is also my way of saying that nothing is impossible. And saying it sweetly.
The biggest learning is that you have to dive into things, irrespective of the repercussions. My next film is a completely quirky slice-of-life feature set in a middle-class world. I cannot tell a story unless I relate to it, I can see it happening next door. I wish to do meaningful stuff while keeping people entertained at the same time.
Mudassar Aziz on Happy Bhaag Jayegi
As in any other business, failure does not have many friends. There are two ways to tackle that. You either start caving in and make something purely commercial, or you introspect and decide to do what is true and honest and find an audience – limited but your own kind. With Happy Bhaag Jayegi, I chose the latter.
I needed to make my voice heard as a filmmaker and Happy, being a sleeper hit, allowed me to be correctly appreciated.
My producer, Anand Rai, backed the script and after the film was released, said I had a penchant for a certain kind of humour that is not around. Could the film have done better? Perhaps. But the fact that it came between big-ticket releases such as A Flying Jatt and Mohenjo Daro and Rustom and yet managed to make an impact tells us that the purpose has been achieved.
On a personal level, it took me six years from Dulha Mil Gaya to attain the liberty to make what I want to make, earn my licence to work with who I want. And it is important to me as a filmmaker to have earned that right.
I was working on a different script – a poet’s biopic – in Punjab when I got to know about the ridiculous things that happen at the Wagah border every day. Some guy’s cow strays into the other country and the army gets involved.
For 70 years, films about India and Pakistan have followed two very strong lines. Those like JP Dutta have beaten the hell out of Pakistan, or Raj Kapoor and Yash Chopra set their tragic love stories in this world of conflict. As neighbours, India and Pakistan have survived the harshest of times, but we do not realise that on either side of the border we are quite alike.
In the West, Canadian immigrants and Mexicans have long inspired Hollywood films. Happy is exactly that – it is about a character who strays into a neighbouring country and goes through what any ordinary person would experience. It is not as if you walk in and are gunned down.
We wanted to avoid caricatures, typical situations and emotions, but wanted to leave the audiences with pleasant thoughts. The character Bilal is a regular guy. He may be a politician’s son, but he is also powerless till a point. Unlike, say, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, who is infused with tremendous heroism and is very well done at that, Bilal cannot step out of his character. His political clout only works to let the cops release Happy, but not beyond that. There is no heroic rescue, but just what normal people would go through while accidentally crossing borders.
I was fortunate that Happy was released just before some very unfortunate incidents between India and Pakistan. Too much bonhomie between the countries would not be acceptable, and I would not want a purely fictional film to bear the brunt of nationalistic sentiments.
Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury on Pink
All my films have had an underlying message of women’s empowerment. Anuraran, Antaheen and Aparajita Tumi had strong women in various stages of relationships.
The idea of Pink was born while shooting Aparajita Tumi, which was set in San Fransisco, and produced by Shoojit Sircar. This was some time in 2011, and in 2012, the Nirbhaya incident [the 2012 Delhi gang-rape] happened. It was at that time that Shoojit and I decided to set our film in Delhi, though it could actually have been set anywhere. I had worked in Delhi in the 1990s and I was familiar with the environment. I knew what women had to go through every day. And it bothered me a lot.
The fact that Pink would become much bigger than how it was conceived to be was a revelation. All we knew is that it would be a small-budget, honest film. For us, Pink was not just a script or a story, but something very close to our hearts. It is about something we, as men, saw every day and felt extremely disgusted about. We knew what was happening to the victims, and we wanted the world to know that as men, we felt very strongly about this. The film was a reflection of that outburst and that emotion was very strong while we were filming it as well.
I have been making successful and critically acclaimed films in Bengali for a while now. And I understood the potential and power of collaborations while working on Pink. Not just in India – globally too, some of the biggest and finest films are collaborative projects. Pink was about the right people coming together at the right time with the right intent and holding hands to make a small film seem so much bigger. Pink is 100 per cent my film, as it is Shoojit’s. We have known each other for a long time and we have very similar energy, attitude and creative vision.