Fashion photographer Atul Kasbekar, the man behind the glamourous Kingfisher calendar, turned producer with the award-winning Neerja in 2016. The biographical account of Pan Am air hostess Neerja Bhanot, who died while helping save the lives of passengers during a terror attack on board a flight to Karachi in 1986, was produced along with Fox Star Studios and released to wide acclaim. Kasbekar and his company Ellipses Entertainment are back with Tumhari Sulu, directed by Suresh Triveni and starring Vidya Balan as a housewife who becomes the host of a late-night radio show. The film stars stage actor Manav Kaul as her husband, who tries to keep up with his unstoppable wife.
In a conversation with Scroll.in, Kasbekar talks about how he is still incredulous about the success of his maiden production even as he is incredibly confident about his next.
After the success of ‘Neerja’, you had a problem of plenty, with at least eight scripts to choose from. Why did you settle for ‘Tumhari Sulu’?
There was a whole bunch of scripts in the pipeline. Some had been commissioned to writers by us [Ellipsis, his production outfit co-founded by former Balaji CEO Tanuj Garg], some we were in the process of acquiring. We had to put a stop to all of that.
If one had to write about how Neerja happened, it would tick all the boxes of the energies of the cosmos. I could not have written a better script. But the industry is in a flux. No one knows what works. When a film fails, the numbers are cataclysmic. It is not funny how badly it affects everyone when a film dies.
The two words that keep coming up are: honest and fresh. The two things that work for the audience. When we look at a script, we ask ourselves, does it get into a new space altogether?
With Neerja, when we were only on to the seventh page, we were on board. Because no one had done a film on hijacking yet.
With Tumhari Sulu, we are looking into the world of Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Basu Chatterjee, Dibakar Banerjee. It’s a gentle, urban, well-written slice of life film, as opposed to spoofs or a loud modern-day homage to this genre of filmmaking. The director, Suresh Triveni, pitched the film to Vidya Balan, who called us and told us that there is a script we might want to take up. We were completely sold on the script.
Vidya Balan’s fans have been starved of a film and a script that does justice to her talent. Do you think this film could be the one that will put her back to where she belongs?
I am going out on a limb even before the movie releases and saying that this is one of her most nuanced performances yet. She is unbelievably good. If you are a Vidya Balan fan or love cinema in general, you cannot be happier.
Hrishikesh Mukherje’s films resonate because of his casting and the honest recreation of a middle-class milieu. Does ‘Tumhari Sulu’ have similar touches?
Even in Neerja, people appreciated the honest portrayal of a middle class home. It was a place where people would have grown up. In most films, we get to see a more glamourised version of this universe. I have had an exceptional production designer, Dhara Jain, whom Suresh trusts implicitly and other HoDs [heads of department] who were given the script and allowed to follow their instincts. We treat everyone from DoPs [directors of photography] to set designers as artists in their own rights, hoping that they are as inspired by the idea as we are. We wanted people to work with us because they are passionate about the film and believe that it will look good on their CV. And that passion shows.
For casting, we got Nandini Shrikent, one of the most prolific casting directors, who got on board immediately and sourced most of the actors, expect Mallishka and Neha Dhupia, who were my suggestions.
Casting Manav Kaul opposite Vidya was the master stroke. After the trailer released, a friend from Versova called up to say, listen it was a gamble to get Manav to do this role. I said, we never thought of it this way. When Manav came for the auditions, he was really good. We never for moment thought it was a risk. The chemistry that the two of them share is unreal. And also quite real.
You speak often of how at Ellipsis, the focus is on writers and scripts rather than stars. How does that work out?
Who are we that a Fox Star would pick up Neerja? We went in the capacity of first-time producers and they liked what we presented. But despite being greenhorns, the time and effort and money spent at the writing level was so good that it made for a compelling pitch. So much so, the script was all they needed to back a new outfit.
We do not discuss stars or directors but focus on getting the script in place first. When we reach version three of the script, that is when we discuss the director and the actor. Working backwards this way makes complete sense for us.
At a time when the mightiest product houses and biggest of films are floundering, do you think your approach will work?
We would like put up an altar to Rajkumar Hirani and light a lamp every day or showing us the way. He is our hero. None of his films are preachy but have a subliminal message in somewhere. Big studios have been wiped out because there are directors who just want to make a fantastic film that no one goes to watch. But Raju’s films have also done commercially well.
After Neerja was released, I met a secretary to a top star who had until then been a little cold. He shook my hand and said, “I wanted to meet you because some of us were wondering who is this c**** – pardon my French – who makes a film on a budget of Rs 16 cores about a girl who dies in the end, with no song and dance.” So yes, that gives me the confidence that what we are doing, and with a lot of passion, is likely to work.