Filmmaker and writer Harish Vyas noticed something about middle-class couples while growing up in Delhi: husbands and wives would maintain some distance from each other while sitting on a scooter.
“It is an unofficial couples’ protocol,” Vyas told Scroll.in. “In Delhi especially, when couples step outside their houses, they know they are under the watchful eyes of their neighbours. Even when my wife and I would get ready to leave on our scooter, we’d sit a little apart, completely conscious of our posture and stance. It should never be too close, you know.”
The distance, which underscores the belief that “expressing less is always better or appropriate”, drives Vyas’s upcoming film Angrezi Mein Kehte Hain. The May 18 release stars Sanjay Mishra and Ekavali Khanna as a couple in Varanasi who are trying to rekindle their relationship after 20-odd years of marriage.
Kiran (Khanna) longs for her husband Yashwant (Mishra) to be more expressive. Yashwant’s definition of a marriage is a relationship in which a man goes out to work and a woman looks after the house. Kiran’s attempts to bridge the two compartments are met with ignorance and indifference. “Thoda alag ho,” (Sit a little away) Yashwant tells Kiran when she sits close to him on the scooter.
Their daughter (Shivani Raghuvanshi) reprimands her father. Yashwant decides to learn how to express himself by uttering the three words that Kiran longs to hear.
A fine arts teacher by training, Vyas moved from Delhi to Mumbai in 2006 to pursue a career in filmmaking. He began by writing the script of and assisting director Dilip Sood on the horror film Chhodon Na Yaar (2007). He was the associate director of Delhii Heights (2007) and Masti Express (2011), the production associate of Not Today (2013), the script writer of Bhaangarh (2013) and the director of the romantic comedy Proper Patola (2014).
“It has been a long period of struggle,” Vyas said. “I’ve written horror stories and romantic comedies and what not – when you are trying to make a career, you have to take up what you get because one has to earn a living. It is after years that this film has happened. Writing stories can be likened to building a structure sometimes. You gather the materials and then begin building. But there are other instances, when a story is born on its own.”
It was at a dinner with married friends where Vyas got the idea for Angrezi Mein Kehte Hain. One of Vyas’s friends was narrating anecdotes about how he met his future wife, fell in love and got married. “He remembered dramatic moments from the time they were dating – the time when he hid when his wife’s brother suddenly came in front of them and so on,” Vyas recalled. “I realised that I didn’t recall such moments in my marriage. Ours was an arranged marriage. It is true that all marriages end up settling into a lull after a period of time, but those who first date and then get married usually have had a chance to write letters, give flowers to each other. These are important and special moments. I realised that these are moments that one actually creates. They don’t just happen. And it is never too late to create them in your relationship.”
Vyas began writing the script and realised that his lead character had to have been married for a while. “Hindi films often end when a couple gets married,” Vyas said. “My film begins nearly 20 years after that marriage.”
He borrowed from personal experiences, both from his own life as well as from people he knew. “My father worked at the postal service and I thought it would be interesting to make Yashwant a clerk at the post office,” Vyas said. “I had heard many of my relatives and aunts tell me how it has been ages since they’ve gone for a movie or gone out to eat a meal with their husbands. In a sense, this is a story of all marriages. I think I am a little like Yashwant. I’m not as rude as him but most men of my generation struggle to express their feelings. It is particularly evident in middle class families. There is an immense struggle to just say I love you.”
Women, he argued are also raised to not have too many expectations. “Women are often told that okay, you’ve got a husband now. You make food for him and take care of him. That’s your life. It is not that women who are homebound and have slipped into these roles of devoted wives do not love their husbands. There is love there too. But yes, many women are raised to be confined to the domestic space.”
Sanjay Mishra was perfect for Yashwant’s role, the director said. “I didn’t want an already-established hero,” Vyas said. “The hero emerges from the narrative. The story is about a man becoming a hero in the eyes of his wife. Mishra has this wonderful ability to portray characters that are both serious as well as have that sense of comic timing. He is an incredible actor and human being. I was clear that when Yashwant begins to learn how to express himself, the audience should not be laughing at him but they should empathise with his anguish and his earnestness to save his marriage. And Mishra got that perfectly.”
A friend suggested that Vyas should audition Ekavali Khanna (Memories in March, Kaun Kitne Paani Mein) for the role of Yashwant’s wife. “Kiran is educated and comes from a good family, she carries herself well,” Vya said. “When I first met Ekavali, I felt she suited the character perfectly. She is also a wonderful actor.” The film also stars Pankaj Tripathi, who has a pivotal role to play in Yashwant’s transformation.
Angrezi Mein Kehte Hain has been produced by National Film Development Corporation, Drumroll Pictures and Shiny Entertainment Production. The movie was originally titled Nayi Dilli Ki Purani Galli, and was set in the city that Vyas knows best. His co-producer suggested that they shoot elsewhere, and it was Mishra who finally took the crew to Varanasi. “I’m convinced that Mishra’s soul is in Varanasi while his body lives in Bombay,” Vyas said. “When he goes there, he just becomes one with the city. Maybe it is a general attribute of Varanasi. The city has a very distinct vibration. Having witnessed the cycle of life and death on a regular basis, the city seems like it has attained ultimate knowledge and enlightenment.”
Vyas decided to change the title to Angrezi Mein Kehte Hain because it “sounds commercial” and at the same time relates well to his story. Angrezi Mein Kehte Hain is also the title of a popular song from the Amitabh Bachchan starrer Khud-Daar (1982). “This film, on many levels, is a universal story about the value of expressing oneself, it is a story of every home,” he explained. “And whether you are a Bengali or Marathi-speaking or Hindi speaking, when it comes to saying you love someone, one always ends up with the three English words. Ask anyone.”