In Leena Yadav’s Rajma Chawal, Delhi resident Raj Mathur (Rishi Kapoor) wants to gets closer to his son Kabir (Anirudh Tanwar), but he isn’t sure how to go about it. The generation gap hasn’t been more evident, and the family’s move to a house in the crowded lanes of Chandni Chowk – a move that Kabir detests – only seems to widen the chasm. “Why don’t you try chatting with him online?” Mathur’s mother suggests. So Mathur creates a fake online profile in the hope that social media will build bridges between father and son.
“Most father-son films, in one way or another, are about a communication gap,” Leena Yadav told Scroll.in. “Rajma Chawal too is about this gap, but it takes it to another level with social media coming into it. The film also has a strong love story apart from the father-son story.” The Hindi-language film, which also stars Amyra Dastur, Nirmal Rishi, Aparshakti Khurana and Harish Khanna, will be streamed on Netflix on November 30.
Rishi Kapoor was the one who suggested the film’s title. “There’s a scene in the film in which the kid is asked about who eats rajma chawal with a spoon,” Yadav said. “It is a comment on the generation gap. The entire film is about the two generations accepting each other. At the end of my script’s narration, Kapoor said, yaar, iss film ka naam rajma chawal rakhna chahiye.” Yadav felt the title worked well too since the dish is “timeless in the emotion that it arouses in each of us”.
This is Yadav’s fourth feature. A film editor by training, she made her directorial debut with Shabd in 2005. Starring Sanjay Dutt and Aishwarya Rai, Shabd tells the story of a failed author who loses his sanity in trying to prove himself. Yadav’s second film was Teen Patti (2010), about a genius mathematician (Amitabh Bachchan) who goes all out to prove his theory of probability. Her most recent work was Parched (2015), a female empowerment drama set in rural Rajasthan.
“I always ensure that each project that I’m working on is different from the previous,” Yadav said. “I don’t want to ever build a comfort zone. I get drawn to stories which have some kind of conflict to overcome. And these stories have to have complexities and greys. I like imperfections, whether in relationships or in people – and finding the beauty within those imperfections.”
Rajma Chawal was meant to be a launchpad for Anirudh Tanwar, whom Yadav has known for nearly 15 years. Trained as a commercial pilot, Tanwar studied acting at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in New York City. “I didn’t audition him myself,” Yadav said. “I sent him to the casting director. When I finally saw the tapes, I realised this young man knew what he was doing.”
Yadav found a good platform for Tanwar’s launch in a concept by screen writer Vivek Anchalia, about a father trying to get back in touch with his son through social media. “I found the idea so relevant because I had some amazing experiences with my own father learning about the internet and Facebook and trying to be in touch with us through that,” Yadav said. “I thought it was so topical. And almost everybody who got attached to this project also had had similar experiences. The idea kept growing with every person who came in.”
Yadav shares the writing credits for Rajma Chawal with Anchalia and Manu Rishi Chadha, who has also written the dialogue. Writing her own screenplays is important for Yadav. “When you write the script, it gives you more power over the subject,” she said. “When you’re on set and you want to improvise or change something, you know as a writer what exactly it’ll do to or take away from the film. It makes you feel much more equipped. Even after I do my location scout, I rewrite the script sometimes. A location brings so much to the script – the chemistry, whose room is where. Writing and directing are an integrated process.”
On a film set, Yadav is writer, director and editor all rolled into one. “The director in me is very much the editor,” Yadav said. “I plan my shots according to the edit, and a lot of times people panic that I don’t do enough coverage but I know that I’ve got what I wanted. So, all these three roles are actually always alive and feeding each other.”
Why did she choose to release the film through Netflix instead of theatres? “Netflix showed an interest in the film but that aside, we were looking for distributors,” Yadav said. “I also thought Netflix will be a perfect platform for a film like this, which is about accessing technology in an interesting way. Also, as producers, we would never be able to reach 130 million viewers in 190 countries.”
At first, Yadav wasn’t entirely thrilled that her film wasn’t going the traditional distribution route. “I was, like, oh my god, my film won’t be in the theatres,” she said. “But then I spoke to everyone in my office – all 20-year-olds – and all of them voted for Netflix. They were, like, that is the coolest thing that can happen to the film.”
Rajma Chawal showed Yadav that filmmaking could be a “chilled-out” process, rather than stressful. “I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much or relaxed so much while making a film,” she said.
The family comedy was screened at the BFI London Film Festival in October before being shown at the Mumbai Film Festival the same month. “After the screening [in London], there were so many 40-year-old men who came up to me and said they really wanted to call up their fathers and that the film had made them cry,” Yadav said. “I thought that was a huge compliment.”
Is it then a favourite among her four films so far? “It’s always the last one which is the closest to you,” Yadav said. “But to be honest, in terms of expression, Parched was very special. It was a difficult film, and difficult children are always the closest to your heart. It was a difficult film to put together financially as well, but it brought some of the most beautiful people into our lives. I worked with such amazing technicians and learnt so much. I got to express something without any filters in that film.”