Kahaani 2: Durga Rani Singh has the critics’ nod but business has been lukewarm. What matters to you more?
Both are important. The audience verdict is indicative of the money it will earn, which is crucial to any business. But I also revere reviews because I am from a country where I grew up being told that I need to score a good rank. Critics are my progress report. They tell me if I have become better at storytelling. They don’t always say good things, but that’s okay.
According to reports, the sequel to Kahaani was a different film. Then you changed your mind.
I was initially planning a film called Durga Rani Singh, but then Vidya (Balan) and I had a fallout. Meanwhile, I had a germ of an idea that I had been working on for a long time, even when she and I were not talking. When it came together, I bounced the story off her. We knew that if anything can be called Kahaani 2, then this was it.
It would have been easier for me to take Vidya Bagchi’s story forward and bring Bob Biswas back, which I still can. But Vidya (Balan) and I wanted to tell this story. Even if people don’t do anything about it, we felt we needed to point it out. I have come across so many stories. My mother is a psychiatrist and wife is a counsellor, and they say it’s an everyday horror.
Child sexual abuse is a sensitive topic and you have dealt with it well. Did you seek your mother and wife’s help?
I read and researched extensively. And that’s where my respect for Vidya goes up. What would take me a week to wrap my head around, she could portray on screen so effectively. But the scariest part about working on a subject like this is that it makes you question yourself. I have kids. And now I realise how careful one has to be with them because a child’s mind is absorbing everything in an innocent way. That stare Inderjeet Singh (Arjun Rampal) gives to the guy who drives his daughter to school every day reflects my fears.
What draws you to women-centric stories?
I don’t believe in women-centric stories. I believe in stories — they could be male- or female-centric.
Then why was Kahaani 2 a temptation?
Initially, it was so because of the success of Kahaani. It could have been a money spinner had I immediately put together Kahaani 2. But that’s not the right reason to make a film; it’s important to want to tell a story. The search was for good content for the Kahaani brand. We did want to use the brand because, then, people will come see the film. The one downside is the inevitable comparison between the two films. But that’s okay, we signed up for it.
Your cops are always attractive.
They should be, why not? And it’s the uniform that adds to it. I like the police, they do a lot for the society; it’s a thankless job.
Inderjeet and Durga share an interesting history but you don’t dwell on it. Why?
This story doesn’t demand another layer. And I personally believe that any film can have only one selfless act. If everyone starts doing selfless acts, the line blurs as to who is the protagonist.
In Kahaani, you use flashbacks to tell a story, which eventually prove to be misleading. Whereas in Kahaani 2, you have not used any devices to pump up the thrill or suspense.
The flashbacks in Kahaani aren’t fake, it’s the narrator who is lying. That’s the whole idea of Kahaani — it’s a story within a story. And I never did cheat; Kahaani’s trailer says that the truth lies in the story. But I didn’t want to use devices in Kahaani 2 as it would take away from the story. I cannot make a film to better Kahaani; it’s the wrong reason to make a film. Unless I make Kahaani 3, where I take Vidya Bagchi’s story forward. There’s no point in doing a film for a twist. People follow the characters’ journeys. If the audience didn’t invest in Vidya Bagchi, it didn’t matter if she took a stomach out or a leg or if she is a man in disguise.
Kahaani 2 has a fair bit of loopholes that you cover up with the pacey narrative .
That was intended. You have to take certain leaps of faith in such a film. Like, how did that trip from Kalimpong to Kolkata happen? Or how does an imposter take the call when Vidya dials the nurse? Nobody stops to ask these questions. To me, as a filmmaker, I draw a line of logic with a view to take liberties. So I set up things around those scenes so people don’t think at the time. How did the file get infected? Because now I have Goopi. The scene of the call is preceded by the one where she checks out that street and the kite in the night. At that time, you don’t know what’s on her mind. Could she be part of the plan? The accident distracts the viewer further. As the storyteller, I have to keep you thinking.
In the inevitable comparison between the two killers-for-hire, Bob Biswas and the lady cop, the latter looks weak.
My co-writer Suresh Nair and I had a long discussion about this. The comparison was inevitable but we needed someone like her (played by Gargi Bhardwaj). Given the kind of character Jugal Hansraj is, he needs external help to execute the dark, horrible deeds because it’s not in his DNA to do that. Whereas Bob Biswas is a character I wanted to create. The brief I gave myself was that he would be hard to spot and he does a regular job, but doesn’t earn enough. He takes up contracts to kill to supplement his income so he can meet the demands at home. That’s why he apologises when he shoots the guy he wasn’t supposed to. The rest of the credit for Bob goes to actor Saswata Chatterjee, who created the potbelly and the hairless look. My DoP Satyajit Pande contributed with his suggestion that we shoot Bob only among people, never alone. Bob has exactly six minutes on screen but the impact is mind-blowing.
Jugal Hansraj’s character is never seen ill-treating or abusing Mini. Was that a moral call?
It was intentional, because I need you to think about it. It’s easy if I tell you what to think. But if you think about it yourself, you are aware of the thinking. It adds an impact of the story and what we are trying to say.
Your understanding of Kolkata stems from the fact that you grew up there. What fuelled your love for the unexplored parts of West Bengal?
I know Kolkata because my father was a taxi driver. The understanding of West Bengal comes from reading. So many books I read as a kid were set in Dooars, New Jalpaiguri, Muri Junction. I have these romantic notions in my head that I will wake up one cold, misty morning in Muri Junction and eat hot kochuris. I’m not sure if I will feel the same if I go to Muri Junction, but that’s the magic of literature.
But unlike Kahaani, the locations don’t feature as a character in the sequel, nor are the quirks of its people on display.
Kahaani was like a graphic novel. I had to make Kahaani 2 more real because of the subject. Except, maybe, Benu kaka or Haldar, the characters could be from anywhere, and they are. Durga says she is from Delhi and Kolkata. The deciding factor is the point of view — through whose eyes are we seeing the story unfold. In Kahaani, it was Vidya, a girl from London who is in Kolkata for the first time. So, through her, you notice the city, Monalisa Lodge, its manager, the people, their mannerisms. Vidya Bagchi notices these things much more than Vidya Sinha, who is trying to go to office and come back. She doesn’t need to be conspicuous, she cannot afford to be.
Do you have to have Amitabh Bachchan or Vidya Balan in all your films?
I have seen some gigantic flops in my time. When that happened, I found myself alone. Only three people stood by me — Vidya, Riteish Deshmukh and Mr Bachchan. I am loyal to them. That said, it will be wrong to force them into everything I make. It’s where I went wrong with Vidya and had that fallout. But if a film fits her, I go to her first, or I write a film just for her.
Is Kahaani 3 coming next then?
I am not sure of that yet. But my short film Ahalya’s sequel will release in February. Short films are a platform we need to work with. It’s the future. I need to learn how to compose a frame for mobile phone viewing. Will it make sense to have ants in the frame, as in the Lawrence of Arabia, when the film is being viewed on a 6×4 inch screen?