It was his first day as an intern in a newspaper office in Delhi. There was a shooting in the swish Greater Kailash neighbourhood and Akshat Verma, assigned to the crime beat, was asked to rush to the spot. Two boys had been “encountered” and the circumstances seemed suspicious. Today, when 47-year-old Verma looks back at the incident, all he can remember is brains splattered across a flower bed while the owner kept moaning that the two boys had to come die there.
Verma soon quit the profession for a career in advertising but the visual that stayed with him is just the kind that define his movies — surreal. The writer-director seeks out and collects such news clippings. His second film, Kaalakaandi, which comes six years after the success of the comic thriller Delhi Belly that he wrote, is also born out of something similar. Ahead of its release on January 12, the writer-director talks about the external and internal chaos that defines his characters and the frustrating need to prove himself over and over again in the film industry.
Delhi Belly was a success. What took you so long to write and make your second film?
The way I look at it, things are speeding up. Delhi Belly came 15 years after I wrote it and Kaalakandi is releasing six years later. I hope I can make another one before I die. (Laughs) I am not working slowly, it’s the assembling of the project that’s taking time. It was to be made by UTV initially but when Disney took over UTV, they decided it wasn’t a Disney film. It took another two years to set it up again with the current producers, Cinestaan. The film industry functions in a certain way. Once upon a time, when I saw construction happening, it would upset me. We do it so badly and we don’t demolish anything. How can we change anything? Then, I realised one has to try making small changes because attempting to overhaul the system, which serves the powerful, won’t work. The film industry is like that, and because the ‘system’ serves them well, there is no reason for them to change it. There is no reason to invest in writers or nourish fresh talent. What we have is mostly lip service in the name of change. The hero-heroine permutations and combinations continue to be more important than the script.
So how do you navigate the ‘system’?
By trying to prove the same thing over and over again. That’s why I take so long to make my films. I thought once you prove yourself, you are sorted. But I was wrong. I did demonstrate there is an audience for a film like this (Delhi Belly). Personally, it affects me that people are not used to reading scripts here; they want a narration. But I can’t narrate because I am not an actor. I know how it should be made, not how to act it out. And, we have no respect for talent. I was once pitching a project to a biggish homegrown production house. After waiting for hours, the person arrived and I was asked to read out the script. I was doing so while standing right under the AC vent that was blowing down my bald head. So half my head is ice cold and the rest is warm. After a while, I went numb. Each time the person switched off the AC, the numbness would recede. After a while, I just could not think straight and asked to move to another spot. But that set off a search for a spot with good vibes. By then, that person had another meeting and left our meeting unfinished. All I could think of was I am one more day closer to death so let’s hurry this shit up.
Delhi Belly came from your early years on the north campus in Delhi. What about Kaalakandi?
Mumbai is a peculiar city. There is a lack of space and you cannot buy your way out of it. You can live in a fancy building but there will be a slum right outside. It’s fascinating that you could pass someone in the street from a completely different class and circumstance whom you don’t know and don’t have to acknowledge, but that person can change your life. That is the crux of Kaalakaandi.
It features the underworld, which, as we knew it, doesn’t exist anymore.
It’s just a nod to the underworld. The characters in my films are the ones on its fringes. They’re like the messenger boys. They have ambition, they are on the outside, but want to be up there. Any criminal enterprise also has an administrative aspect. No one joins a criminal enterprise wanting to be a clerk. But there are those who do that job and it doesn’t stop them from wanting to be the don. That’s the kind of underworld in my film. The dominant human emotion that fuels all stories is the feeling of being trapped — in a place, time, body, mind, etc. Wanting to change that fuels conflict, which is where all stories begin.
Is the city a metaphor for the lives of the characters?
The external chaos dies down as the city goes to sleep. It’s also when the internal chaos is at its peak. The city is a bit like a whore, it feels magical at night but when you wake up and shine a light on it, you don’t want to know it. The stories, set in one night between sunset and sunrise, are suspended in that bubble. It’s about people who are having either the best or the worst night of their lives, possibly both.
Did you always want Saif Ali Khan in it?
I had him in mind when I was writing the film. I sent him a text when I finished writing the film and met him only two years later. When we met, he took just five minutes to come on board. I told him, ‘Can you imagine how much time it would have saved me if you had responded back then?’ And he said, ‘Oh sorry, I was doing Humshakals then, I had lost my mind.’
You seem to have a fascination for death; you’ve mentioned it a few times already.
We are all headed there. We are the only species that live in complete awareness of death but behave like we are here forever. Our fascination with youth and prodigies defines our idea of success. You have to have ‘achieved’ before a certain age, else you are a failure. The idea of achievement, too, is shortsighted.
So, do you feel a pressure to ‘achieve’ something? How do you make peace with it?
I derive my joy out of the process. While making Kaalakaandi, the cinematographer Himman Dhamija and I were discussing how we can supplement this story so that one can feel the shift in the gears. Should we colour code it? Then he suggested that we shoot with three different cameras for the transition and the changes to be felt. These small things bring gratification. When the production asks why three different cameras, sometimes, you can get away by saying it’s a cheaper camera. Each hustle is a victory.