Besides being heart-warming stories from the heartland, what’s also striking about the works of filmmaker Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari is that their female characters are unaware of their strength, modernity and the feminists within them, as if these are not virtues but a normal part of their existence. Perhaps, there also lies Ashwiny’s biggest win, in how she normalises the idea of an independent woman, who has a mind of her own.
As her latest film, Bareilly ki Barfi, which is also her second directorial venture, becomes one of the biggest success stories of 2017 and now gears up for its television premiere on Zee Cinema, indianexpress.com catches up with the director to dwell on what makes the romantic-comedy resonate with the audience of all ages, the changing trends of Indian cinema and what attracts her to women like Bitti from Bareilly and Chanda from Nil Battey Sannata.
Q. In a year when big films have failed, the success of Bareilly, which spoke of a small place and told a story of characters that are relatable but not seen much on screen, becomes imperative. How do you view this?
Ashwiny: In the age of storytelling, things are going to change according to the trends of cinema and the world. So you need to keep evolving with your story but retain the soul. Maybe five years later, a Bareilly might not work because the mindset would have changed. Right now, Bareilly is working because of the shift in mindset.
All the youngsters who studied from small towns moved to the cities to work. Then, with the influx of internet, everything is so quick that somewhere you still want to go home and have your chai-naashta and feel happy about it because you are getting everything else. Bareilly ki Barfi is that and that’s why the audience is resonating with it. You miss the home, the locality, the neighbours. When you were growing up, you wanted to move to a city but now that you have everything, how much more would you want? Then it’s going back to your roots and where you started from. And the older generation is reminiscing their old times, and they are complaining about what’s happening in the cities. Where are the open doors? We are moving so fast…
Q. Maybe Bareilly gave the audience a chance to pause?
Ashwiny: I don’t know if people noticed or not. It was a very inner thing. When I went to shoot my scenes, it was purely from my experiences from travelling. I felt you needed that era, you needed families to have peanuts and chat, two friends drinking at the terrace. You need these moments because life is not all about work. These are the small things that I tried putting in the film.
Q. How do you react to the response that Rajkummar Rao, Kriti Sanon and Ayushmann Khurrana received? When the film was announced, while there was a buzz about the freshness these three would lend to the story, there was a speculation about whether they would be able to get audiences to the theatres.
Ashwiny: If I have to answer in a philosophical way, it feels exactly how Hrishikesh Mukherjee must have felt when his characters were appreciated. I feel a lot of gratitude and it makes me want to create more characters, which are remembered even five years later. So that becomes more like a storytelling legacy. Of the ’80s cinema, people remember characters, dialogues. It didn’t matter how big a film is, because you are just talking about that one world, one family. That’s very important for me. It is important as a filmmaker to not follow a given path, to create a path, which becomes a benchmark.
For me, the happiest feeling is when the actors are called by their characters’ names and not by their own names. Like, there have been people who told me that the name Chirag Dubey (Ayushmann’s name in the film) is so cool. These things feel nice. The idea is to create something that when the audience leaves the theatre, there is an after-effect.
Q. As a writer-director, is your focus most on building characters? It’s evident from how even your supporting characters are so well-sketched and layered.
Ashwiny: A story is made up of characters, even if it is something as simple as a watchman, who is arguing with you, or your father at home, everyone is important. Characters build the graph. I treat them and my stories as ingredients of a dish. If salt is less, it will not taste good. Everything needs to be in the right proportion.
Q. What attracts you to women like Chanda (Swara Bhaskar in Nil Battey Sannata) and Bitti (Kriti in Bareilly ki Barfi)? Do they come from a personal space and if not, then, how do you go about finding them?
Ashwiny: I always see my characters as people, who are flawed and not perfect. But without being overtly pompous, they need to redefine the whole agenda of women liberation. Like, I want to have the freedom to do what I want to do. This is again a reflection of today’s generation, which does want to do a lot of things on their own, which has a point of view.
Characters should always reflect a part of the society. Cinema is the biggest medium of inspiration and as a filmmaker, if I can create some kind of benchmark with my characters, though subliminally, for girls and women who are fighting to be in the society, it doesn’t matter whether the voice belongs to a Chanda or a Bitti.
Q. You’re right when you say that you want your characters to normalise liberation of women because as an audience, I believe, the message gets across well if characters don’t seem to have an agenda. I remember having a similar discussion with Shoojit Sircar about Piku, where a strong, independent woman was shown taking care of her father, but there was no fuss about it.
Ashwiny: But haven’t we all done that? (taken care of our parents) I totally agree with you on this that we don’t need to highlight this, it’s a normal thing. My grandmother raised three kids alone, as my grandfather died young. But it was very normal for her to raise three children and give them education and everything else. We all have seen this. You are equally responsible for your parents as your brother. What’s the big deal about it?
The only difference I think is that as a sex, we are more passionate and responsible. But rest of it is as normal as it gets. Like, I find it annoying when people ask me, ‘You are a filmmaker now, making great films. Why do you need to go to a market to buy vegetables and groceries?’ I am like, I am a human being, a mother, a wife and have a house to take care of. That’s what I want to do, so what’s the big deal about it?
Q. But as a working mother, has there ever been a time when you have felt guilty?
Ashwiny: No… It’s not easy but it’s not that difficult either (managing work and family). I have always seen my mother working, she is a school teacher. There’s nothing like you need to take a break after you become a mother. In fact, I think it’s not correct. Reason being that if your parents have gotten you educated and you have worked, then you should continue working, doesn’t matter how you do that. It’s not easy for first few years but things will fall into place. What will you do once your kids start going to school or go for work outside?
The problem is that we tend to feel guilty about it. But isn’t it the father’s responsibility also to give enough time to the child? It’s important to have a joint responsibility, which gives the woman more freedom to follow her passion. I never stopped working despite welcoming motherhood. My mother always told me something, ‘Get a job, fall in love, get married, have kids and continue to work.’