Last year, Amar Kaushik prayed his directorial debut Stree didn’t touch Rs 100 crore mark so that his second film was saved from performance pressure. But with Ayushmann Khurrana-led Bala currently enjoying audiences’ love, it seems the director carried little baggage on his way to his second consecutive success.
“I told my team at Bala to consider me a first-timer and not think that whatever I was saying was correct,” Kaushik tells indianexpress.com in an interview where he talks about his progressive gaze at Yami Gautam’s Tik Tok star character. He also defends his decision to cast a fair actor – Bhumi Pednekar – as a dark-skinned woman.
Are you relieved as a second-time director with Bala’s reception, considering you were wary of the baggage from Stree’s success?
I didn’t want people to think of me as a one time wonder or a fluke director. Thankfully, not many people said that. But yes, your only effort is to work honestly. When we were about to start Bala, I told my team to treat me as a debutant only. I told them, ‘Don’t think that this is the guy who made Stree, and assume that whatever he is thinking is correct.’ I didn’t want that vibe from any team member. All I wanted was to have fun and make a good film.
When you are aware that success is measured by numbers, is it that easy to detach yourself from the box office performance and focus only on the process?
It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t that I didn’t care about the numbers at all. It does play on your mind, but I believed that if the film was good, it would earn. My attempt was to make a film that entertained and also had something meaningful to say. Numbers would come later. If you notice, from past two-three years, if a film is good, numbers follow. That’s another thing that sometimes a film is not good, but it still earns big bucks.
Also, I have been an assistant director before, so I know how to remove pressure from myself. That’s what I have learnt in my initial years in the industry that every day is big, and every film is different. This limelight is temporary. It would be there till a few weeks after a hit film, and then people will move on from you.
The film’s writer, Niren Bhatt, spoke to me at length about your involvement at the writing stage and how you added your own experiences (of premature balding).
If you have to make someone a part of your film, you have to make them yours because more than half of a film is made on the paper itself and then you have to make it better while executing it. But if your base material is not great, then the result won’t be good either. I knew that character and the milieu really well. Niren and I would spend days together. We would visit Kanpur and eat samsosas and kachodis there.
Niren is from Gujarat. I had to show him Kanpur before he could start writing Bala. That’s because I wanted the audience to experience Kanpur. In all my three films – Aaba, Stree and Bala – I have tried to make audience feel the flavour of Arunachal Pradesh, Chanderi and Kanpur, respectively.
Kanpur was a character in the film. From the language the characters spoke to the ideas about love, self-image and their obsession with Bollywood, everything is attributed to the fact that they hail from a two-tier city. So, it is commendable that Niren used Kanpur so well despite not being familiar with it.
So, our writing process was such that when we sat together, I would tell him that this character would speak like this. I have spent a long time in Kanpur so I knew how one would speak. Like the use of ‘Kantap’ or the line, ‘Ka bhaiya, kahan ja rahe ho.’ So, you tell your writer how you see your characters talking. The writer’s brilliance is that he or she does justice to your vision on the paper.
Then this vision is taken forward by all the actors and the technicians. That’s the reason that leaving aside the primary cast, I have cast a lot of small characters from Kanpur itself. Be it Bala’s brother or his grandfather. With this, the atmosphere on set became Kanpuria. It helps when your actors are from that place, the director has lived there and the writer has written the script there. For instance, there’s a word ‘Hinten Lalten’ in the film. The line goes, ‘Aaj bade hinten lalten banke ghum rahe ho,’ Now, you might laugh, but only a Kanpur person will get its exact meaning.
When you are localising the language of your story, what’s the trick to make it universally appealing? Does it lie in the subject itself?
A story is universal. Like how we relate with a lot of American and Korean films. The story has to be relatable and once that’s established, then you add the indigenous flavour in it. So, in this film, we have put khada masala of Kanpur. There’s no colour in it. This is what the audience also enjoys – the desiness in a story. This is my approach also. Maybe I will exhaust all this small town texture once I am done setting stories in the places that I have visited. Then I will start living in towns and cities where my future films would be set.
Like I had never lived in Bhopal, where Stree was set. I have travelled a lot to small, obscure places. My method for recce is to go to the location 8-10 days prior to the shoot, roam around and eat local food without thinking about the film at all. So, when you start writing, all these experiences come in handy.
When there was an emphasis on getting the right feel in the film, you shot in real locations and even cast actors from Kanpur. Didn’t casting Bhumi Pednekar in the role of a woman fighting discrimination against dark skin contradict your idea of authenticity?
I knew this question would be asked. When you start casting for a film, you think about an actor, who can make you relate with the character. Now, Ayushmann is also not bald. He has such luscious hair that he can never know what a person with premature baldness goes through. So, then you explain to him, ‘This is the character and you suit him. Now, you have to adapt yourself according to it.’ Yami is very different from Pari. She had never watched Tik Tok videos in her life until she came on board. The same happened with Bhumi. I told her that this was an opinionated woman and she would have to become a few shades darker to play Latika. We performed a few tests on her to get the right look.
I believe your primary cast should be really good and suit the characters. You mentioned authenticity. Now not all actors can be from Kanpur. My job is to take these actors and make them a part of that setting. If that’s the case, then Ayushmann should do Chandigarh-based films.
I commend Bhumi that she didn’t object to the fact that her colour on screen would be changed. I was sure that we didn’t want dusky but go two shades darker because the woman, who is the inspiration for Latika, is someone I closely know. She is really dark. So, I would only see her (while writing Latika). Some liked it, some said that it didn’t matter after five-seven minutes how Bhumi looked as they bought into her performance. I wanted Latika to appear really strong, and Bhumi is such a fantastic actor that I was sure she would play it well. She has exceeded my expectations. As of now, I can’t think of anyone else, who could do it as well as Bhumi did.
If you keep saying, ‘No, I need a healthy person (rather than) an actor gaining weight for a role or an actor with receding hairline,’ then this will be a never-ending debate. I will keep answering, and you will keep saying different things. At that time, you have to take that decision as a filmmaker and leave rest for later. We were shooting at 45 degrees and you had to sit for two hours long makeup after every four hours. So, there were other factors too.
I get that you wanted to cast Bhumi because of her calibre as an actor but when you say that your inspiration for Latika was this girl, who has a dark complexion…
Kaushik: (Interrupts). But I couldn’t cast her, no.
I am not talking about casting her. I am saying if a dark-complexioned woman who watches your film finds out you have chosen a fair-skinned actor and darkened her two shades, the purpose of Latika in her eyes is defeated.
What contradicts Latika’s essence is that she is played by an actor, who is not dark-skinned. It is not difficult to find a dark-complexioned actor. And a bald man is not oppressed, unlike a woman with dark complexion. Premature balding is a genetic condition that happens to you, unlike your skin colour which you are born with.
I totally understood your point. When you are making a film, you see that there is an actor, who is dark-skinned, but you have to check if he or she is correct for the role based on audition and other factors. Then you take the decision. Of course, there have been characters around the world that have been played by trait-appropriate actors, but at the end, you pick the best actor available.
Did you and Dinesh Vijan (film’s producer) audition or consider casting dark-complexioned actors for the role?
We thought of that. It’s not that we didn’t consider casting a dark-skinned actor at all. The first thought is that you should consider a dark-skinned actor, but you have to think about other factors too like whether they are good actors. We did discuss casting someone else, but when we weighed pros and cons, Bhumi ranked really high.
Also, if you take a real person and keep telling him or her, ‘You are dark,’ or ‘You are fat,’ then it will be like in one of the two school play scenes, the young girl we cast is physically disabled. I didn’t know about it until my team brought her to me, and I shouted at them because the scenes required her to self-pity and ask God why she wasn’t beautiful. I didn’t know how to tell her that this was all fiction. She is so young. That was my most difficult shoot.
So, if you take such people for correct representation, then we are reminding them that the problem lies in them. As a director, my job is not to tell people, who are discriminated against, but speak to the ignorant and prejudiced that how wrong their behaviour is.
But your audience is not just the prejudiced and privileged but also the oppressed.
But I am not telling them anything. I am showing the mirror to the section which oppresses them. Bhumi and I have got so many messages from women who have faced discrimination on the basis of colour. They could relate to her in the film. This was the motive of my film.
With this logic, there would be no scope of minority representation on screen because you would think that casting a marginalised actor would be interpreted as…
Kaushik: (Interrupts). So, you think an LGBTQIA character should be played only by an actor from that community?
Preferably, yes. People struggle to come out to their families, leave alone to the world because of fear of shaming. So, artistes from these communities must be empowered. There should be an atmosphere where a gay actor should be able to audition for a gay character rather than seeing a straight man perform that role. The argument that this character can be played only by a certain actor is valid only when you have equal representation. Merit comes into account when there’s equality.
I totally agree with you. This, of course, should be the norm. You asked me whether we even considered casting a dark-skinned actor? I, of course, thought of it. Everything was in front of us. We discussed that possibility, but then there are a lot of things that we needed to look at like who would be able to perform. Who is looking like Latika? Just having dark skin doesn’t make the cut for Latika. There are many other things and then you decide. (But) I totally agree with you that we should create an atmosphere where there are equal number of artistes from all sections.
I loved how you treated Yami’s character Pari. The court scene was one of the most defining moments in the film where the judge says a woman’s preference needs to be respected. This meant, as a director, you didn’t judge her at any point. Was it a tight-rope to walk on?
I don’t consider anyone negative in my life. You will notice this in my future films too. No one is wrong for me. Everyone is right from their perspective. So, Pari was never wrong for me in whatever she said or did. She could have passed off as a shallow character, and I could have made a statement on her. But there’s a whole world on TikTok. The reason behind its massive growth is that people, who earlier didn’t feel recognised, have created such big identities for themselves. It was never supposed to happen that she would suddenly have a change of heart in the court scene.
When we wrote the first line for her, I told Niren, ‘Pari cannot be wrong. She cannot be shown as a vamp. She is like many other women, who aren’t wrong in having desires of their own.’ They might be wrong in your eyes, but for them, they are right. It would have been a big crime had I projected her negatively. It wouldn’t have remained a film for me.
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