At film director-writer Sriram Raghavan’s office, the walls are ivory and the space cries out kitschy chic. At the entrance hangs the portrait of Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston. On his worktable is a bobblehead of Alfred Hitchcock. On the wall are framed posters of old Hindi thrillers and romances: Do Shatru with a revolver-wielding Sharmila Tagore; The Train that shows Rajesh Khanna romancing Nanda; and a recklessly charming Guru Dutt courting Shyama in Aar Paar. Sheepishly, Sriram confesses: “I found them in Sheena Sippy’s book Bollywood Posters. I bought two copies — one to read, the other to rip these pages from.” Let’s start again: meet Sriram Raghavan, film director, writer and a connoisseur of noir and crime.
Raghavan’s workspace provides clues to the world he inhabits and to the dark and intriguing worlds he creates on the big screen. With two short films and four feature films, including Badlapur that releases on February 20, the 50-year-old has established himself as India’s most talked-about thriller-maker. Every question about what draws him to thrillers leads to his voracious movie-viewing, formative years in Pune. “I was around eight years old when a cousin narrated to me the story of Rajesh Khanna’s Ittefaq (1969). I was terrified for days. At the same time, I loved the story. Similarly, I found Jewel Thief (1967) and Johny Mera Naam (1970) terrific,” says Raghavan. The movies, along with novels, including those by James Hadley Chase that he read as a boy and by Michael Connelly, Lawrence Block and some Scandinavian noir authors that he read later, stayed with him. Today, he churns out racy stories with fallible characters, greed, revenge and terrorism — Ek Hasina Thi (2004), Johnny Gaddaar (2007) and Agent Vinod (2012) — with an assured touch. The films, especially the first two, are driven by their strong plot and characters, and are free from songs and excessive melodrama. “Exploring the characters connected to crimes makes for a good story,” he says.
Raghavan revisits the genre in Badlapur, but promises an intense emotional drama. “It is a dark film and not a Johnny Gaddaar kind of thriller. I read the account of an Italian man who had spent 15 years in jail. His story made me wonder what happens when someone loses his loved ones,” he says. Badlapur is based on a real-life story of a man who seeks revenge 15 years after his wife and son were killed in a robbery. Though producer Dinesh Vijan loved the story, not everyone was as encouraging, including his brother Sridhar, who wanted him to try out something safe after the failure of Agent Vinod. But Raghavan was “very keen on telling the story”.
At Badlapur’s first-look launch, Vijan assured the gathering that viewers “will experience an undiluted Sriram Raghavan movie”. Perhaps, he was trying to dispel the disappointment that came with Agent Vinod, produced by Vijan and Saif Ali Khan, who also played the title role. “I lean more towards movies like Munich and the Bourne Trilogy, whereas Saif loves the James Bond genre. So we used a bit of my style, and a bit of his,” says Raghavan.
Badlapur features Varun Dhawan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, among others. “I thought it would be interesting to have these two actors from opposite schools of acting,” he says. Ashwni Kalsekar, who had a cameo in Johnny Gaddaar and plays a detective in Badlapur, says, “Sriram’s characters are well-researched even if they have only a couple of scenes in the film.”
Contrary to his chocolate boy image, 27-year-old Dhawan, who calls Raghavan “Hitchcock’s Indian disciple”, is playing a man in his 30s seeking revenge for his wife’s murder. For Siddiqui, every day on the sets was a challenge. He would get a gist of the scene, but not the dialogues; Raghavan does not work with bound scripts. “Sriram would always leave room for on-the-spot improvisation and the scenes would evolve into something much different than what was originally planned,” says Siddiqui.
Writer-editor Pooja Ladha Surti, who has been working with Raghavan ever since Ek Hasina Thi, corroborates that. “He is never closed to suggestions from anyone and lets the movie develop organically,” she says. Producer of tele-serials CID and Aahat BP Singh agrees. “Sriram has written and directed several episodes of these shows before he directed Ek Hasina Thi. He would step in whenever his brother Sridhar, who wrote for the shows, was not available. Sriram would add an interesting twist or tweak the script while shooting,” says Singh. That has become a habit now. He doesn’t stop improvising until the shoot is over. When the initial drafts of Badlapur struck him as too “gimmicky”, he switched to a simpler narrative.
Raghavan, whose parents are from Tamil Nadu but lived in Pune where his father worked as a botanist, loved watching all kinds of films as a child. Though his parents allowed him and his two brothers to watch Hollywood classics such as Ben Hur, Born Free and The Guns of Navarone, Bollywood films were kept out of bounds for them. “Once my mother let us watch Yaadon Ki Baaraat, maybe because it is about three brothers who are separated after their parents’ murder,” he recalls.
But Raghavan didn’t always wait for permission or company. His pocket money was enough for the morning and noon shows. He knew his parents could never imagine that their eldest son was bunking school, so he just had to park his bicycle at the right spot. “I just made sure I never got caught,” he says. Sometimes his younger brother Srikant, who is in a corporate job, would come along; Sridhar was too young then.
Raghavan was never good at studies and hated mathematics. He had a stammer and was not particularly confident. So, films were what it was going to be. He started his career as a journalist with a film magazine in Bombay. He met Mukul Anand on the job and got an opportunity to assist him in Aitbaar (1985). “It was at Anand’s suggestion that I went for the direction course at FTII, which exposed me to world cinema, especially European cinema,” says Raghavan. It was a long time before he would make his directorial debut. For him, the struggle was an “opportunity to read and watch films”.
After leaving FTII, Raghavan made social documentaries for the Indian Space Research Organisation for two years. His first major assignment was a documentary on Raman Raghav, a serial killer who prowled the streets of Mumbai in the 1960s. It was meant for a video magazine. It was never released due to some legal issues, but it helped him bag Ek Hasina Thi, when his friend Anurag Kashyap showed the documentary to producer Ram Gopal Varma. Surti, who was assisting Varma at the time, had a basic story of a woman taking revenge after being conned by a charming criminal. “Once Sriram took over, he spent months on developing the plot and scenes,” says Surti.
The film had many things going for it, but the climax took everybody’s breath away. “The father of Urmila Matondkar’s character was a mining engineer. So, initially, the idea was that she would drive Saif Ali Khan to a defunct mine in Rajasthan, take him down to a shaft and dump him,” he says. But when they did not find a suitable location, they thought of the rats. “It was an illogical idea. But somehow, no one objected to a cave full of rats — either they hated it because it was gruesome or loved it. A lady once asked me if that cave was located somewhere near Delhi,” he says, half smiling.
Unlike Ek Hasina Thi, he always had the story of Johnny Gaddaar in mind. When working on it, however, he made it more plot-driven. He dedicated the movie to international crime writer James Hadley Chase and Vijay Anand, who directed Jewel Thief and Johny Mera Naam. According to Raghavan, Anand is a terrific story-teller. “His work was cutting-edge and had a certain flamboyancy,” he says.
Raghavan, a self-proclaimed “undisciplined” writer, wants to speed up his future projects, including an adaptation of Vikas Swaroop’s The Apprentice and a musical crime drama. In the latter, he might finally let his characters break into a song.