In 2008, the majority said parents killed their daughter. Seven years later, while the case was still in the court, director Meghna Gulzar made the convincible Talvar, which picked a side many did not agree with. Today, when chest-thumping and sloganeering find their mentions as the synonyms to nationalism, the filmmaker brings Raazi, which is everything that patriotism shouldn’t be in the modern times.
Meghna, it seems, has taken a liking for defying the majoritarian view, in her own noiseless way, one whose echoes can be heard long after her work is over. So, as Raazi, based on author Harinder Sikka’s Calling Sehmat, emerges victorious, indianexpress.com talks to Meghna to decode the film, her bent towards true-story genre and the evident influences of a writer father and an actor mother on her work.
Q. At the film’s success press conference, more than elated, you looked relieved, as if you weren’t expecting this kind of response from the audience.
Meghna: None of us expected this. The response to the trailer made me very nervous because the way I was looking at it was what it was going to do to the expectations from the film. That month between the trailer and film’s release was fully sleepless.
Q. Once you were done making the film what were your thoughts and minimal expectations from it?
Meghna: So, everything happened back to back. We finished shooting and went into edit, after that the post-production started. We finished the film, and immediately after that it went into promotions. 10 days of promotion and it went into the release. So, that time to reflect that what have we done and what is it going to do was very little.
But when I saw our first locked edit, I was quite amazed at the fact that we all were telling the story of an extremely strong, powerful and selfless 20-year-old girl. And when I saw the film, I realised it was saying so much more and that was overwhelming. Then you just pray that the audience gets what you are saying. They got it and how! That’s so encouraging and gratifying. To tell you the truth, the enormity of it hasn’t hit me fully. I know the numbers are there and figures are going out, people are not getting tickets… But there’s a little bit of a distance between my innermost consciousness and whatever is happening outside, which is a good way to be.
Q. How much of a responsibility is on a director when he or she is making a film based on a true story?
Meghna: Tremendous! Because it is a true story, you are actually documenting history and that will go forward and become the narrative that people are going to believe because cinema is so powerful. I think that’s also what drives me to keep it authentic, do nightmarish research and thankfully be blessed with a team, who is as diligent and detail-oriented as I am.
For me, today to get messages from senior Army officials, saying, ‘You have presented us so well,’ when normally Hindi films get flak for some discrepancies or the other like the ribbon on the costume, and things like that… I had told my kids (her team) if there’s anything we can’t go wrong on, it’s how we are presenting the army, whether it’s ours or it’s Pakistan’s. And they didn’t let me down.
Q. Is staying true to the story in the most intricate manner also a pressure, an interference to the process of filmmaking?
Meghna: There’s so much clarity at the script level that when you are on set, it’s just about execution and that I do on instinct completely. It’s not like I would sit in my office and storyboard and say, ‘We will go close here, and wide (angle) there.’ I get on the set, take in my surroundings and break down the scene. I will stage it with my actors, my DOP would be standing there and he will tell me how we will start the scene and then we okay it. So, it’s all instinct.
So, as far as taking creative liberities are concerned, particularly in this one, all we have done is use tools at our disposal to make it more cinematic. Apart from that, if you have read the book, Vicky’s character departs from the book. End result is the same but the way to get there is slightly different.
Q. How much can a director or a screenplay writer fictionalise the true account?
Meghna: Your intent needs to be correct. You need to maintain the sanctity of, if it’s a book, then the written material, and if it’s a true story, like Talvar was, then you need to respect the existence of the people, who you are talking about. It’s very important. Whether they are living people or deceased. You need to treat them with dignity and respect. This is what I feel and yet at the same time, be objective and not manipulative. Don’t play up one more than the other.
With the book, if there were departures, they were purely to take the written format forward, to alleviate it. Otherwise, why are you making the film? You can write a thesis on the book. It’s about taking it forward from one medium to another, which is far more powerful. So, you make it as cinematic as possible.
Q Has Harinder Sikka watched the film? What was his reaction?
Meghna: I don’t know if he has seen the film. We had invited him for the first screening that we had. He was busy then. Last I heard, he was meant to travel plus his own book is releasing so, he has his hands full. When we finished developing the story, I showed it to him. When we finished our screenplay draft, I shared it with him. So, he is aware of everything and the tonality of the film.
Q. Talk to me about casting of Sehmat (Alia Bhatt), Iqbal (Vicky Kaushal) and Mir (Jaideep Ahlawat).
Meghna: Right from the script level, all the characters have a purpose in the story. They are not just there for the sake of it. They are very well fleshed out and their presence is justified. So, when you have that, you need to get performers, who will translate the written characters on the film. So, that was the approach we took to casting. With Alia, again it was a completely instinctive decision as soon as I read the story, not even read, when I heard the story. Kashmiri girl, 20, spy, vulnerable, sacrifice… Her face just popped in my head.
Vicky’s casting happened once we finished writing and when we knew what we wanted to do with Iqbal. We needed a sensitive man, someone, whom this girl (Sehmat) will actually fall in love with enough to have his child. So, the casting completely comes from the the way the characters are fleshed out.
So, the thumb rule I had was that I wanted to see less exposed faces because then they can become characters and you don’t see them as actors. Jaideep was the last person to be cast because Mir’s character is so dicey that I didn’t want to go the stereotypical road and take the most obvious choice. My first assistant showed me his picture from the film, Commando 2, which was typical of everything that I didn’t want. But he said that I should meet Jaideep. I met him, he came with full beard. Then the process of taking off his facial hair in stages began, to see what would Mir be. We were one month away from the shoot and I thought that we should take off the moustache also and if it didn’t look good, we had a month to grow it back. So, he shaved and came back and I was like, ‘This is Mir.’
Q. You have made a film, which has humanised the other side, the one that’s called our enemy. There wasn’t a single scene showing the Indian National flag in a film that talks about patriotism. These are definitely conscious choices that you made to tell the story. Were there times when you felt tempted to go down the cliche path of showing patriotism?
Meghna: The first scene of the film does show the Indian National flag, which is a part of the Indian Army flag. But yes (that’s it). There was never any temptation because this majority opinion of wearing nationalism on your sleeves is only on social media. It’s not actually the way the real people of our country feel. The footfalls in the theatres for Raazi are testimony to that.
If you go with the basic faith that inherently your people still have their civility, their cultural richness and their tolerance intact, which I do believe very strongly, then you will not be tempted to go into sloganeering or jingoism, and it will reflect in the approach that you will take.
Q. But then how do you look at the real incidents of hate crime that have of course increased over the last few years?
Meghna: The thing is there is reportage of that and then there is reportage of one person from one community helping out someone from another community in times of crisis. We have that also. Like in the case of Talvar, it’s about which side gets more amplified.
Q. In the book, Sehmat is repeatedly mentioned as a Kashmiri, while you throughout the film maintained the reference as an Indian. Was this a conscious departure from the book?
Meghna: I don’t even call her Indian in the film. It’s only her father-in-law, who addresses her like that and that is because he is a Pakistani and hence he is referring to a person from the other side of the border. And that other side is India. Logically, if in my country, I have to refer to somebody then I will say that Punjabi or Maharashtrian or Gujarati or Kashmir. But if I am from America, I would say, ‘That Indian.’ So, logically for me, if a Pakistani is referring to someone in India, he will say ‘Indian’ and not ‘Kashmiri’. But I have not done anything to camouflage the fact that she is Kashmiri. In fact, we have shown that in ample amount. We were stubborn enough to shoot in Kashmir.
Q. Gulzar saab had last year launched his book, “Two”, which is about the Partition. At a literature festival, he spoke of the historical event and the relations between the two neighbours with so much sensitivity. Do you feel his feelings reflect in the way you approached Raazi?
Meghna: I am sure sub-consciously they did. I am his daughter. I am raised by him and my mother so, you do imbibe things, which are a part of your upbringing. I don’t consciously try to emulate his feelings or his emotions because his life experiences are his and mine are my own. But what I have experienced is how warm his relations are with people across the border, how warmly he has been embraced when he has gone there, how warmly people, who come from there, meet him. I have seen all of that.
Growing up, our household was never one where they were the enemy, They were humare bichde hue log. He said this very beautifully, in an interview, that ‘Humare ghar ke buzurg hain jo nahi chahte hum milein toh hum unse bahar jake miltein hain, chhupke miltein hain.’
Q. Your female characters and even the actors have influences of your mother Rakhee’s work, be it Sushmita (in Filhaal), Esha Deol (in Just Married) or Alia in Raazi. And Rakhee, for me, was among those rare female actors of the 1970-80s, who even approached a commercial, mass entertainer with an evident dose of subtlety and underplay. How do you look at it?
Meghna: I don’t think I am influenced by her and I will tell you why. It has more to do with the world of the stories that my characters are in. The cinema that my mother has done is very different from what I am making but her approach to her character is very similar to the tonalities of my characters. The connect is over there.
For someone to be at 27-28, at the peak of her career, and not have qualms in playing Rishi Kapoor’s mother (in 1976 film Kabhie Kabhie), somewhere seeps down into me, where I don’t have qualms in saying that two women can decide that one of them wants to carry the other’s child (Filhaal). It’s the 20th century!
Q. How did the shift to true-story genre happen? In an interview, you said that it was the long break after Just Married. Also, what sets this genre apart from your previous films?
Meghna: There was no inclination. It was at the spur of the moment. We were at a dinner table conversation with Vishal sir where he said, ‘You have to make a film now. Your son is old enough.’ So, then the talk began that what should we make. And we thought about Talvar. It was just that.
The challenge to keep it authentic really drives me and then particularly with Talvar, everything that I am, soft, sensitive, the film was everything that I wasn’t. The subject was such when I agreed to making it. So, that contrast and the insecurity, ‘Will I be able to do it?,’ every day through the making of that film there was a doubt, ‘Whether I will be able to deliver?’ that drives me to work harder and then that works for the film. (smiles)
Q. When your films weren’t working, did you feel the pressure of being the daughter of two prolific talents?
Meghna: No. It was not pressure because I am their daughter and that’s because my cinema is very different from my father’s and that became clear with my first film. My sensibilities are the same but my cinema is different. The pressure was to take the stress, the worry away from my parents about my career, my films not working because it was far more difficult for them than it was for me. They were just by standers, not being able to do much. So, for me, the success of my films today, my biggest reward is that they are not worried. There is relief.
Q. How did they react to Raazi? What do they tell you now?
Meghna: They are very proud and my father keeps saying, ‘Tasalli.’ That’s the word that keeps doing the rounds of the house.