Director Sriram Raghavan and his writer-brother Shridhar were guests at the Express Adda in Delhi recently. The two spoke to The Indian Express Deputy Editor Seema Chishti and Film Critic Shubhra Gupta on their journey, why they choose suspense to tell their stories and #MeToo in Bollywood
On working together
Sriram: We are each other’s sounding boards quite often. Whenever I do a script, he is usually among the first two or three people to hear it. Sometimes when he does not like the subject, I still go ahead and make it. We did try to work together on films a couple of times, but it somehow did not happen.
Shridhar: We are brothers and we interact on pretty much everything that we are doing. Regarding working together, he does not need a full-time writer because he himself is a writer and has a fabulous team of people working with him. He really likes to spend a lot of time, about two-three years, on a project. I do 50 things at a time. I like to travel and I like to disappear, so it is not very conducive to a full-time relationship on a working level.
On how they entered cinema
Sriram: I passed out of FTII (Film and Television Institute of India) in the late ’80s. After you graduated from the institute, you either joined Doordarshan or you went into the advertising industry or joined the commercial industry. I was trained to look down on television. At the same time, the movies being made in the ’90s were not great. Satellite (TV) came in the early ’90s. So he (Shridhar) has done a great body of work with CID, Aahat and so on. But I did TV to take care of myself and survive for the next few months.
Shridhar: There was that phase post Doordarshan, when tons of channels were planning to come in. There was Business India television and BP Singh wanted us to do something for them — a supernatural show or a cop show… the channel never took off. After four or five years, Sony bought the show. So we were at the beginning of the so-called satellite wave.
On their growing up years
Shridhar: When we were growing up in Pune, we lived between two theatres: Alankar and Apollo. What used to be interesting back then was that there were three different shows running in the theatre. In Alankar, they used to show English films in the morning. I used to bunk school all the time, so I would end up watching all the morning shows — whatever it took to be away from school.
Sriram: Basically you could see any Bimal Roy film, you could see a film from the ’40s onwards. Now, of course, you have all these films available but I don’t think any of my assistants have seen them. They haven’t seen anything before K3G (Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, 2001), so it’s scary. A film becomes retro in five years now. I was talking to Ramu (director Ram Gopal Varma) once, and we were talking about black and white films, and he said ‘I have never seen a black and white film’.
On choosing Saif Ali Khan for Ek Haseena Thi
Sriram: I think Saif had just become an A-lister. Before we did our film, I used to watch him speak on television and I found him extremely articulate and quite terrific. He is a well-read chap but his movies were mostly not so nice. When we were casting for Ek Haseena Thi (2004), we were looking for somebody. I liked Saif and said why not him. I wanted a character who was modelled on Charles Sobhraj, this very charming person who, at the same time, can be someone else, someone completely diabolical. At that time Dil Chahta Hai had just released and Kal Ho Na Ho was just coming. He was in that space of getting little more popular and becoming successful finally. So he said, should I do it or not? But once he said yes, he sank his teeth into it.
On why they chose suspense to deliver their stories
Sriram: There is no proper answer to that. (Alfred) Hitchcock has a story, where when he was a kid, his dad gave him a note and told him to give it at the local police station. He did, and he was locked up. I have no such dramatic story. I think it was this natural kind of progression. When we were in the fourth and fifth standard, we read Enid Blyton and then Agatha Christie. Then, of course, there were a whole lot of American writers. It is like asking (PG) Wodehouse why he writes about fun stuff for funny stories.
Shridhar: What we really enjoyed reading was stuff like James Hadley Chase and Agatha Christie. We just enjoyed the genre a lot.
On the ending of Andhadhun
Sriram: We had two or three possible explanations. The whole idea was that if two people are going to see the movie, A says this happened, and B says this happened. This was the desire, the dream. Now that the movie has been embraced, it’s no longer in my hands and people have come up with 20 different explanations. Some of them are plain ridiculous. My favourite is that he (protagonist Ayushmann Khurrana) has got the rabbit’s eyes. The rabbit is blind.
On moving from print journalism to cinema
Sriram: Actually, when I first came to Bombay, I wanted to become a journalist. I wanted to write and enrolled in a college for journalism. On the way, in the train, I saw an advertisement for trainee journalists. So I said let me also apply. I had a very bad stammer, so I would be very quiet and reserved, and that’s not how a journalist can be. So I was chucked out in four months.
Shridhar: I briefly dabbled in political journalism but I got chucked out from both the assignments I was on. Once I was doing an interview with
VP Singh and I got chucked out. Then I had gone to do some story at Barabanki, and I got chucked. Then somebody sent me to do a piece on business and I went to the head of SEBI and asked him what a share was. I got chucked out. Luckily, my boss really liked me. He said, you do crime, health and humour.
On whether story is bigger or the star
Sriram: For me, it’s always the story which takes primacy. It’s not like if my last film did well, the next one should have a bigger star. I do not have that kind of an ambition. I have not really worked with big stars, other than in Agent Vinod where both Saif and Kareena were bonafide, established big stars and that was my biggest film. I’ve tried to go for the story and see who suits the film best. It doesn’t matter whether their last film was a success or if my last film was a success. Ayushmann came to me for Andhadhun. Many stars have said no to a couple of my stories. I don’t want to take names because I know that’s a process we go through and learn. There would be no Amitabh (Bachchan) if Dev Anand had accepted Zanjeer. So I look at it that way. I’m absolutely fine as long as I’ve got a chance to meet him or her and sound them out. I don’t see that as a problem for me, but yes it’s a big problem in the industry.
Shridhar: It’s not that easy for you to get the stories that you write out there. Eventually, to a great extent, it is what the studio wants to make or what the director wants to make. I’ve been in the business long enough to figure out that, of course, you get to tell the stories you want to but the number of speculative scripts — where you manage to convince the star, the director, the studio — the proportion is much less. As a writer, you write your story and hope you can get a director on board.
On how various language industries work
Sriram: The language industry has one advantage — it can be much more rooted, much more authentic in that sense. Even in Hindi movies, we now have stories which are set in small towns. Even five years ago, that didn’t happen. But it’s happening now. In regional (cinema), their stories can be actually specific and universal.
Whereas in Hindi cinema, it has to be universal first.
Shridhar: Some of the best work, right now, is actually happening in Malayalam and other regional languages. There’s some fabulous storytelling. I don’t know why it’s happening, but yes it’s definitely because the stories are more rooted. I guess to some extent the cost of making those films is low. The risks may be lower.
On whether the interval has outlived its use
Sriram: Initially movies were much longer. Now I am actually writing a movie which I’m hoping would be 80 minutes. (You) come and get out. But let’s see if they have the clout to enforce that even for a week in big cities. Eventually, the usual argument of selling popcorn, which I understand, will happen. But I don’t think a movie can be divided into first half and second half. A bulk of our movies, when they’re shown abroad, are shown at one go.
Shridhar: I think the interval is still done right in certain films. Look at Sholay. You want that five-minute breather to take in what you’ve just seen. The interval point becomes a high. Our films, if they are that long, do need an interval. There was some film — I think Mera Naam Joker — which had two intervals.
On writing and not directing
Shridhar: Directing is a completely different job. Many people tend to think there is some link between writing and directing. Directing is also man management. It also involves dealing with 70-80 people for 70-80 days; it is like being sentenced for four months to jail. I don’t know why anybody will do it voluntary. I’ve spent my entire life avoiding people, so that’s why I am a writer.
On working on Happy Birthday for years
Sriram: Sometimes you have many scripts on the computer, where you have not got a satisfactory second half, or a satisfactory third act, so you leave it aside. Maybe they were not just good enough, or may be one day I will get an idea and say that’s the answer. Sometimes that happens. Happy Birthday is a movie that is still there but we will do it once we crack it.
On why the big-budget Agent Vinod didn’t do well
Sriram: It was a very exhausting and baggy script. I wanted to do a mix of everything. When it was ready, I realised it is too exhausting to watch. My co-writer used to tell me, ‘It is like a thali where you have to eat everything, and you don’t have time to digest it’. There was just too much in the film.
On #MeToo and Bollywood closing ranks
Sriram: This closing ranks business is very possible. Each story is probably different. Sometimes there is consent, but consent is not a line. It is a big bad grey area. But anybody who comes out and outs somebody, I think, shows tremendous courage. One has to listen to them. On a basic level, it will stop a lot of people from trying out stunts. I think it is still work in progress. One of my close friends has also been outed. I have not spoken to him, but I don’t know the truth. I mean, you have to know it from both sides.
Shridhar: I think what has been happening is great on one level because it is obviously making the workplace safer and that is good. If people are talking about it, it would make people nervous about behaving badly. At the same time, there is also concern because an accusation is not the same thing as an indictment. One needs to be careful. If somebody has been accused of something, there has to be due process, an enquiry. There also has to be support for the victim or the survivor.
On freedom of expression and self-censorship
Sriram: Whenever we are doing any film… you try to self censor, let me not go there kind of a thing, which is a valid response because you are making a small film. If it gets stuck, somebody is going to lose money. So, it is not one person who is deciding, it’s a whole lot of people who are affected and they try their best to avoid any kind of controversy. If you ask me personally, I think you should have the freedom to do exactly what you want to do as long as it is a valid thing.