Why did you choose to write and produce but not direct Stree?
We wrote the film with the intention to direct but we were busy with another project that we are currently shooting for. We felt this story could best be told now and we didn’t want to wait till we could direct the film. The only other way of owning the film was by producing it, so we did that.
How did you arrive at a point where you wanted to subvert patriarchy through a horror comedy?
The feminist angle wasn’t conscious. We just wanted to tell a horror story without taking a tried-and-tested path. It started from an incident back in my hometown Tirupati. We were going around town on a bike during Shivratri when we saw these texts on the wall saying, ‘Stree kal aana’. When we inquired, we were told it’s a mad woman who beats up people. Someone else said she doesn’t have a head. Another told us she steals babies. I filed it away in my head as something ridiculous. But later, I thought, ‘What if this was for real? What if she doesn’t steal babies but targets men?’. It occurred to us that there is so much subtext to this story. We started to call her ‘stree’–not ‘chudail’ or ‘pisaach’. That changed our course completely. The reality can be stark. In reality, women go through this every day. Someone steps out to shop for grocery and you can never be sure she will return home. Turning the gender concept on its head also made it funny. There is a predator out there and this time it’s a woman. In the film, a man steps out to urinate and the fear is that all there will be left of him are his clothes. In such case, how would a man feel? But because it’s a woman, you ask it go and she does; she also seeks consent.
You merge horror with comedy. Was that an attempt to make the genre more palatable to a larger audience?
We have never been the kind who can stick to defined genres, like love story or slice-of-life. So that was part of the reason but yes, horror is more palatable with humour. Those who enjoy horror may not find it spooky enough. But this film works as a good primer for all those who don’t like horror films and would never go for one. There is a sequence before the break, once the bike runs out of petrol, which is genuinely spooky. But most people started laughing at that point. It’s a reaction I was hoping for. We wanted to make a roller coaster ride that people enjoy and not one they never want to take again.
But humour is also a part of your style. Go Goa Gone, too, was a zombie-comedy.
I view Go Goa Gone as a slacker comedy — three slackers amid nature. The obvious way would have been to have them attend a party where something goes wrong. We just pushed the envelope by reimagining that in the zombie space. Similarly, in Stree, you expect the movie to be a sweet little love story in a small town. We added an element of bizzare–it could have well been Thor’s hammer falling from the sky–and now, how would the character deal with it?
Why make the hero Vicky’s (Rajkummar Rao) mother a tawaif?
It’s a stereotype of a mother we wanted to play with. People are not defined by who their parents were or what they did for a living. This one was, in fact, one of my favourite victories in the film — the fact that my hero is the son of a prostitute who saves everyone’s lives. It’s about saying, ‘Let’s not judge people.’
Pankaj Tripathi’s character never reveals the fourth rule of escaping Stree.
That’s a writing quirk. For instance, we also did not want to waste 15 minutes of the second half giving Stree a back story. Our thought process was that this how it is and now people need to deal with it. So, yes, there is a fourth rule but we never tell you. Maybe we will tie it up when we work on a sequel.
At the end, the village places the plaque saying ‘O stree, raksha karna’ (Please protect us, Stree). Why the burden of deification on women?
It’s more about giving Stree what’s been missing so far — respect. It wasn’t so much about attaching the role of a protector but it went with the language we were using. Saying, ‘O stree hum tumhari izzat karte hain’ would have been out of place.
Doesn’t an item song in the film taking a stand for women seem out of place?
That’s our mistake. We were in two minds but we fell for the marketing ploy. A launda dance would not have been out of place in a small town during a festival but where we went wrong was in the way it was picturised. It’s something we won’t do anymore.
How do you look back at Happy Ending?
It was originally a Bombay story about a failed director and a failed actor who get together to plagiarise even better than they have or others around them do. All they want is a superhit film no matter what. So it was set in the city with locations such as Carter Road, Versova and so on — a self-referential meta film on top of a filmmaking community. But all that changed; we went to LA and shot with cool cars and locations. The meta film was supposed to play to the stereotypes and stereotypes not working was one of the ideas. But we became the very example of it.
Your co-writer and co-director DK is away shooting a web series and you join him soon. What is that one about?
It’s titled The Family Man and explores another new genre for us. It’s a thriller drama set against the backdrop of counter terrorism. The satirical humour comes from our system. In one line, we are calling it ‘Middle class guy, world class spy’. While usually we see spies living the cool life, what if this guy is an agent living out of, say, Chembur? What if he takes a beat-up Santro to the station where he has to take a train train to decrepit building where he works. But what he really does is counter terrorism. He has kids to take care of and his wife keeps telling him that while he does it for the country, it is just a job. Through this narrative, we explore the socio-political issues.