Director Sriram Raghavan on crime, getting the climax right and his new film

Director Sriram Raghavan on crime, getting the climax right and his new film

"It is important not to fall in the happy ending trap", says Sriram Raghavan.

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What you see is not what you get: Sriram Raghavan on the sets of Andhadhun.

The trailer of your new film, Andhadhun, has generated a lot of interest. How tricky is it to cut the trailer of a thriller?
It’s tough since you are worried about giving things away. Fortunately, it does not reveal anything vital. There are a lot of red herrings. I had asked the producer not to have a trailer at all. The best way to enjoy certain movies is to go to the theatre and watch them. But I’m very happy with the response.

Your movies are more about individuals than the crime. Is Andhadhun similar?

Akira Kurosawa said, ‘The role of an artist is not to look away.’ This, in a way, reflects in the film. The central character is a pianist (played by Ayushmann Khurrana). There’s a girl, who is his muse. Our guy has certain choices to make and that has consequences. Johnny Gaddaar (2007) and Badlapur (2015) were plot-driven movies, but the characters were well fleshed out. While developing the scene in which Varun Dhawan’s character kills both Vinay Pathak and Radhika Apte in Badlapur, we wondered what would he do if they had a child or a dog? Then, we decided not to make our job even more difficult. So many people were upset and questioned how could Varun be so ruthless. We had to explain that it was his character.

How far will you allow your characters to reveal their dark side?

We went all the way in Badlapur. But there was no need to show more violence. While writing, we try to think of the way the characters would react. Sometimes, the characters surprise us. Sometimes, we hold them back. As co-writers, Pooja Ladha Surti, Arijit Biswas and I also argue a lot.

Earlier, we would watch a lot of whodunnits. Not anymore. Why?

I believe that it might not be the best genre for cinema. It’s great to read them. I have read all of Agatha Christie’s books and many other authors. Christie’s And Then There Were None, which was adapted as Gumnaam (1965), was a fantastic whodunnit. In India, viewers get a lot of thrill from guessing who committed the crime. That does not interest me at all. Out of the 53 movies directed by Alfred Hitchcock, only one is a whodunnit.


Your movies often have references to popular culture.

I watched a lot of movies about pianists and visually-impaired characters (such as Scent of a Woman (1992) to see how other people have told their stories. One them is Ray on rhythm-and-blues musician Ray Charles, who lost his vision in childhood. Ayushmann’s character loses his vision at the age of 14. On my desktop, I have a folder called ‘Reference films for Shoot the Piano Player’ (the earlier title for Andhadhun)’ and there were nearly 20 movies in it.

What do you think is the importance of female characters in crime movies?

I don’t think of the gender. Certain stories will have a particular set of characters. For example, in this movie, we have Tabu, Radhika Apte, Ashwini Kalsekar and Chhaya Kadam in vital roles. In Ek Haseena Thi (2004), a lot of action takes place in a prison for women and justice is delivered by a woman. In Johnny Gaddaar, they are in the background. I try not to have stock characters. I want actors to be interested in playing the characters. There should be something new for them.

Why did you think of casting Anil Dhawan in Andhadhun?

The character he plays is that of a 1970s actor. I thought why not use a real ’70s star and the music and movie clips he had featured in? That makes the scenes work better. Dhawan is from Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, like me, and is David Dhawan’s brother. He was game.

You have worked with Tabu for the first time.

I always wanted to work with Tabu. She liked the script. Though she was worried about the role, she sunk her teeth into it. She is fab in it.

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Sriram Raghavan with Tabu.

How do you work on your endings?

In any movie, the climax or ending is of utmost importance. In a thriller, probably, it’s a bit more crucial as you can keep the audience hooked till that last shot. Today’s audience is exposed to so much, they are making up their own stories as the movie progresses. That competes with your screenplay. If you don’t surprise them, then they will say: ‘Oh, I knew this would happen’.

Our job is to lead them in one direction and then show something else. For example, for Ek Hasina Thi, someone suggested that as Urmila Matondkar’s character gets good money at the end of the film, she can go to a foreign country and lead a good life. But she goes back to jail. That’s truer to the character. It is also important not to fall for the happy ending trap. For Badlapur, we considered several endings but eventually settled on this one. It is abrupt. But it makes the audience think about what they have watched. However, the music video with the end credits was a wrong decision. The song is fun to watch, but separately. The ending of Andhadhun, I hope, will create a debate. For Badlapur, we had the tagline, ‘Don’t miss the beginning’. For Andhadhun, I’m considering the tagline, ‘Don’t reveal the ending’ (laughs).

Are you in a better position to take risks today?

Of course. I believe it is not so difficult to make a movie today as long as you have a strong story. However, radical it might be, you will find someone to back a good script. If someone does not like the script for some reasons, there would be someone who would like it exactly for those reasons. As long as my producer and actors are convinced, then nothing can stop us.

Why do crime stories draw us?

It fascinates us since we all have a dark side to us. While reading crime fiction during younger days, we would be so scared and tense. There is an enduring appeal in the endorphins that it releases.

What kind of books and movies were you exposed to while growing up?

There were fewer crime novels, comics and movies available then. I devoured them all. In the school library, we had The Hardy Boys series. Somewhere else, we had to source books by James Headley Chase. What we watched was limited to television and special screenings.

At my school in Pune, I used to learn German and we had a terrific film club. When I was around 16, I remember watching Fear Eats the Soul (1974), written-directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Even though I didn’t understand every dialogue, it stayed with me. At FTII, we were watching a lot of movies, one or two in a day. One day, I would watch The French Connection (1971) and I would be very happy. The next day, perhaps a Hungarian movie, which I did not understand but still be fascinated with. I love Hitchcock and Billy Wilder. But there are so many other directors whose work I love today. Eventually, your mind opens to the possibility of cinema. Today, there is nothing I don’t like as long as it’s well made.

You are such a shy and private person in real life. How do you come up with such twisted crime tales?

This quote by Gustave Flaubert, perhaps, describes me the best: ‘Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.’


Favourite crime writers:

James Hadley Chase, Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier, Patricia Highsmith, Cornell Woolrich, Raymond Chandler, Dashiel Hammett, Brett Haliday, Frederic Brown, Frederick Forsyth, Lawrence Block. In the recent years, Keigo Higashino, Massimo Carlotto, Michael Connelly, Jo Nesbo and, of course, Stephen King.

Five Hindi crime films that need more love:

So many terrific campy but fun movies with great songs. Especially, the films of Shakti Samanta, Ravee Nagaich, Brij and Raj Khosla. Gulzar’s Achanak (1973) is still a terrific watch. So, are Aruna Vikas’s Shaque (1976) and Nisar Ahmed Ansari’s Black Cat (1959).


Is it ok to get away with murder?

In real life, people often get away. That’s why there’s fiction.