Boy and girl meet, boy and girl fall in love, boy and girl are…killed brutally in the dead of night. The first segment of Dibakar Banerjee's Love, Sex Aur Dhokha (2010) adopted the familiar, comforting warmth of the DDLJ template we'd all grown up with and then steered it towards a Sairat-like chilling twist at the end, six years before Sairat did. Anshuman Jha and Nushrat Bharucha play Rahul and Shruti, students who meet during the making of a small-budget diploma film. In the face of opposition from her father, they elope and get married. Hopeful of a warm welcome home, they're instead hacked to death by Shruti's brother and his friends who intercept their car.
"You knew it would work – the Bollywoodish romance of the couple and their aspirations…To give the audience that and then throw them back into that reality, it's powerful. I love this film," says casting director Atul Mongia, who also plays Shruti's brother. It's his menacing eyes, framed up close in the night-vision setting of Rahul's handycam, that first tell the audience things are about to go horribly wrong. He bashes Rahul's head against the car door, reminding him of his 'place' with barely controlled rage, while his friends drag Shruti out. From its skewed perspective on the floor, the handycam captures the rest of the scene in grim detail. Men dismember the couple with an axe, with Shruti's tinny, high-pitched screams eventually fading into silence.
On the 10th anniversary of the film's release, Banerjee, Jha and Mongia spoke about how it all came together:
Dibakar Banerjee: The idea of subverting DDLJ was always there because that whole idea of love that never changes and always conquers – I found it eminently spurious. I think the reason we have so many love stories is because we're essentially speaking to a suppressed, young generation which doesn't have anywhere to go and give expression to their sexual urges. And so what we have is a lot of surrogate fantasy making in our cinema halls, which people go and see.
I had seen other videos, which were inspirations for the second and third films – the sting video, the scandalous MMS scam, the Tehelka video. The first film, I didn't have any reference for. The premise was: This man is making a film of his life with a camera. I took that premise to its logical conclusion.
Atul Mongia: Dibakar had this idea of taking all fresh actors. It was a found-footage film so we couldn't have big names starring in it. He was looking for someone who could train the actors and that's why Kanu Behl (who co-wrote the film) introduced us. I was conducting acting workshops in Mumbai at the time. Dibakar was shooting for an ad and I remember meeting him on set. We had a one-hour-long conversation about films, about what I did. By the end of it, he said: Great, train the actors, but could you also find the actors for me? I told him I didn't know how to do that. He said: But are you up for it? We can figure it out then. That's how I ended up becoming a casting director. I had no plans to become one.
Anshuman Jha: In 2008, I was just out of college and I'd told my then-girlfriend: I'd love to make my debut with Dibakar, I hope that comes true. In 2009, he was casting for LSD and there was a poster put outside Prithvi Theatre (in Mumbai), where I was rehearsing for a play. I took down the email, sent my pictures and didn't hear back for a month. Atul was casting on the first floor of Prithvi and I was rehearsing on the second. One day I was going down the staircase and I saw him. I told him I'd sent my photos and he said he hadn't got them. I sent it once more and I guess this is what you call destiny. There were two rounds of auditions and I was one of three shortlisted guys. On July 20, 2009, I got a call from Atul saying: You're the lead actor.
They had shortlisted three girls, opposite whom I tested repeatedly. They finally locked Amrita Puri, who by then had signed Aisha (2010). So she couldn't do LSD because Dibakar wanted a fresh face. They started looking for another girl, which is when Nushrat (Bharucha) came in and got finalized.
Atul Mongia: We'd been looking for a girl for a few months and just not finding the right one. I was auditioning someone else and that place had glass walls so we could see what was going on outside. Then this one girl came in and sat in the waiting area. I just kept looking at her. I just knew we'd found the character. It's the way she was sitting on the bench so tentatively waiting for her turn. She was nervous too. It was 11-and-a-half years ago but I still remember that visual so clearly.
We met many people for the character of the brother and didn't like anyone. So Dibakar was like: Why don't you play the role? I said no because I was the casting director and didn't want to cast myself. I was sure I could find him someone better. Two or three weeks later, he said: No, you only play him. There were one or two guys who were better than me, I'm sure.
Atul Mongia: Dibakar had told me to choreograph that scene because I'd been the one doing workshops and the actors were comfortable with me. Also, my character was running that scene. He was orchestrating where the couple would be taken, how they'd be killed. So we spent half-an-hour to one hour figuring that out. And it worked.
Anshuman Jha: Dibakar would rarely come to the actors' vans but he came to mine on that day and spoke about honour killings. That's why I think he's a genius – he does all of this mental mapping with actors. He told me about this girl who'd been killed by her uncle. I'm a reasonably sensitive person who gets affected by violent stories. He'd probably gauged this. By the time the sun set and we began shooting, I was quite affected. This was something I realized only in hindsight, once the film had screened at the London Indian Film Festival a year later – that he did all this to achieve an effect.
Dibakar gave me the camera to hold in the car scene. I'd been an assistant director and loved filmmaking, so he allowed me to shoot a lot of my own portions. The actual scene was a disturbing yet enjoyable experience. Disturbing because there was a real axe falling on a dummy of me, inches away from the real me. The actor in me was enjoying it but it was also like an out-of-body experience.
Dibakar Banerjee: The funny bit of it was we had rather unconvincing cut head to pull off that effect. That's why we had the idea of shooting the entire film in darkness and that kind of night vision. We just went down to Film City and shot it. There weren't too many rehearsals. I had told Nushrat: We'll nail the scene in the first two takes, just give all of your energy to the screams. She started screaming but the extras on set were feeling squeamish about clamping her mouth. So I had to tell them to clamp her mouth. When they did that, they hit her nose, she got hurt and she actually started screaming.
We took care to shoot the beheading from the car, from the outside. It was all Atul Mongia's frightening performance. Once they pick up the kids, you don't really see them. You see their faces only for a few seconds. You mostly see the chaos, and then when the camera falls, you see them in wide shot. After that, it was just Atul and his extremely scary performance.
Atul Mongia: I read a lot about honour killings – you start to wonder why people are the way they are. Patriarchal men have very fragile egos. Anything that goes against their beliefs, they take very personally. That rage is so prevalent in North India. I'm from there and North Indian men have so much anger. A lot of the time, there's no sensitivity at all. So that night was just a matter of tapping into that rage, that ego, that 'how can a woman of the house, who we have fed, who we have brought up, bring this kind of disrespect and dishonour to us' mentality.
Dibakar Banerjee: I was told I couldn't mention caste in the film. When Atul's character beheads Anshuman, he calls him a "low-caste dog". Woh kaatna pada. There was another line earlier – Anshuman says he got admission in the institute through quotas. We had to change that too.
Anshuman Jha: I had gone to Delhi in the second week of the film's release to promote it. There was a woman who had thrown up during my killing scene and when we went on stage during the interval, she ran up to me and said, 'I'm so glad you're alive.'
Dibakar Banerjee: People who saw it in theatres were horrified. But if you watch it now, you'll see the horror is because of everything that's been constructed. If you went up close and saw the fake head Atul was carrying, the head that was supposed to be Nushrat's, you would've laughed out loud. The only reason it's believable and horrifying is because of everything that happens before it. Then when we shot it, we shot it from far away, in a context that's believable to the film.
The audience is imagining it in their head. It's not schlock. It's not blood or gore. You're horrified because you've spent half-an-hour with these two characters. Your horror is not only connected to the murder of these two, your horror is connected to the fact that you've lived with these two. All the lynching videos we see today don't horrify us and one fake feature film horrifies the audience? That's the question: What horrifies you? My film has nothing, it's all suggestion. India's horror quotient needs to be severely recalibrated.
In some ways, that scene prefigured the future, what's happening all over the country today. What happened in Delhi, that's a bit like what happens in Shanghai (2012). I just hope more and more of my films don't come true.