A woman runs away from home and a stranger named Nikhil (Sidharth Malhotra) comes to her aid — he even hails an auto rickshaw for her. Seven years later, Nikhil discovers the identity of the woman he’d had that electric, chance meeting with: Her name is Meeta (Parineeti Chopra) and she is his soon-to-be wife’s sister. The two feel a mutual attraction even as Nikhil’s wedding looms closer. Shadowing their tender but taboo relationship are Chinese investors, Gujarati uncles and aunties, and the inevitable heartbreak of the woman who is sister to Meeta and fiancée to Nikhil. Still, despite stumbling blocks, Meeta and Nikhil find a way to belong to each other.
That’s Hasee Toh Phasee (2014) in a nutshell, which incidentally had the working title of “Hasta La Vista Su Badam Pista”. The film brought together filmmakers Karan Johar and Anurag Kashyap as producers. For first-time director Vinil Mathew, it was a chance to work with his friend, writer Harshvardhan Kulkarni, and wife, editor Shweta Venkat.
Although only moderately successful in terms of box office collections, Hasee Toh Phasee went on to gather a loyal fanbase (you can watch it on Netflix) because of its unusual love story and despite its awkward handling of mental health issues. On its 10th anniversary, the crew of this unconventional, heartwarming romantic comedy shared their memories of making Hasee Toh Phasee.
Vinil Mathew, director: In FTII [Film and Television Institute of India] Pune, in my second year, I had written a story which is about two sisters and one guy. Some of that stayed with me. Many years later — this is while I was doing a lot of advertising work — I wanted to make a film and kind of kept toying with ideas and kept writing scripts based on that idea, but nothing really stuck. It wasn't going anywhere. It was the usual clichéd, romantic story. I went to Harshvardhan Kulkarni, who was senior to me at FTII, we were good friends… .
Harshvardhan Kulkarni, writer: The love triangle thing is pretty done to death, right? I was just thinking, how do you kind of give a new spin to it? Finally, it has to have a happy ending. How do you surprise people? What do you do? Actually, it was very difficult. That's when suddenly this idea came, about two black sheep of their families.
Mathew: Also, initially it was going to be called “Hasta La Vista Su Badam Pista”. In the earlier draft, when Nikhil and Meeta meet, they say, “Hasta la vista.” Then many years later, that's the phrase which kind of comes back. This was their little secret, which they had. But eventually, when the film was going on floors, the producers and actors on board, people felt that this is a very alien title. … So we had to change the title to Hasee Toh Phasee — this has got some sort of ring to it. … We then rewrote a couple of scenes. There was a marriage scene where one of Nikhil’s friends says this phrase when he sees Karishma for the first time. We rewrote it to kind of fit in the title.
Shweta Venkat, editor: It's very difficult working with a spouse (laughs). Vinil and I made sure that we never sat in the same room. He would sit with my associate, and I would be given the freedom to do what I wanted. … That way, we also kind of made sure we stayed married (laughs).
Kulkarni: There were too many fights! We both were strong headed. And because I'm a senior, I would bully him. But he's a pretty bull-headed person, and he would get back in his own inimitable style. You keep at it. But there is one very simple rule that I followed, because there is still a hierarchy, he's still the director. He's the captain of the ship. After a point of time, if there is any standoff or anything of that sort, if his gut feeling is stronger on a particular point, I will give it to him. I think that really is a healthy relationship for a director and writer. You fight till the end, but then finally, he's the one who's going to go and shoot, right?
Venkat: I remember we had set everything up to show a preview of the final edit to Karan (Johar), and Vinil had done a number of tests — he’s a stickler for perfection. I remember me and a couple of others were all waiting outside the room for Karan’s reaction. Just like when a baby is being delivered. Then Karan comes weeping. Weeping. I'm not exaggerating. I've never seen Karan this way. He's weeping saying, “I don't know what you guys have made, it’s beautiful.” That was the biggest celebration, possibly the happiest moment of our life. It was amazing.
Mathew: I didn't want to make a serious film where we are talking about these characters or dwelling on them in a serious way. This had to be fun at the same time, sensitive and create the right amount of empathy for the characters.
With Parineeti, finding the middle line was always tough, especially when she's on pills. When she took those pills, we didn't know how much would be too much. Something over the top would just look way over the top, so you wouldn't believe it. We would actually take three different takes with different amounts of exaggeration, not knowing which one will eventually work. Is it too much? Is it too less? We were not sure.
Kulkarni: Okay, so I based Meeta’s character on this person I used to know. My friend’s older brother who would read the newspaper inverted. He was simply brilliant, and I was a mediocre student. But I asked him, “Why are you reading it upside down?” He just told me that it was fun, he could read at the same speed and it was something new for him. Like who does all of this, yaar? … As for Meeta’s tics, I actually spoke to doctor friends of mine to help me write this bit.
Mathew: However, she’s not your conventional rebel. She is an unconventional character. … Sid’s character Nikhil is the perfect foil to her. He’s calmer, he’s also patient.
Kulkarni: He’s not an alpha male, she is essentially absolutely driven by her career …we were breaking a lot of stereotypes. … A lot of men said, “Can we do the girl’s part? Can you twist it around?” Literally, it took two years for Vinil to cast this film because people were apprehensive about how unconventional the story was.
Mathew: It was very hard to cast this film. … Siddharth was looking for a second film — things just kind of fell in place. I met Siddharth and the both of us interviewed each other. It was an important film for Siddharth because that was his second film. For me it was my first. We both had to make sure that it was the right fit for both of us. Then we thought about casting Parineeti, who anyway, was on my wish list for a very long time — you need a person who can play crazy and nice at the same time.
Kulkarni: That scene where young Meeta locks the door from outside? My nephew had come down from the US and he was super bright, super intelligent, but obviously a little wack. He had actually put a rope inside and made a knot and then pulled it. Everybody was going to slap him (laughs).
Mathew: I don't know if you remember that scene had two aunts who were there? … We could not find anybody who would really fit the part. A few days before we started shooting, the casting director Mukesh Chhabra found these two ladies at a club in Colaba where they were playing cards. They turned out to be Rajeev Masand’s aunts: Dhanika Jaggi And Devika Gidwani. They were really funny and they made the scene so funny.
Venkat: I think one of the best dubbing artists were those two aunties. They were so good, so sharp and so funny.
Mathew: There were many challenges for us in the shooting process. But I remember the challenge was not what one would hope for — in the scene when Nikhil locks Meeta in the room? We worked on that scene for a while. Because Siddharth was so tall and when he would sit on the ground and the way he would hug Parineeti, his arm would jut out, and it kind of felt very strange. We did a lot of takes just to get the right hug. It was those kinds of tangible, physical issues rather than the more serious dramatic issues, which were complicated in that scene. Then there was also that Bhuleshwar market scene which was so chaotic (laughs). Like idiots we went and shot in the most crowded location in Mumbai and we had to block things off…it was fun but it was a lot (laughs).
Venkat: I had been very involved with the film since the scripting stage because it is nice to have editors also on board. But in this case, I did not have a choice also, because I'm married to Vinil (laughs). But I still had to prove my talent. I was like two films old. And I pat myself on the back for this one because there's a scene where Parineeti (Meeta) gets slapped by her uncle. There are two ways to cut the scene. One is to kind of show the person who's slapping you and then the impact falls on the character. But I just felt maybe I should do something dramatic. So I stayed on Parineeti without cutting to the uncle. When she gets slapped, you don't see that coming. There's a shock. I kind of jump-cut that slap…the impact on the cheek is much harder than what it's supposed to be. You just feel the sting while you're watching the slap. I think I finally passed the litmus test and I kind of got approval from my director husband, who was convinced I could do the job (laughs).
Mathew: There was also the terrace scene. Before they get married, Parineeti and Siddharth meet on the terrace. That scene was originally shot with Karishma (Adah Sharma) also. All three of them came together and it was a final confrontation.
Venkat: But when we were editing it, we just felt that there were a lot of inconsistencies in terms of the graph of the character. It just didn't kind of fit in. Unfortunately, we had to re-edit the scene in such a way that we eliminate Karishma. Adah's character was completely removed from that scene. That was a challenge…to make it seamless so that it doesn’t seem like there was another person who was standing there. We edited in such a way where you don't realise there's something missing, but we have cut three minutes of conversation.
Mathew: The other thing is, when we shot the wedding scene between Karishma — we had to shoot a lot of scenes that day, and we were literally short on our budgets. We didn't have enough extras. In every angle, we would catch the same people, change their shirts — somebody's jacket would go on the other person, another shirt would go on to this person, and some sarees would be changed, and the same people were made to stand in every direction, in every angle. Even if you look at Karishma, she's getting married, but there's no mehendi on her hands. We didn't have time. We were just rushing through that shoot. There was no option of reshooting it. So we were literally saved by the editor in the edit (laughs).
Shekhar Ravjiani, music composer: I think Karan Johar was on his way to the studio and I was sitting with Amitabh Bhattacharya and I said, “Amitabh, we need to kind of find a very special word for this song. Something very unique. Do you have anything?” He just came up with the words, “betahasha and zehnaseeb”. And I was like, “What's the meaning of these words?” … He (Bhattacharya) found a way to put them in one line: “Zehnaseeb tujhe chahu betahasha, zehnaseeb (O my good fortune, I love you beyond limits, O my good fortune..). At that point, Karan Johar walked in and I immediately played the song, and he loved it. When I played it for Vinil however, he was a little… He had a different kind of a song in his head for that.
Mathew: I wasn't very convinced that it was fitting in. … Because I had a different idea in my head, I kept kind of pushing back and saying, “Let's park it here, let's look at something else.” And then I remember we jammed and ‘Ishq Bulaava’ happened. And it’s one of my favourite songs in the film. … Actually in that song we found that there was a continuity error. She’s wearing a blue shirt but in the train she’s wearing a red jacket (laughs). And it was all supposed to be one night so we had to add a scene to justify the change in costume. But ‘Zehnaseeb’ was still not decided. Eventually, one day I just gave in and I said, “Okay, we're not cracking that song. Let me just go with it.” Little did I know that it would go on to become people's favourite.
Shekhar: I was in fact telling Vinil some time back that whenever I get on stage, people don't let me get off stage without singing this song.
Mathew: So Karan Johar said, “Look, this is your first film. Why don't you just go out and see how people are reacting?” … By the time you finish shooting, you don't even know if it's funny, if it's working. You just kind of become so dead to that. Then when you watch the audience and you see them laughing one joke after another, and you see their gags working and you really feel satisfied that you could move so many people collectively.