Shakun Batra's films are intimately observed portraits of human emotion. What makes them memorable are the textured characters, who are often flawed and messy but vulnerable and often, relatable. At the 6th Brahmaputra Valley Film Festival, the Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu (2012) and Kapoor & Sons (2016) director said his approach was simple. "You become a better filmmaker when you become a student of storytelling. That could be anything – the best politicians are storytellers, the best teachers, best producers, magicians, motivators businessmen. I think storytelling is really at the core of everything – religion, faith, spirituality, myths, fables, all of it is storytelling." In conversation with entrepreneur Juhi Saboo at the Pragjyoti ITA Centre, he riffed about his Delhi roots – "I could very easily make a film like Fukrey, that's my world" – and spoke about trying to tell stories that are worth people's time and are "not entirely independent but not big studio films either". Edited excerpts:
ON WHAT MAKES THE ENDING OF A FILM GREAT
There's this great saying, and I think Woody Allen said it in one of his books – You don't always want a happy ending, you want a satisfying ending. And they can very different. All of Greek tragedy is tragic, but it's very satisfying. You go through the catharsis, you go through the changes, you go through the drain. You feel satisfied. Sometimes you come out and cry and you feel satisfied. The happy ending is not important, the satisfying ending is important. Sometimes there's a happy ending, but it's a shit film. Sometimes it's not a very happy ending and it's a great film.
ON WRITING VULNERABLE, NON-HEROIC GUYS
Mujhe dekho. I am not a 6-footer, I'm 5 foot 4, I've always been scared of picking a fight, I have none of the things that a masculine hero in a film has. I wear chasma, I'm thin, I'm extremely nervous and that's why I connect to Woody Allen. So when I was writing, I have never been that guy, how can I write that guy? I have always liked the non-heroic guys and I think that is sometimes more relatable. And I'm not writing Baaghi 2 and Rambo, I'm not writing those films. So I don't have to do an introduction – jao gaana bajao, guitar ke saath raho. I don't have that. So I just decided that yahi theek hoga. But sometimes I feel that agar mein guitar ke saath Fawad ghoomke dikhata toh shayad 2-3 crore aur kamata.
ON FINDING A STYLE THAT WORKS FOR YOU
David Dhawan is the kind of person who's always thinking: How can I make the audience laugh? If I do this, will the audience laugh? If I do that, will the audience laugh? What's the most entertaining thing in Gaiety Cinema for that audience, what would they do? What kind of music will people dance to? And it's absolutely okay to be that kind of filmmaker and think like that. I can't think like that. I'm mostly thinking about my own story, how to make it more relatable. So it depends on what kind of filmmaker you are, your personality. If you are an entertainer, then you will do things because you want to entertain. If you are an intimate storyteller, then you will tell stories your way and I think it's important to stick to that. Sometimes, this happens to me – a movie becomes successful and you look at it and think, "Shit yaar, I should've done that." That's the worst thing. How then will you look different from others? The only way to look different from someone else is if you stay true to who you are.
ON WHY FILMMAKING IS LIKE A MAGIC TRICK
The only thing that will make you a better storyteller is actually sitting and understanding storytelling. It's one thing to watch a movie and another thing to study a film. When you watch, you can enjoy it, but when you study, sometimes you're not enjoying it. You're just understanding: Oh, that's how they're doing it. It's all hidden. There's no math, there's no calculation, but you have to crack it. When I watched some of Woody Allen's movies for the fifth time, sixth time, seventh time, I could see how he was putting it together. It's almost like breaking a magic trick. You can see how he's doing it and for me that was way more important than any advertising, any film school, anything that you can ever learnt – to just sit back and watch movies. Take your five best films, watch them five or six times, get bored of them, watch them and you'll start seeing these patterns of how they set up something, how they pay it off, how the first act ends, how the second act begins, where the midpoint is, how they raise your curiosity, how they pay it off. It's a magic trick. I'd met a fascinating magician from London recently and he said something amazing. He said, "It's all about storytelling. I'm not doing a magic trick, I'm telling you a story, but I'm telling it to you in a way where you give me the reaction I want." And that's what it's about.
ON THE SECRET TO DIRECTING ACTORS
When you start to direct, you want to control everything. You tell the actor, "Don't do this, do this." You tell the cameraman, "Don't do this, put it here." Because you feel that when you're directing, you must tell everyone what to do. One of the things that I was trying in Kapoor & Sons was to not control too many things. I was consciously telling myself, "Don't control it, just feel it." When you've written a scene, talk to an actor little bit, see what he's doing. And if he's a good actor like Fawad (was), you don't need to do too much. Don't tell him 13 times, "Do this, do that." You say, "Fawad, what do you like? How do you want to do this?" And you just sit back and watch. Then you go back and say, "Are you happy with it? You wanna do something else?" He's an intelligent guy so he'll say, "Okay, let's try it this way." Watch it again. Then if you feel that you can shape it in some way, you say, "Okay, I think that you're still hurting." That's what I told Ratna (Pathak): You're still hurting, you can't finish your sentence. So she would not finish her sentence. But don't tell them very specifically ki that's the expression I want. Give them a broad feeling. They're professional actors, they will figure out how to channel that energy.