Every once in a while, Homi Adajania resurfaces with a film. His career has followed a pattern, so far. If Being Cyrus(2006), an English language film set within the Parsi community, felt personal and idiosyncratic, Adajania seemed like a director-for-hire in Cocktail (2012), a rom-com with stars and songs. Then came Finding Fanny (2014), another English language film that had a distinct look and like Being Cyrus, was slightly crazy. It was, in Adajania's own words, "sort of an ode to the South American authors he has read."
The cycle seems to be repeating with his new and fourth film Angrezi Medium, starring Irrfan Khan, in the only film the actor has done after he was diagnosed with brain cancer. With its small town India setting (Udaipur), and authentic Hindi, among all his films, Angrezi Medium seems the farthest from his sensibilities.
Not surprisingly, his room at the Maddock Films office has posters of Being Cyrus and Finding Fanny. "Maybe because I wrote those two films," he says, when I meet him for the interview on a Saturday afternoon, a few days before the release of the film. The room has a terrace; it has books. There is a weird wooden structure that looks like a temple, an altar he picked up from a church that was being broken. "I love church art," he says. He filled it up with disparate objects: wooden blocks of crosses he picked up from Jodhpur; a figurine from Africa; and the centrepiece: a framed photo of a man in a suit with a dog's face. A professional scuba diving instructor, he may have spent more time under water than he has behind the camera. He tells me about how he survived a sinking diving vessel in shark infested deep Pacific in the Galapagos, near Ecuador back in 2013. It was 3 am at night; Adajania and others were sleeping when the boat hit a rock.
Adajania, who is married (to fashion stylist and costume designer Anaita Shroff), with two kids, says he now wants to do a free diving course, where you dive without equipment, so that he can swim with whales. "Whales get disturbed with gear. Because I just feel like there is such an almost spiritual connection with those animals… I want to dive with sperm whales," he says. He wants to try kite surf too, but the "older rugby injuries might be coming back to plague" him. "Maybe I'll go for a slightly slower sport," he says.
Adajania has always said that filmmaking is just one of his multiple interests. He never seems to be in a hurry to make his next—he has made 4 films in 16 years. "My producer (Dinesh Vijan, Maddock's top boss, who has been a producer in all of Adajania's films) claims I am his most expensive resource doing nothing. I told him if I ever write a book about myself I am going to call it One man's struggle to take it easy," he says, bursting out laughing.
Being Cyrus, Cocktail, Finding Fanny in 2014 and now, Angrezi Medium: it's like you make one for yourself and then make one for the producer.
You are rather intuitive, I must say, but this one was for myself as well as the producer. Angrezi Medium is my film. I don't think I would have had the calibre to write it, but this one we are really in alignment with, Dinesh Vijan and myself.
Was Cocktail not completely your film?
Oh, no, Cocktail was fully my movie. There's no question about it. It's just that… I don't think I make movies like other filmmakers approach their work. I do a lot of stuff in my life, film is just one of those things. The rest of my life is my full time job. Being Cyrus was something that happened because I wanted to have this extremely new, unknown experience. I love telling stories. I thought, 'Hey let me figure out the film medium. It's an interesting tool to tell stories.'
I guess ignorance is bliss at some level because I really didn't know how to make a movie then. For some reason nobody asked what I had made before. Everybody thought I was making ad films or something. I was actually sitting in Lakshadweep with my lungi on and teaching people how to scuba dive. Kersi Khambatta—co-writer of Being Cyrus and Finding Fanny—and I used to write for websites on travel and humour. One day, he just tucked this short story on my desk and said, 'Dude, just read this fictional story I have written. It's been rejected by a magazine because it is full of profanity'. I read it and said 'Wow I am going to make this into a movie'.
That's how you became a director. You weren't into cinema.
Not at all. I am a disgrace if you ask me questions about cinema. I wanted to tell a story through a visual medium. I didn't think it would be a big deal because I have a very visual mind. Even when I am describing things, I describe them very visually. I felt 'Okay, if this is in my head, all I have to do is hire the right technicians to get what's in my head out on to celluloid'. I actually thought it was as simple as that, and to a large degree it was.
Where do you think your knack for visuals comes from? Reading?
I think a lot to do with reading, because when you read you are actually creating the movie in your head. When I am reading I can smell the place I am reading about, so it really becomes a part of my… My dad was a great storyteller. He would come back from his travels and regale us with his stories and take us to those places. (His father was the President of the Indian Boxing Federation, who died of a heart attack, while he was in Budapest attending an international boxing clinic).
I think I have a decent handle on my craft. I'll not beat myself up if a film doesn't do too well…I don't think I've ever made a badly-made movie. I don't think I'm a great filmmaker. I'm sort of just about keeping my head above average.
Going back to Cocktail, when I was given the narration, I thought why the fuck will I tell this story? It sounds pretty blah to me. I said 'No' to it, but then one day I was sitting there and I realised, 'Forget the story, I am shying from this whole genre because I don't know how to do it. I don't know what all this naach gaana is about. It's not my sensibility'. As soon as I realised that, I knew that's why I am going to do it.
What I love about Dinoo is that he will wait for me to come and tell him and that I'm going to make the movie. He knows me inside out. He told me, 'Now you know why I wanted you to make this film. It's because you will spin it on its head.'
How did Angrezi Medium happen?
I heard the narration of Angrezi Medium and I was on the floor laughing. Then I was rolling on the floor crying, which was a little undignified. I asked him 'Have you got a director in this project? He said 'No'. I said 'I am directing it'. He said 'Fantastic, let's go'. It was as simple as that.
The world around us has become depressing, dark, and sad in a way. People have become so divisive. I just said: 'It's time to make people laugh, man. I want to give them the same feeling I felt listening to it'. I did't want to do a gag on gag kind of slapstick comedy, but a comedy with a soul. So it was a no brainer. And Irrfan and I have been wanting to collaborate for long time, and this was it, this was our chance. He and Deepak Dobriyal was already on board when I came in.
Why did it take so long for you to make another after Finding Fanny? Was it because it didn't do well commercially?
I don't know. I think I just live my life very instinctively. I don't make films just because of the money. I can't complain about the money, and I am lucky enough to be in a situation where I can make films when I want to. But I have a lot of other stuff to do yaar. I have snowboarding, diving, raise my kids, just spending time with myself. I love being alone. You can't do those things when you are constantly just churning out. That's not my trip. Too much other stuff to do, and life doesn't go on forever. Every time someone asks me, Why so long? I say 'I am not counting, why are you?
Finding Fanny broke even. It was a small release. Also, whether a film does commercially well or not, one thing I am very solid about is that I think I have a decent handle on my craft. I'll not beat myself up if a film doesn't do too well, unless you say 'This is a very badly made movie'. Then it's my responsibility. I don't think I've ever made a badly-made movie. I don't think I'm a great filmmaker. I'm, sort of just about, keeping my head above average.
Among all your films, Angrezi Medium seems the farthest from your sensibilities. At least Cocktail had an…
Urbanness. Yeah, I love character based films. I am not a big junkie for massive action films. I love the complexity of human beings and how bizarre they are as a species. I feel that we are all so interconnected as human beings because of our core emotions of love, happiness, sorrow, pain, that it doesn't matter which culture you come from, what language you speak. It's all a very universal thing. So that is never an issue, I know that I am going to get that out of my performances.
What I have to do is get the characteristics and the nuances of a place. That, for me, is the research. I have to spend time in a place, meet people who are like my characters. Often I meet people who are not like my characters, but then I take their characteristics and put them into my characters.
The actors in your films have an easy camaraderie between them. What's your process of directing actors?
The biggest folly of a director is to tell an actor how to act… For me it is more important to know the person, so that I am aware of what they can—and more importantly cannot do. A good actor has to pretend and not let you see the pretence. That's the quality I look for.
It has to be what the character is feeling at that point, and not anything else. And the magic of Irrfan is that. When I told him, 'Why do you look so stupid in your ads yaar?' He said 'I don't believe the character'. The fact is that once Irrfan believes in the character, regardless of anything, you can't make him do anything that the character would not do. He gets it so right that there is not a false note. For me, when I am watching my actors, if at any point I don't believe them, that's all I have to do: I have to just push them to that pitch of getting them there… It's all about being intuitive, connecting with another human being on a level where you know you can pull this out. There are so many outtakes in Cocktail where the actors didn't know the camera was rolling and I have used all the imperfections. And that makes it correct, because life is not perfect.
Deepika Padukone is considered to be a much more refined actor today, and Cocktail is often looked at as the film that changed her career.
It was. I think it was a week into the shoot when I sat her down and said, 'You are playing a character very far away from you. Veronica is a very cool, brazen, fearless kind of person. As soon as you try to act cool, you are not cool. You have to be cool'. I said 'Just trust me', and she said 'Okay, just tell me whatever you want me to do, I'll do it'. As soon as she did that, my god, look at where she went with that character. People didn't expect that from her, and that I think showed her in a new light.
Are you working on something?
I have written a story for a web series. Its called Saans Bahu aur Cocaine, and its about a family of women who live in this crumbling haveli in Kutch and they run this embroidery business but its actually just a front for cocaine cartel in South Asia and even the men in the family are unaware of it. It's a fun space, it's extremely mad.