YOU SHOULD KNOW is a small effort to shine a light on female filmmakers and artists in India who’ve made a big difference in the field. Because while you may know and admire a lot of their work, you may not know enough about them. That changes now.
When I first met Seema (Pahwa), she was playing Amma in Rajat Kapoor’s Ankhon Dekhi (2013). Before that she had done a gazillion films and plays, and yet, she was most easily placed as Badki from the 80s television show Hum Log. For a woman of her stature, this was quite a travesty. Ankhon Dekhi got her a lot of recognition and awards. One of them was the Screen Award for Best Supporting Actor in a film. Her mainstream breakthrough came from a surge of family friendly comedies like Dum Laga Ke Haisha and Shubhh Mangal Saavdhan. Suddenly everyone knew her as the scene-stealing star she always was. While people are still waking up to her legendary acting work, Seema decided to take on a big new challenge – directing her first film.
Almost 4 years ago, Seema wrote a script called Pind Daan, which she wanted to direct as well. The film had 16 primary characters and she didn’t want any big names in it. The woman really likes to make things hard for herself! She wouldn’t budge on her vision, even if it meant losing a big studio that was interested in making the film. The studio’s growing demands and decreasing budgets ended up in the project becoming studio-less – a decision the studio, to their credit, rues quite openly.
Soon after, Seema did an interview with Rajeev Masand where she spoke of her script and the hurdles she faced while making it. The interview was seen by a line producer at Drishyam films who brought it to their Business Head Raghav Gupta’s notice. Raghav and Manish Mundra read the script and the film was greenlit within 48 hours, and was renamed Ramprasad ke Tehrvi.
“More than being a veteran actor and other such labels, it’s Seema’s experience as an entertainer that’s her strength. She’s been an actor since the age of 5 and, of course, she gets how actors work,” says actor Vinay Pathak
Raghav raves about Seema’s clarity as a filmmaker. “From narration to execution, Seema was very clear at every front about the film she wanted to make. And that’s why she’s been able to pull off something exactly as she wanted,” he says. On what made Drishyam trust a first-time filmmaker with such an ambitious project, he says, “Seema’s theatre background gave us confidence that she will be able to handle the giant cast.” He was confident that Seema “has a knack of understanding actors, conflicts and emotions.”
Vinay Pathak who’s acted in Ramprasad ki Tehrvi seconds this. “More than being a veteran actor and other such labels, it’s Seema’s experience as an entertainer that’s her strength. She’s been an actor since the age of 5 and, of course, she gets how actors work. But she also knows how conflicts work in front of the camera,” he says, applauding her “sensitivity, earthiness and ability to get nuance”. “She gets that uniqueness into her writing, directing and her shot choices,” he adds.
Vinay also loves how she handles the set. “She made the ensemble cast into a family before they had to play a family!… It was like she got on the floor with a family. She didn’t come on set and then try to bring them together. It started in the table reads itself,” he says. The family-like quality of the set was hugely amped up by the fact that Seema herself loves to eat, feed, cook.“People have one big wrap party, we had wrap parties every other week! We’d catch up at someone or the other’s house, sit under the blanket, light a fire, and share stories,” adds Vinay.
When it came to editing the film, Seema brought her all-heart approach to that process as well. Dipika Kalra, the editor of Ramprasad ki Tehrvi, says she had the best time working with Seema. What made the process joyful was that Seema was super prepared and planned. “In the initial meeting, Seema was just narrating the story, the feeling behind it and what she is trying to say as opposed to plot, scenes etc,” says Dipika. While editing, there were times when hours would go in discussing ostensibly tangential things like scenes that were inspired from Seema’s real life. “She was very open about the real stories, the real people, her own family, career, kids, and so much more,” says Dipika, adding that this helped her connect more closely with the characters. “Seema’s attitude was so free…she was like ‘mujhe bas yeh film banani hai jaise mujhe banani hai…chhote bade festival mein jaaye na jaaye…iske baad film naa banaoo but yeh film dil se banani hai’,” she says.
Seema was honest enough to admit that while she knew emotions, she didn’t know everything about technique. But she’s ego-free when it came to relying on her team and their suggestions. Dipika gives the example of a song they were working on for an important sequence but were just not able to land. The scratch song they had composed was not working out. Multiple options were weighed, including removing the song altogether. Without telling Seema, Dipika changed the scratch and cut the scene to a “Pratik Kuhad-kind of song”.
Seema had never heard of the artists Dipika used but when she heard the finished piece, she loved the vibe. She was free enough to throw out her original ideas and the original track, and reworked the entire sequence.
Dipika also respects her for being a first-time female filmmaker who didn’t feel like she had to kow-tow to everyone. She fought for what she believed in, whether it was the producers or actors or crew. But also accepted when someone else’s suggestion was better than hers. Based on the outpouring of praise the film’s receiving post-MAMI this balance Seema maintained has resulted in a very cohesive, heartfelt and effective film. On a personal note, Dipika ends with saying that “I hope Seema makes more films and I get to do them all.” Amen to that.