When the theatres reopened in 2022 after the lockdown era, the Hindi film industry was not prepared for what followed. While restaurants basked in the success of ‘revenge dining’ and tourism saw spikes with people making the most of being able to get out of the house, ticket sales for Hindi films hinted at a different story. Films like , and (all from 2022) tanked despite being headlined by some of Bollywood’s biggest names. Meanwhile Telugu, Tamil and Kannada broke box-office records and made “pan-Indian” the mantra of the year. Perhaps the only and brightest silver lining for the cloud that was 2022 for Bollywood is that some of the best Hindi films of the year were by debutant directors. We spoke to four of them — (Doctor G), (Darlings), (An Action Hero) and (Good Luck Jerry) — about what they learned from their experiences of making their first films.
Anubhuti Kashyap didn’t begin with filmmaking ambitions of her own, but after assisting on films like Aamir (2008) and Dev D (2009) she realised her brother, director and producer Anurag Kashyap, had been right to push her towards the film industry. Kashyap’s first film was not one of her own ideas, but a project that she was commissioned to do. “I was contacted by Junglee Pictures, who told me they are looking for a female director to deal with this subject. I agreed to come on board for Doctor G, while asking that I be allowed to rewrite the script,” she said.
Kashyap, who has also directed the Prime Video series , was faced with different challenges while making Doctor G. “While Afsos gave me more independence and I was totally free to deliver the final output, the pressure to keep things accessible and palatable in Doctor G was much higher,” she said. Plus, she had a cast with bona fide stars, like Shefali Shah and Ayushmann Khurrana. “I was nervous about directing the senior actors, conscious of not pushing too much, while ensuring I get what I want. And to top it, we didn’t have any time to rehearse prior to shooting, due to the onset of the second wave of Covid.”
Part of the challenge of shooting Doctor G was managing two shooting schedules, one of which was in Bhopal and the other in Allahabad. The tonality of the domestic scenes between Uday (Khurrana) and his mother (Sheeba Chadha) were very different from those set in the medical college, where Shefali Shah plays the dean and Uday is surrounded by his classmates including Fatima (Rakul Preet Singh). “We began the schedule straight with the sequence where Fatima and her friends rag Uday,” said Kashyap, recalling the start of the Allahabad schedule. “That scene was much longer in its first cut, with many things happening including Uday being asked to spank Fatima, before we decided to remove them from the final edit.”
Kashyap was keenly aware that Doctor G couldn’t risk being seen as either preachy or pompous. “There were already apprehensions about how the audience would receive a subject like this,” she pointed out. After all, with a male gynaecologist as its protagonist, Doctor G could easily have fallen prey to the problem of a male gaze combined with a saviour complex. Later, when the film released, Kashyap was constantly checking Twitter for audience reactions and felt relieved that most were positive.
“Your experience of 10 years goes out the window when you arrive, first day, on the set as the director. That’s when you realise that film-making is equally about people management,” said Anirudh Iyer, whose An Action Hero sees Ayushmann Khurrana and Jaideep Ahlawat go on a wild chase across England while also delivering a thriller that is a deeply meta hat-tip to commercial Hindi cinema. Iyer studied filmmaking in London before returning to India to work and he’s worked as an assistant on films like Tanu Weds Manu Returns (2015) and (2018). Shooting during the Covid-19 pandemic posed challenges, like having to shoot in a bio-bubble during the outdoor schedule. “More and more of our crew members were getting Covid, while the new crew was allowed to join us only after seven days’ quarantine,” Iyer remembered. Most of his crew were young newcomers with little to no experience, which perhaps gave the project a different kind of energy. For Iyer, being the captain of this ship was a steep and valuable learning curve. “It sounds clichéd, but you’ve got to have 100% clarity and confidence about what you want. There are 10 decisions a minute to be taken, everyone will have the smallest of questions — and you can answer them, fight for your stance, only if you are sure about your vision. I took it one day at a time, knowing every morning exactly what I wanted that day. It worked,” he said.
“Working as an assistant taught me the importance of getting one’s hands dirty and learning about all the departments. That way, you see the whole film come to life,” said Jasmeet Reen, whose streaming feature Darlings also saw actor Alia Bhatt make her debut as a producer. To shoot this black comedy about domestic abuse, Reen and her team had to authentically recreate a chawl-like setting in the predominantly-Muslim neighbourhood of Byculla. “My DOP [director of photography] Anil Mehta and production designer Garima Mathur visited the locations with me, observed the use of bright, primary colours, the chaos of those small spaces and how they made use of it, before coming up with ideas of their own,” said Reen, who began her career in advertising before shifting to filmmaking and working as an assistant on films like Musafir (2004) and Zinda (2006).
Darlings stood out for the way it treated the subject of domestic abuse, weaving together comedy, pain, menace and rage to create a cinematic tapestry that was entertaining without losing sight of the trauma of a domestic abuse survivor. “The trick was to get all actors on the same page, but I always knew the mood and tone of the film, and the emotional graph of the characters,” said Reen. As director and co-writer (with Parveez Shaikh) of Darlings, Reen had to constantly remind herself to not be married to the script. While shooting the scene in which police officers come to talk to Badru (Bhatt) and her mother Shamshu (Shefali Shah) in Badru’s home, at the last minute, they decided to make one of the cops a woman. “It led to a funny, beautiful moment where Zulfi (Roshan Mathew) mistakenly points at the female cop while confessing his feelings for Shamshu,” recalled Reen. “That moment only elevated the film.”
Like Kashyap, Siddharth Sen was brought in to direct the streaming feature He’d worked with Aanand L. Rai, who had told Sen, “I won’t let you leave my production house till you’ve made a film for me”, and the project that he suggested Sen take up was the official adaptation of the Tamil film, (2018). “My first instinct was to say ‘no’, given it was a remake, and I as a first-timer wanted to express my voice,” said Sen. However, once he came on board, Sen decided to find ways to adapt the story without robbing it of the original’s soul. “My writer Pankaj Matta and I decided to set it in Punjab,” said Sen. “He brought his knowledge of the space while I suggested making the main characters Bihari, playing with the themes of migration and outsiders fitting in. We travelled to many cities in Punjab, before zeroing down on Patiala as the backdrop, and then wrote the scenes around those spaces and landscapes. My insecurities pushed me to turn the script around, and take it into a different space.”
For Sen, one of the most memorable scenes was the dumb charade sequence in which various characters resort to mime to introduce themselves to Malik the druglord. Sen and Matta rewrote that scene the night before the shoot. There was no time to second-guess themselves and they went with the rewrite on set. “Sometimes, we all wait for magic to happen on set. Till release, we weren't sure if it was working. I was confident of its novelty, but not whether it would resonate with the audience. First-timers’ doubts very quickly. Everybody was telling me it won’t work, advising me to trim it, add music etc. Thankfully, Aanand Sir suggested not to touch it, and we retained the scene to its original duration,” said Sen.
Shooting for Good Luck Jerry finished in March 2021, but after that, the film was stuck on the edit table for the next 11 months since Rai was busy with the two films he was directing. The extended period of time that Sen got seemed to be a boon initially because it meant he had time to make changes. “One must not overthink, nor over-listen. I showed it to too many people - gradually, such a process kills your instinct and your idea gets adulterated. We have to take feedback, but the challenge is to balance it out,” he said.