Director Vishal Bhardwaj on Writing a Great Adaptation

The director’s latest works are Charlie Chopra & The Mystery of Solang Valley, and Khufiya
Director Vishal Bhardwaj on Writing a Great Adaptation

Filmmaker Vishal Bhardwaj knows a thing or two about finding the right words, like how he adapted the soliloquy in Hamlet into a feral Lal Chowk scene in Haider (2014), where Shahid Kapoor looks like he’s possessed. Or rebranding an urbane hero like Saif Ali Khan by unearthing his finest acting moment in Omkara (2006). While making his now-seminal film, Maqbool (2003) – a year after his directorial debut in Makdee (2002) – Bhardwaj said he took liberties “left, right and centre” with William Shakespeare, because he didn’t expect anyone to take it seriously. 

“I was ignorant – which is why three witches became two Mumbai cops, the forest became the sea,” Bhardwaj said to Film Companion. But once people started to take note of Maqbool, he realised the cost of his irreverence. By the time he set his eyes on another Shakespeare adaptation, Othello, which became Omkara (2006) – he knew he would be scrutinised. “I was conscious I had to somehow bring back the mental state of abandon, while I was making Maqbool.” 

Bhardwaj has built his career on adaptations. Apart from Shakespeare and Ruskin Bond, Bhardwaj turned Bertolt Brecht’s Mr Puntila and his man Matti (1948) into Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola (2013). Talking about his mantra, Bhardwaj said one must fully own the material they’re adapting: “Beyond the plot of the source material, it’s my expression. I’m the author of this – Shakespeare didn’t write Haider, Maqbool or Omkara. I did. I should be visible in these works,” he said. According to the writer-director-composer, the hallmark of any good adaptation is to make them forget the source material. “If someone is thinking about the source material while watching a film, then the battle is already lost,” said Bhardwaj.

A still from Makdee
A still from Makdee

After being away from Indian screens for nearly five years – barring a short film in the Modern Love: Mumbai anthology – Bhardwaj returns this month with two back-to-back streaming releases: Charlie Chopra and the Mystery of Solang Valley (a six-episode Agatha Christie murder mystery) on SonyLIV, and Khufiya (based on Amar Bhushan’s Escape to Nowhere) on Netflix.

Bhardwaj spoke to Film Companion about six adaptation choices he made, offering insight into his process as a writer-director:

Finding the Second Half of The Blue Umbrella (2005)

When I read that story, I immediately loved it. I bought the rights from Ruskin Bond, but I didn’t know what to do with it, because it obviously didn’t offer itself up for a feature film. But I loved it so much that I knew I wanted to make it into a film. For about a year and a half, it was just lying with me. One day I was strolling with my co-writer Minty Tejpal. I told him how I was struggling with the second half of this beautiful story – after just half a page he (shopkeeper Nandu) is found out and ostracised. What’s a way to delay the process? This conversation gave me an idea about this folktale I’d heard long back, where a seer falls into blue paint before going to an Englishman, and everyone assumes he’s the head of the jungle. And then one day, rain comes down and it washes away his paint and he gets found out. This idea that Nandu could get the stolen umbrella painted, really gave me wings and I finished the script in the next month. 

The pathos in the climax is Ruskin Bond — it has this punch. Both of them learn something from the incident. When Nandu says “you’ve forgotten your umbrella” – and the girl responds with, “It’s not my umbrella.” It’s such a great conclusion, Ruskin Bond is such a great writer.

Shahid Kapoor in Haider
Shahid Kapoor in Haider

Rooting the Paranormal (witches, ghosts) in Real Life

With Shakespeare – there’s always one thing I know instinctively, is if you crack one parallel first – then you’ve found the world. In Macbeth, I thought these were witches because they’re the ones that drive him mad. So when we began writing the film, Abbas (Tyrewala) and I were thinking who might make the best witches. We both concluded that it would have to be these two gleeful Mumbai cops – Pandit and Purohit [played by Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah] – since they’re obsessed with astrology and predictions. 

Again in Hamlet, the Ghost is an essential part to get right. The rest of the plot is there. In Hamlet, the Ghost comes within the first five minutes. In Haider, I wanted to introduce him around the interval point. We could’ve easily made the Ghost character – someone from the paranormal – but I didn’t want to do that. That came from Basharat (Peer, co-writer). He told me many stories. One story was of Basharat’s friend’s father, who was abducted when things were pretty uncertain in Egypt. He’d sent this article to me – it read that a co-prisoner of that friend’s father was trusted with the message “I’m alive”. When the uprising settled down, and the friend went about in search for his father – he’d died by then. The incident really affected me. 

Irrfan Khan in Maqbool
Irrfan Khan in Maqbool

Another thing Basharat told me was how “suspects” in Anantnag were shot, tied together and thrown into the Jhelum. In one such incident, somehow the rope came undone, and the water was so cold, their blood froze, and one of them survived. In Basharat’s book as well, the one who survived narrates the story. So, we combined these two stories to sculpt the character of Roohdar – the man coming back from the dead, carrying a message from the beyond.

Jumping off the Casting Cliff Like No One Else

On Saif Ali Khan – It’s a very instinctive process. I saw Saif’s work in Dil Chahta Hai (2001), and I immediately knew he was someone who had the fire in him to do something different. Before that, Saif’s voice and his entire persona was so different, and you could see he had worked on himself. I realised he’s a fighter and he has a lot of untapped potential in him.

On Sunil Grover – I’d met him once on an episode of The Kapil Sharma Show (2016) and a couple of times at the airport, and I’d realised he was a very intelligent man. You obviously have to be smart to have that kind of humour rolling. 

On Ali Fazal – I’d seen a bit of his performance in Mirzapur (2018). I didn’t know him as a person – and then during the pandemic, I saw one of his films (The Underbug) featuring him and Hussain Dalal – shot by my dear friend Tasadduq Hussain, and directed by Shujaat Saudagar. Ali’s performance is really something in that. I met him at one of the parties, and I realised what he’d done in Shujaat’s film was different from how he’d approached his character in Mirzapur. I wanted this multifacetedness in the character of Ravi. He should have the flamboyance for the good life, expensive watches – but should also be completely believable as a loving husband, father and an obedient son. That’s why I thought he’ll be very unusual for the part. (Ali Fazal is a part of Bhardwaj’s Netflix movie Khufiya.)

On Wamiqa Gabbi – I was supposed to work with her on Midnight’s Children. She’d been finalised as a lead of the show, after auditioning many girls from all over the country. I found her to be this really emotionally-intelligent, sensitive person and a really good actor.

Imran Khan and Anushka Sharma in Matru ki Bijlee Ka Mandola
Imran Khan and Anushka Sharma in Matru ki Bijlee Ka Mandola

Unfortunately, we couldn’t make it. It was supposed to be one of the most expensive shows back then – we’d finalised Wamiqa and Siddhant Gupta. The industry came to know about it, and that’s how they were pitched for Jubilee (2023). I thought her’s was one of the most interesting parts of Khufiya

Many actors were apprehensive about playing a mother to a five-year-old boy. It’s such a stupid norm we have in our industry – everyone thinks if they play a mother to a boy once, they’ll be typecast as a ‘mother’ in all their movies. Wamiqa trusted me blindly – she said she’ll do whatever is needed of her, for the film. And she came through. I was right. She has so much fire and intelligence, she was so raw when we shot Khufiya.

“Hum Hai Ke Hum Nahi” in Haider

Again, it was so important to get ‘To be or not to be’ right. It’s one of those lines from Hamlet. Before making Haider, I’d read a lot of adaptation work that had happened around Hamlet from all over the world. I remember reading an Arabic adaptation – I don’t remember what it was called, only remember it was a really fat book – I vaguely remember they adapted ‘To be or not to be’ into “Do we exist or do we not?” I thought it was a really beautiful phrase, and it resonated so well with Kashmir. So, I had two choices – "Main rahoon ke main nahi?" – which I used in an earlier scene with Shahid in it. But later in the film, it became "Hum Hai Ke Hum Nahi" – which I thought was such a poetic and musical phrase. 

Tabu in Khufiya
Tabu in Khufiya

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as Salman & Salman in Haider 

During our research for Haider – we found the entire Kashmir youth was obsessed with Salman Khan. In fact, there was one militant who had his hairstyle from Tere Naam (2003), and he was called Tere Naam – very few people knew his real name. An entire generation of Kashmiri youth had that Tere Naam hairstyle, I was so amused by this tid-bit from my research. Also, I’m a huge fan of Thompson and Thompson from Tintin, and that’s how it became Salman and Salman.  

Gulaabo – The Pink Buffalo in Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola

When we were researching (for) the film – we came across something that said when people cross their limits of alcoholism, they begin to hallucinate pink elephants. It’s a medically reported thing about recurring cases of those afflicted with alcoholism. We thought, instead of, a pink elephant – maybe a pink buffalo is a more interesting, bizarre choice, consistent with the tone of the film. 

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