Many would agree that Sairat is one of the most significant Indian films in the recent years. Officially adapting such a loved film is a brave choice. Did people tell you that this was a bad idea?
Not really, because my need to adapt this film was so instinctive. I remember watching it and immediately thinking that I need to tell this story. It really inspired me. I don’t know why or how or what I was going to do differently but I felt a need to tell this story. I remember calling up Karan (Johar) from the car just after seeing it and telling him that I need to adapt this film. Next day, we saw it together and he said, “If you’re making the same film then I’m not interested. But if you can bring a new voice to it, tell me what it is and then we can consider it.” I took him over what I wanted to tell, what I want to retain, what I want to change, and why it should be an adaptation and not a new film.
We took that story to Zee who were very happy to hear our version of it. We were sure we’re making this film in June 2016, before Badrinath Ki Dulhania released. After that film released I had many other opportunities that were bigger in terms of commercial spaces but I was very sure I had to tell this story. Today when I see the film I’m very proud of it. I think I’ve done as much justice to Sairat as possible. I’ve kept my own voice and stayed faithful to the original.
Is that hard to achieve–balancing your own voice and the essence of the original text?
It is only hard if the idea is to manipulate, which was never the case. I remember in July 2016 I saw the film for the third time and after that I stopped watching it and have not seen it since. I wanted to make sure that when I’m writing Dhadak, I’m writing with an honest, new perspective to it. Of course, a lot of the scenes are the same because they fit into the grammar of the film. But what was important to me is that I need to tell the stories of the characters I’ve chosen honestly.
How have you addressed the politics of Sairat?
That is inherent in the culture of India. The politics of caste, class, economic structure and then the politics of power run throughout India. I’ve been very true to that and tried to engage it as much as possible in the movie, keeping the essence of the love story. So there’s been a conscious effort to keep these issues as present as they are in society and not meddle with it.
In fact the politics of all these emotions are there from the first frame to the last frame of the movie on a subtext level. In a lot of the scenes it comes to the surface, deals with it and goes back. But all these elements are present throughout–the way the characters speak, the detailing of their language, and the way they address each other–all of that communicates what power, caste, class do to you.
Have you spoken to Nagraj Manjule through this process?
Never in my life. I’ve been waiting to meet him. It was important to not speak also because I felt that everything he wanted to say was there in the movie to see. It could have been that if I spoke to him I could have got influenced by certain thoughts of his. I didn’t want to take that risk. I’m sure when he sees it, it will be as an audience and a filmmaker and then we can have a chat. But it was important for me to retain my voice and let it be original. In fact our teams are trying to figure showing the film to him and the actors before it releases and get their opinions.
Nagraj Manjule has said that growing up he never identified with Bollywood because what he saw on screen was so different from his reality. So the entire idea of making Sairat was to subvert Bollywood clichés and formula and show that it can still be entertaining. What happens when the film is now being adapted by Dharma that embraces larger-than-life Bollywood films?
I don’t think Dharma celebrates clichés. We make films that are entertaining and having said that Sairat is itself entertaining. What I loved about it is that it has a little bit of Bollywood in it. The way the songs were shot and the slow motions come into the movie, it almost made you believe that when two young people fall in love, they believe that their love story is the greatest ever. For me that was the most beautiful part–that it wasn’t treated as a film that was too real. It gets stark in the second half but the first half has a larger-than-life quality that makes you feel that this is life and when people fall in love, life does start feeling like a Bollywood musical.
Dhadak is also a massive launchpad for two new actors, Jahnvi Kapoor and Ishaan Khatter. Does that make your job as a filmmaker more complex? Do you feel more responsible towards them?
No, not really. My responsibility is towards my film and characters. The only extra responsibility I had was that when people see the film, they don’t look at these two kids as newcomers but as characters of the film. If they look like two kids doing their debut film then somewhere I have failed as a filmmaker.
Luckily, they have more time and you can prep with them and take them for recces. Sometimes you don’t have that luxury when you’re working with established names. They’re ready to learn, observe everything and mould themselves into the character. Also they react to things differently. I remember thinking I’ve never seen reactions like this. There’s great fun in watching two new people on screen.
If one looks at your entry into Dharma Productions, there’s a lot of hope in that story for newcomers. You pitched 6 films to the creative team and finally one of them clicked. Through that journey, what did you learn about the writing and pitching process?
From the time I passed out of film school and started assisting people, the scripts I used to read were not the best, they were just the ones that got made. Sometimes you wonder how a certain film got made but when you read the script, you realise something about it was entertaining and got the producer’s attention. That influenced my journey of learning to write.
With every script I realised that some things are unnecessary to write in the first draft. Sometimes you spend too much time explaining the set-up. There would be too much detailing. I remember writing a location as ‘EXT – Old Bandra Flat – Day’. In four lines you know exactly what I mean so you don’t need to over-explain how the walls were cracking, etc. So I started learning those things.
We were also very fortunate that there was lesser talk about insiders and outsiders in my time. It gave us more hope. I really feel there’s too much discussion happening about the wrong things today. I’ve started seeing that young students have got so influenced by this debate that they have started believing that if you’re not from a film family, you’re not going to make it. This can be very damaging.