Shakun Batra: “It is impossible to grow without being uncomfortable”

The director made his debut 11 years ago with Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu and has established himself as one of Hindi cinema’s most sensitive storytellers
Shakun Batra: “It is impossible to grow without being uncomfortable”

For Shakun Batra, the past is not foreign territory. Rather, it’s the bedrock of the present, steeped with secrets, unanswered questions and heartbreak. The past inevitably creeps up on the characters in a Shakun Batra story, which almost always masquerades as a romance before revealing itself to be something very different. For instance, Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu (2012), starring Kareena Kapoor Khan and Imran Khan, seems like a romantic comedy with its teasing, warm banter — until the final 30 minutes. The conflict between them is simple: Rahul is in love with Rianna and Rianna isn’t. While this is novel in itself, its treatment is even more so. The song that follows their row – “Teri Aahatein”, sung in the soothing voices of Karthik and Shilpa Rao – picturises a quintessential lovers’ spat. Their misery is given equal ground: If Rahul wallows in bed, Rianna walks around in an empty daze.

If a Hindi film allows its hero the disgrace of being rejected by the love of his life, it’s almost always because of The Other Man. Much like a persistent dudebro at a bar, Bollywood’s hero is ready to (reluctantly) give up his place at the woman’s table only if it is being occupied by another man. Unless, of course, it’s a Shakun Batra film. In Batra’s world, friendship – even when it is between a man and a woman – leaks into love. It is a nod towards the undeniably grey nature of relationships and Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu was a tiny but profound step away from the simplification of love in mainstream Hindi cinema. 

Over 11 years, Batra has only taken longer and more experimental strides in this direction. His last feature Gehraiyaan (2021) showed a genre shift that few expected and opened to polarising opinions. Until Gehraiyaan, the audience associated Batra best with his 2016 family drama, Kapoor & Sons. He has faced accusations of writing stories featuring only privileged characters (though nobody can deny that these characters are also riveting). In the three films he’s made so far, Batra has introduced us to nuanced personas brought to life by some of the most talented actors in the industry: Alia Bhatt, Ratna Pathak Shah, Rajat Kapoor, Deepika Padukone, Fawad Khan, Kareena Kapoor Khan, to name a few. The emotional tangles they must unravel differ, but Batra’s characters invariably have a few things in common: A secret, a terrible past and its irrevocable damage. 

If his output seems “slow”, Batra admitted to feeling a lot of pressure at the passing of a decade. “A part of me was like, ‘Ten years and three films? That’s it?” he said while talking to Film Companion. “But another part was thinking that the 20-year-old me would be very proud that I managed to make films.” Batra spoke to us about his inspirations and the existential questions that form the core of his storytelling. Edited excerpts below. 

Shakun Batra: “It is impossible to grow without being uncomfortable”
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I’m curious to know if you see yourself as a romance director.

I don't think I've ever boxed myself into believing this is who I am, but at the same time, I like to believe everyone has strengths and weaknesses. If tomorrow morning I woke up and said “I want to do an experimental action film”, then I think that would be weird in some way. 

There are things that come from a real place inside me and then there are things I wish I could do. If I have to talk about the things that come from a real place within me, it would always come from a place of relationships, interpersonal dynamics, existential problems etc. Romance? No! I'm a very practical, sometimes too cruel and non-romantic director. My friends laughed at me when Kapoor & Sons released, [and asked] “How come your last movie was so emotional? You're not capable of it!” Maybe it's a way for me to go through these cathartic feelings without having to go through them myself. 

I don't box myself. I'll likely try a few things, but then certain things I like and certain things I don't like. I don't enjoy fantasy and I've to say this, I've never even been a huge fan of Star Wars. To say I can be any kind of director is a no, but there are certain kinds of things that are more organic to me. 

But you do see a thematic throughline in your work?

I think three films are too few to start finding thematics. But sometimes you meet people or you read something and someone has brought up a connection. That surprises you because it feels right, but it's not something you thought of. So it feels right that somebody has drawn that parallel and it feels right for someone to have seen it, but I'm not sure if I thought of it like that. There are certain parts of me that are looking for some resolution or answers to certain things about relationships and the irony of life. How much of us is governed by our past? How much of us is governed by fate? What is the bigger thing? Fate or your choices? These are things that interest me as a human being, [not just] as a director. When I'm making a film, what if I put this question out there? So there are always themes in my head and I see if I can put them into my film.

A still from Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu.
A still from Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu.

You’ve called Gehraiyaan “a bit of a foreign animal” but one can sense this need to step away from the mainstream in Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu too – especially in 2012. Was that ending and its unrequited love a reaction to the oversimplification of love in Hindi films?

It's not that I'm trying to actively run away from the mainstream. It's just that I'm not that person. I would be cheating myself into telling a story a different way. Now, it sounds a bit controversial for me to say that Annie Hall (1977) and Woody Allen films were a huge inspiration to me in film school. Annie Hall was a film where I went “Oh! This is how relationships actually feel to me in real life. So why am I not seeing something like this on screen?”  Then I had seen the newer independent American directors coming in the early to mid-2000s. I felt like this is the tone and the voice that I connect with. These are the kind of relationships I would love to portray on-screen. It was me just trying to put that out (there) and at that time I didn't know what works and doesn't work in the industry. It was just instinctive and what felt right to me.

Something that I find interesting is that although love stories play a big role in your films, there’s always a dysfunctional family dynamic that’s brewing in the background. What about dysfunctional parenting fascinates you as a storyteller?

It's not that I have some hidden angst against my parents and I'm trying to communicate that. I'm constantly going back to see the actions of my parents and how they have shaped them and shaped me. I’m constantly trying to draw patterns and parallels between what happened and how that conspired us into [becoming] who we are today and can we break free from that? Can you break free from the conditioning that was given to you by your family? So, that would be a parallel in all films.

Imran (Khan) in the first film is trying to break free of the conditioning. He's so caught up in trying to please his parents and trying his best to fit into this image that his parents want of him. Then eventually he decides to break free – I had put in that moment where he takes off his tie and throws it from the car – that, for me, was that moment. In Kapoor & Sons, it was the same pressure. You want to be liked by your parents or want to be accepted and you’re living(up) to that image. Even there, they come to a moment of heartbreak, confession – a very hard confession – and maybe try to have a newer meaning of what a family really is. In Gehraiyaan, it's the same thing. There is an event that happened when Deepika (Padukone) and Ananya (Pandey) as characters were young in the film and that shattered and broke them as a unit. Now their lives have gone in completely different ways. Deepika (Padukone) is constantly feeling betrayed by her life and she wants to even it out in some way. That affair is a manifestation of wanting to even out the gap she feels has come in between their lives. There's a scene, very early on, where she (Deepika Padukone) is in bed with her boyfriend and she says, “Isn't it funny when we were young all our lives were exactly the same and now all our lives are so different.” And everything from there on is a way to balance that gap.

I feel I failed to communicate those things clearly, but those are the things that are playing in my mind. That's always the question – do you shape your life or does your life shape you? That dichotomy has probably been the central existential question that I have been trying to find. Not that I have answers for it but it's always been fun to explore from different points of view and angles. 

Ratna Pathak Shah in Kapoor & Sons.
Ratna Pathak Shah in Kapoor & Sons.
The climax in Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu.
The climax in Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu.

You’ve played with tension in each of your films very differently. In Ek Main…, you build tension that gives way to catharsis. In Kapoor & Sons, this tension is amped up, with multiple explosive scenes before the final tragedy. In Gehraiyaan, you do not allow that release at all, even in the last minute of the film. 

For me, a lot of Gehraiyaan was trying to get that feeling of anxiety, even in the audience. Anxiety happens when you suppress things. … In Gehraiyaan because Deepika's character was someone going through deep anxiety, I wanted to see if I can communicate that emotion to the audience. It was coming from a place of whether I can make the audience feel anxious towards the last 30 minutes of the film. Some of it worked. But a lot of Gehraiyaan for me was about [wondering], “If I did it like that, will it pay off better or work better?”

In Kapoor & Sons, my gaze, thematics and what I was trying to say, I had put out a lot more clearly to the audience. With Rajat Kapoor's death, it was a surprise that life can bring and how we are all running short of time. It's for us to make these decisions now while we can talk to our parents and people. Whereas in Gehraiyaan, my gaze didn't get communicated maybe because I didn't underline it enough thematically. I also felt like the plot started to take on and take over what I wanted the audience to feel with the characters. That's something even Anu (Anupama Chopra) and I spoke about in Ladakh as well. It was something that slowly dawned upon me that the plot took the front seat and not the characters. I know I can fix it now but it's (also) a good learning. With every film you learn something and you go, “Oh, I'll try this differently.”

I found Zain (played by Siddhant Chaturvedi in Gheraiyaan) to be the most distinct out of all your characters. All the others seem to be guided by the kind of alert conscience we associate with “good people” – even when they cheat, they’re loyal to at least the people they’re cheating with. Which is how Zain comes across as in the beginning, until he can’t afford to be that way. What was it like to craft a character like his?

I think that's a great question. Funnily, I was thinking about that the day before when I was watching Jane Campion's first movie called Sweetie (1989). I felt that it would be great to explore characters who don't share the same kind of conscience that you have because you are trying to put yourself in somebody else's headspace. You meet so many people in the city and they may have similar backgrounds as you but they are on a different level of awareness. Their conscience dictates them differently. 

With Zain, I was trying to go into somebody's [mind] who has been through a certain kind of life and made choices because of that conditioning. And how I don't have that conditioning [or] you don't have that conditioning. Also, I wanted to see what happens when a mind goes into a darker place. How does it slowly creep into that psychologically? Did I entirely succeed? No. I could now prepare the audience to arrive at that moment with him and that's where you feel the gap. The way you can make people empathise is when [a character] makes a bad decision, you make them feel that if they were in that place, they would do the same. With Zain's character I couldn't take you on that journey far enough for you to get that. I did try to plant it, but I don't know if I underlined it enough for everyone to follow that keenly. I want to try more to explore characters that are not necessarily like me and are at a different level of awareness. Because not everyone is alert and aware at all times.

Siddhant Chaturvedi and Ananya Panday in Gehraiyaan.
Siddhant Chaturvedi and Ananya Panday in Gehraiyaan.

Secrets play a big role in your stories. Does that have to do with the nature of love? Or family?

The secrets are ways of exploring the past. Something that has happened in the past and how that is dictating you and it happens with secrets. [Secrets] dictate your current life. You feel that if you suppress something and move on, it will stop affecting you. Whereas I have the [opposite] philosophy – if you suppress something, it is most definitely going to affect you. For me, it is fascinating that you suppress and try to forget something because you don't want it to influence your life. But the moment you do that, you've given your power away. All my characters are trying to break that chain but sometimes it’s too late. You don't know how to do it. Again, going back to my obsession with the past and the past trying to control us. Secrets somewhat play as a device for me to explore that.

If you could speak to Shakun from 11 years ago, is there something you would ask him to keep and something to let go of?

No. Obviously, I was very nervous [since] it was my first film. Today, I can be like, “Be less nervous and things will be alright.” But at that time, you don't know any better. Every little thing that you go through is a way for you to learn something and it's the universe trying to help you grow. When it happens to you, just take it with pride and grace. [That’s the only thing] I would like to [tell] myself in the past: Be graceful along the way. Would I take a shot differently? Would I do a film differently? Sure. But those are not the real things that I would change because they are learnings. It is impossible to grow without being uncomfortable. So I won't take away, so to say, the discomfort and it wasn't much, honestly. A lot of nervousness and anxiety, which I still go through and it's fine. 

I see people struggle so much to live their dreams and for me to know that I'm doing exactly what I wanted to do is so amazing. All of the other things are okay if I don't go bankrupt and continue to [work]. No, I mean, I want to flourish, to do things and say more because the universe has been kind enough that it has allowed me to come this far. I'm hoping that if I don't go crazy and am sincere towards my work then maybe I can continue to do things I love.

The only thing I'll tell my 18-year-old self is that I'm so glad you fought. You fought for your dreams. It's one of those decisions I didn't know how important it was then. Something in me said, “Get out of your family business. You have to do something else, do something with a camera.” I don't look down at my younger self. It's the smartest version of me that's ever [existed]. Now I'm in the industry and it feels like I’m informed and it's a measured choice. The 18-year-old self didn't take a measured choice. It said 'Fuck you' and that was the most important 'Fuck you’ ever.

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