AC: Sriram, how do you direct actors? Because the acting in your films is just so wonderful. What Tabu or Ayushmann Khurrana did in Andhadhun or what Saif Ali Khan did in Ek Hasina Thi – these are people who we hadn't seen do this before and then they did it. And they did it exceedingly well. So is there something you follow in terms of handling actors?
Sriram Raghavan: Number one, these are good actors. I don't think good actors need to be directed, simply because it might spoil things. So I am not rigid in that sense. But actually, our job is to direct the audience. For example, I had Tabu in that film. She's a terrific actor. We had, of course, discussed the script and the scenes and there were some scenes where she felt, "Will I actually do this?"
There was a little tension in the scene where she had to chuck out that old lady from the balcony in Andhadhun. "It's not the old lady," I said, "it's the stunt girl wearing a wig!" Then I told my assistants to just do the action sequence and she did it. My fight master was saying, "It is really simple ma'am, just pick and throw! That's all!" So, everybody was laughing about it.
There was not much of telling actors what to do. Basically you get them in the character and let them understand it. We let them read the scene.
For example, when I was with Nawaz [Nawazuddin Siddiqui] and Varun [Dhawan] in Badlapur, I used to look forward to how Nawaz would improvise in a scene. I used to tell him, "this is the scene, this is the dialogue, this is written, this is not written. You don't say it exactly like this but, please don't forget this part has to come here." I always used to say something like that to him. I used to tell this to him in the morning, so he used to internalize it by the time of the shoot. So when he'd come in, there'll be a sense of surprise.
Varun told me, "Don't ask me to improvise, I go out of character." He's prepared in a certain way. But sometimes that certain way is superb, sometimes it's not. We have to try different things. Usually we tell them, "More deadpan! More deadpan! Do nothing!" So that is the hardest thing to tell any actor to "just do nothing."
AC: I remember, Sriram, just before Badlapur, I did an interview with you and Varun, and Varun was talking about that scene where his wife dies, and he said that he grabbed her and shook her so hard and gave it every inch of emotion that he had. And when he was done, he thought, "This is it! I'm winning an Oscar!" And you just looked at him and said, "Can you just tone down a little?" Is that a struggle for you, Sriram, to tell actors that come from a more flamboyant style of acting to just tone it down a bit?
Sriram: I mean, it's just a matter of a couple of scenes, and then everything starts getting a vibe. Sometimes, I perform it and show them, but I'm so bad that I know they'll do it better than me. (laughs)
Not the diggaj (stalwarts) ones, just some actors. It's majorly done just to make the mood funnier on sets.
AC: Sriram, when you were asked how in life, you were such a nice, mild-mannered person, but on-screen, your work is so twisted, you explained the contradiction with a quote from Gustave Flaubert. "Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work." I think that's just fantastic. Tell me how this works.
Sriram: It's very simple. I have a lot in my mind. One can think a lot of things that one could never do. I can't explain it but, I think you have to be able to go all the way. I'm not writing as me and it's not my values that are going to be in every character, that would make no sense. For example, when Badlapur came out, many critics and reviewers thought that the film was misogynistic and didn't like what the character was doing, including Anjum [Rajabali].
They said, "How can Varun kill Radhika Apte's character?" I said, "Think what would happen if they had a dog and a child in the house?" So [in my mind] that's where I would go and come back myself. So, you have to go all the way and come back and you have to find the right thing for that particular story. There's nothing profound in it.
AC: But Sridhar, do you never see this – just a scene where a guy is being eaten alive by rats – and say, "brother, where does this come from?"
Shridhar: No, I thought all of that was fun.
The only one I still turn away from even on the 50th viewing on the edit table is when the kid is thrown out of the car in the beginning of Badlapur. I cringe and I realize that it is me, as a viewer. That's also the effect he wants, possibly. I could never even think of that or visualize that. But it's an effect that he wants. He wants you to feel something – a horror, a revulsion, which, later, you question in the second half of the film.
But rats and all are great fun! I giggled my way out all through Ek Hasina Thi. He has a little vicious streak which comes out in his characters, and they're damn funny.
Sriram: I think they are fans of Roald Dahl and writers like that, who are very prim and proper but can also be very wicked.