Director Arjun Varain Singh Grapples With Digital Loneliness in ‘Kho Gaye Hum Kahan’

The film, starring Adarsh Gourav, Ananya Panday and Siddhant Chaturvedi, is streaming on Netflix.
Director Arjun Varain Singh Grapples With Digital Loneliness in ‘Kho Gaye Hum Kahan’

“But you liked the movie? You actually liked the movie?” Arjun Varain Singh asks me as our conversation draws to a close. It is this charming earnestness that characterises Singh’s directorial debut, Kho Gaye Hum Kahan. Starring Adarsh Gourav, Ananya Panday and Siddhant Chaturvedi in lead roles, the film follows a trio of best friends in their 20s as they navigate the anxieties of coming of age in a digital world. With striking visuals and an atmospheric soundtrack, the film is a comment on the profound loneliness and need for genuine connection in the age of social media. 

Singh was Director’s Assistant to Zoya Akhtar in Gully Boy (2019) and Ghost Stories (2020); and Akhtar, along with her longtime collaborator Reema Kagti, is credited for the screenplay of Kho Gaye Hum Kahan. The film is produced by Excel Entertainment and Tiger Baby Films, making it the latter’s second OTT film release this year, after The Archies.

In our chat with Singh, the director breaks down some of his shots, takes us through his creative choices, and gives an insight into the making of Kho Gaye Hum Kahan

Edited excerpts from the interview:

Loneliness, instant gratification and emotional intimacy are some of the major themes of the film, as is the encouragement to unplug from our phones and make real connections. What drew you to these themes?

Honestly? It’s everyone. You see it in our generation, with whoever you’re talking to, all of your friends — you go to a coffee shop, and you’ll see a couple just sitting side-by-side, both of them on their phones. I feel like loneliness seems to be an epidemic. I don’t think it’s just specific to our generation. But it’s been almost amplified with devices. Like, I hate the fact that we’re doing a Zoom call right now, to be very honest. I’d rather do it in person, but of course it’s convenient. Also, instant gratification. Things are so easy for us to get now, more than ever before. If you’re at home over the weekend and want to go out on a date, you’ve got seven different apps to help you do that. So I do feel like, yes, there’s a lot of loneliness, there’s a lot of projection, but that is the sad reality of our generation. I think the movie is generally about putting that shit down and connecting with your peers. 

A still from Kho Gaye Hum Kahan
A still from Kho Gaye Hum Kahan

Can you talk me through your inspiration behind the title of the film?

The working title of the film was actually “Friends and Followers”, which is, of course, very on the nose — not so fun and nice. And we had shot the announcement video for the film a couple of years ago. When it was going to drop, everyone was like, “Okay, we need a title!” So we were thinking of different titles, and then they announced Jee Le Zara, and I was like, “That’s really cool”. That’s a very nice title, right? And then I started seeing memes online about how Excel and Tiger Baby films derive all of their titles from previous songs, and I was like, “This can't be true”. But of course it was, right? And then I asked my DA, “Yo, pull out a list of all the fucking songs that we have, and let’s see which one works.” So I think we shortlisted it down to two or three, Kho Gaye Hum Kahan (where did we lose ourselves) being one of them, obviously, because it’s so applicable to the film. And once we had the announcement video edited, Zoya (Akhtar) was like, “Okay, why don't you try just placing that song over the visuals?” And then those visuals with that song just landed so hard, that it was set in stone.

You’ve assisted for Zoya Akhtar’s projects in the past. What was it like finally directing your own feature film?

It was madness. I think I was nervous. I was excited. I wasn’t entirely sure if I was ready. But then, of course, you never know if you’re ready until you dive into the deep end. But you know what? The nervousness actually made me prepare all that more. So by the time I got to set, I felt very, very prepared. Like, through the workshops, through my own breakdowns of the script, I knew every single beat. I knew what needed to be done. But once you go to set, of course, there’s room for so much more. The stars sometimes align together, and something that you might not have imagined happens. And I think that those are the beautiful moments that happen while shooting. 

Adarsh Gourav, Ananya Panday and Siddhant Chaturvedi
Adarsh Gourav, Ananya Panday and Siddhant Chaturvedi

The opening sequence is fun and creative, introducing us to the main characters and their friendship. There are also many social media montages over the course of the film. How did you come up with the visual language of Kho Gaye Hum Kahan?

We’re currently in the digital age. Everything’s super modern. Everything’s very quick. So I felt like I wanted the movie to have a hint of nostalgia for simpler times. A little bit of a vintage feel. So if you look at the feel of the movie, it’s got a polaroid, filmic grain that we incorporated. The buildings that we chose to shoot are all from the Eighties and Nineties. It’s sort of nostalgic for our past, before the phones, before everything became so fast. So the production design, the vintage furniture pieces, the colours — visually, we just wanted it to have that vintage feel. 

As for the opening montage, “Hone Do Jo Hota Hai”, it was almost like — these are the characters, and this is what they want you to feel about them. So it’s got to be the highlight reel, as we like to call it. These are the best moments of their life that they’ve captured on their phones. The motivation behind it was to make you feel like these friends are rooted, and that they've been together for a while, so you see that in the montage. But the idea to shoot it on phones was just to make it feel more personal — they are you and you are them.

The music feels youthful, with a hint of nostalgia, which is in sync with the tone of the film.

The person behind the background score is actually one of my school friends, Siddharth Shirodkar. He’s scored every project of mine, from my short films in high school to my thesis film in film school. For the general vibe of the music for Kho Gaye Hum Kahan, we wanted it to be organic instrumentation in certain moments, and when you see them on their phones, it’s got more of an electronic feel — it’s got more of the synths. So we kind of wanted to blend those moments in the music of the film.

Ananya Panday as Ahana
Ananya Panday as Ahana

There are some interesting shots in the film, such as the camera slowly descending from the top of a swirling staircase, as Ahana sits on the steps and scrolls through social media. Another shot shows us a solitary Imaad, with printed photographs of Tinder users spiralling outwards on the floor around him. As a debutant, how would you describe your style as a director?

Those shots are basically visual metaphors. So, for example, the camera going down the spiral staircase, that’s essentially Ahana (Ananya Panday) going down the social media rabbit hole. My crew was going mad because we couldn't find a spiral staircase anywhere in Bombay that also fit the design of the movie. Luckily, we were in the World Trade centre. We’d gone there to find another location, and I just went through this one staircase, and I was like, “Damn, this is the staircase. This is exactly what we need.” But, yes, that’s a visual metaphor for her going down the rabbit hole. And then Imaad (Siddhant Chaturvedi) standing in the centre of the pictures of other lonely people is him going back to the person that he was. So he’s surrounded by loneliness, essentially, and you just kind of cut to that beautiful wide shot: He’s standing in the centre with the photos around him, and it’s just to make you feel how he’s gone back to who he was. 

But the spiral staircase, I had (in my mind) from very early on. That, I knew I needed to find. So I drove my location manager insane to try and find the spiral staircase. I try to use as many visual metaphors as I can. I just think it’s cool and it’s fun, and it gives a little bit more purpose. And if people can kind of feel it and see it, then that’s an added bonus. 

Imaad’s stand-up sets are funny and relatable. What made you choose stand-up comedy as a narrative device? How did you approach the humour in the film?

I feel like stand-up comedians today are our conscience on some level. They are the ones who are able to speak out the truth, be it politically, be it socially. They allow us to reflect in a way that cinema should do ideally — maybe we haven’t been doing it so much as of late, but stand-up comedians are there on the front lines. And of course, I love stand-up. I love watching stand-up. So we could have had Imaad be a singer-songwriter. Done to death. But a stand-up comedian? To me, they’re the rockstars of the modern age. 

The comedy was all Sapan Verma. We did a couple of drafts and went back and forth, but he just captured it so naturally and so well. For the last piece, we had a couple of sessions with therapist Susan Walker, who gave us great insight. So a lot of research also went into it. 

Siddhant Chaturvedi as Imaad, a stand-up comedian
Siddhant Chaturvedi as Imaad, a stand-up comedian

Sapan Verma made a cameo in the film. There was also a reference to Vir Das, and at one point, Imaad is watching a Kenny Sebastian show.

You’ve got to stay true to the character, right? So if the character is an up-and-coming stand-up comedian, then he’s gonna be surrounded by that specific world — which is also something we had in Gully Boy. It’s like, if you’re making a movie about rap, then you have to embrace the world that comes with it, so it feels as natural as possible.

It often feels like coming of age is more difficult and complicated today than it was for previous generations. The film addresses some of these anxieties. What do you want audiences to take away from Kho Gaye Hum Kahan?

When we started writing the film, I think I was around 27, and it was a nice chance for me to look back at what being 25 was like. And I think when you’re 25, you’re extremely lost. And of course, we sometimes refer to it as a “quarter-life crisis”, but you kind of feel lost. There are a lot of people who don't have it figured out. And you’re expected by society to have shit figured out when you’re 25. But if I could talk to my 25-year-old self, I would just want to tell him that, “Dude, shit’s going to work out. Shit will be fine, it will be okay. And you just have to figure it out and go step-by-step and just embrace the people around you, the people who love you, your friends, and eventually it will be okay.” Not the most dramatic thing, but it’s the truth. 

Were you worried that the messaging of the film would feel preachy?

Oh, 100%. For me, that was the fine line. How do you find that line between being preachy but being honest to what the film is? Honestly, I wasn’t too convinced about putting in those final resolutions, but I think in the end, it worked out really nicely. The way Ananya (Panday) says it, it’s not excitable or over-the-top. I think it just ties the entire film together, and gives you a little bit of a reminder. And the scene is cut to beautiful images, which I think works.

A still from Kho Gaye Hum Kahan
A still from Kho Gaye Hum Kahan

The characters in the film feel like real people; their problems feel real, their friendship feels real. Did you tap into your real-life experiences when writing the story?

Generally speaking, I think when you write something, you’re inevitably putting a little bit of yourself in each of the characters. So whether it’s Neil’s (Adarsh Gourav) ambition, whether it’s Imaad’s instant gratification, or Ahana not feeling good enough, I would say those themes I definitely resonate with, and I think it will resonate with everyone. But of course, a lot of it has been exaggerated. A lot of it’s from people I’ve seen. A lot of it comes from Zoya (Akhtar) and Reema (Kagti) as well. They played a huge part in making the script what it is. What they were able to bring to the script is that outside perspective. They’re one-two generations above ours, and sometimes you need that outsider perspective, which they gave wholeheartedly.

What are you hoping to do next?

Fortunately, I think I know what I’m going to do next. If this film is about learning to be authentic to yourselves — and I think that’s so key to being 25. In your 20s, you’re kind of figuring out who you are, who you’re going to be, who your real friends are — in the next one, I kind of want to talk about what it’s like when you’re 30. Now that you feel a little more grounded, a little more rooted, it’s about finding purpose. And I think the next story that I look into is about finding purpose in life and where that can come from. Of course, eventually you figure out that purpose comes from within. So I don’t know what the world is going to be. I don’t know what the story is going to be. But I do know that that’s the theme that I will delve into for my next.

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