In Love Per Square Foot(LVPF), the boy(Sanjay) and girl(Karina) break into song and dance the first time they meet, but do not fall in love. Both are looking for an apartment more than they are looking for a romantic partner. There is a new affordable housing scheme, but it is only for married couples. He is a Chaturvedi, whose family hails from Kanpur; she is a D'Souza from Bandra. You get the drift.
Anand Tiwari's debut feature film is shameless in its fondness for Hindi commercial films — it ends with a guest appearance by a superstar, and an Udit Narayan number — but isn't afraid to question its shortcomings — why does the Catholic girl have to play the amoral, second fiddle to the heroine? The film has Vicky Kaushal and Angira Dhar, two fairly new actors in the lead, and the rest of the cast is full of character actors such as Ratna Pathak Shah, Supriya Pathak, Raghuvir Yadav, Gajraj Rao and Brijendra Kala — not exactly an easy sell to theatrical distributors, but sounds just the kind of content that might do well as a web show.
All of which makes sense for it to be a Netflix Original film — it wont release in theatres and can be exclusively watched on Netflix in 190 countries. Q's indie comedy Brahman Naman(2016) was the first Indian Netflix Original film, but it is with LPSF that the global streaming service is looking to make a mark in the mainstream territory. Ahead of the film's release on the streaming service on 14 February on occasion of Valentine's Day, Tiwari spoke to us about his love for masala Bollywood, his search for 'context' and what it means to have one's film release on Netflix.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
How did Love Per Square Foot(LPSF), and the Netflix deal, come about?
The central idea of the film is whether 'home' is more important than 'house', whether the virtue of old world understanding is more important than the more transactional love of today. I wanted to tell the story of today's India, 60 percent of which is the youth. I wanted to reach the maximum number of people and I approached the story like a Bollywood masala film — there are song and dances and what not.
We made it like a feature film for a theatrical release with Ronnie Screwvala's RSVP Productions. When the finished film was shown to Netflix, they picked it up. I was a bit surprised that Netflix chose the film, as we, at least in India, associate them with edgy, dark shows such as Black Mirror and Narcos. But if you look closely at the Netflix Originals all over the world, they have been very open. They look for human stories; Okja being a case in point. I laughed and cried watching a film that is set in South Korea.
Is the commercial Hindi film format something that comes naturally to you?
It does. I grew up watching watching reruns of Amitabh Bachchan films, and later, films of Anil Kapoor, Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan and Salman Khan. But since I also come from a theatre background, and watch international and Hollywood films, we are changing our way of telling stories. We aren't giving broad strokes to characters anymore. Earlier, the hero was always Ram, the heroine Sita and the villain Raavan. We are going away from it; filmmakers today are much more nuanced.
The songs sound a bit generic. Was there any compulsion to have them in the film?
I like to see a love story through a slightly escapist eye while it keeping it real. There was no pressure from Ronnie or Netflix. About them sounding generic, maybe I wanted them to make people feel that this is a format that they know. I want to tell my story, but in a voice that you have kind of heard before.
Your series of short films Neighbours(2013) was about couples living in Mumbai, separated by a thin wall. Your web series Bang Baaja Baarat(2015) was about a couple from very different backgrounds. In a sense you're dealing with the same themes in LPSF.
I've been really interested in modern love stories. I grew up with an idea of love, and as I went into relationships and I tried to find that kind of poetic love. I struggle with the idea whether unconditional love can exist between two adult individuals who are not in a blood relationship.
I have always been a big fan of cinema where you don't forget the surroundings. You don't miss out on the context of where an argument or love story or fight is taking place. A Jackie Chan film always contextualises his fights. I miss that in some of the love stories were telling. In all the greatest moments of my life, some of them very dramatic, I have always felt the pressure of that context, of the place I was in. I didn't want to take an argument to its zenith because I was in an open space, I didn't profess my love in whatever way because I was in a public place, or a room where people can hear from the other room. India is so densely populated in urban areas that we cant live in isolation. I think a lot of humour and drama comes from it.
I have always been a big fan of cinema where you don't forget the surroundings … A Jackie Chan film always contextualises his fights. I miss that in some of the love stories were telling.
Ratna Pathak Shah and Supriya Pathak play Angira and Vicky's mothers respectively. Raghubir Yadav, his father, plays a railway announcer who had come to Mumbai to become a singer. Then you have Gajraj Rao, Brijendra Kala. These are great character actors with a rich experience in theatre. How much does your background in theatre influence your filmmaking?
A lot, when it comes to dealing with actors, how they play off each other. They take the part and allow the other person to perform too. If you see their other films as well, they complement the other actor and don't try to steal a scene. It is like a game of football, where you are passing the ball and somebody will eventually score the goal, but it is as important to keep the ball passing.
The openness they have, the way they listen to young directors at this age and stature is amazing. They are vulnerable and childlike on the set. And they are so insistent on rehearsals, none of them wanted to turn up on the sets without preparation. They were nervous about their parts. Ratna, Angira, Kunal Roy Kapur and I went through serious rehearsals with Asif Ali Beg, who coached us on the Bandra-Goan accent. We went through a great amount of history of how East Indians are different from Goans. We had to be responsible while showing a community, we wanted to be sure what what we are talking about.
Ratna went into detailing of the little piece she wears, where pins are put in, because thats what tailors used to do; she drew it from her father who used to be a Bollywood designer. She remembered that and brought that into the character. Supriya ji sat with my mother to understand the how the Kanpuriya side of things work. And Raghuvir Yadav is like Sehwag, you just let him play, give him lines and ask him to say them. We wrote these parts thinking of these people in mind, and credit to casting director Honey Trehan for getting them together.
What does it mean to have your film release on Netflix, and not in theatres?
To steal a line from Angira, its Bollywood's debut on Netflix. The idea, always, was to reach out to the maximum number of people, not just in India but internationally as well. Less number of people are going to the theatre today. So the whole Netflix thing comes as a blessing to me. I just had an idea in my head, which was transferred to a computer. In came Ronnie like an angel, and now Netflix is taking it to a global audience. It is so liberating to know that your work won't be judged by Friday numbers, and it will just have the pressure of being a good 'content' film. There will be international reviews, any audience can tweet and give feedback. I'm very excited, it is surreal.