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Taking on the mantle

In these days of bland, if trendy, conformism, two young writer/directors making their debut speak in strongly individual voices, like the films they have made. MAITHILI RAO records the views of Farhan Akhtar and Meghna Gulzar.

It's all in the genes... Meghna Gulzar's (top-left) bold foray with ``Filhaal'' (bottom-left); Farhan Akhtar's (seen with father Javed at bottom-right) runaway success ``Dil Chahta Hai'' is sensitive beneath its designer look.

IT IS easy to be cynical about film families. Especially when you attribute dynastic ambitions to the new generation. But Meghna Gulzar and Farhan Akhtar are different. Is it because they are the children of writers, not stars? Their success — in terms of cinematic realisation of personalised themes, box office returns and popularity — may vary, but there is a surprising similarity in the modesty with which they speak of their work.

"How can we assert what is our strength on the basis of a first film?" is the self-deprecatory reaction of Meghna Gulzar and Farhan Akhtar. But both believe passionately in what they have done and wouldn't do it differently given a chance to do it again.

"Dil Chahta Hai" could have been all slick style and hip attitude but there is a lot of heart under the sophistication. Farhan Akhtar uses the tired cliché of flashback to structure a narrative that is both fresh and mature. The plot evolves from the characters, which change and grow within the film time and space.

All about screenplay

Every film is a matter of choice and depends on your ability to tell a story. For me, an awareness of the technique of screenplay is what I got from my writer parents. Exposure to cinema is the key. It provides a platform to make you quality conscious. Of contemporary cinema and of the classics of yester year — Guru Dutt, Bimal Roy and the early films of Ramesh Sippy. I know I have always wanted to `be in films'. I would be the one reciting all the dialogue and playing out the characters. I loved the world of make believe, its very real characters. Having writer parents helped the process of imbibing the craft of screenplay writing. Exposure to everyday life and observing it is important. Each generation sees life, the world and changing techniques of film-making differently. Even with this new sensibility, you have to go back to a real everyday world and create characters you can `see'. I want realism in the sense of truth of character. The viewer should feel, `Yes, I know a person like that' even if the circumstances are different. Have I drawn from my own life and people I know? Yes, but with a difference. It's a like a salad, that I have chopped up and tossed from traits of my friends. The award that gives me most satisfaction is for best writing. Specially dialogue which is what the viewer hears. It tells him what the character is like, how he speaks, thinks and relates to others. Of course body language tells its own story. The three guys in my film don't have to tell each other they are best friends. We don't go round saying that to our best friends! Their body language and comfort level tell us that. The actors conveyed this and also defined the space within friendship. People congratulate me on the very real dialogue they hear in the film. That pleases me because I have worked very hard on it.

Shooting in synch sound keeps the spontaneity of the moment, of the emotion, alive. Post-production dubbing can never approximate it. We did have synch sound in the early days of sound but then came the fashion of dubbing, not only in India but in the rest of the world. Others have gone back to synch sound but we have not. Do you ever hear a whisper in our films? It's too loud! Do you know the famous scene in "Deewar", where Amitabh Bachchan talks to God, was in synch sound? You can feel its power. In "Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham" too, the final scene between Bachchan and Shah Rukh was in synch sound. They found the scene was perfect and didn't dabble with dubbing. Coming to music, most of the songs carried the film forward. The only typical song situation was "Woh Ladki Hain Kahan." We had a blast doing that tribute to the whole history of song picturisation, starting with Guru Dutt and Mala Sinha in "Pyaasa" to the 1980s thing of running in slow motion. It also helped take the relationship between Saif and Sonali forward from the awkward first date. They said our audience will not relate to the Opera (specially commissioned for the film) I used to make Aamir and Preity recognise their feelings. Music is universal. In fact, it's better if people don't understand the libretto. You then respond to the pure emotion. By accident or intent, "Filhaal" has been slotted in a woman's film niche. Or is the feminist ghetto in box office lingo? Its acute observation of the nuances of friendship between two young women makes "Filhaal" an unwitting counterpart to "Dil Chahta Hai''s male camaraderie.

Meghna Gulzar may step boldly into the pioneering territory of surrogate motherhood and yet share the prevailing predilection, of giving her film a designer look. Despite being dismissed as a flop by box office pundits, here is genuine talent and rare commitment that need to be watched.

``I go by instinct''

There is so much you learn as you make the film. It's all about improvisation. Everything that's in you can't be translated into the film — for reasons of geography, infrastructure. But it teaches you to learn how to deal with people since film-making is a people-related process. I am a completely instinctive filmmaker. I don't strictly follow a handed down text and grammar. I make the film the way my mind's eye sees it. Creativity is a learning process. How will I learn otherwise? And I am a gender-neutral film-maker. I try very hard to fight this tag of easy classification like feminist, which is very unfair. Is there really any need for this adjective? Nearly 99 per cent of our films don't reflect real life. When you try to depict reality, you add a gloss to it for the 70mm screen. My films will not have villains or throw hard-hitting punches. Nor can I make completely nonsensical fluff. People call "Filhaal" a woman's film because there are no heroes in it. But the four characters are all part of me. There is something of me in all of them because I put myself in their place when writing. There was so much scope for going overboard with melodrama but that is not my sensibility. I try to tell a simple story straight.

Subtlety, simplicity and silence are the qualities I try to imbibe from my father's films. I am much more of a romanticist than he is. Otherwise, it is more their personality as parents that influenced me — for a long time. Communication is the key to tell a story. I try to simplify even complex emotions, make it subtle. I wouldn't want to be predictable in what I create. The only place where I consciously tried to explain things in great detail was the process of in-vitro fertilisation. I wanted even the layperson to understand that there was no sexual intercourse involved in Siya's pregnancy. Otherwise, it would have been another "Doosri Dulhan." Every screenplay has to have a tempo. Songs can move a film forward or take a pause and reflect the mood and state of mind. Like the title song had a monochromatic colour scheme as Siya stands on a cliff, at a crossroads of life.

If you are overtly conscious of the audience, your parameters keep getting narrow and restrictive. Ultimately, you are operating in a mass media. I don't know whether being uncompromising can be a virtue. I have only just started. I don't think I can detach myself from the film having lived with it, obsessed over it, for two years. I don't think any creator can. I wouldn't do "Filhaal" any other way. I'd make another film instead. I know I am too internalised in my thought process. Now I try to bounce off my ideas. I don't want to take myself so seriously. I am working on a comedy! Our audience wants films to be larger than life. But I want to portray life.

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