A few weeks ago, at the trailer launch of Qarib Qarib Singlle , actor Irrfan Khan elaborated on how his new film, directed by Tanuja Chandra, looks at a man-woman relationship where the notion of commitment has not set in. One of the producers of the film happens to be scriptwriter — and Khan’s wife — Sutapa Sikdar. For a couple married for over two decades now and having known each other even longer, since their days at the National School of Drama in Delhi, was there a similar phase in their own love story? What was it like? How did it all begin?
We throw a flurry of questions at them in a sea-facing suite at the Novotel hotel in Juhu. It has been a busy day for the actor — giving pre-release interviews, wolfing down a late lunch and deciding on his wardrobe for a promotional trip to Delhi. After talking shop for a while — from my obsession with posting food pictures on Facebook to the state of the nation — we zoom in on the relationship conundrum.
Love in the time of NSD
Coming together was not clear cut for the Delhi girl and the Jaipur boy. It was the innocence and charm and his awe about Delhi that endeared Khan to Sikdar. “He was this ever curious boy and he considered me over-smart because I had already ganged up with students from the third year,” she recollects. It was a creative atmosphere at NSD and they were thrown together 24x7. There were sudden, intermittent bursts of romance — she loved his hands and fingers, the way he drew in the stagecraft class, how good he was with details. The most romantic thing for her was going to Shakuntalam theatre in Pragati Maidan to watch films and walk back together to NSD. They were in a gang yet special to each other.
Their new film as producer-actor is also not about falling in love at first sight. “It is about not looking for a destination in a relationship,” says Khan. “We invariably burden it with a destination — ‘What is it? How to name the relationship? Where is it going?’ These are futile things that spoil the fragile magic.” According to him, spontaneity is a way to keep things alive. Why do you need to define? he asks rhetorically. Because you are insecure and you want to possess — two things he considers the worst in a relationship. Qarib Qarib Singlle is about a stage when these things have, thankfully, not set in, when you are getting to know someone, when there is a curiosity and a pull. It’s about discovering and getting to know each other for two people who are very different — the decent, cultured girl as against the free, liberated guy.
How have they kept the magic alive in their own relationship? The couple is refreshingly candid. If society didn’t require them to get married for various formalities, they wouldn’t have. “I never asked him if he’d marry me,” says Sikdar. Neither did he. “Between the two of us, we never discussed it,” they almost say in unison. “Both of us never felt the need for a document. When we got it, the children followed,” she says.
Over the years, the attempt has been to avoid fitting their relationship into any box. There are fights and arguments when you have been together for long. In such times, going back to where it all began is the key for Sikdar. “It shows me the positive side and strength of our relationship,” she says. “The romance of the time before you decided to commit will keep your committed relationship charged up later.”
Reel vs. real romance
Whether it is Life In A Metro or Piku, Khan’s portrayal of the romantic hero has been poles apart from what we associate Bollywood with. How does he see the conventional love story essayed on screen? “The way God is introduced to you by parents, romance is introduced by cinema,” says Khan. “As you start confronting life, you realise how far apart it is from what you understood from cinema. But the romance that cinema created in you has a kind of magic to it. It stays with you. You want to live it somehow.” However, through his own films, he wants to share what he understands or feels about romance. “That’s why my romance doesn’t resemble cinematic romance.” It is far more grounded, real and relatable than magical and aspirational. But are the two consumers of the typical Bollywood romances? Yes, they reply. “I was fascinated,” says Khan. “I used to dream about falling in love.” Sikdar adds, “Even now, when it is late night and we both are drunk, he plays the most romantic old film tracks.” Khan takes it all back to Sufism — ‘aaj rang de’ , of losing your identity and becoming one. He confesses being fascinated by and seeking that possibility.
For Khan, there has been no bigger romantic hero in Hindi cinema than Dilip Kumar. “The way he portrayed relationships with all the complexities; the idealism of love in which you could go to any lengths for the other person, the way he did it nobody else could,” he says. Romance in Hindi cinema has travelled a long way since. These days, it could be about the love and friendship debate, or even about commitment phobia. Their new film takes it to a more realistic point — of trust. “Trust each other and let go. Don’t ask too many questions,” is what the film says, according to Sikdar. For Khan, it is marked by a seamlessness rather than brackets of friendship and love. It is about a journey together. It is driven by a lot of conversations and mishaps in a journey.
A joint effort
For Sikdar, both as an individual and as a producer, it was important to see a heroine that was “written well”. One who is not giggly or smart-alecky, whose idea of being liberated is not abusing and smoking. She found a modern, Indian, working woman in the script Tanuja Chandra sent them; one who takes her own decisions but has her own baggage to grapple with. She seemed very real to her, she felt the need to have such women on screen. Khan told Parvathy, who plays the lead, that she was the hero of the film. From director to producer to writer to heroine, he found himself surrounded by women. “Where would the film go, it couldn’t have gone the man’s way,” he says.
Qarib .. aside, the couple’s first professional collaboration goes way back to NSD when Sikdar directed Peter Shaffer’s Equus with her future husband as the lead. They remember fighting about something as minor as the colour in the background. He designed her set though. After NSD, they collaborated on Govind Nihalani’s telefilms where she was the chief AD. When Sikdar was costume designing, Khan would help her choose the laces. Then came the popular TV show Banegi Apni Baat (1993) that ran for five years. In the middle, Sikdar wrote for films like Khamoshi: The Musical (1996). After a long gap, they came together for Madaari last year, a project they don’t feel one with in retrospect. Technically, for them, Qarib … is a collaboration after a long time.
The energies and synergy, however, have changed over the years. “This time, we didn’t fight as much,” says Khan. “I have quietened down,” says Sikdar. Her friends and well-wishers think she is ready to direct but being a perfectionist everything she wants to do falls short in her head. The film helped her learn to let go beyond a point, not push but adjust. Though she feels that “nepotism” helped a small producer like her get Khan on board, she wouldn’t like to direct him in her first film. “I’d be too nervous and he’d have 200 questions to ask,” she says. She would rather have him co-direct with her or manage home. “Sometimes collaborations work well, at others they can also make something weak,” she says. To which Khan quips: “Friday batayega (this Friday shall tell).”