Down the rabbit hole with Sriram Raghavan

Back with his fifth thriller the filmmaker talks to Namrata Joshi about creative collaborations, his everlasting love for Hitchcock and working with yesteryear stars

Published - October 02, 2018 09:40 pm IST

Mumbai 02/10/2018: Profile shoot of Director Sriram Raghavan in Andheri West, in Mumbai on Tuesday. Photo: Prashant Waydande.

Mumbai 02/10/2018: Profile shoot of Director Sriram Raghavan in Andheri West, in Mumbai on Tuesday. Photo: Prashant Waydande.

With an Alfred Hitchcock bubble-head on his table, a Kabali model of Rajinikanth on the bookshelf behind and several film posters, including eye-catching ones of Francois Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste ( Shoot The Piano Player ) and Louis Malle’s Ascenseur pour l'échafaud ( Elevator To The Gallows ), strewn all over the office, filmmaker Sriram Raghavan talks about the invitation to witness a murder in his fifth thriller Andhadhun

Let us start off with the trailer… It has created a lot of buzz… How significant is the trailer to you as a filmmaker?

For this kind of film it is very important. And it is a tricky trailer to cut because every other scene can be a spoiler. How much can we give out? We had lots of arguments actually, quite nasty ones some times. I cut a trailer which Viacom marketing found too dark. Theirs was more fun but had too many spoilers. This back and forth kept going on. Eventually the night before we had to send it out they said cut this, I said remove that; they said add this, I said include that.

So people taking a liking to it happened by default, not by design…

We wanted people to like it but thought the other was screwing it up. Finally it’s together. It’s not like two different camps. But it took a long time to get a trailer which I said could pass and they also said so. The whole worry was how much to give out. My whole thing was not to give out a trailer at all and just let people go in cold. But that’s not practical in today’s times. This trailer has built a lot of expectations and am hoping that people will now come and see the film. The idea was to give some red herrings here and there so that people could join the dots but come up with their own animal than the animal we have.

Was the film earlier called Shoot The Piano Player?

That was the working title. While shooting we didn’t have a Hindi title in place. I would have gone with that but they felt English titles alienate people. Which is true. If it’s a Hindi film, it has to have a Hindi title. It’s a play on andhadhund (rash, reckless, run amock, relentless). It is also a play on blind tune and trance, to be on one’s own trip. The guy is a bit of an eccentric character. Andhadhund had a lot of associations then that made sense. Filmwise it’s about how once chaos starts it goes on relentless. But we got the title quite late. We had all kinds of other ones— Mud mud ke na dekh, Andha hai kya, Aankhon aankhon mein … There were Hindi film songs for titles which everyone thought was getting too romantic.

With a pianist as the lead character was music more significant in this film than it has been for you in others?

The choice for me was to make him a purist where he is just playing piano pieces. It would have meant creating original pieces. The rights for the foreign pieces would have been quite expensive. Being a Hindi film I thought it would be good to have a pianist who also sings alongside. There are a couple of lip-sync songs in the beginning of the film which is the first time I have done such a thing. He is doing a gig somewhere. Not just the piano but all kinds of instruments kick in.

Does that bother you as a filmmaker?

No I love songs. All the old Hindi films had these piano songs.

The way you picturised ‘Raabta’, is very different from the way songs are used in a typical Hindi film…

I love songs but am inhibited to have my characters burst out to express themselves through songs. I use the route of using old songs at the right places. I just have to be a little brave. Songs definitely add to the excitement about a movie.

That’s your response as a viewer, not a filmmaker?

Even as a filmmaker I love songs. When we began Badlapur there was no thought of having songs. There were situations where Sachin-Jigar came up with music that fitted into our scheme of things. Badlapur has got an excellent soundtrack even though it wasn’t planned at all in the beginning.

How has the use of music been withinAndhadhun?

There are a couple of sequences which are unique. I can’t tell you much but there is one [sequence] in the first half, which is music driven. [That one sequence] is probably what I made the [entire] movie for.

Why this commitment to thrillers?

Well Hitchcock is here in front of me (pointing to the Alfred Hitchcock bubble head on the table)… There is no such thing. Not that I don’t like other genres. [The] thriller [genre] is so much fun because you can do so many different kind of movies within the genre. In that sense there is a certain attraction. I like it a little more but it’s not as though if I get a good social drama I wouldn’t attempt it.

So will a social drama be the next venture? Apart from a thriller what are the other ideas you are toying with?

I have not decided, not cast anyone as yet. There is still time. There is one war film. That’s still in the process of scripting. It will take a month or so before we even narrate it to an actor. I will need at least six-eight months of prep for that.

Does the dark side of thrillers also attract you?

Dark is a very abused word. There are many films in the thriller genre which I don’t care for. I can’t name but there are many which don’t work for me. I like something fresh, unique.

You are supposed to be this nice guy. What is your dark side if there is one?

I am sure there is, there would be lots of shades. But I don’t know, I can’t say this side of me is very dark. But I can indulge in a lot of stuff via the movies which I otherwise wouldn’t.

The element of blindness has been central to many thrillers. I was remembering the Audrey Hepburn film…

Wait Until Dark… There are lots of other films. Blindness lends itself to many themes. But I didn’t start off with theme one or two but as you write certain themes begin to emerge. One is that you have to be a good person to be an artiste. Or can you be an artiste and still be an asshole. We are often told that you have to be a good person to produce good stuff. It’s there but not explored overtly. We don’t underline or over-emphasize it. Our film is broadly a plot-driven film.

Tell us about your referencing of older films…

When I started with it, it came unconsciously. There are old film and music references in this film but that’s because one of the main characters is an actor from the 70s. A fictitious actor but I have taken Anil Dhawan to play that character. So I have got a couple of his songs and clips I could use. I get a young and old version of his.

Why Anil Dhawan specifically?

Initially the idea was to take a present day actor and make a fictitious character. Take Vinay Pathak and model him on some old actor. But with clips etc there would have been too much prosthetic work. I know his younger brother David Dhawan and have worked with Varun Dhawan and he is also from the film institute [FTII, Pune]. So many of his songs have been huge hits. He has done Chetna, Darwaza few of these bold, iconic films. He was great fun. He shot with us for week or ten days but we had all kinds of stories about the institute and film industry of the time.

Are you fascinated with old stars? Anil Dhawan in this, Dharmendra inJohnny Gaddar…

It is a fascination for sure. I love those times, the 70s when I was growing up. So to get a chance to work with them was great. I had a great time with both of them. Anil Dhawan is a perfect fit for the role. Most of the actors from the 70s I would like to work with.

Any wishlist, anyone in particular?

Rekha… All these lists are there but then I should have a list of scripts also. When you are writing you feel this person would be great and it just comes in like that. I don’t have a wish list of even present day actors.

Was Tabu as easy to come on board?

She was my first choice while writing the script. I had been wanting to work with her for a long time. She saw Badlapur and was keen that we do something. With Ayushmann and Tabu you wonder if it’s a love story. Are they romantically inclined?

Is she like the femme fatale of noir films?

You might think of her as a femme fatale or you might also think of her as the victim. It could be one of the two or both.

Then there are Ashwini Kalsekar and Zakir Hussain who have worked with you earlier…

There is also Chaya Kadam from Sairat and Nude .

Balancing these different kinds of actors… Is it easy, difficult?

They play off against each other. In Johnny Gaddar we had a rank newcomer like Neill Nitin Mukesh and Dharamji. There was Vinay Pathak. So it is a mix of theatre, television, old and new. They all play on each other and you get an interesting mix of things.

Is Hitchcock the ultimate for you?

There are many filmmakers but I have seen all his films. I have got all his films. Some of them may feel dated now but I watch them for other reasons. Like there is Blackmail, his first sound film. There is this girl guilty of something, she has stabbed someone the night before. Next morning someone asks the knife to be passed during breakfast. The knife almost becomes like a bang of music.

Which are your Hitchcock favourites?

Psycho, Notorious, Frenzy, North by Northwest, I Confess

Apart from Hitchcock?

Billy Wilder has a whole range of themes and genres he has worked on…

You have teamed up with Pooja Ladha Surti as editor in four films. She is also associate director and co-script writer. Does the partnership stem from a trust or comfort factor?

Most of us would want to work with the same people who have a certain understanding. You don’t have to repeat things etc. That doesn’t happen all the time. My first three films were shot by C. K. Muraleedharan, then Anil Mehta shot Badlapur. This has been shot by K.U. Mohanan. [The] switch of DoP is a big thing, [the] DoP half defines a film.

Is there any film of yours that you would have wanted to do differently?

Agent Vinod could have been done much better keeping most things the same. It got over very late. Then release date was too soon. I didn’t get the time to watch it enough. It became an exhausting experience. There were other issues with the script. In the original version Kareena Kapoor gets killed off much earlier. Then we felt may be its too early. It took one and a half to two years to make by which time you often start second guessing your best ideas.

How does Andhadhun take things forward for you?

It’s a fun film. The end is kind of experimental. It will divide people. It will make A think something and B think something else. And both are right. I am told that our audience wants closure on everything. Here it leaves a lot of things to the viewer.

So at the fag end of the conversation, without revealing much, what is the film about?

The larger arc is that of getting into a rabbit hole. That is the nearest explanation. I even have a rabbit in the movie (smiles). Basically, something happens and then everything goes crazy.

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