After honing his screenwriting skills at the University of California, Akshat Verma made his debut as a writer in Bollywood with Delhi Belly (2011). Six years later, he brings back his brand of quirky writing and dark humour, but this time as a director. Sitting in a café in Bandra, the writer-turned-filmmaker discusses the “giant mess” that Kaalakaandi is – one night, six people and lots of revelations.
In Delhi Belly , the city is almost like a character. How important is Mumbai to Kaalakaandi ?
Bombay is an interesting city. Delhi is spread out. It is a place where you can buy your distance from people. In Bombay everyone is packed on top of each other. So this is a place where the very poor and the very rich are constantly running into each other, and the film is about how we affect each other even if someone who we affected doesn’t know about it. We could literally cross paths with someone and change their lives and we wouldn’t know. I think it is only possible in this city where we are so stuck together. Bombay has a sense of place, a tonality, an energy which is very specific. Bombay in the rains is its own kind of a place. There’s something about cities that are by water bodies, that is so distinct. So when these six characters navigate the night, Bombay is what unites them.
First Delhi Belly and now Kaalakaandi , what attracts you to dark comedies?
There’s a certain kind of story you’re attracted to while you’re watching and writing stuff. For me the thing with dark comedies is that there’s always something unexpected coming, in terms of how you unravel human nature. The whole thing of being funny and then very serious all of a sudden. You’re very dislocated as to how you should approach it – should I laugh? Should I not laugh? The point is to keep the audience on their feet and keep a step ahead of them. The audience wants to jump ahead, and say, “I knew this would happen”, so you always want to sidestep them and give something else. Dark comedy goes where other material might not go.
Do you keep the darkness in your comedies palatable for a larger audience?
I go wherever the scene and characters need to go. People are watching all kinds of stuff. People are watching ISIS beheading people. You know, there’s that whole notion that there is nothing shocking any more? So I don’t hold back.
No self censorship then?
Absolutely not. I wouldn’t be going through so much pain [with the Censor Board].
Delhi Belly was multilingual, had loads of abuses and no interval. In many ways it was quite rebellious at that time. How rebellious is Kaalakaandi ?
It has an interval, so clearly I am giving up. The thing is, I’m not rebelling as much as I want to tell stories that would be interesting to me. There are certain people you write for in your head; you have an ideal audience. So you think, “Are they going to laugh at me or laugh with me?” The funny thing is we’re not just filmmakers but also audience members. How many times do you watch a film with your friends and find it excruciating, and then you watch other material and think, “Why can’t we make stuff like this?” Our audience is watching it and why can’t we give them something they can connect to? The way they talk, the way they live. It’s so obvious. It’s not even rebellion.
In that case Delhi Belly ’s success must’ve been quite a reassurance.
Very much so. I was pleasantly surprised.
Was it easier to convince producers and actors this time around then?
Delhi Belly took 15 years to get made and this took six, so I guess people are half easier to convince now. But not really. Everyone in this town has said no to me, in every department. It’s almost like you’re having the same conversation again. “There’s no audience for this”, “No one is going to see that”, “You can’t do mixed language”. And I’m tired of hearing no. But things are changing. The fact that in 2017 some biggest hits have been small films and some big films did not work. But the heavy lifting ultimately has to be done by the story.
Does it help when an A-list actor comes onboard and supports you?
Definitely. Both the films I have, got done only because of that. First Aamir [Khan] got behind and now Saif [Ali Khan]. You can’t blame the producers either. Ultimately if someone is stepping up to pay the money, it’s ultimately a responsibility that they have to shoulder.
Once it’s demonstrated consistently then I think it will be a little easier, once producers know there is an audience who will come back consistently.
You started off as a writer..
I’m still a writer first.
Of course, you went to UCLA to study screenplay. Does that help get you a foreign perspective on Bollywood?
I wanted to go to UCLA to understand the structure and mechanism of writing. My intent always was to study and bring that back and apply it here. I just needed the discipline to be in school. I wanted the training to shorten the period of learning. But then I realised it is endless. Every film you’re on is like going back to film school. For me it all starts from the writing and comes out of the writing so I will always be a writer first, even if I’m directing.
What is it that you learnt with your previous film as a writer that you kept in mind with your directorial debut?
One thing that keeps getting underlined with both films is how crucial casting is. It’s more than half the job done when you cast well. Your job is to then get out of the way and let great actors do what they do. This whole notion of getting a performance out of someone is bullshit. It’s like you’re digging for oil where there is no oil. You don’t want to pull people up to where the material is but get them to raise the material.
Was it difficult to sell Kaalakaandi to actors in the mainstream?
It clearly was. Like I said, everyone said no. A lot of people would say they liked it but would still say no. You’re like, “They are just being polite”. I’m not saying everyone who said no was being unreasonable. Everyone is at a certain point in their creative lives. They want to do a certain kind of work, and when those things match, you have a green light and if you don’t, you just keep looking.
What’s the advantage and disadvantage of directing your own script?
Advantage is that I could have everything be the way I wanted. The disadvantage is that I could have everything be the way I wanted. Any mistake, and you have no one to blame. Otherwise, you can always say that the director f*cked it up. I am happy to take the responsibility and the abuse. You see the script a certain way in your head but regardless the material changes in the making of it. As that happens, I want to be able to mould it, and to control it as much as I can. I’d much rather direct my own material.
So that’s going to be the future for you?
If I can manage it, then absolutely.