interview | meghna gulzar Movies

‘My choices are on the strength of story, not gender,' says 'Chhapaak' director Meghna Gulzar

Behing the camera: Meghna Gulzar on the sets of Chhapaak

Behing the camera: Meghna Gulzar on the sets of Chhapaak  


The filmmaker on the process of writing and collaboration, the lure of the story and working with Deepika Padukone

Almost five years after Talvar (with a Raazi in the middle) filmmaker Meghna Gulzar is set to present yet another cinematic take on a real life story, that of the acid attack survivor Laxmi Agarwal. Meghna is parked at the Taj Lands End, Bandra, on a day crammed with interviews for Chhapaak. “It’s like that when you are leading up to putting your film out there,” she says in a hushed voice sitting in one corner of a huge hall that’s being set up for TV interactions. With little time on hand for small talk and pleasantries we launch straight into the questions:

Whose idea was it to make a film on acid attack survivor Laxmi Agarwal?

It was my idea. I wrote the script in 2016 after Talvar. I was looking for [such] subjects because Talvar was my first film on true life [incident]. Raazi was nowhere in the ether at that time. I came across this issue of acid violence. I collaborated with my co-writer Atika Chohan. When you start researching on acid violence Laxmi Agarwal’s case comes to the fore because it’s a landmark case for many reasons. We put a structure based on the information in public domain, and then we reached out to her to get her agreement on doing this. Once she agreed we spent time with her where we just let her speak and tell her story so that we could then supplement our own structure with her narrative. Then meeting other players in the story—her lawyer, her surgeon, her father’s employer. After Raazi, I realised let’s make Chhapaak when I reached out to Deepika [Padukone] last year.


But why did you have to put it on hold after Talvar?

I didn’t put it on hold. Raazi just surfaced. Talvar and Chhapaak are very similar in terms of the worlds. Both are Delhi-based, both are on an act of violence. I thought it would get kind of monotonous to do this. Raazi just came and took a life of its own. It came together in a year-and-a half — from scripting to release. You don’t plan these things. Scripts have their own destiny.

What is about real life incidents that is challenging to you as a filmmaker?

[A] couple of things actually. One, strong stories which have a purpose. Story can be strong but does it have resonance? Strong characters which could be role models or could be negative but they need to be strong. Third thing: my own instinctive reaction to the story is actually the moot point. If I instinctively get grabbed by the story—oh god, this is the story I want to tell—then all other considerations become secondary.

How easy was it to get Deepika to agree for this?

Instant. Most unexpected and a very very beautiful surprise. I am guessing it’s [to do with] the story and the significance of it. I just met her, the narration I gave her three months later.

Was she the first choice?

The only one. I would have come to a Plan B had she said no but at that point it wasn’t like first her then her and her. It was just her.

Where do you intervene as a filmmaker when you are dealing with the real world? It couldn’t have been a documentary, right? Where has the fiction come into play?

I think only in the narrative order, where you play with the screenplay. You try to tell it in a non-linear order, you try to tell it in an aesthetic way so your cinematography, costume, production design. You play with the tools that you have at your disposal. You use the cinematic tools effectively, but you don’t touch the authenticity of the facts. That’s my principle as a filmmaker.

Is it different from Talvar in terms of the interpretations of facts?

Not at all. There was no interpretation of facts in Talvar except for fictionalising the names and places.

I didn’t mean you as a filmmaker but the Rashomon-like situation in the public domain…

That was the inherent nature of the case. You had one crime, one set of victims but two investigative teams, two theories, two perpetrators, two sets of murder weapons. That was the inherent factual nature of the case. We presented it exactly like that. The difference was that one side got amplified in the media over the other. In the film we laid it out evenly.

Was Chhapaak easier than Talvar then?

No, it wasn’t. They are as complex and as challenging in their own right.

We celebrated Raazi as this women-led ₹100 crore film. How easy or difficult has your life become after that tag?

I think the path got easier after Talvar. It was also a commercial success, considering what it was made at and what it earned. It started from there. Two things play a part here. One is, of course, the success of your previous film. Second, what is the cinematic environment at that time. When studios, actors, producers [believe] in slightly unconventional content or content that is not templated and the audience is also appreciating and accepting it, then it becomes easier to tell an unconventional story. And, of course, [the] success of your previous film works in tangent with that.

What is your own view about this ₹100 crore notion of success?

The notion of success is not important for me as are two things. One, is the appreciation and validation of the people you are making the film for. I’d be lying if I say it’s not [important]. It’s a significant part of your creative journey. You can’t be so dismissive of the audience you are making the film for. Otherwise why are you making it, if you don’t want people to like it. Two is to redeem the faith and investment of people who have invested in you is also a responsibility I take. It’s a lot of people’s hard work and money that goes into making a film. Nobody sets out to make a failure. We all want our films to do well. But will I let it distort my approach, sensibility, craft to tailor a successful film? No. Nobody knows what makes a successful film. If we knew every film would be a success.

Do women protagonists come subconsciously to you?

It’s an interpretation of the media. Filhaal was not about two women protagonists; it was about surrogacy. Surrogacy cannot happen without a man. Just Married was about an arranged marriage which cannot happen without men. Talvar was an investigative procedural whose lead was Irrfan Khan. Then there was Raazi which was more about human sacrifice. Sehmat could very well have been a 19-year-old boy. It was not as though, it was a boy but I made it a girl because I wanted to tell a female-oriented story. My choices are based on the strength and potency of the story and the characters, and has very little to do with the gender.

Yet we do talk of more women taking centre stage in filmmaking…

Yes, it’s very nice to have the number of female technicians increase in the filmmaking process but if you ask me having more good films, scripts, content, performances is far more significant than having more female directors, writers. Creativity is not a gender thing at all.

Talvar divided your career into pre and post phase…

I always say that it’s my rebirth as a filmmaker. The genre changed completely. The craft changed. When I came into Talvar, the technology of filmmaking had changed entirely. I had to calibrate accordingly. I have calibrate my craft according to the story I am telling. I [could not] execute Talvar the way I executed Filhaal and I [could not] execute Raazi the way I executed Talvar. Talvar is set in 2005, Raazi is set in 1971.

What you have now is contemporary…

Then I will go back to 1920. The Sam Manekshaw film. Vicky [Kaushal] is playing the part. RSVP is producing it. I require nine months to a year of prep. Particularly for the kind of film it is, [and] the kind of detailing and research that is required. We start production in 2021. I do need a break for a couple of months to [work] Chhapaak out of my system. I have lived with something for a year-and-a-half. It can’t snap out on the day of release. It takes its own process.

Are you again collaborating on the Maneckshaw film?

I love collaborating. I love the energy that pours into a script in collaborating. It’s the flow and exchange of ideas. You know the domino effect, how the dominoes start falling. Sitting with my writers is just the opposite. The scenes start standing. They start getting populated. It’s just banter through which it happens. For [the] Maneckshaw film I am collaborating with Bhavani Iyer of Raazi and Shantanu Srivastava who wrote Badhaai Ho.

So you bounce ideas off each other?

We talk and make notes of what we have agreed on and then one person will structure it and it will come to the next for another layer and then to the third for another layer. Then we put it all together and circulate it. Every sequence is actually going through three passes. Very [rarely do] you have your semi-final draft in your first draft itself.

But writing is largely seen to be such an individual, isolating experience…

Not just writing, filmmaking is a collaborative process. It’s not an isolated, individual thing at all.

Does writing and research take the longest for you as a filmmaker?

With my last two films the research-writing, the production and the post production have been even in duration.

Chhapaak is also a collaboration as a producer. Your company is co-producing with Deepika’s and Fox Star. How does that help?

You have a larger army supporting and backing the film. You have larger manpower resource also, more minds. The support system is to be grateful for.

Are you very disciplined as a filmmaker?

I would like to think so. It’s important for me to have everything streamlined, discussed, regulated with everybody and put on paper, then we follow a shared schedule, plan and idea. It makes the process easier on everybody. Everybody is on the same page. It streamlines and makes it quicker.

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Printable version | Jan 27, 2020 2:24:52 AM |

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