You’re a bit of an unknown quantity in Bollywood despite having made four films. Should we start with “Kahaani”?
I started from Kolkata as a ‘watcher of films.’ I come from a humble background. My father was a taxi driver. My mother is a doctor, a psychiatrist. They fell in love and eloped. But this is one of the least bizarre things about my family. My maternal grandfather was from Nepal who got embroiled in a brawl that ended in someone accidentally losing his life. After that, my grandfather came to Kolkata where he became a rich man’s chauffeur, and fell in love with another rich man’s daughter, and they also eloped. My biggest regret today is that my grandmother, who was also my best friend, is not alive today (to see all the success).
Where does Bollywood come into the picture?
I had a nice, cushy job at Reuters, where I was the media manager, South Asia. I had studied software engineering from Manchester University, along with having an MBA. It means little today, but in 1999, I was drawing over `50 lakh per annum, which is far more than what I make now. But then, life is all about taking that chance. I was always interested in writing, so I decided to come to Mumbai to write a script to teach myself. I had lots of friends at Bombay Times, and I used to often drop by at their office to hang out with them. My friends read the script of “Jhankar Beats” and said it needed to be made. I realised that I would not be able to do that along with my Reuters job, so I quit, and started doing the round of producers. During this, I met Pritish Nandy, who was willing to produce it, but because there was nothing to the script and the whole film was about the treatment, we could not find a director. So by default, I became the director too. The film was appreciated and made some money.
Similarly, on another visit to the Bombay Times office, I met a takla guy who was to play an important role in my life. His name was Vishal (Dadlani) and he introduced me to his partner, Shekhar. They were looking for a break and they loved the script of “Jhankar Beats”. We became friends and have been collaborators since.
Did you not find it scary to leave such a cushy job for something so fraught with risk? Nothing gives you more confidence than education. It’s very important to get educated. I always tell my children that the only reason I was able to take this risk was because I knew I had my education to fall back on. What allows me to take chances is that I can always get a job.
Yes, but Bollywood, where you are at present, can be a tough place to survive. Especially after your two flops, “Home Delivery” and “Aladdin”. Was it easy to make “Kahaani”? I was trying for a new style of narrative in “Home Delivery”, but it went down faster than the Titanic (laughs). After this, I had no money but plenty of dreams, so I took a chance and one day just walked into the sets of one of Mr Bachchan’s films and read out my script to him. It was called “Borivili”. Eventually, we couldn’t make the film, but he agreed to be a part of “Aladdin”. He’s the only man I respect as much as my father. Filmmaking, I realise, is all about taking a call and then having the nerve to stand by it. It’s a bit like buying stock. So I took calls. Some worked. Some didn’t. Also, you must know that I am a big jugadoo, I am good at bargaining for and managing monies.
Luckily for you, you are also the producer of “Kahaani”. What inspired you to write it? The central fascination came from the idea of the mother. I wanted to harness the strength of a woman, a mother who can be a midget and yet will do everything to protect her child at all costs. For instance, my mother still sustains me. She takes care of my expenses. So I thought, what if I dropped the character of a mother in a place like Kolkata, and left her to find answers to some questions, and we could end up with a thriller. I have always thought of how a person who loses a dear one in a blast, for instance, would go and search for what really happened to him during the blast. So I wrote “Kahaani” with that person in mind, and how an ordinary person would go searching in an unknown city.
But it’s not just an unknown city, right? It’s Kolkata, and it’s a character in the film… I grew up in Kolkata and am a total Bengali. I love the culture of the place, be it the addabaji, the character, the dominance of women, the Durga Puja. So, I brought it in the film as that is what I grew up with. Incidentally, my wife’s name is Vaishali, which the Bengalis pronounce as ‘Baishali’ – and so that little quirk about Vidya getting annoyed when she is addressed as Bidya.
You have worked with Amitabh Bachchan, and you’ve worked with Vidya Balan, both of whom you wanted to work with. Is there anyone else on your wish list? I would love to work with Shah Rukh Khan because he is a damn good actor. You can’t become a star just like that. May be some day, I should just go and meet him on his set and ask him if he will act in my film.Aladdin Amitabh Bachchan Home Delivery Jhankar Beats Kahaani Pritish Nandy Shah Rukh Khan Sujoy Ghosh Vidya Balan Vishal Dadlani