Meghna Gulzar Curated
Indian Film Director, writer and Producer
CURATED BY :
How did you go about designing a spy film in an era where technology was not very advanced? Were people forthcoming with information on methods used in those days?
They were not. (Laughs) So you use personal associations, you have informal conversations. And they have to trust your integrity enough to not compromise their faith in you. You use a little bit of imagination, and apply some logic. For example, we had to show her travel from Kashmir to Pakistan. We had to research how much time it took in those days. There were no trains, borders were not fenced. All these things factor in the film, because you have to show it visually. The book can get away with saying: “She went to Kashmir”. But how did she go? We have to show that.
How do you connect the patriotism that Sehmat felt to what someone her age today feels about their country?
You don’t adapt to what it means or feels today. Because you are telling the story of ’71. You stay true to that emotion and hope that it is a nice thing to remember, that it used to be like that. But you cannot compromise and try and put today’s interpretations into a film which is set in 1971, to make it more understandable or relatable. That would be being dishonest to the story.
The female spy in cinema has mostly been the femme fatale. Sehmat is the very opposite. Was that a conscious decision?
It was a very conscious decision. Extremely conscious. I wanted Sehmat to be vulnerable and fragile, because her circumstances are so unpredictable - there is no way to know how things will turn. So, that fear has to remain in her for her to be real and relatable. She cannot suddenly become Lara Croft. That is not my sensibility as a filmmaker either. We wanted to keep her feminine and in flowy pastels, to keep her real and identifiable.
Which part of “Calling Sehmat” had enough appeal for you to turn it into a movie?
For me, the core thread of the story, which is the girl’s journey, was what stood out for me and that is what I picked out to make a film. In fact, my father, when I first told him… because this book had first come to him… he couldn’t understand why I would want to make this film. But there were layers that I saw, and that he saw later when he read the screenplay.
You were supposed to be making a film on Neelesh Misra’s book about the Indian Airlines Flight 814 hijack?
The project belongs to Vishal Bhardwaj sir. A couple of years ago, we were in conversation and it was sweet of him to say the after Talvar, I should be making that film. But somehow, he got busy with Rangoon and I got busy with Raazi. I don’t know where the project is right now. Vishal sir has to decide. Currently, I’ve signed on with Ronnie Screwvala for a film on the life of Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw. I’m both extremely scared and excited.
Do you consider making a Bollywood masala movie?
I hope, I’m already making Bollywood masala movies. The thing is that when I start off trying to make one, I eventually turn them into ‘my’ kind of films. Because at some point, my sensibilities kick in. I work on instinct. I can’t depart from that. I can’t suppress that. It would be unnatural and would show badly in my work. That is something I don’t want.
Did you shoot a scene differently from the way it’s usually shot?
In the song Dilbaro, the walk from the door of the house to the door of the car is only that much. Sehmat walks, stops, turns and hugs her people before she gets into the car. She doesn’t stop every three steps and then turn around. That’s stupid. Then the scene where they drive to Pakistan. You see three-four shots of changing landscapes before they arrive. (Laughs) Some sweet friends joke that if it was any other director, the car would have stopped mid-journey, Sehmat and Iqbal would have sung a few lines in the mountains, got back in the car and gone ahead.
How’s your equation with your father (Gulzar) when it comes to work?
He’d bounce off a line or a song and I’d make him rewrite it. So, yeah, I exploited him being his daughter. But yes, it was so organic he being a filmmaker and a writer himself. He was able to translate the purpose of the songs so poetically. It was amazing. With Shankar- Ehsaan- Loy, it was my first collaboration. It’s difficult to tell if the tune came first or the lyrics. It’s all hazy because Shankar would hum two lines and then dad would write two lines. Or dad would write four lines and Shankar would compose accordingly. It was a fabulous jugalbandi.
Which part of Raazi was tough shooting ?
The climax! We shot it in two days and it took the wind out of us. The sequence is such that you need at least three-four days to shoot it. The first day, all we shot were the agents talking to each other in the car and getting out to take their positions. Everything else was done on the second day. Even I don’t know how we did it.
What came as an unforeseen challenge during shooting Raazi?
Our pre production was rock solid. The only thing that we weren’t prepared for was the Baba Ram Rahim’s arrest and the four-day curfew in Punjab. We didn’t know whether it would last four days or 15 days. That uncertainity was frightening. We had tickets booked for 120 people to fly to Srinagar. That couldn’t change. So no matter what we lost, we had to fly to Srinagar on that particular day. When the curfew was finally lifted, making up for those four days was a Herculean task. The unit gave up their break days. We shot non-stop for 20 days to cover up for the lost time. That was the only harrowing part of the film.
Reportedly, Alia said that Sehmat’s character(in Raazi) is a lot like you in real life. Agree?
I don’t believe I’m capable of such supreme sacrifice or selflessness. Raazi is a logistic heavy film, a period film shot on outdoor locations. You have to find solutions without losing your handle. You’ve got to overcome obstacles quickly and think on your feet. Perhaps, Alia must have compared me with Sehmat in the way I dealt with situations. Beyond that, I’m nowhere near this special lady.
Bringing in a fresh pair like Alia and Vicky in Raazi, was there any hesitation?
I approach my casting keeping in mind the physicality of the actors. So, Vicky scored first on that count. I needed an evolved performance and a sensitivity in spite of him being an army man. He does things he’s meant to do for his country but gently. I asked Karan Johar to give Vicky a call and set up a meeting for us. I made him do two scenes. One is the beginning of their relationship and the other the end. Alia, sportingly, came and read. We filmed that. Vicky came for the test in a Pathan suit. As he walked in, I knew the test was just a formality. But we did it for the sake of the producers. The way he read those lines, Alia was also blown away. It didn’t require convincing that he’s Iqbal.
What was the one moment in Harinder Sikka’s novel Sehmat Calling that urged you to make Raazi?
I didn’t read the book and then decide to make a film on it. The story was shared by two different producers, who approached me with the same book. I got to know the story before I read the book. So, there’s no one moment. But the last thing Sehmat (Alia Bhatt) tells her mother (Soni Razdan), the way that has been expressed and executed is different from that in the book. Then Iqbal (Vicky Kaushal) giving Sehmat his mother’s payal is not in the book. When you devise other tools to reach the end, it feels good. That’s special to me.
Was it difficult to adapt a politically sensitive story like Raazi?
When you’re aware of what could foster divisiveness, you avoid it while writing or directing it. Also, your own sensibility is not the kind to rake up controversy rather just to tell a story
How do you feel about the amazing reception Raazi has received?
When people you look up to as filmmakers, praise your work, it’s precious. Like Rajkumar Hirani sir did. I was moved because I look up to him. It’s heartening when you read tweets about people giving a standing ovation to the film. Pakistanis, who have seen the film, well... their scepticism seems to have faded. This is the response you wish for a film like this, particularly in the times we live in. There’s gratitude and relief.