Leena Yadav On Why You’ve Got To Have Faith In Your Film
Even her very first film Shabd (2005) was not really mainstream, vis-à-vis the content at least, although it did star some of the biggest stars in Bollywood — like Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Sanjay Dutt. Then, a decade later, she broke the mould and gave us Parched. The ripples spread all the way to France, where it ran for 49 weeks – winning laurels for being the longest running Indian film in the country till date. Currently shooting her next, the curiously titled Rajma Chawal (starring Rishi Kapoor), she reflects on how far she is willing to go to uphold her zero-compromise policy….
What is your next film about and why is it called Rajma Chawal?
Rajma Chawal (2018) is about a father-son relationship. It’s primarily about communication, and the changing modes of communication — especially with the advent of technology. In lots of ways, it’s about the old and the new and the generation gap. It’s about contrasts that we live in and real communication versus the wire and the internet. It has an ensemble cast of many interesting characters. And it’s called Rajma Chawal because it’s about a key relationship – between father and son. We are so connected to food emotionally…and rajma-chawal is timeless. I felt it signifies the subject of the film in a way.
You have said that you had faced no issues with the censor board with Parched…considering the content of your film, what do you think you did right?
I think rules are interpreted differently by different people. I think I got the right committee, who really connected with the film. I was with the right people at the right time. Initially, they wanted us to remove the breast scenes altogether. I was obviously not trying to make it a U or a U/A film. We talked it out, logically. The scenes are not about the nudity. So I blurred those scenes, which they were open to.
It doesn’t sound like you compromised in any way while writing or making the film.
I never think of consequences while writing a film, and I didn’t go in with a defensive attitude also. My husband, the producer, and I had decided that we will not release the film if we don’t get to portray what we wanted to. We went in with the mindset that we will make a film and we will be true to it. We didn’t censor ourselves by thinking about what might happen. Every country that I have been to with the film, the first question I’ve been asked is, ‘Will India ever get to see the film?’ We were not affected by the financial aspects of not releasing the film in India. The film did really well in France – it’s the longest running Indian film there – it ran for 49 weeks, and widely. But obviously, I’m Indian and I’ve made the film for India, actually. So it was important for me and the producers to release it here, but we weren’t hoping to earn money here. And we didn’t.
You have delved in film and television both. Are you open to experimenting with other mediums like the web? And do you ever see yourself going back to television?
All the mediums have their own challenges and highs. One thing I really want to explore professionally is theatre, which I did in college, as a student. I really hope and pray that Indian television evolves – I wouldn’t jump into it right now, to be honest. It’s such an amazing, instant medium. The time pressures you work under are also so different. So it’s very exciting as a medium. But I am not keen on exploring it because of the kind of content we have on Indian television today. As for the web, I want to see where it goes. There’re a lot of interesting things going on but I haven’t seen anything that has really caught my fancy.
You started with films that were more mainstream or which starred Bollywood royalty like Amitabh and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and then gravitated towards niche, intelligent cinema. Which side are you more comfortable with and why?
The thing is that I’m not against mainstream cinema. But content-wise, Teen Patti (2010) and Shabd (2005) are not mainstream. For me, it’s all about the content. I was surprised that the stars signed up for something like that at that point in time. I took it up as a challenge. In a way, I had to make certain compromises in both these films because of the stars, which is why I broke away and made a Parched. Stars may not be able to do the roles in as uncompromised a way that I got my actors in Parched to do it. I knew that very clearly and I didn’t want to compromise on that at all. I’ve also grown and come into my own by now. Working or not working with stars is not a criterion. The only criterion is that I make the film I had set out to make. It really depends on the subject. If I’m making a light film, there are lots of interesting actors to pick from – people like Alia Bhatt, who are doing different things. I think the younger generation is exciting because they are doing a lot of things very differently and that’s really heartening and a step in the right direction for Indian cinema.
Do you agree that film-makers exploring intelligent cinema in India are more likely to get allotted smaller budgets because of the nature of their cinema, which is generally not expected to be a mainstream box-office success?
It’s actually a trap. What happens is that the distributor doesn’t spend much money on the publicity of a small film as compared to a bigger film, although the small film actually needs the publicity much more. If these small films are publicised well, they’ll do a hundred times better because the audience is done with being made a fool of. Everyone today is watching series and films from other parts of the world, so there is an interest in different types of content. But, a large part of the audience doesn’t even know about the variety of quality films being made in India nowadays. When I showed Parched to villagers, the women went berserk. They loved it. But tickets are expensive and most people want someone to come and tell them to watch a film before they go and buy the ticket. But then again, the majority will only go and watch it in the first place if they see a recognisable face. Cinema used to have mavericks who didn’t mind taking risks to do the things they believed in, but now it’s run by companies where everyone is passing the buck and playing it safe. There’s no stress on content, instead you will find emphasis on more superficial stuff. Sometimes, the distributors are so apologetic! But the truth is just that there’s really no one doing it with faith.
Content in mainstream cinema and funding in indie films remain an issue. How difficult is it to get the freedom and funding to make and release the film you want in India?
It’s all a part of the same system. The minute you put the smaller films out there with faith, things will change. People are more capable of producing these films than the 100-crore films. There are people who come and say, ‘Mere paas sirf saat crore hain par mujhe Salman Khan chahiye.’ How will you get Salman Khan in seven crores? There are people who are ready to invest but they are scared to do so in the smaller films. They see that these films appear and disappear. So if the system starts changing, it will really even force our mainstream guys to approach content differently.
Parchedisn’t just a ‘Sex and the Village’, as you have called it, but relevant in urban centres too, be it a two-tier city or a metro….
When I first thought of Parched, I went to the villages. I had a lot of conversations. I also connected it with things I saw while growing up. Then when I started writing the script in Mumbai, I said, ‘You know what, I’m not writing about them, I’m writing about us’. Because exactly the same things were happening all around me. I sent the script to my friends across the world, and for the first time I realised that the themes are quite universal, whether you are in a developed society or not. In Q&As, especially in America, it would start out with, ‘It’s such a timely film, with all the rapes in India’ and ‘Do these things really happen there?’ and I would turn the conversation around and tell them that the highest rate of domestic violence is in the US and if you’re talking about child marriage, let’s also talk about teenage pregnancy in the US. The narrative may be different but it’s basically the same thing, and this would suddenly dawn on them, like an epiphany.
On the chemistry and relationship between the women in your film….
I realised that while growing up, some of the strongest relationship that shaped me were with women. And I thought about why I don’t ever see this in films, where women are always pitted against each other. We don’t talk about how essential and nourishing it is to have strong female relationships. We are conditioned to think that female bosses are problematic. The reality needs to be seen on screen also.
Stars are coming forward and supporting smaller and different films (like Priyanka Chopra and Ajay Devgn), a new trend in India. Your thoughts.
I think, soon, it will become essential for big stars to do that. I think it balances out the image also. And many of them play to the gallery. This helps the audience see the other side of the story.
Whose and what kind of cinema do you admire the most?
One of the films that really shook me when I was doing my mass communication in college was Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959). It’s one of my ‘favouritest’ films because it made me see what a film can do without saying too much. That’s a key film for me. I watch a lot of films and a lot of trash too, because that’s also important. I love Pedro Almodóvar and Wong Kar-wai. Sholay (1975) is one of my all-time favourites. If you look at the film through a technical eye, you will find that the sound and shot-taking in the film was just brilliant for that time.