Meet Writer-Director Shakun Batra Who Goes Beyond Formula Successes | Verve Magazine
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July 07, 2017

Meet Writer-Director Shakun Batra Who Goes Beyond Formula Successes

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena. Photograph by Prateek Patel. Make-Up and Hair by Vathingla, Jean-Claude Biguine Salon and Spa, Mumbai

Excited about his movie Kapoor & Sons being nominated for the IIFA awards, he reflects on his muses in a conversation with us….

Amongst the most talked-about Hindi films of last year, the one that grabbed both audience attention and critical acclaim was the celluloid story of a dysfunctional family, Kapoor & Sons (Since 1921). As I emerged from the viewing of the ‘dramedy’, I remember overhearing, ‘That could have very well been the tale of my family’. Writer-director Shakun Batra’s offering had effectively transferred reality to reel and had lingered in my mind long after the screening. When I catch up with the Gen-next filmmaker for a conversation almost a year after its release, I compliment him on his re-creation of an eminently identifiable, tangled web of relationships.

At the time of our chat Batra is in his hometown, New Delhi, spending time with his parents. Currently busy planning his next film, he has no qualms about rewinding to the inspiration behind his mega-movie — his own family. I remind him that he had called it ‘choreographed chaos’ in several interviews. Batra opines, “Families are like that. They’re chaotic and are always moving. Even when the members are fighting, they are moving between rooms. I felt that we’d never seen this in Hindi cinema, and, for me, that became the exciting challenge. I thought it would be fun if I could organise such scenes, and, if you recall the one with the plumber, you will know exactly what I am referring to. I’d seen my relatives behave like that. For the first eight years of my life, I lived in a joint family, so there was always chaos. The house felt full with functions, parties and other grand events. I had seen such scenes in Monsoon Wedding — they were so beautiful and fluid that I wanted to bring that element in.”

Growing up in a business family, Batra had no direct connection with the world of cinema. It was his sister who was an avowed geek, while he was just the average buff. Fascinated by photography, he decided to become a cameraman and studied cinematography at Vancouver Film School. While there, he says, “My girlfriend’s flatmate used to be quite passionate about films. She showed me Amores Perros and others in a similar vein. And I realised that they could be more serious. Around that time, Dil Chahta Hai released. I saw that and felt like something new was happening. It didn’t feel like entertainment anymore; it was closer to home. You felt connected to it and you subconsciously knew these people. And then the film-maker Tarsem Singh came to our college for an interview. His work is mind-blowing. All this drew me in further and soon I was madly in love with the movies. It had turned into an obsession by then and I would be watching at least two flicks a day!”

Once he had decided that the world of cinema was where he wanted to be, Batra came to Mumbai. Serendipity seems to have played a part in his success or, as he puts it, Lady Luck smiled on him when he touched base in the City of Dreams. Quickly making a lot of friends, he assisted on several projects and was soon writing his own script. He recalls, “I was working on Jaane Tu…Ya Jaane Na — it was the first project for almost everyone who worked on it. It was there that I met Imran Khan, the actor, and Ayesha (DeVitre), the hairstylist, who subsequently became my co-writer. All of us started hanging out together; I mentioned that I was writing something. Before I knew it, Imran read it, liked it, and then took it to Karan (Johar) who also enjoyed it — and Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu happened. In hindsight, I think it was a lucky stroke that got it rolling. How many people get to a star and a producer with their first project?”

Our interaction with the 34-year-old Batra continues on a Friday morning, when he is back to base in Mumbai — in Karan Johar’s new office, which one can say without impunity, is his second ‘home’. Batra whose two offerings were co-produced by Dharma Productions gives full credit to his friend, guide and mentor. He says, “Being a director and producer, Karan knows how to support you. He creates an environment that encourages you to go out and do the things that you want to do. You feel that you have got someone who has your back and can push the envelope as far as you would like to.”

Having witnessed the changing sensibilities of Indian cinema over the decades, I am particularly sensitive to the fact that Batra has explored new nuances of characters and relationships. When I quiz him about the cool quotient one finds in his work, he modestly states, “I have no idea why people say my creations are cool. The funny thing is that if someone forced me to make something else, I wouldn’t be able to. Right now, people connect with me because they identify with Kapoor & Sons — because it is about today. I just hope that I remain up to date and continue to make movies that have some relevance.”

And what does he think of first when scripting his plots, the character or the actor? Batra says, “You just start writing and the reel personas become real people. And then I look for actors who will be able to portray them. But, I did write my first script with Imran and Kareena (Kapoor Khan) in mind. Now Ayesha and I write the stories and then figure out who would be the right person to play that part.”

I observe that his depiction of women — first seen with the female lead Riana Braganza in Ekk Main Aur Ekk Tu — is also what makes him modern. His debut traced the nuances of an accidental marriage after a night of debauchery. The story ends, not with a happily ever after, but with Riana spurning the romantic overtures of Rahul Kapoor (Imran Khan) and choosing to remain good friends. And in Kapoor & Sons, both the female lead Tia Malik (Alia Bhatt), and the Kapoor matriarch Sunita (Ratna Pathak Shah), are immensely real in their reactions. Batra believes, “It partly comes from having a female co-writer who is also my closest friend. This has helped me understand women more. Also, I am a huge fan of Woody Allen. I often watch his movies, to give me some direction. His female protagonists were always really strong. Whether it was Hannah And Her Sisters or Annie Hall, his women were free and evolved and had strong parts to play. I get upset when I see a potential for a female role, but it is just reduced to a love interest, or she is objectified. All characters should feel alive and real. And that requires effort as a writer-director. What helps me in this regard is the fact that I have read many books. One of my favourite novels is Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. The personalities are written with such depth that they made me want to recreate similar ones.”

One character that stood out in the ensemble of Batra’s last outing was Rahul Kapoor (Fawad Khan) — one of the most sensitive depictions of a gay man in Hindi cinema. Admitting to ennui with how they had been portrayed so far, he states, “I told Karan even before writing the script that I was so tired of caricatures of gay men. I wanted to do a story where there was no embarrassing tonality — and that is the first thing I mentioned to Fawad. He asked me how I saw Rahul and I said that I see him as absolutely real. He could be sitting next to you and you would not immediately realise that he was gay. I’d seen many movies which dealt with homosexuality in a more mature tone and I was really hoping that we could do something like that here. I think that worked.”

Batra also lends his mind to advertisements, the latest commercial for Nirav Modi with Priyanka Chopra and Sidharth Malhotra being one. Considering the different genres he works in, he has his own way of staying in the zone that each requires him to be in. “Music plays a big part when I am writing any scene,” he states. “When I am directing that particular scene, I listen to the same tune again. I make a playlist and, while directing, the tune reminds me of what I was feeling when I was writing.”

Collaborating with DeVitre helps him maintain a balance between work and life. Admitting that if he were working alone he would probably end up killing himself, Batra emphasises, “Writing is such a lonely process. Ayesha and I fight but then in less than half an hour we are friends again and we go back to writing. And with two heads, it is much easier to overcome creative blocks.”

Even though he has tasted fame, Batra modestly affirms that he does not feel successful. What he does feel is relief. Explaining his frame of mind, he states, “I don’t know if it’s the same feeling as success. But I now feel confident because I have taken a risk and it has paid off. So, it is possible to believe in an unconventional subject and still make it. But I have friends who’d make a safe film because they feel that nobody will help or support their risk-taking ventures. I believe more in myself now, because Kapoor & Sons was a tough subject — people did not believe in it when it started and so I think you have to trust your own gut. My next project might not be conventional but it’s something that I believe is going to be good. So I am just putting my energy into that.”

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