Gauri Shinde Director’s Cut: On Alia Bhatt, SRK, therapy and an entrance exam for parenthood
Gauri Shinde ’s Dear Zindagi has become a hit despite its unconventional theme and the way it breaks Bollywood tradition by having a male megastar play second fiddle to a female star.
Gauri Shinde laughs a lot. Even while discussing issues as grave as the stigma surrounding therapy and the mandatory deification of parents in Indian society, she punctuates her comments – including the most ruminative ones – with hearty chuckles and bursts of unbridled laughter. Come to think of it, this is perhaps the best way to deal with a season in which your film is a box-office success but has irritated conservatives.
Shinde’s Dear Zindagi – her second film, the first being English Vinglish – has become a hit despite its unconventional theme and the way it breaks Bollywood tradition by having a male megastar play second fiddle to a female star. Here is the writer-director-producer in a conversation about Alia Bhatt, Shah Rukh Khan, therapy and offended parents. Excerpts:
Do you believe in genres? If yes, what genre does Dear Zindagi belong to?
I never know how to slot a film, especially this. When people say “slice of life” and “coming of age” it limits the film, its objective or purpose. So I don’t know. Because we know a few genres I think maybe it can come under human drama. If only we had a new genre called life stories…
How about the “life as it happens” genre?
Life as it happens. Ya, that’s a nicer one.
So what is Dear Zindagi’s objective and purpose?
The main one is to connect or reconnect with yourself in a meaningful way. Somewhere we forget why we are and what we are. So it’s to go back in time and find the source of whatever is blocking you from living to your fullest potential, through a friend, a close connection with someone, through therapy, ya.
I wanted to communicate this and many other things without being preachy, and I’ve left it fluid for anyone to take what they want.
How would you assess Alia as an artist?
She’s free, fearless, raw, instinctive. She’s such a natural. There’s no strategy, no theory, no intellectualisation. Another amazing thing is, she is attractive and pretty but that never hampers her performance. When she performs, she doesn’t even look in the mirror, she just trusts you.
How did you convince Shah Rukh to do a film in which he appears 40-plus minutes into the film?
The great thing is, I don’t think he was concerned about the number of minutes. He just liked the subject and was on board. I don’t think he even cared that he is not the lead. I was happily surprised. Actually not so surprised because of the way he has been, it didn’t seem like he ever was concerned about his stardom. Nobody’s really strategised about what they want to achieve from this film, they just did it for the love of it and I’m grateful for someone like him to actually do this. This happens only in Hollywood, where a Ralph Fiennes does a Reader or a George Clooney does a Gravity, so ya, (laughs) Shah Rukh Khan has done Dear Zindagi.
Were you making a conscious effort to de-stigmatise mental illness through Dear Zindagi?
Yes, in a light-hearted way.
Many people I know have suffered on different levels, including deep depression, so I have always been concerned about it. My aunt is a therapist. And without having any tragedy in my life I have been to many therapists.
Shah Rukh’s character Dr Jahangir Khan is a therapist I’d aspire to meet in my head. I deeply feel about this. Especially in India, people do not talk about these things. We should be able to say, “I go to therapy” or “I need help”. You don’t take an off from work ever saying “I feel mentally disturbed”. You always say shit like you have a headache or you’re puking. It’s time we put it out in the open. I knew I was taking a big risk talking about this because many people may be averse to it but I was, like, what the hell, it’s important.
I read this reaction on Facebook: “Dear Zindagi gives a wrong impression of depression. If this is what depression is, then what’s the big deal?” How do you react?
(Laughing) Kaira is not depressed. You don’t have to be clinically depressed or an extreme case to seek help. Even the smallest thing needs to be addressed. It could lead to depression in the future, maybe when she turns 30 or 40, who knows, but right now this is it.
How authentic is your portrayal of the patient-therapist sessions in the film?
Well I’ve already put a disclaimer in the beginning. It may not be entirely authentic or maybe someone like that exists. I have come close to someone who’s 60-75 per cent like Dr Khan. Also keep in mind that when you’re introducing such a subject in such a country, you need to introduce it in a manner that can endear you to accept the idea. At the end of the day it’s cinema. If I’d been authentic, since most people don’t know how sessions are, that would have been preachy. To converge cinema, aspiration and reality was the effort.
Also, how conventional you are differs with each therapist. I made Dr Khan a maverick, an unconventional therapist right in his introduction. Which is why young people or someone like Kaira would think of going to him. I would like therapists who are far more approachable, endearing and not straitjacketed. That’s why I said Dr Khan is an aspiration. If there was someone as friendly who changed their therapy as per the individual patient, it would be nice.
Why did Dr Khan so abruptly cancel that one session with Kaira and why did he end their series of sessions without laying the groundwork for it? Was that not harmful, considering that she was already struggling with abandonment issues?
(Laughs) You’ve become seriously interested in therapy. There are 2-3 reasons. First of all, you can take a break when you think it is wise to. That’s what he’s done. She is on her path and he also says, “Genius is about knowing when to stop.” Also, he being a therapist and knowing more than the patient, probably realised she is developing feelings for him and it could be far more harmful to continue in a space like that. Also he has led her on to a path where she is and with that wisdom of knowing that he is leaving her at a point in which we see her, that it has not harmed her but it has done well for her. That’s why the conclusion of the film, otherwise it would be that she’s feeling abandoned again.
I get why he might have thought it best to stop having sessions. I’m asking about the abruptness with which he cancelled, and the next time he meets her he says the next is their last session.
Next week is the last session. So obviously I’m not showing all the sessions because it’s a film. It’s not exactly consecutive to the boat session.
But she seems to think it’s abrupt.
No, that’s not what the reaction is. It’s like, oh shit I’m not going to see this guy, because she’s developed feelings for him.
So you’re saying he might have laid the groundwork for ending their sessions in the space of time we don’t see on screen?
Absolutely. She also would be aware that at some point there could be this, but the shock is because she’s in this space with these feelings or whatever.
When Kaira finds Dr Khan on the ferry, his manner seemed to suggest that a personal problem was weighing on his mind. What was going on there?
Uh, it could probably be with his own thing which he is trying to mask. He had just met his son, which is why he cancelled the session. But there’s not much weighing on his mind. It’s just about how to gently bring this girl to towards the finale.
He mentions his wife, his divorce and the son to Kaira. Did I miss a mention on the ferry that he had just met the boy?
No no, that’s a part that got edited and where he explains to Kaira that that’s where he had gone. We edited it because some other scene also got edited.
Why did you feel the need to hint that Dr Khan was attracted to Kaira? It went against everything we had seen of him until then in the film.
First of all I don’t agree with “attracted”, that’s not the emotion. Even a therapist is a bloody human being. Yes you are sticking to your ethics and professionalism, but you feel a connection with people, and this was a special person. It’s somebody who he also liked but has not necessarily fallen in love with. I wouldn’t use vulgar terms like attraction, that’s why there were no words, there was just a little creak in the chair – he had explained it to her, “It only creaks when you really like someone but can’t do anything about it.”
And why not? Why do we feel that it’s a Hindi film ending or whatever, where someone has to like someone? No, these are human qualities. That’s what is interesting for me in life and in cinema, when there’s a human quality to the characters. He’s not just playing a postcard where he doesn’t feel anything. He cannot do much about it and those are his issues to resolve. We’re all just people with feelings at the end of the day. It is not in the zone of, oh my god I got attracted and it’s a love story. It’s not even in the typical sense of a man falling for a woman, a woman falling for a man. It’s just that he felt a deep connection and will also miss her.
Except that up to that point, his vibe towards her was avuncular. Was he camouflaging his true feelings until then?
No, it was when he finally gave in to what he really felt, and when he could be free to do it in his space, when she left. He was not camouflaging, he was just being a professional. He’s doing this job but he has a right to his own feelings in his own private space.
Why do you describe the word attraction as vulgar?
It’s not the word attraction, it’s the insinuation that it’s the same typical thing, they’ve fallen in love, a hero and heroine. For me the categorisation of the emotion is vulgar.
Kaira being drawn to him fits perfectly. But when there is a suggestion that he reciprocates her feelings, it felt like Dear Zindagi is following the general Hindi film pattern that if you cast a major male star and major female star as your leads, then unless they are playing relatives they absolutely will at some point be attracted to each other if not fall in love.
That’s our own biases of what we’ve seen, our conditioning. But this is fresh, this is a new relationship, a new space. They’re human beings. And he’s not even said what he feels.
It just struck him that, oh my god I will probably also miss her, and I like her. It’s as innocent as this. And whoever has to get it gets it, but this is what I truly wanted. And not for the sake that there’s a male star, not because it’s Shah Rukh Khan. I could have done far more. This could have actually been a love story and gone in a really weird-ass way but no, it’s not about falling in love. You feel friendship, connections. Why is it misconstrued? You want to derive things from your own experience, your own bias of Hindi cinema and all that.
It’s not my bias. I’ve heard viewers saying, “Yes, Shah Rukh gets the girl.”
I can’t control what people feel. I can only share my intention with you. What you understand from it is your prerogative. (Laughs)
What you call “bias” or “conditioning” is perspective that comes from knowing Hindi film conventions. Your story seemed to defy convention and then seemed to succumb with the creak of the chair.
Ya. But that’s not what I had in mind, so what can I say about people’s interpretations being different from my intention?
By introducing Aditya Roy Kapur, you seem to be letting us know there are more fulfilling romantic relationships in store for Kaira. Nothing wrong with that, but would it not have been even more uplifting if the point we take away in the end is that a relationship is not an essential part of a woman’s existence and that a woman may feel complete in herself?
But that’s exactly what I tried. She met this man, nobody is saying she started a relationship or what happened. Which is why she walks alone at the end. I wanted to say, I’m free, I’m open to new, healthy relationships, but this is me, I’m now saying hi to life. She is with her camera on the beach. If I’d ended with Aditya Roy Kapur and her, it would have been different.
Was it necessary to have Aditya at all?
It was like, now you’re open. I didn’t want her to be the extreme, I don’t care about other men, I’m in love with Jahangir. That needed to be resolved, that I got what I needed from Jahangir and I am good now. If I’d not introduced Aditya and if she walked straight on the beach, it would still be, like, Jahangir is who she is moving on with in her head. So I needed to break that.
Again, while I enjoyed the film’s humour, that scene in which Kaira’s uncle asks if she is Lebanese (when he meant to say lesbian) felt forced. Looking back, do you think it works?
To be honest, at one point I did wonder if it seemed contrived, but my editors used to laugh every time we did that scene and actually this has happened to one of my ADs, so I’m like, no, I’m not removing it. Sometimes when things happen in real life and you put them on cinema they don’t seem true, but they have happened. But ya, this is one thing I’m accepting of yours because it went through my head too.
Karan Johar re-edited Ae Dil Hai Mushkil to remove all references to Pakistan, after Maharashtra Navnirman Sena attacked his film for featuring a cameo by a Pakistani star. Did you consider removing Ali Zafar’s role in Dear Zindagi because he is Pakistani?
It would be unfair for me to comment on Karan’s film. I don’t even want to talk about my film in this context because this is not something that needs to be raked up. Nobody has done anything wrong to suffer this, nobody wanted to be in this situation. We never know what happens when, so I feel it’s best to let bygones be bygones as far as they can be.
Of course any creative person would want our original vision to be in place. To have to change anything would break my heart. It would have broken my heart to change Ali Zafar, and I’m thankful to the time, the stars and whatever, that did not happen.
In a society that almost deifies parents, did it occur to you that it was risky to have your heroine critiquing her parents especially over an issue that – unlike, say, child abuse – many people would not even consider a big deal?
Uh, I didn’t think it was risky because I strongly believe children need to be respected a lot more. We’re already so brainwashed about respecting elders. There needs to be a reason to respect people and they need to present that reason. Nobody questioned why English Vinglish was from a parent’s point of view but now, oh my god, they mind. I wanted to make Dear Zindagi from a child’s point of view, that there are so many things happening and someone needs to pay attention, even if it’s a small thing. We don’t have to go through abuse. It is the small things that affect a majority of us, sometimes even for no fault of the parents. That’s what I tried to say, that once we start looking at parents as regular people with flaws, we can understand them better. But as a child you don’t get it, as a child they’re god, the be all and end all. I also personally believe there should be a test before you decide to have a child. If you have entrance tests for MBA, imagine parenting! It’s a huge responsibility, and there is no entrance exam. (Laughs)
I recall someone saying on FB that Kaira is nothing but a spoilt brat…
(Laughs) To judge someone like that is just unfortunate. I would say this viewer is a sad parent who’s not understood.
She is not a parent.
I don’t want to judge her myself, I don’t want to be her, but she has probably not played out the child in her fully. (Laughs) I knew the film will make some people uncomfortable. When you react like this, sometimes it is a lot to do with yourself. (Still laughing) I understand if you don’t agree with something or find the film boring, but if you feel disturbed and angry then there’s something you are not addressing in yourself or you want to be in denial.
I came across some people discussing their fears as parents of teenagers, that a film like Dear Zindagi normalises casual sex and makes it a fashion.
(She laughs right through this answer) Yessssss. And I’d like to say proudly, yes of course we’re normalising it. Sex happens. It can be casual. Deal with it. Earlier people didn’t have the space and the wherewithal, but that’s how it is. Refer to biology, to teenagers’ hormones.
The film just states facts. This is how things are at least in urban India. To not want to deal with it is from our conservative prism of how we want our children to be.
For many parents it’s a morality issue, but are there not also legitimate concerns about educating children on birth control, STDs, unwanted pregnancies?
Ya, but I’m not here to address social concerns. I’m not an activist or making an educational film on birth control and sex. (Laughs) When I do that I’ll address those, but for now this was the film I wanted to make. I don’t want to sound derogatory, but a lot of people who saw beyond this and are more evolved have not been offended by casual sex or whatever the film is saying.
(Still laughing) I don’t understand this, Anna. Whenever somebody makes a film, people want them to make something else. They say, but this or that was not there. You can have a problem with the existing content, but they expect the film to have been made according to their wishes.
And haan, you mentioned those worried parents, so let me clarify, Kaira is not a teenager. She is a 25-year-old, living alone, very much with the knowledge of her parents who have supported her career choice. The film is not about teenagers. I wouldn’t have recklessly shown a teenager doing this.
Someone wrote to me: “Isn’t this reverse stereotyping? Just because she’s a liberal woman, do they have to show her permanently drunk and sleeping around?” I asked him where she is permanently drunk, and how he concluded that she is sleeping around, but…
Exactly, that’s what I too would like to know. And it’s a him. Perfect. Had to be a man. (She laughs through this answer) I don’t know what to say. One reaction I heard about English Vinglish was, “How come Sridevi in that character is drinking wine on the flight?” That poor middle-class Indian woman enjoying a glass of wine with a strange man on a flight was a problem, so what is a poor 25-year-old to do? What to say now?
It’s fascinating that Kaira’s surname is not revealed in the film. How come?
I didn’t want to get into that zone. Just see the reactions that have come already, so imagine if she belonged to a particular community. That could have become, “Arrey, hamare community mein sotey nahin, yeh nahin karte.” (This doesn’t happen in our community.)
I’m saying this because we just spoke about people’s reactions to alcohol and sleeping. (Laughs) Actually I didn’t even think of what reactions would be. Personally I have wished we had the freedom to never have last names. But the real explanation is I didn’t want to get into the nuances of a certain kind of people. I wanted to be free of baggage and focus on the individual. It’s a subconscious learning from English Vinglish where she was Shashi Godbole. It was just convenient for me this time to not have a surname and get into accents, language and so on.
I’d like to end on a serious note... (Pause) What do you think of Italian opera?
(Pauses, then laughs) What do I think of Italian opera? A serious note? Really? (We both laugh)
I’m sorry, Italians who read this. I love Italians, Italian food, Italian men, Italy, but I don’t get Italian opera.
You’ve chosen a safe art form to say you don’t get it. Because in India, well, Mohammad Rafi fans are upset with Karan Johar, Manoj Kumar was upset with Om Shanti Om.
Ya man, you can’t say anything nowadays. (Laughs) No but I never thought of this. When I’m writing, I never think who will be upset. This is my own thing, I have never understood Italian opera. I’ve been to La Scala, this great opera thing in Milan, and not got it. When Dr Khan doesn’t get opera in Dear Zindagi, I was just being honest to something I don’t get myself. So. (Laughs)
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