Alia's like sponge; she absorbs everything and won't stop working till she's satisfied, says Raazi director Meghna Gulzar

Seema Sinha

May 12, 2018 08:57:56 IST

Meghna Gulzar is fascinated by true life stories; dark narratives challenge her. After bringing the hard-hitting, gripping real life drama of the Arushi Talwar-Hemraj murder case alive on the silver screen with Talvar, she has Alia Bhatt play an undercover Kashmiri agent spying on a Pakistani family into which she is married in Raazi. The film is set at the backdrop of the1971 Indo-Pak war.

Excerpts from an interview with the director on her leading lady, her father Gulzar, perception of women directors and her future projects.

When did you come across the story of Calling Sehmat, the book by former naval officer Harinder Sikka?

Many different people approached me over time, saying: “This is the story. Would you make a film on it?” I met the author and for four to five months there was conversation around adapting the film, but it didn’t culminate into anything. By which time there was an understanding between the author and me. I asked him if I could develop the story and take it further, and he agreed. I had already met Alia by then and Karan (Johar) had also heard the story. Next, the morally right thing for me to do was to take it back to the studio who had told me about it first. And then both, Alia and Dharma (Johar) formally came on board.

How did you adapt the story for the screen?

I picked the core thread of Calling Sehmat and kept it about the girl’s journey. There is a lot of detailing in the book — Sehmat’s backstory, her parents’ story and her story after the 1971 war. For me, the main narrative was about this girl agreeing to take up the challenge of being a spy in Pakistan and her journey through it. That this girl did not think twice before taking on such a challenge struck a chord with me. It is quite unbelievable that a young girl would take such a step for her country.

You’ve said you wouldn’t have made the film had Alia Bhatt not agreed to play the lead.

I knew that the girl was a 20-year-old Kashmiri and in my head I knew that it had to be Alia Bhatt and no one else. I knew the graph that the girl was going to go through and the performance that was going to be needed. I told her that if she was not going to do the film, I would not make it. There’s vulnerability inherent in her character which she retains till the end. I’ve noticed that no matter how hard-hitting the characters she plays, there is a certain softness to Alia, physically and emotionally. That's what I was looking for.

Meghna Gulzar and Alia Bhatt/Image from Twitter.

Meghna Gulzar and Alia Bhatt/Image from Twitter.

What was the process of directing Alia like?

Alia completely internalised the script and the character at several layers and not just at a superficial level. There were certain obvious things we needed to work on, say for example, language. Alia normally speaks very fast, she has so much energy. But at that time there was certain thehrav, there was certain lehja in the way people spoke. So cleaning up the Urdu and then deconstructing the language was required because Kashmiris speak in a certain way. Then she had to learn Morse, how to drive a junga, learn certain basic self defence techniques and also how to handle a gun.

The good thing about her is that she is like sponge. She absorbs everything and she will not stop working at it till she is not satisfied. So by the time we reached the sets everything else was taken care of and we would focus only on upping the performance. This was very exciting for me to experience as a filmmaker.

Since it is based on a true story, there must have been a sense of responsibility with your directorial craft?

Talvar (2015) was a far more delicate tightrope to walk because it was a very sensitive and controversial case. Two people were dead. Not to malign them and their memory was a big responsibility. Raazi is not as controversial but it had its own challenges, like recreating 1971. Here, we're talking about principles and ideologies which seem very unfamiliar today. That level of patriotism which the girl had, and what she did, is unheard of. I am not apprehensive and neither will I shy away from any kind of reaction that comes to the film. But I am hopeful that it won’t be adverse because the intent and integrity of film is very apparent. We are not doing this to raise shackles.

Did Gulzar saab contribute with suggestions having lived on the other side of the border?

My father was born in what is Pakistan now, but after the Partition, the family moved to Delhi and by 1971 he was living in Mumbai and making films here. Our approach to scripts and films is very different. So I prefer not to share work in progress with him but I like to go to him after completing each stage. I completed the story and then went to him, completed the screenplay and then showed him the first cut, and I finally showed him the complete film. But I always go to my father for lyrics. For my songs, I don’t need to go to anyone else.

We still have so few women directors. Do you think that the struggle is real — to make a mark?

We have far more women directors now than we ever had. The world of films is not like any other job. It absorbs you completely and leaves very little time for other things like household, family and children. So it is a difficult choice to make. But our world of cinema and film set is the most pluralistic place that you will find. We don’t have religion or gender discrimination, we work as professionals. I have experienced this in my 18 years here. Also, women trying to direct a movie is not tough anymore. It was difficult when I first started.

Your next two films seem to be bigger challenges — a biopic on Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw and the real story of Laxmi Agarwal, an acid attack survivor. Can you tell us more?

Yes, and the current generation doesn’t even know who Field Marshal Manekshaw was. It will also demand rigorous research. It is not going to be a biopic, though. I want more people to know about him as he is an important part of our history. And in her own way, Laxmi too is a role model with a story that’s scary, horrifying and inspiring. I want to share these stories with the world but first I need a break after Raazi’s release.

Updated Date: May 12, 2018 10:35 AM