Homi Adajania on Angrezi Medium, seeking adventures: Fear of unknown allows me to listen to my instincts more intently
Homi Adajania on why directing Angrezi Medium was as much a fulfilling adventure for him as scuba diving in Lakshadweep or revisiting childhood with his kids.
When I enter Homi Adajania's office at Maddock Films in Mumbai, I cannot spot him immediately. But I know he is around, given the speakers in the room blast Cake By The Ocean by DNCE. It is just the right mood Homi would want to transport himself into before each adventure. And it is not a stretch to say that even an interview is nothing short of an adventure for him.
Seconds later, he emerges from his balcony, where he was watering the plants. "I even talk to them all the time," he says, responding my "hi!" with some sprinkling of water on my face. And that sets the tone for the mad experience I signed up for.
"My producer Dinesh Vijan tells me I'm the most expensive director in the company, who does nothing," he says, showing me his lavish office, equipped with a sofa set, a table, and a balcony. "He tells me my other directors at least work, and are constantly doing films," says Homi, ahead of the release of his first directorial in six years, Angrezi Medium.
It is coincidentally an interesting title for his next film since he is a rare Indian director who has made two English-language films with mainstream stars. His debut film in 2006, Being Cyrus, starred Saif Ali Khan, Dimple Kapadia, Naseeruddin Shah, and Boman Irani. "The reason it was in English because it was about Parsis in Bombay. That's what they speak in. That's what their language is, along with Gujarati," he says, with autobiographical experience to back the claim.
The film was partially shot in his bungalow in Panchgani, Maharashtra, which is now owned by Aamir Khan. Homi scaled up his next English-language film, the 2014 satire Finding Fanny, with a road trip adventure in Goa. The film starred Deepika Padukone, Arjun Kapoor, Kapadia, Shah, and Pankaj Kapur. "Again, that's how people in Goa speak — in English. But Dinesh was adamant he also wanted to release a dubbed version in Hindi simultaneously. Both I and Naseer fought against it. But fortunately, he ended up releasing it in Hindi as well. After the opening weekend, I asked Dinu how the collection was. We had made some Rs 19 crore across the 700 screens we had. That was great but he told me had we limited our release to only English, we would have ended up with just Rs 5.7 crore. That's when I realised those who put in x amount of money should at least get back the same amount. So I guess you need someone like Dinu to balance me out."
When contacted to share his thoughts on Homi, Dinesh was quite prompt with his words, "Homi and I go back a long way. We made our first film together, and he has been an important part of my life ever since. Apart from being an incredibly talented director, he's an extremely involved and loving father, and is probably one of the funniest guys I know. So it was only fitting that he captain Angrezi Medium, making it the hilarious, joyful, and endearing father-daughter film it has turned out to be."
This is exactly what made Homi gravitate towards the world of Angrezi Medium. He listened to the narration only in order to give feedback to Dinesh on the latter's request but he ended up loving the spine of the film. "Hindi Medium (the first part of the franchise) was more of social commentary. It was about the flaws of the education system. If I had been given Angrezi Medium as a sequel with the same characters and world, I wouldn't have done it. Angrezi Medium thematically takes the franchise forward because it's about a girl's desire to study abroad. But it's not about the flaws of the education system abroad. It's a father-daughter story, and I understand this. This is the soul of the film for me."
Homi, a well-known adventure junkie, thinks both filmmaking and fatherhood are as thrilling an adventure as his outdoor passion of scuba diving. He claims he has 'mellowed down' a bit now that he is a father but says this phase has risks of its own, though they are more emotional than physical in nature.
"There's a thought in the film that I resonate with a lot. You emotionally invest so much in children knowing that one day, you've to let it go. You let it go with pride, but a shitload of pain, and a lot of hope that if you need that hand to come back and hold your hand one day, it will. That's a beautiful feeling we all have to go through in life," he says, smiling.
He soon switches back to his madcap self when recalling the early, adventure fueled 10 years of his life. "My dad died when I was young. So I had to take over the business of our fuel station at Grant Road. But soon I realised it's not what I wanted from life. So I set out on adventures with a shoestring budget. I've spent a bomb to travel from London to India, missed the boat, and then stayed over for three and a half months to earn enough money to fund another trip back home. I painted fences, babysat, did all kinds of odd jobs, even washed a sofa for some reason, to be able to get the money to go back home," says Homi.
He is grateful to his fellow South Mumbai-dwelling rugby players who, at that point of time, were all ad filmmakers in their prime. "Whenever they needed an idiot in their ads, they would ask me. And advertising then paid shitloads of money. So all my friends then used to do 9-to-5 jobs, and I'd just work for three days and then go on a break for four months. So my trips got funded by my rugby team. Also, I'll always be grateful to Prahlad Kakkar (ad filmmaker), who sent me to his diving school. Since then, I've fallen in love with diving. The best place to be is under the water," says Homi, who used to train scuba divers in Lakshadweep.
He recalls an amusing incident when he was on a ship to India on his way back from a scuba diving assignment, and it sank. "I was swimming with hammerhead sharks, marine iguanas, dolphins, and seals like a happy family. It's rather ironic I got a lot of money as post-traumatic stress compensation. So I get paid for my assignment, and some more for another exciting adventure," he says with a laugh.
One would imagine that for someone who thrives under the ocean surface, it would be daunting to step out and helm a film, which is essentially as much about people management as about being a creative enabler. But Homi claims it comes to him rather naturally.
"I really love people yaar. I love how weird they all are. Having travelled to different parts of the world, I've always had fun observing people of all different kinds. And let me tell you, they're all very very weird. We're a complicated specie. I think that comes across in my stories too," says Homi.
He claims it is essential to decode the culture of a place to help come closer to the craft of a storyteller. He explains this is exactly why filmmaking amounts to an adventure for him. "I can't get too comfortable with one kind of filmmaking. I can't repeat myself. I took a fakir to Venice, and sold that story to guys who made a film out of it (The Fakir of Venice). But I don't want to make a film on any of my adventures because I don't want to relive them.
"Fear of the unknown allows me to listen to my instincts more intently. That is the space where I feel I thrive as a storyteller."
Homi recalls while Being Cyrus was a rather confused affair, his first adventure was directing the 2012 romantic comedy Cocktail, starring Saif, Deepika, and debutante Diana Penty. "It was the first time I was doing your regular song-and-dance Bollywood film. I wanted to learn how to adapt that narrative. I met a lot of people from the yesteryear music industry to understand how they blended songs into the narrative. I always found it fascinating how we could completely suspend disbelief when a song popped into the narrative, and yet remain so emotionally invested. But I discovered it's an ancient tradition that our stories were orally narrated in such fashion to cut across all classes."
Cocktail was written by Imtiaz Ali, himself an acclaimed mainstream director. So Homi had to ensure he remained true to the writer's story, at least in spirit. "Obviously, I couldn't help leave my touch. Some of the darker, disco scenes, the way they were shot, were my addition to the narrative. Deepika's character especially was a lot different from what it was on paper. Till today, she maintains she played a female version of me, whatever that means," he says. A female Homi Adajania may have come in handy for Deepika in retrospect since Cocktail was really the inflection point in her career.
Homi admits he does not feel adventurous on every day in every moment on the set. Sometimes, the pressure does get to him. "There are down days, when you get the news of a friend's death, or when your kids are sick and away from you, or when you're just feeling under the weather. In that case, it is imperative to stick that smile so that you don't dampen the energy of the set. The mood of the director really permeates the entire set," he says.
The mood on the set of his latest film, Angrezi Medium, was cheerful as well despite the fact that its lead actor, Irrfan Khan, was seeking treatment for neuroendocrine tumour at that point of time. "It wasn't like the elephant in the room wasn't addressed. But a big deal wasn't made out of it either. It was just the truth. But the energy, resistance, and spirit of Irrfan really lifted the mood of the entire set. That man is dedicated to his job. He told me, "Yaar Homi, mujhe mere craft se bahut mohabbat hai" (I love my craft dearly). And that reflected in every moment on the set. I couldn't have not worked with Irrfan. We'd been trying this for a long time, and I'm glad it finally happened."
Another talent eager to collaborate with Irrfan, Homi reveals, was Kareena Kapoor Khan, who plays a small but pivotal role in the film. "She's the threat in the film. So she realised the film couldn't be what it is without her part. She's so secure in her skin that she did it despite its length. She plays an undercover cop in London. So I told her not to put any makeup. She said, 'You toh would make me look bad only,' but then went on to do her part with utmost grace. I'm really grateful to her for saying yes."
When Homi took on the mantle of directing Angrezi Medium, he knew he could not make the film without his muse, Dimple Kapadia. "She's been the same since Being Cyrus (she is the only actor who has been a part of all his films). I don't have a choice when I cast her otherwise she will kick my arse. Unlike her social image, she's very keen to go all out there with her part. But she still wants you, the director, to tell her it was a good shot." Homi confesses he had not seen any other work of Kapadia, and was unaware she has worked with greats, from Raj Kapoor to now, Christopher Nolan (Tenet). "When I was directing her in London, someone told me I should play a song from Bobby in the car she's driving. And I was like, 'What's Bobby?' But Dimple, knowing me inside out, said, 'This mad bava wouldn't know anything about Bobby. When I cast her in Being Cyrus, my producer had recommended her name. When I met her, she was screeching at Twinkle's (Khanna, daughter) dog who was under her treadmill. And that's when I realised I got my loud, unhinged character. Since then, we've got along like a house on fire."
Clearly, Homi's adventures feel like one because he sets sail with people equally passionate about taking risks for the greater good. He cannot thank enough his most relentless partner-in-crime, his wife and costume designer Anaita Shroff Adajania. "I'm glad we don't work business with pleasure on our film sets. She's the master of her craft. I remember during Being Cyrus, she bought old used clothes of Parsi families for the costumes. She styled Deepika in Cocktail and now, Kareena in Angrezi Medium. At the time of Cocktail, she chose clothes that were fashion-forward since my film would come out a couple of years later. I completely trust her with all that. But her most significant contribution was in Finding Fanny, when she and my DoP Anil Mehta suggested I flip my palette of what I designed as an earthy film on its head, and pop all its colours. Because it was a satire at the end of the day. They didn't want it to come across as some rip-off of a Cuban or Spanish film."
"We have a healthy respect for each other's creativity. He has no ego when it comes to collaborating, and trusts my sense of style on a professional level. On the work, it's never been personal between us," Anaita echoes Homi's thoughts when contacted for her experience of working with her filmmaker-husband.
Even personally, Anaita has always encouraged Homi's adventures even though she has not been an active part of them. "Obviously, she doesn't want me to take our kids to my adventures. She steps in there. But she never interferes in my adventures. She understands me, and what I want from life. She tells me, 'Go. You need to get it out.' But I've also evolved as a husband and father over the years. The last time I did a grossly irresponsible thing was when she was pregnant with our first child. I was snowboarding in Kashmir. And when I was on the edge of a thousand-feet high cliff, I thought why I'm doing this since my life is not just my own anymore. After thinking all of that, I jumped! My helmet cracked, and I broke my collarbone. But that's when I thought this is the last adventure I'd do. But even now, I end up chasing the storm all the time."
Yet again, Anaita proves with her words how Homi and she are on the same page. "I guess I support his bizarre adventures by not interfering in them. I know he likes to 'chase storms' sometimes. It makes him happy, and he loves being outdoors so I'd never change the person he's because that's what I fell in love with in the first place."
— Photos by Rahul Sharda.
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