Hum Bhi Akele Tum Bhi Akele: Anshuman Jha, Zareen Khan on striking a friendship through road trips on Disney+ Hotstar film
'Don’t think there is any film in the world ever that tackles friendship from this perspective. We want to show that love is a very universal and humane feeling,' says Anshuman Jha on Hum Bhi Akele Tum Bhi Akele
Anshuman Jha may be best known for his feature film debut Love Sex Aur Dhoka (alongside fellow debutants Rajkummar Rao and Nushrratt Bharuccha) more than a decade ago, but the actor says that he has had an enriching journey from the time he stepped into theatre in 2001 at Prithvi [in Mumbai]. There has never been a dull moment in Jha's career - be it the web series Mastram, on MX Player, or the family drama Angrezi Mein Kehte Hain, or his upcoming release Hum Bhi Akele Tum Bhi Akele (HBATBA) that streams on Disney+Hotstar Multiplex from 9 May.
Jha, who has also produced HBATBA, plays a gay man in the film who strikes up an unlikely friendship on a road trip with Manasi (played by Zareen Khan) who is also gay. The film drew tremendous applause at the world premiere at the South Asian International Film Festival in New York, in November 2019.
Writer-director Harish Vyas narrated the story to Jha in New York during the taxi ride between JFK Airport and New Yorker Hotel when they were visiting the city for the world premiere of Angrezi Mein Kehte Hain, sometime in December 2017. “Harish told me that he will make the film only if I played a homosexual man. I agreed and he started writing the film in 2018. I told him I would like to be involved in producing it because it is a very human story. When filmmakers approach homosexuality in India, in Bollywood, there is always that caricaturish feel. They make it either comedy, or very dark and intense. I have few friends who are gay and they lead a completely normal life. Even when we are sitting together one cannot tell who is gay between the two of us,” says Jha.
Further, talking about the process of playing his character Veer, the actor says, “For me, just the thought of the psychophysical aspect of a gay man — how he would react to the touch of a man to a lot of other things — was important to understand. The character is nothing like me. What he feels is different from what he says and what he ends up doing, whereas, I speak my mind in real life. What I see is what I speak and what I do and that’s always in sync. That’s because Veer’s in fear of being judged. This is the toughest part for me so far, among all the plays and the 10-15 films I have done so far. It was emotionally the toughest, in terms of what it took out of me, and hence very satisfying.”
Zareen Khan, who approached the makers and was quite persistent about bagging the role, says she convinced Jha and Vyas after giving multiple auditions. “They were a bit sceptical initially because of the glamorous image that I carry. But I was after them to take my audition. I understand where they were coming from. They had not seen me in that kind of a role and once they saw Manasi in me in the audition, I got the part,” says Khan. “It is a fun film. We have not stereotyped it with me having short hair, or looking grumpy, or angry. It is about two fun people. It is okay that their sexual orientation is not straight which doesn’t mean we look or behave a certain type. We have tried to keep it as real, as natural as possible. We are trying to give out a strong message without making it preachy, sad and dark,” she adds.
To make the writing more authentic and to be more responsible towards the sensitive subject, Jha says they had invited people from the LGBTQ community to give them their feedback on the writing-table. “We had people from the community coming in to tell us what is possible and what is not possible. We made sure that we didn’t discount any feeling that we may get when families watch it. At the world premiere in New York, 180 out of 400 people were from the community. It was a full house and that was a great test because New York is the LGBTQ capital of the world. For us to get a positive response from the community was a big thing,” says the actor-producer.
It may be recalled that HBATBA created big noise globally and collected accolades from around the world as it won over several international film critics and enthusiasts, and clinched the Best Film-Audience Choice award at the HBO South Asian International Film Festival, New York. The film was also the centrepiece film at the IFFM Melbourne 2020 and was the Closing Night Gala Film at one of Asia's biggest LGBTQ film festivals. Oscar-winning producer Marc Baschet who is associated with movies like No Man’s Land, The Chimp and more and who has also been on the jury of the top festivals lauded the film, calling it ‘’unique’, ‘social’ and ‘universal’. Baschet had said: ‘I really enjoyed it. I am surprised how no one in the world has thought of looking at friendship from this point of view. It is a pretty film dealing with an important social matter’.
“I don’t think there is any film in the world ever which tackles friendship from this level, from this perspective. There is a gay boy and a lesbian girl...The whole idea..love is love..literally and not for the sake of hashtag...it is a pure feeling. This social conditioning and mental brackets we make that if we love someone it has to end in marriage..We want to show that love is a very universal and humane feeling, and imagine two people who are not sexually oriented..what will happen if they connect. We have tapped pure connection and not superficial physical connection, and the road trip element was always in the screenplay, there is a purpose to it as if we are saying: We meet people for a reason, for a season and for a lifetime,” says Jha.
However, Jha’s experience with the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) was, as he calls it “perception-oriented”. The film was given an ‘A’ certificate when it went for censorship last March. “This is a clean film, there is not even a peck on a cheek, and there are no sexual innuendos. It is a clean happy family film and that is what we aimed at making. I asked them why the film was given an ‘A’ certificate and I was told that we had made a very good film, it is very emotional, it will make people think, so it needs to be curtailed from that point of view that only adults watch it. I argued saying that Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan had two men kissing and that the film had got a U/A but they quashed my argument saying Shubh Mangal... was a comedy (laughs heartily). It is nobody’s fault but this is the perception,” says Jha.
He furthers, “Homosexuality in films here has often been shown in fun, comedy, or dark space but Harish always wanted to make a light, warm, happy, fun, film with emotions. That was the effort here. We then went to the revising committee to reconsider it but then lockdown was imposed and we finally got the censor office last November. We were still aiming for a theatrical release but then we realised it is better to release the film especially when we got the chance to collaborate with Disney+Hotstar.”
Khan, who debuted with Veer (co-starring Salman Khan) and followed up with commercial mainstream like Ready and Housefull 2, says she loves taking challenges and doing something out-of-the-box. “Unfortunately, I haven’t been given that opportunity but I am always kicked about getting out of the comfort zone and doing something different that I have not done in the past. I am getting a good opportunity and I really hope that after this film, the audience and industry see me in a different light. We are living in a day and age where the audience has also evolved, they also want to see something real. Wearing tons of makeup, dancing on songs...I have done all of that and my audience has seen it. I love surprising my audience and am only waiting for opportunities. ” says Khan.
“It’s a very interesting mix of style and I personally enjoyed it. You will see that fun on screen. We were looking for an actor who fits Manasi and her character. My character is slightly subdued and vulnerable, whereas, Manasi is a bit boisterous, so to catch those nuances was very important,” says Jha, furthering, “We should not work on perceptions. Zareen nailed both, first and second audition. She is coming from a Housefull, Veer…and the kind and the size of films I do, we don’t think she would want to do this sort of a film and genre. It is a big compliment to her for choosing to break the mould because now people will know that she wants to do it and she can do it. For me, it was a very good experience collaborating with an actor who comes from a very different mindset.”
For Zareen, too, it was a very different experience working in a non-commercial setup. “It was very different working with Anshuman as compared to my co-actors from commercial cinema. He comes from a theatre background and it was nice to have readings and making things look natural. There was no stress about dialogue delivery, the process was more fluid doing this film,” says Khan, who chose not to have any reference point. “Because overthinking can spoil it. I wanted to play the part with a clean slate. In real life, I am a tomboy so that little bit of masculine qualities came very naturally to me. So apart from homosexuality bit Manasi is very much like me. Now because I’m straight, there is just one thing I had to keep in mind that I shouldn’t do something that might offend the LGBTQ community. At the end of the day, I have to emote love...a straight person will feel love the same way as a person who is not. I had to do that with all honesty and nothing went wrong. Harish sir just let me be,” says Khan.
HBATBA is Jha’s second production, he had earlier produced (and had also acted in) Mona_ Darling which was about a team of collegians probing the mysterious deaths occurring in their campus. Jha’s next is a black comedy thriller. “Our objective is to pick scripts which are high concept and unique and then we spend a lot of time developing with the writers. The whole idea is to do contemporary content that excites us as an audience and I have found like-minded people who trust my intelligence. We try to keep aesthetic alive,” says Jha.
While cinema and big screen is exciting for “the small town” boy, habits have changed as time has gone by, he says. “I grew up in Allahabad and Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar was the first film I saw in a theatre. To me cinema is a social gathering inside a theatre but as time has gone by and especially with the pandemic I am able to consume world cinema sitting in my living room. Every month I used to watch one or two films in the theatre but now I am watching five to six films at home because good content is available in the living room. For big films like Jurassic Park, Avengers, Marvel series...one may need that cinema experience but for cinema in general in the last two years home is the place,” he says. And subtly commenting on the ‘death of star system’, and Rs 100 crore club, he concludes by saying, “Playing field is actually getting levelled now because of this pandemic..there is this balance that is getting created.”
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