Kanika Dhillon on writing flawed characters, setting Netflix's Guilty amid #MeToo movement, and learning from grief

Devansh Sharma

Apr 05, 2020 09:54:58 IST

When I enter Kanika Dhillon's newly done-up apartment in Mumbai, it feels as fresh and meticulous as the multiple worlds the writer has transported us to over the years — from Anurag Kashyap's 2018 directorial Manmarziyan and Abhishek Kapoor's romantic drama Kedarnath, to Prakash Kovelamudi's Judgementall Hai Kya (2019) and her most recent work in Ruchi Narain's Netflix film Guilty.

As she greets me, her kaleidoscopic anarkali pops out even more against the pristine white walls and interiors of her living room. "I love white! It's so pure and soothing. On at least three or four days in a week, I wear white," she says, punctuating her confession with a smile.

 Kanika Dhillon on writing flawed characters, setting Netflixs Guilty amid #MeToo movement, and learning from grief

White may be her colour of choice, but the characters that inhabit her mind certainly boast the 'grey walaa shade,' as the song from Manmarziyan suggests. They quickly navigate from edgy (Manmarziyan) to lyrical (Kedarnath) to psychedelic (Judgementall Hai Kya) to brash (Guilty). In her mind, scarred objects or humans are 'a thing of beauty, a joy forever'.

"If I see something conventionally 'beautiful', I will savour it but forget about it after a while. However, if the object is chipped or imperfect in some way, it will always stay with me. I'll keep coming back to it, thinking how I can 'perfect' or 'better' it," says Kanika.

This 'perfection,' as her craft demonstrates, is never imposed but only flirted with so that one realises how beautiful something is in its primal form. The outlandishness of her characters is celebrated to a point that it creeps into the atmospherics, the surroundings of its environment.

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I nod in agreement, and tell her when I was watching Judgementall Hai Kya, its entire world — including Kangana Ranaut's character Bobby, the production design, the hair, the make-up, the costumes, and even the background score — were so 'mental' that I felt like an outcast.

"I can't come back to my characters after a point," says Kanika. "Because then, I just give it to the producer, the director, and eventually the audience. They don't remain mine. The separation pains me since I've lived with them for so long. But that's just what I do, and I can't help it. I can't live without it."

Kanika has authored three books: Bombay Duck Is A Fish, Shiva and the Rise of Shadows, and The Dance of Durga. She claims she knows at the inception of a story idea whether it will pan out as a script or a book. "If I feel it can unravel in a longer format, I write a book. But now, with web shows as an option, I'm quite kicked about blending the long format with the visual medium. Because the visual medium has a wider reach. I'm writing a web series, and you'll hear about it very soon."

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Besides the web series, Kanika has a film in the pipeline, Haseen Dilruba, for which she will reunite with Taapsee Pannu after Manmarziyan. "It's a bloody story. Her character's name is Rani Kashyap. She's a shade of woman you've not seen before, at least in my body of work. She's docile, then there's a murder, and then there's a beautiful love story," says Kanika.

"Taapsee played Rumi to perfection in Manmarziyan. But Rumi and Rani are different ends of the spectrum. What Rumi wasn't, Rani is. We've travelled from A to Z in Rumi to Rani. What attracts me to Taapsee is her unpredictability. She can surprise you as an artiste," says Kanika and adds:

"Actresses who usually collaborate with me have a risk-taking bone, they're fearless and brash, and want to push the envelope, whether it's Taapsee, Kangana and Sara (Ali Khan in Kedarnath)."

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It would not be wrong to say Taapsee reciprocates the same regard for Kanika's craft. When asked about collaborating with the writer again, the actress says, "It's the second movie written by Kanika that I'm doing now, and what's common is that everything is real. Everyone seems to have some similarity with real human beings. There are no black and white characters. She brings out heartland charm beautifully on paper because they are emotions which we don't frequently see on screen since they're considered taboos. Her female characters seem refreshing and real not because she doesn't put equal effort in writing the male characters but because we haven't seen those women on screen so far."

The Taapsee Pannu interview: 'When you start from scratch, without a famous surname, you become fearless'

Another reason why Kanika's fictional worlds come across as real is because of the sociopolitical backdrops they are set against — whether it is communal tension in Kedarnath or society's demonisation of mental health in Judgementall Hai Kya.

"I think grief teaches you a lot. When I lost my father, I went through a long challenge of mental health [sic]. But these are exactly the phases writers like me encash," says Kanika.

The most recent issue she has addressed through Guilty, that released earlier this year on Netflix, was the #MeToo movement that shook the world, and in turn India. The various alternate versions born out of a woman accusing an entitled man of rape on social media lent itself well to the structure and inherent intrigue of a whodunit or suspense thriller. But the reason Kanika brought the #MeToo movement into the narrative went beyond just the craft of the film.

"As a member of society, an artiste, a woman, how could I not address the #MeToo movement in my story? I speak on behalf of all women artistes of my generation when I say that in my conscious memory, I've never before come across such candid discussions on what should be a man's conduct at a workplace, what's a good touch, a bad touch, what's demeaning, what's acceptable. The shame has always been ours. For the first time, the shame was transferred to the one who deserved it, in this case the accused," says Kanika.

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Kanika has an interesting explanation to offer for why she set Guilty in a college campus instead of a household or a workplace. "I chose a campus because that's where your formative years are, where you form your opinions after stepping out of a cocooned school life. When I was in college, I was grappling with what my value system is and where I stand on certain things. I was discovering my shortcomings, strengths, and ideologies. That's why we didn't want an environment with people who're mature, who're trying to let go, when you've seen life and have become forgiving, and the judgments are usually formed. Also, this incident happens in the heart of Delhi University. If it can happen there, then imagine what prejudices students in the B- and C-towns will have?"

While her point of view in the film was Kiara Advani's character Nanaki, she also had an empathetic gaze towards Akanksha Ranjan Kapoor's character, a small-town woman who has come to Delhi University, seeks to make a mark among an entirely different crowd, and gets judged for it. "Her character embodies all of us who have come from small towns. We're not cool, trendy or with it because of our small-town upbringing. There's a gap we're trying to bridge. Even I was from a school in Amritsar and then I went to St. Stephen's College, Delhi. I went through what any other first-year student goes through. I had self-created doubts and fears. When I went there, I faced an apprehension from Delhi people that I was taking their seat in the college, even though I had earned it."

From the disoriented girl in her first year at St. Stephen's to now, a writer whose film has reached as many as 190 countries, Kanika has indeed come a long way. Agrees Somen Mishra, co-producer on Guilty, and head of Dharmatic, which released the film on Netflix as its maiden venture.

"I've known Kanika for a while now. In fact, we worked together in Junglee Pictures. I had read Guilty first then, and Karan (Johar, producer) had read it via Ruchi. When we started Dharmatic, we remembered that script, and thought it's an important story to tell. Kanika is smart, politically aware, has a worldview, and that's why her writing is so perceptive. And she is relentlessly writing, which is so important, and brings a female gaze which is so crucial in stories like Guilty," says Somen.

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Also read: Somen Mishra on revitalising Dharma with new voices, stories — 'I told all struggling artists I had a foot in the door'

The female gaze Mishra mentions is not confined to the various shades of a flawed women Kanika has created. It also extends to the men in all her films, who either make space for the women characters, play off their female counterparts, or support them. Exhausted of deconstructing her women in countless interviews, Kanika is relieved to talk about "the boys" to conclude ours —

Robbie (Abhishek Bachchan) in Manmarziyan

He's my favourite character, the man of any woman's dreams. He's tall, dark and handsome, and self-assured. I think men who can take a step back are the strongest. The soul of Robbie's character is in the scene when he tells Rumi to take her time and decide who she wants to be with. He's not a guy who's possessive, insecure or egoistic. What he does comes with a lot of emotional strength and maturity. He's someone who you want to come back home to.

Vicky (Vicky Kaushal) in Manmarziyan

Vicky accepted he is commitment-phobic. He accepted he loves Rumi but can't love her enough the way she wants him to love her. That doesn't reduce the intensity or purity of his love for her. Sometimes, you're just unable to 'act' right. But actions are different from feelings. He was true to his feelings. Nobody makes a sacrifice if they're not feeling it. They'll suffer, and make you suffer. They'll cry and create a ruckus. That's the kind of love I've seen when I grew up, and have been in situations like this. Vicky was all of that. He was the mess that love is.

Mansoor (Sushant Singh Rajput) in Kedarnath

He has a clean heart, and is untouched by the corruption of religion and greed. He represents purity in every way. To write that was very difficult because as a writer, one has to be corrupt in every way. You have to be aware of all notions, get into all kinds of entrapment, and go down really dark alleys emotionally. The soul of this character when the Hindus ask him how he's come between them and their god, and he says I've always been there. He says he chants Shiva's name in every breath so Shiva is his god as well.

Keshav (Rajkummar Rao) in Judgementall Hai Kya

There needed to be some unpredictability around what he wants or what he is. He had to be peeled layer by layer like an onion. Because you're getting away with what you've done, the arrogance seeps in. The sense of latent power was reflected in how he recorded his victims' screams, and thought of it as a work of art.

VJ (Gurfateh Singh Pirzada) in Guilty

Delhi is the 'rape capital' of India. And the root cause of rape is entitlement. It is pervasive in the country, especially when you're from a political family. But VJ, as shown in the film, is an educated, 'enlightened', cultured man. He manifests the modern educated man who, despite all his education and exposure, is guilty.

Photos by Rahul Sharda.

Read more profile interviews from our Scene Stealers series here.

Updated Date: Apr 07, 2020 10:44:32 IST



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