Reema Kagti on bringing an outsider's gaze to her films, and co-writing with Zoya Akhtar
Filmmaker Reema Kagti talks about the 'supernatural' element in her films, and why they often deal with the theme of coming to terms with loss.
As Reema Kagti leads me to her cabin in the office of Excel Entertainment, she marches across the workspace with pride. The prance towards her cabin is assured, and stems from 18 years of being associated with the production house in different capacities. She has carved out her niche at Excel, though is often only credited with sharing screenwriting credits with her 'partner-in-crime' Zoya Akhtar.
But the fact is Reema has been associated with Excel for almost as long as Zoya, or her filmmaker-actor brother Farhan Akhtar, has been. Like Zoya, her second film as an assistant director was Farhan's directorial debut, the game-changing Dil Chahta Hai in 2001. Since that year, Reema gained experience under a diverse range of filmmakers as an assistant director. She got her break as a director only seven years later through Excel Entertainment's romantic ensemble Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd.
It was the first 'small' project for the banner, then known for making big-budget movies with A-lists stars, like Dil Chahta Hai (Aamir Khan), Laskhya (Hrithik Roshan), and Don (Shah Rukh Khan). With Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd, since it was the first Excel project not directed by Farhan and was being helmed by a first-time director, the production house chose not to mount it on a large scale. The cast was huge, though none of the actors involved were big stars then. Reema says she would love to go back to non-stars, and is not particularly cut out for working only with big names, like she did in her subsequent films, Talaash: The Answer Lies Within (Aamir, Kareena Kapoor Khan, and Rani Mukerji), and Gold (Akshay Kumar).
As of now, Gold seems like an anomaly in her directorial filmography since the first two films allowed her to extend her imagination to fantasy as they were within the framework of fiction. However, Gold did not allow Reema the luxury to resort to the cinematic tool of supernatural elements, since it was based on a real-life story of India's gold medal win in hockey in the 1948 Olympics. What Reema attempted to do in her first two films — with the 'perfect' couple Abhay Deol and Minissha Lamba revealing to each other they are superheroes in the climax of Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd, and Kareena emerging as a lost spirit rather than a living soul in Talaash — was what this writer has coined as the "dangling suspension of disbelief". Unlike all fantasies, and most fiction films, where the director requires the audience to 'willingly suspend' their disbelief since the film is often a flight of imagination devoid of logic, Reema ensures with her hard-hitting, socially relevant dramas that her films are purely based on reality. The climax then reveals a supernatural element to shake the viewers out of their perceived realities, and launch them into a flight of fantasy, as part of a twist they do not see coming.
In an exclusive interview, Reema claims the supernatural elements in both her films are rather co-incidental, and were introduced organically in the given narrative. "I'm actually not interested in horror. I don't even watch scary movies. I get scared very easily. You tend to do what you like, so horror or the supernatural isn't a conscious choice at all." She reveals Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd started off as only a short film based on a couple that is later revealed to be superheroes. However, she soon blew it into an ensemble film with six couples of different kinds going on the same honeymoon. "The core idea of Honeymoon... was to establish it takes all types. Relationships demand to be worked on, and there's no such thing as a perfect couple. So to make the always-happy couple superheroes was a way to explain that such 'perfect couples' don't exist in real life," says Reema.
In Talaash, when Reema was writing the screenplay along with Zoya for the first time, she always envisioned it as a suspense drama. "Initially, we just wrote the screenplay to pitch it. A couple of other directors, who were in talks to helm it then, actually approached the film as a ghost story. But to me, Talaash was always a suspense drama, with a supernatural tint. And Kareena's character was used more as a metaphor for the unknown, rather than a literal interpretation of a ghost," says Reema.
She reinstates for her, the genre defines the scope of the film. "A sports film like Gold couldn't have had supernatural elements," she says. But a romantic ensemble like Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd and Talaash could have also steered clear of such elements, had she chosen to. However, she chose to push the boundaries of her, and the audience's, imagination through her unique treatment of both the stories. But she maintains horror is not her cup of tea. As with Lust Stories, she isn't collaborating with Zoya on the latter's short for the upcoming Netflix Indian Original anthology Ghost Stories either.
She also confesses she did not notice a thematic commonality between her first two films either. The theme of 'coming to terms with loss' is common in Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd (the track of Shabana Azmi and Boman Irani) and Talaash. "In Honeymoon..., it was just one of the stories. It was a minor sub-plot really. But in Talaash, loss, grief and the struggle to deal with it, formed the backbone of the story." But she insists the theme does not come from a personal sense of loss harboured by her, at least consciously. "I've never looked at it that way. Maybe I should go home and think about it today," she says, laughing out loudly.
Wearing a black t-shirt with jeans and an anime character printed on the top, she dishes out answers curtly. Unlike the Japanese character resting on her attire, she is not even remotely animated. But pat comes the answer to every question as if she has thought of them already. The exceptional clarity is what has built her unique voice over the years. While it would have been rather difficult to seek one's own voice amidst several others that she has assisted, Reema claims her experience of working under five filmmakers has only honed her craft. "Working with Rajat Kapoor was fun because I had just come out of college. So it was like an extended college project. Then from Ashutosh Gowariker (in Lagaan), I learnt how well he workshops actors. With Farhan (on Dil Chahta Hai and Lakshya), I picked up the grammar of his films. With Mira Nair, there was only a short schedule in Jaipur (for Vanity Fair). It's a blur in my mind because of how hectic it was. But I'd love to assist her for longer since Mira is one of my favourite filmmakers of today. With Honey (Irani) aunty (on Armaan), I admired her command over emotions. And with Zoya, the subtext in every film of hers still blows my mind."
Zoya has had a far bigger impact on her life and career, and the two are known as one of the most formidable screenwriter duos in contemporary India. Talaash, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, Dil Dhadakne Do, Gully Boy, and the most recently, Amazon Prime Video India Original show Made In Heaven only proves their versatility, which Reema believes is a product of their different backgrounds yet shared ideals. "Since I come from Assam and am not a Mumbai-bred person like Zoya, obviously I bring something different to the table than her. We have had different family backgrounds, different schooling, basically different lifestyles when we were growing up. However, there are ideals and values that are the same. The people we want to be around, and the world we want to see as is very similar. I think that is very important for a successful partnership," says Reema. Almost all the stories co-written by them centrally revolve around the dilemma of who you are and who you want to be, or the struggle of fitting into a new world by an outsider. Reema decodes this influence as an interaction between her upbringing as an outsider, and Zoya growing up in a film family in Mumbai. "If you notice, both our first films, Honeymoon... and Luck By Chance, were not co-written. It was something that developed over the years. We came to writing together only after a few years into the film industry."
What is also common between Zoya and her is the influence of Mira Nair's 1988 film Salaam Bombay on their lives. The film, that is considered a cult classic in the minds of many, inspired both women to turn filmmakers. Today, Rima Das is making waves as the National Award-winning filmmaker from Assam, who helms indie films made by her in her native village, like Village Rockstars and Bulbul Can Sing, but Reema did not have any precedent of a woman filmmaker from Assam making it big. Also, she grew up on mainstream cinema, as she confesses. "In the late 1970s and early '80s, I watched a lot of mainstream Hindi films. As a child, Mr Natwarlal (starring Rekha and Amitabh Bachchan) was my favourite film. But the cinema, in those decades especially, lacked the depth I desperately sought as an audience member. They were entertaining, but just that. When I watched Salaam Bombay (set in Mumbai slums), I remember I saw a world that could also be shown on the big screen. There was no pressure to keep the audience entertained. So I clearly remember I entered Salaam Bombay as an audience member, and I left the hall as a filmmaker," says Reema.
Besides recreating a world that is as much a reality today than it was back then, Salaam Bombay gave the audience two future filmmakers and screenwriters, whose cinema would continue to reflect reality, though in an entertaining fashion, and sometimes with a supernatural twist that said a lot more about society than showing just reality could.
All images by Rahul Sharda.
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