Rhea Kapoor on why she and Sonam 'can’t live without each other' and 'the stigma of making mistakes' as a woman
Words seem to flow endlessly when Rhea Kapoor speaks. Her excitement during this interview is understandable, of course, since the earnings of her third film as producer – Veere Di Wedding directed by Shashanka Ghosh, starring her sister Sonam, Kareena Kapoor Khan, Swara Bhasker and Shikha Talsania – have surprised an industry that remains wary of heroine-centric cinema. Like her first two films, Aisha (2010) and Khoobsurat (2014), Veere also defies Bollywood’s prescriptions for women-led stories. Whatever be the road ahead and past patriarchal clichés, Rhea is determined to be one of the people making it, as I learnt in our conversation about why she loves 30 Rock and Train Wreck, her unapologetic feminism and her “crazy” sibling. Excerpts:
How come you are so committed to making fun films defying Bollywood’s clichéd notion that women-centric cinema must perforce be grim?
Honestly, content with women in a central role feels liberating in a weird way, without holding a liberation ka jhanda (flag of liberation) but just by existing. I love shows like 30 Rock, Veep, films like Train Wreck. You know what I mean? What they all have in common is they’re unabashedly, unapologetically fun while also sending a message to girls everywhere that it’s okay to just be, it’s okay to be not perfect, women can be funny, engaging and entertaining.
Growing up I used films and music as my escape. I’m not the biggest connoisseur, I use films as therapy. Films like The Birdcage have taken me through my life’s darkest moments. You know? And I found there wasn’t anything in Hindi cinema my girlfriends and I could relate to and be like, “oh that’s us” or “this is speaking to us specifically”. Hence Khoobsurat, hence Aisha, hence Veere Di Wedding.
Like, Khoobsurat is about a Disney princess that for once doesn’t need a makeover, a ball gown and a tiara, she just needs the prince to understand that she will not change for anyone and “love me for who I am”. You know? That is the message behind Khoobsurat without hitting you on the head, so that subliminally when girls watch it, they’re like, “ya, I am a little not normal or with blow dried hair or perfect nails, like Milli, and I am beautiful and cool and amazing and a princess the way I am.” You know?
Veere Di Wedding does not say, this is how you are, a strong feminist icon. It just in a small way hopes to take away the stigma of making mistakes, to give girls the message that you can make your own happy ending and f*ck up at the same time and become this normal person at the same time.
Do you not see these women as feminist icons? Who said feminist icons are flawless?
No, that’s what I’m trying to say. I’m saying of course there are deep-seated feminist themes in the film, like living your own life, making your own choices. There are so many shades of these women that as a proud feminist I respect, but they just happen to be in the film because the four people making it – me, Shashanka, (writers) Nidhi Mehra and Mehul Suri – are feminists. You see what I’m saying? It is not what we set out to make. It just happened, because that’s what we believe.
Like, Sakshi Soni (Swara’s character) is not Gloria Steinem. (Laughs) You understand what I’m saying? We’re not looking for the perfect politically correct embodiment of what we think the perfect feminist icon should be. These characters are meant to be real, flawed, people we can relate to, people we know.
Why are there such gaps between a Seeta Aur Geeta (1972), a Chaalbaaz (1989), Khoobsurat and Veere Di Wedding? Why is Bollywood taking so long to see women as fun, normal people? We are feminist and fun. Feminism is not dull.
Like, there are three issues. One is, oh my god, if you like beautiful things or don’t take things seriously you’re somehow superficial. You understand? If men like collecting pretty cars, we don’t call them ditzes and bimbos. If a girl likes doing herself up, she’s a bimbo. You’re so quick to judge a person, to put this pressure to be on a pedestal and be substantial.
Like there is this ridiculous cool-girl stigma that is ruining this generation. Which is, she eats pizza but she’s skinny, she’s beautiful but she doesn’t care to wear too much make up, she’s feminine yet chilled out and one of the boys but she’s not butch, you understand what I’m trying to say? This perfect creature that looks like Gisele and swears like a sailor and is appropriate when her boyfriend wants her to be, I have never met her. All I know are cool, fricking funny girls that you may or may not like, not everyone is supposed to be your cup of tea. But the minute you see four girls heading a film, you say, “Acchha, isme feminist message kya hai? Isme substantial kya hai? Tragedy kya hai?” You understand what I’m trying to say? There is this whole devi, pedestal situation – the stigma around making mistakes, being imperfect, that there should always be a heavy moral point you want to make as a woman. Like, why?
Girls are also sick of the pressure. I’ve seen it so many times: you’re the wife or sister, you should do the right thing, or you’re the mother, you should take the burden. You know? That carries over. Unless you see a woman suffering and coming through something, giving her two hours on screen is not justified. You understand what I’m trying to say?
How ridiculous. I look forward to a fricking funny girl making me laugh for two hours.
You were very involved in Veere’s music. Considering that it is a women-led story, why are six out of eight songs led by male singers?
So basically, see I’m always gung-ho about working with as many women as possible. Everyone in my office is a girl. Except for Shashanka, most of my collaborators on this film are women. Khoobsurat’s music director was Sneha Khanwalkar, a woman. I’m very mindful of being inclusive, but I work with these women because they are the best at what they do.
With Veere Di Wedding’s music, my focus was, what song can I put in this album that has to be a song from 2018? And I opened myself up to everyone. I listened to everything, I didn’t care that a guy or girl sang it. I just heard track on track on track. You know? And these are the songs that came together.
What happened is, all the songs have been picked in a particular key, they were really high, and for example on Veere Veere I tried to put as many female voices as possible, we in fact recorded about 75 girls for that song. Somehow the pitch of the opening, because Vishal Mishra I think wrote the song, somehow creatively it was the right call to take. So yes I want to be inclusive and do the right thing because I’m loyal to my gender and I know how difficult it is for women to come up in the industry, but I also have to do what’s best for my song.
Veere’s album had an energy that just lent itself to this kind of pitch. But we’re proud that with Tareefan we launched Lisa Mishra, an incredible young female independent artiste we found online. (Note: The US-based Mishra recorded a cover of Tareefan and posted it on Instagram. It got Team Veere’s attention and they recorded the song with her as a promotional video. The film, however, features Badshah singing Tareefan.) I tried to strike my balance as much as I can, and eventually I try to do what is right and best for the film. You know?
I’m not placing the burden on you to provide representation to women...
No no no, you don’t have to. Anna, listen, I am someone who is aware. I constantly think the same way. But you understand what I’m saying? It’s a balance between, “Am I just doing this to be inclusive or because this is the best person for the song?” You know?
For example, a lot of people had a problem that in Tareefan the girls lip sync a guy’s voice. The idea came from this Beyonce-Jay Z video where Beyonce has kind of taken on Jay Z’s mantle and kind of raps for him – there’s something so f*cking empowering about that. You know? I was like, screw it, anybody can be anybody. Let’s kill it. Eventually, the film is about women. Eventually it is Kareena, Sonam, Swara and Shikha that you will remember for the song.
It’s written by Anvita (Dutt)…
But led by a male singer. Bass gira de raja is sung entirely by a man though it is even written in the first person, feminine gender. I could live with women lip-syncing to a man’s voice in Tareefan, but these two songs jarred. Why did this happen?
I get where you’re coming from. See you have to understand, Bass gira de raja was meant for a woman. That was the intention. But physically it has to sound right. For example for the opening of Veere Veere, every girl that’s on the track has sung the entire song. Okay? So we tried. I wanted a girl to open that song but somehow how high the solo is, in a female voice was sounding a little shrill to me. These little little creative liberties we’ve taken to be like, you know what, our over-arching message is larger and inclusive, and let’s do what sounds the coolest and suits the tone of the film.
How difficult was it to raise funds for this kind of film?
It was difficult ya. A lot of people have given me feedback that it’s like a full-on commercial film, it has scale, it looks attractive. You need money for that. It was difficult to convince people to pay girls like they would pay heroes, give them the kind of padding and platform that heroes get, which is a few more days of shoot, time to get your performances right. We didn’t get the kind of time we needed but we worked it out because we really wanted to make the film.
I shot Veere in 50 days. I hope I reach a stage where if I have an ensemble cast, I at least get 65-70 days to shoot the damn film. Films with our biggest male stars today can afford 75-80 sometimes 100 days. I’m not saying that’s how I want to make films, but I want the option. I don’t believe in wastage, but I want to give a film its due.
There has been some criticism of Veere’s product placements. One could argue that some fit the story. I found just one problematic: the close-up of Tata Motors’ logo.
That was just in Tareefan.
Showing the women at Ambawatta Complex could be the story saying they are wealthy enough to shop there. One of them takes an Uber…
That was already in the script, it was organic. It was written, “main Uber loongi (I’ll take an Uber)”…
Which makes sense because it implied that she’s middle class. But the camera zooming in on the Tata logo – couldn’t that have been more elegantly done?
See, for films like Veere Di Wedding that require a lot more than we’re given, we try to create a symbiotic relationship with these brands. I weigh the pros and cons, you understand? I say to myself, okay yes, maybe this is not the ideal way to do this but this is what it requires of me, is it worth it?
Honestly, there’s always a coulda woulda shoulda but with Veere Di Wedding I tried to focus on my goal of putting this film out with a bang. And I want to do as much as I possibly can in terms of revenue for my studio, so next time I come with a film with six girls needing double the budget you will give it to me because you know I’m committed to getting your money back.
Now, however I do that in an honest way as a producer, whether it’s brands, cracking satellite deals or whatever, it’s my problem. Right now, I’m also learning, I’m a young producer, I’m trying to figure out what is the best way to be responsible, to put something out that I can be proud of at the same time.
I will say one thing, Anna, when I shot Abhi to party shuru hui hai for Khoobsurat, I had no money for it, nobody knew Badshah, Sonam was nervous because she is not that typical item girl sexpot glamour situation, so it’s out of her comfort zone. I had a day to shoot it. I shot it in my own studio, in which my father shot 24. We scraped whatever we could for it. So I was like, next time I do something, I must make sure that at the end of it I don’t sit around thinking, “Oh, I should have I would have I could have.”
If I put four girls in a video that looks small, I’m underlining the fact that this is a smaller movie than what four men would have been in. I was like, Tareefan is a promotional song and should be representative of the scale of the film. I begged Farah (choreographer Farah Khan) to do it. I wanted Ravi Varman to shoot it. I wanted it to look the best it could look and I was willing to do whatever it took. And you know what, it’s okay, it has to work for the brands as well. I’m a businesswoman at the end of the day and for me it’s just important that I get what I want. And people have loved the song.
You and Sonam are professionally intertwined. Ever worry about sibling rivalry?
No, never dude. Sonam and I have never had sibling rivalry since we were kids. It just never happened. Like, we were always so different and close. Our worlds never overlapped in that way, you know what I’m saying? I have my shit, she has hers and it meshes well together. Nothing makes me happier than seeing Sonam succeed and I think it’s the other way around as well. We feed off each other. She’s been my biggest support. No mainstream actress would have done Avni’s role, the story revolves around Kalindi’s wedding. It’s just my sister’s trust in me, in the content and her ability that she did this film. It goes to show that we completely trust each other.
I couldn’t have asked for a better partner than my sister. We complement each other perfectly. I’m not bullshitting you, Anna, I promise, we have literally never had a rivalry. Like never. Never. We’re just best friends since we were children. You know?
She once told me you are her soulmate. She says you complete her.
Sonam is sooo dramatic. (She bursts out laughing) And she is so kissy and huggy, and I’m just so not. And she’s just, like, (she mimics Sonam’s voice) “love you” and “come here”.
You just mimicked her.
Ya, she’s crazy. Like she’s in London with Anand (husband Anand S. Ahuja) and she’s finally on holiday after this hectic couple of months, so I told her, do you wanna just chill and I will come see you later? And she behaved like missing her birthday (June 9) means like the world has ended. Sonam’s nuts.
Like you know, honestly, my Mum has been super amazing about this. She always made sure we complemented each other, that we felt equally loved and valued. So it has a lot to do with my mother and father. We’re co-dependent. We can’t live without each other.
Will you ever become a director?
I’d love to do it in a few years, not now. I want to feel ready for that responsibility. Now I’m still learning. I’ve only made three films. I need to study more in terms of the technical aspects. I don’t wanna go in and make a mess.
Seeing the collections, reviews and audience response, what milestones do you think Veere Di Wedding has crossed for Hindi cinema?
For the kind of film that it is, the feathers I knew it was going to ruffle, being a film with four women in the mainstream meant to mainly entertain, it is quite a well-reviewed film. That means so much, it feels very profound. I saw this saying the other day, “It’s profound to be understood.” And I think girls want to feel understood. I showed this film to women who write, to Juhi Chaturvedi and Anvita, and we were like, people don’t understand, women don’t want to be worshipped, we just wanna be understood. And that is so the film. It just felt good. It felt like haaaaaan, (she exhales dramatically here to signify relief) like, we’re gonna be okay.
First of all, that. Second, the way women have come out to watch this film. For me personally it’s that feeling of going out and looking for your soulmate and finally finding them. You know? It’s like the girls I always knew out there have found us and they’re all celebrating and we’re hugging each other. It feels like a giant group hug. And I’m loving it ya. It feels warm and tingly and exciting. It feels right. (She laughs)
Companion piece: Anna M.M. Vetticad’s interview of Sonam K. Ahuja
Updated Date: Jun 28, 2018 17:08 PM