Director Meghna Gulzar is back with a bang after Talvar (2015) and Raazi (2018) with yet another socially relevant film, Chhapaak. Releasing on January 10, it is based on the rampant acid attack on girls across the country. It’s a biopic, to be precise, on Laxmi Agarwal, one of the survivors of the brutal attack, whose relentless fightback through a gritty legal battle led to the ban on the sale of acid in the country. In conversation with Giridhar Jha, Meghna speaks out, among other things, about the relevance of her latest movie, the reason behind casting Deepika Padukone in the main lead and why it is unfair to expect every celebrity to speak his mind out on public platforms on any issue. Excerpts:
Your latest movie, Chhapaak is based on a burning social issue of acid attacks on women. Tell us how important this film is for you as a film-maker, as an individual and as a woman?
I think it is very significant as a film, and also for me personally because it is talking about something that really needs to be brought into the public consciousness. The frequency with which we have acid attacks in our country is almost on par with rape, but it is not amplified as much as rape is. Without wanting to sound unsympathetic towards a rape victim, an acid survivor has it just as tough because their scars are visible. There is no disguising them, so merging into the social world becomes all the more difficult. There are various things, various reasons all of which are somewhere touched upon in Chhapaak and that is why it becomes such a significant film.
As a mainstream movie featuring a top-notch actress in the lead role, would you like Chhapaak to disseminate a strong message to society at large, which appears to have been indifferent to the menace of acid attacks over the years?
I really don’t want to cast Chhapaak as a message-bearing film. Will it have a resonance or would I want it to have resonance? Yes, but what that resonance will be, I will leave that to the audiences. I don’t want to lead them that you have to see it and feel in a certain manner. I have never done that with any of my films. I have not done that even with Talvar (2015). I presented it and let everybody decide what they wanted to believe. I did that with Raazi (2018) and I am doing it again with Chhapaak as well. Do I want it to resonate inside you? Yes, I wanted to touch you and wanted to affect them but am I going to tell you what to feel and what to think after watching the film? That I am not going to do.
You must have met Laxmi Agarwal a number of times before making this film. What thoughts crossed your mind when you first met her to know about her experiences?
As a practice, what my co-writer Atika Chohan and I like to do is first get the data collected, based on the information available in the public domain because the minute you meet the subject, 100 per cent objectivity can get compromised. So getting your structure in place purely based on information that is available to you without meeting the subject is important. We had done that with in Talvar. I had no opportunity to meet the subject in Raazi so we did not do that. In Chhapaak as well, we had our structure in place and we broadly knew the case and its legal implications before I reached out to her. Of course, before I embarked on this journey, I had met her to ask her if she would be okay with me doing this film but that was a very brief meeting. Once she agreed that this can be done on her life, we had a real in-depth conversation with her. And what came out was sheer spirit and strength of Laxmi and other survivors whom we met in the course of the film. They are not becharis (hapless). They are anything but that. They like to dress up, wear make-up and like to put on earrings. Their spirit and will to live, not exist, are tremendous.
You have signed a big glamorous star like Deepika Padukone for the lead role. Was she always your first choice? Why did you think she was fit for the character?
While we were writing the script, her name was swirling in my mind because there are uncanny physical similarities between her and Laxmi such as facial features. They both have long necks. I had seen Laxmi’s pictures before the attack on her as part of my research. But never in my wildest dreams had I thought that Deepika would agree to do this role. So I had never voiced about it. I had written its script after Talvar in 2016 and then went on to make Raazi. Later, I was supposed to work on the script for Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw’s biopic but that got delayed. So I decided to bring Chhapaak to life. That is when, on a lark, I requested for a meeting with Deepika and she agreed to meet me. In 15 minutes, I broadly told her the subject of the film and she said ‘yes’ spontaneously. She told me later that when I had walked into the room she knew she was going to do the film.
As a director, how do you rate Deepika's performance in Chhapaak?
Rating her performance would be like doing an injustice to her. I don’t actually want to use the word ‘performance’ because of the way she has internalised the character. She has not performed, she has lived the character and you will be able to see the difference onscreen.
It is not fair to compare two artistes but before Deepika, you had worked with Alia Bhatt in the hugely successful Raazi. Both are, of course, talented but what do they have in common?
I think the immense energy and talent that they have and the dedication that they bring to their craft. It is one thing to be good at something and it is another to keep trying to better yourself. You can get complacent if you know you are good. They are both at the top of the game and are the leading actresses of the industry. They don’t need to push the envelope, but they do. That is very inspiring.
From Talvar and Raazi to Chhapaak and the upcoming Manekshaw biopic, you seem to have developed a penchant for real life stories. Is it a conscious decision to choose stories from the realm of non-fiction?
It is looking like that, but no. Actually, I find true life far more engaging. I think we have far more powerful stories in the non-fiction realm than we do in fiction. The world we live in is such a melting pot of stories and experiences, which I think are far more powerful than what we you find in any novel. That is my personal opinion. Did I plan it like that? No, it all happened coincidentally because I react instinctively. When Talvar was offered to me, it was completely unlike from the movies I had made before. It was a completely different world and completely new genre for me but when Vishal Bhardwaj sir suggested it, I jumped at it in a moment. For me spontaneous connect to the story is very important. The same thing happened with Raazi, Chhapaak and the Maneckshaw biopic. But I do have stories which are not non-fiction and may be, I will make them as well. The thing is that every script has its own destiny. It depends on so many factors … when an actor agrees or when a studio gives the greenlight and so on. There is no way you can control it. It is just a coincidence that these four films of mine have been non-fictions back to back.
Your first two movies, Filhaal (2002) and Just Married (2007) did not click at the box office and you took a long time to stage a comeback of sorts with a successful Talvar. Wasn’t that period of struggle frustrating for you?
It was very discouraging. I was also much younger. Plus, there was the pressure that your parents have excelled in the same field. This field is very public. Your success is celebrated publicly and your failure is also proclaimed here. It is not an easy place, particularly for a young person. Yes, it was very difficult for me but I did not know how to do anything else. So giving up and doing something else was not an option. I just had to continue doing what I was doing and hoping that I would just keep getting better at it. The gaps were also partly because when your film does not do work it becomes difficult to put your next film together. Besides, my son was born in that period and I wanted to take time to raise him. I did not want to be an absentee mother, so it was a mix of both.
Your mother (Rakhee) was a big star of her time while your father (Gulzar) is a writer-director of great repute. At one point of time, everybody expected you to follow in the footsteps of your mother and become an actress but you chose a road less travelled as a star kid.
I am too shy as a person to do acting. Now, filmmakers and technicians are coming into the forefront because of social media etc, otherwise films were generally known only for the actors and actresses, not because of their directors. I was, therefore, very comfortable being an anonymous director whose face will never get seen and who will never have to come out in front of the camera.
So your parents gave you absolute liberty to do whatever you wanted to?
Yes, total liberty. I did a short summer course on film-making in the US. Then I came back and assisted director Saeed Mirza because I did not want to assist my father. Being the daughter of the director, you will never get treated like a true assistant. They will never let you get your hands dirty on the sets. I wanted to learn. Later, of course, I assisted my father in post-production and screenplay.
Your father has made many acclaimed movies. As a film-maker, were you influenced by him?
Actually, I think my father’s influence is more at a personal level. I have been raised by my father and my mother and there is some genetics involved but if you look at my craft and his craft, they are different. Our sensibilities are similar because I have been raised by him. My personality is a reflection of his sensibilities, but our craft is very different. When he watches my film, he says, “You didn’t give me time to breathe”. I don’t think there is a conscious imbibing of anything from a professional point of view but the two things I know I like to aspire to are keep it short and keep it simple which I know he does.
There must have been many other filmmakers, both from India and abroad, who inspired you…
The list is endless and I don’t want to be put in a spot by naming them because if you leave out somebody then you get into trouble. When I watch a film, I don’t watch it like a filmmaker. I do it like an audience, so I don’t think it is an influence as such.
Gulzar Sahab is known to have followed a strict routine in his daily life. Do you have a similar disciplined lifestyle?
No, I have a problem waking up early. He has tried to get me to do that all my life. I cannot wake up at 5:00 am. I get up at 6:00 or 6:30 in the morning, that too because I have a small child who goes to a school. The film life is very erratic and having a routine is almost impossible, particularly when you are involved in active production of a film.
Almost all star kids are compared to their successful parents. For example, no matter how good, the audiences invariably expect Abhishek Bachchan to match his father Amitabh Bachchan.
It is so unfair. That only happens within the industry. For me, it happened for a very short time. When my second film did not work, everybody gave up on me, thinking I would never be able to make it. The pressure eased off after that.
So there is tremendous amount of pressure on them to live up to public expectations?
I don’t think it is by choice for the star kids. It is something lumped on them by the media. Do you think Abhishek Bachchan chooses to have that baggage; he lives with it. One must understand that for us, they are just papa and mama. They become Gulzar and Rakhee, whenyou are outside. How can I dare to compete with them? They are my parents. My only motivation was that they should never be ashamed of what I do or feel embarrassed by what I say or any film I have made or how I have carried myself in public in public. That is my only driving force.
Do your parents offer you any suggestions while you are working on a film?
My mother never sees anything of my film when its work is in progress. She does not want to read the script or see the stills, trailers or even the rushes. She only sees the finished film by which time it is too late to change anything. Traditionally, with my father, whenever I finish the first draft of my script, I give it to him. He marks it with his comments and suggestions. What I agree with, I take and what I don’t, I don’t take.
Tell us more about your forthcoming ambitious Maneksahew biopic for which you have cast your Raazi hero, Vicky Kaushal.
The script is ready and I am going to need time after Chhapaak. You need a break in between your films to cleanse your system. It is a complex film to make because of the period and history and you require a lot of preparation for that. We need a minimum of nine months to one year to prepare for the project.
It must be your biggest movie till date in terms of scale and budget since it is a war movie?
It is not a war movie. He (Maneksahw) did not actively fight wars except for World War II. It is more about the life and times of the man.
You started off about 20 years ago as one of the few women director around but now, every third director appears to be a woman. Do you think the film industry has become a better place for women now?
I will definitely say so. Not only for directors, today we have female cinematographers, editors, technicians, et al. Earlier, female heads of the departments were restricted only to costume designing. In fact, a recent film had an-all female crew. I think overall it is a great time because the Hindi cinema audiences have also evolved in terms of viewing preference. That is why we are making different kinds of content and are trying to break the template. Those films are working simply because the audiences are supporting it.
Do you think that your maiden film, Filhaal would have fared very well had it been released today?
A lot of people tell me that it came ten years too ahead but I am okay with it. I would rather be ahead of the times or be with the time than lagging behind. Also, I honestly believe that no experience in life is without a reason or goes waste. The person or a film-maker I am today is because of my experience in the past 15 years. I do not want to become a different person.
Film personalities are being heavily criticised these days for keeping mum on any social or political issue. What do you have to say about it?
The thing is that it is a difficult place to be. If you do you are damned and if you don’t, you’re damned. If you are vocal, depending on which side you are taking, the other side will slam you and if you are not vocal, both sides will slam you. So it is a difficult place for any celebrity or any public figure in a time like this. Largely, it should not matter who speaks on an issue or who does not. Everybody is not vocal about their political ideology or religious philosophy. I, for one, am not. It is very personal thing. I don’t need to go out and express my opinion on any platform. I am not going to obey anybody who thinks that I should be doing that. Those who have chosen to be vocal, it is their choice but if others have chosen to be silent, don’t take their silence for indifference. It is unfair to do that.
Author Harinder Singh Sikka, on whose book, Calling Sahmat, you had made Raazi, was recently quoted as saying that Raazi would have got a national award had you not deleted the last scene of the book where the protagonist is holding the tricolor..
That scene was not written in the script. The way scene comes in the book, my film’s timeline ends before that. The book is vast and as a film-maker you only have a certain amount time. But then, are we really saying that the national awards are so frivolous that they will give it to any film that has the Indian tricolor in it? Isn’t it like disrespecting the awards?