Interview Hindi

Zombieland is the only horror comedy I have watched: Stree director Amar Kaushik


In an exclusive interview, Kaushik reveals the message behind his entertainer and why not watching horror comedies helped him get a new perspective on the genre.

Suparna Thombare

Men running scared because a stree (woman), or, rather, the ghost of a stree, is after their life is bound to elicit laughs. It is a role reversal of sorts in a world where it is generally the women who are told not to venture out at night and to protect themselves from men.

Amar Kaushik's Stree attempts to make some relevant points on the issue of women's safety through an experimental film, written by quirk specialists Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK of Go Goa Gone (2013) and Happy Ending (2014) fame.

Kaushik, whose short film Aaba (2017) was the only film in the competition section at the Berlin International Film Festival last year, makes his feature debut with Stree, starring Rajkummar Rao, Shraddha Kapoor and Pankaj Tripathi.

After assisting director Raj Kumar Gupta on Aamir (2008), No One Killed Jessica (2011) and Ghanchakkar (2013), and Onir on Sorry Bhai! (2008), I Am (2011) and Shab (2017), Kaushik is now looking to find his own voice.

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Kaushik is a forest ranger's son who spent his childhood in Arunachal Pradesh and later grew up in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, and hopes that with his background he could bring a unique desi flavour to the horror comedy genre, which is a relative novelty in Hindi cinema.

In an exclusive chat with Cinestaan.com, the director revealed that he has watched only one horror comedy in his life and that his film isn't called Stree just for effect, but the narrative also lends a message on gender equality and women's safety. Excerpts:

How did your collaboration with writers Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK on Stree come about? You had worked with them on Go Goa Gone.

While working with Raj and DK, we had a great relationship, [and we] became friends. We shared our stories. After Go Goa Gone, I got busy with my work on the short film Aaba, which won at the Berlin film festival. They also liked the film and asked me why I was not working on a feature. I said I was working on something. Then they said we have another story, do you want to hear it? It was Stree.

I was like, it will be a lot fun, let's make this. The script was written quite quickly, and so was the casting. I was on set in two and a half months. 

As someone who comes from a small town, do you think you can add an interesting perspective to horror comedy?

Stories are more or less the same, it's the way you tell it that changes. Every filmmaker will make it in a different way. So when people from a small town make a film, they bring their own kind of humour to it. Not talking only about myself, but I am speaking in general about filmmakers. They bring in something new.

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Also, they aren’t really corrupted. Mostly, they have grown up on Hindi or regional cinema. I watched international cinema very late. I never had that 'oh this film is good, I want to make a film like that'. For me, it was always 'picture banani hai [have to make a film]', 'yeh kahaani bolni hai [have to tell this story]'.

When you sit with your friends, you tell stories. You tell the story or joke because you narrate it so well. So that’s the case with filmmakers.

It is a great time for filmmakers as small-town stories are coming back to the big screen. Many poeple in the cities also come from small towns. The cinema reminds them of all of that. So it is relatable and they enjoy. 

Horror comedies are new to India, but they have been made several times around the world. Which is your personal favourite?

Zombieland (2009) is the only horror comedy I have watched. And that too I saw it when Go Goa Gone was getting made. So other than that I haven’t seen any film in the horror-comedy genre. I have seen horror films from the West like The Conjuring (2013) and others.

If I had made this film after watching some Hollywood films in the genre, I would have probably gone into a different zone. I know how the atmosphere of a horror film is created. And I understand the comedy or the humour of that milieu and people of that region [Madhya Pradesh, where the film is set]. And I had some good actors on board. So, I said let's play with it.

Actually, I used to ask people around me to recommend a good horror comedy to watch. A friend of mine did recommend five films. So, I kept thinking I’ll watch it, but I was so busy with the preparation for Stree that I never ended up watching any.

I actually kind of got saved. If I had had a lot of time on hand, I probably would have watched some.

Rajkummar Rao and Shraddha Kapoor in Stree

Why did you decide to set the film in Chanderi?

When I was a child, I used to just pass through Chanderi [in Madhya Pradesh] around 9-9:30 in the night while travelling to another city. It used to feel like a very haunting place. I was like, you just don’t see any people around here. So there was a slight fear. Went to the hotel and there was nobody there. The guesthouse is empty. The hotel bedrooms were also spooky. So we left from there. 

We considered Goa, mountains, etc. But I wanted to make it in the centre of the city and not in the mountains and all. It struck me that it could be Chanderi. I saw some pictures and then travelled there from Bhopal where we were scouting for locations. And I realized that this is it. 

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The writing of a film like this is of utmost importance. How did you, Raj and DK develop the script?

The story was already there with them. Screenplay was also broadly ready. Their thinking is new age and they have the quirk. And so I used their quirky writing in my direction. Amazing writing. Sumit Arora has written the dialogues. It’s very desi. How our mothers and grandmothers tell us a scary story. The humour is not in the face. It is situational. 

There seems to be a relevant message related to gender equality and women's safety amidst all the comedy in Stree. Is that right?

There is a message in the film. This is the only town where the men are not safe. Girls are always told not to venture out of the house at night, koi utha ke leke jayega [someone might abduct you]. Here it is the opposite. The things that generally women face, we have put men in there. And they are shit scared of going out. They have the fear that if they go out, this Stree will take them away.

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You are attempting not just a horror comedy, but also a love story, a musical — with dance numbers — and a relevant message. Didn't you feel you were taking on a bit much for your first film?

I am very excited and lucky, actually. I always felt that I should do something new and fresh in my first film. I was trying to do something and I kept writing, but it wasn’t working. Suddenly, when this opportunity came, I was very excited, nervous whether I should make my debut with it. It's a first for this genre. I didn’t have any reference point.

There has never been a Hindi film like this. But I felt like I had complete conviction about this film. I could see every character and situation in my head. And I was having fun. I said let's see what happens, let's make this. And I was like let's play blind.

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It's my first, so there is no pressure. If it works, great, if not then I’ll go back to where I came from. And whatever little fears I had, the producers ended them. They backed me completely and said, 'Jaise khelna hai khelo [play it the way you want]'. Dinesh Vijan, Raj and DK never interfered. They were overseeing obviously, but they trusted me. So, whichever way this film goes when it is released, I have made it exactly the way I wanted to.