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Interview Hindi

Kaalakaandi director Akshat Verma: How can you say fuck is okay and chutiya not?

The filmmaker expresses dismay at the double standards in the way cuss words are dealt with.

Photo: Shutterbugs Images

Mayur Lookhar

The evening was to belong to leading man Saif Ali Khan who, along with his co-stars, was honouring a commitment made to a news channel. Other journalists were waiting patiently for Khan & Company to turn up for the digital interactions.

In stepped a bald man. Watching him from a few yards away, we wondered if that was the actor Deepak Dobriyal without his moustache and slight beard.

It wasn't Dobriyal. The bald man turned out to be Akshat Verma, the first-time director of Kaalakaandi, the dark comedy that will be released tomorrow.

Verma seemed to be speaking in a polished accent, perhaps not quite what one would have expected from a man who earlier gave us the cuss-laden Delhi Belly.(2011).

Over the next 20 minutes, Verma spoke to a few journalists, sharing his Kaalakaandi journey, his struggle with the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), his admiration for Saif Ali Khan, whom he characterized as an "incrediblly intelligent" man, and talk that earlier producer UTV was keen to have Pakistani actor Fawad Khan play the lead. Two days later, Verma spoke to us shortly before boarding a flight, happy to reply to a few additional queries. Excerpts from the interview conducted in two legs:

Kaalakaandi was supposed to be released last year, but then it ran into trouble with the CBFC and there were murmurs that the film may not get a theatrical release. After all that has transpired, is there just a sense of relief that the film is now being released? 

You know, I think 2017 was a terrible year for the planet (evokes laughs from all). Every time we would overcome one thing, something else would pop up and you were left wondering: why does it have to be so complicated? It's natural for you ask, 'why me?' But it's not just 'why me?' This is the nature of the business. Anyone who gets a film made, we don't really know what they go through. Everyone goes through hell. Look at Sanjay Leela Bhansali, he is one of the most powerful directors and he is struggling to get his film released.

I guess in the case of Kaalakaandi, the delay had something to do with comet Pahlaj [Nihalani].

(Laughs) We didn't have our CBFC certificate in September last year. In the beginning, it seemed it was about just 6-7 instances. They told us they will give us a list and please address these things. When the sheet came in, I realized that every point they highlighted had subpoints within. We had 6-7 such headings, with the subpoints. After 65 cuts, we stopped counting.

We went in asking for an 'A' rating, but they said we will give you 'A' rating with these 70 cuts! What sense does that make? The official we were talking to said he personally liked the film, but he asked us to go to the FCAT [Film Certification Appellate Tribunal]. I told him that you enjoyed the film and you… He said his official capacity cannot be mixed with his personal capacity. You can discus with the CBFC but you can’t argue with them.

The tribunal was very sympathetic, open and willing to have a conversation. From 73, they just asked us to replace, not cut, three words.

Were the three words profane?

Profane... ah... what’s interesting is that the CBFC said we have passed all your English [cuss] words but they were not comfortable with such words in Hindi. This is self-hate. We can’t have such an attitude. How can you say that fuck in English is okay but chutiya is not? This [Hindi] is the language we speak.

Look, we wouldn’t behave like this at home. There is one behaviour we learn at home and one we pick up ourselves. My question is, you really can’t have divisions. You are hobbling your own language. You are saying to yourself that these things are not acceptable, not honest. As a storyteller, someone who is trying to put a character together, for that character to be authentic, it’s unfair.

People perceive swear words as an easy way out, but Kaalakaandi is not that. Building a character through what the character is, is appropriate and authentic. If that character in that situation talks like that, and I choose to not do that, then I am creating a false character.

Humour depends a lot on improvisation. As a writer and director, how much room for improvisation do you allow your cast to develop the humour and the chemistry?

Humour emerges from improvisation sometimes. I tend to write on a page. When you are working with actors having different styles, some will stick to the page, some will improvise. You can’t be so high bound that you begin to interfere with the way of working.

In a sense when an actor tends to improvise, then I have to let them know that these are beats, these are some points which are plot points. You cannot miss these lines. If you dance before and after it, that is fine, but if you lose these specific markers in the scene, then my plot is not going to work. You can improvise with discipline.

Both Delhi Belly (2011) and now Kaalakaandi seem like reflections of the urban elite, but the two films also touch upon people from the lower strata, from the dark bylanes. Vijay Raaz is the common factor to both films, playing similar characters. I guess he binds the two films.

Yes, it’s interesting. I mean, I didn’t realize that when the casting was happening. You only think about it later. Vijay is again like this, but he is just a phenomenal actor that I just want an excuse to work with over and over again. Once he agreed to do the film, I didn’t even think he was there in Delhi Belly.

What I meant was that it is usually rare to have a Hindi film that sees people from different sections of society brought under one umbrella.

For me what was interesting is that when you set a film in Bombay, by virtue of its location... it’s not Delhi that is only getting expanded, Bombay is only getting jammed. If you can’t jam anymore, then you begin to live on top of each other. So that whole thing of various classes, you can’t buy your way, you can’t buy your privacy. Step out of a high-rise and you have a slum in the neighbourhood. So, people are constantly crossing paths. That’s what gives Bombay its energy. There is also more possibility of people who perhaps would never meet each other clashing here.

Delhi Belly came like a bolt from the blue. Six years down the line, many Hindi films are now set in small towns and are being accepted. How do you see this change in audience consumption?

What’s interesting is that today there is a great amount of material for us to work on. The amount of pipelines that are feeding entertainment to us, and the kind of stuff being made, has expanded hugely. Then we have the Netflixs and Amazons, All that stuff is opening up things. It’s making boundaries more elastic. All of these avenues, outlets are hopefully going to lead to more adventurous storytelling.

In the past, one could have clubbed a film like Kaalakaandi as a niche film, one that only targets the urban audience. But would it be wrong to call yourself a niche, especially since rural is not the rural we perceive it to be?

Bombay, we are in a bubble where we think everyone is in a time warp and no one is moving. This is the country that consumes the largest amount of data. We consume Netflix, we do binge-watching more than anybody. We have access to material from everywhere in the world and people still think we are all standing still.

It is an exciting time. I think the audience is far more adventurous and progressive than all of us, who are making films for them.

Vijay Raaz seems like an extension of his character from Delhi Belly, but looking at the trailer, Deepak Dobriyal, what intrigued me about him was that he is wearing an Argentina national team jersey. Is there a Lionel Messi fan in him?

Deepak Dobriyal and Vijay Raaz in a scene from Kaalakaandi

Well, that is his ‘back’ story. When you are doing visual storytelling and you don’t want someone to spout off, [make an] exposition, which is the laziest form of writing, you want stuff about a character to come out immediately when you look at someone, the way you perceive them, you get a sense of the character immediately. That [jersey] was just building a back story into it.

How was the cohesion between Vijay Raaz and Deepak Dobriyal?

These guys are geniuses. The way they work, the skills they have, it’s unbelievable.

I read that Pakistani actor Fawad Khan was first offered the lead role. That itself was a surprise. 

This project has had a chequered past. The project was with UTV. It was they who felt strongly that we should talk to him. We had spoken to Fawad.

So Fawad wasn’t your first choice?

No, Saif was always my first choice. It was almost in a sense that Saif was in my head when I was writing it. But when you put projects together, it becomes a matter of someone whom you want but then you see whom you can get.

It’s bizarre putting a film together. Fawad had then completed Khoobsurat (2014). I met him a day or two before he was flying back to Pakistan. He read the script and loved it, but he was a bit nervous about how his audience in Pakistan would perceive it. Well, he went back and we never reconnected.

Any particular reason to pick Saif?

I won’t locate characters closest to their comfort zones. It’s always interesting when you have characters who are completely transformed, like an Aamir Khan doing a Dangal (2016) or Lagaan (2001). But when you have actors who have a certain persona and presence and you locate them as close to that and you begin to push them... Saif has a certain charm, certain presence. So, when you show him like that and you begin to break that down through the story, to me, it felt like an interesting exercise. He has always been so much in control, even with his own suave sort of presence, and the whole thing of him being a nawab only feeds into that. So, to try and break that down, I thought, would be interesting. It was an absolute pleasure to work with him.

Saif Ali Khan has been around for a while, he has had his share of ups and downs.  Of late it’s been more down. However, just looking at him in the trailer, he looks like he is breaking free from all shackles. It’s not just him but all the actors seem to have been given a licence to thrill. Is that how you wanted Saif and your actors to go out and just express themselves, enjoy to the hilt?

That is correct. The material was written like that. Then when I got the actors who could really take it where it needed to go, it was really exciting.

Some of the scenes, especially where he is interacting with a transgendered person and with that doctor, it’s perhaps the first time we hear him use those cheeky words. Did he pull it off with elan?

Saif is an incredibly intelligent man, a smart performer. You give material to someone and let them loose, magic happens.

He [Khan] had a thumb injury while shooting for Kaalakaandi. I guess he must have not lost his sense of humour.

Not at all. In fact, he was joking about it the night it happened. It was a pretty severe injury, but he handled it well.

It has taken seven years since Delhi Belly for you to direct your first film. Can you comment on this seven-year phase? How difficult is it to get your first film as director? 

You always wish and hope things move smoothly and don't take so much time, but it is a little unpredictable business. How projects come together, you just don't know how it will happen. So many elements have to come together and so you don't know how and when it would happen. When they do begin to fall in place, it all seems so effortless. Then you ponder why it took all that time. But you realize the whole thing of things happening when they need to is true. Every project has its own destiny. So, you have to be patient, hang in there, be stubborn and not give up. There are good and bad days.

How was the switch from just writing to now writing and directing? 

It is a little bit scary as you get into it, but it is also exhilarating as you begin to pull things together. Once you realize that you can do it, it gets really exciting.

Have you lined up something after Kaalakaandi?

Yes, I have a few things in the pipeline. Let’s see how it goes.

Finally, if Kaalakaandi becomes a success will you jack off till your dick falls off?

(Laughs) No, not at all! I am going to get back to work as soon as possible.

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