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Interview Hindi

I love films that engage you mentally: Samir Soni on My Birthday Song

The actor makes his directorial debut with the thriller starring Sanjay Suri and Nora Fatehi. 

Shriram Iyengar

It is not easy to rid oneself of Samir Soni's image as the charming, urbane dude from the 1990s television serial, A Mouthful Of Sky.

For those who grew up in the decade between the 1990s and the 2010s, Soni was a constant presence, playing many characters in television series like Jassi Jaisi Koi Nahin and Parichay. But the director of My Birthday Song is a different person. 

Soni's directorial debut is a mystery thriller featuring Sanjay Suri and Nora Fatehi in the lead roles. Dark, noirish, the film is a stark removal from the happy, romantic realm that Soni inhabited on television. As he says, "there are others to do it" when it comes to romantic cinema.

A fan of murder mysteries and thrillers, Samir Soni considers Christopher Nolan his 'guru'. True to his master, he chose to work for three years on the script of My Birthday Song before deciding to take it further. 

It did not come easily. "The biggest challenge was to convince myself that I could do it," he confesses. It was director Karan Johar who pushed the writer to turn director on the film. With close friend and collaborator Sanjay Suri on board, Soni is now set to release My Birthday Song on 19 January.

The director sat down to speak with Cinestaan.com about the challenge of making the film, the risks, and the need for more murder mysteries in Indian cinema. Excerpts: 

Murder mysteries are a difficult genre to pull off. Making your directorial debut with a film in this genre is a risk. What drove you to the subject?

As far as the genesis of my film is concerned, I am a big fan of psychological thrillers. One of my gurus is Christopher Nolan. I love films that engage you mentally. It is like solving a puzzle. In India, everything is spoonfed. 

We have had enough happy films. My wife said to me, 'Yaar, can't you make a happy film?' I said, 'We have Dharma [Productions] to make it'. I can't do it. If you can't add to that genre, what is the point of doing it?

Yes, it was a challenge. I am a thinking man. So I know when I am watching a film, a part of me is guessing the next scene. The challenge was if I can stay a step ahead of that.

It took three years to work on. It is probably the tightest film you'll ever see. Even if you take off a dialogue, you will miss it. Every sentence is a clue. 

The interval is a thing I personally detest when watching thrillers. The break diverts me from the movie...

Usually, film screenings are held after the post-production is completed. I told Sanjay [Suri] very clearly, 'I want to hold screenings while I am in post-production. So if there is a flaw and someone sees through it, I can adjust for that.' Ninety per cent of the people wanted to watch the whole film without a break.

You mentioned taking three years to work on the script. Did it undergo any changes once you decided to direct it? What was the challenge of bringing it on screen?

I did not write it to direct. I like writing and have ideas. Some people have the discipline of doing it, and they become writers. I obviously didn't. I had the whole script in my mind though. So, I got down with a friend and told him I will narrate the entire story, and she collaborated and added to it. 

However, I wanted to check the script with a person in the industry. I am a very objective person. Everybody likes their own work. Even when they make crappy films, we often think 'Wow, this is something good.' So, I spoke to Karan [Johar]. I told him 'I will give you the first five minutes of the film [narration]. Otherwise, you have the bound copy, and you read it.' He heard the narration for 45 minutes. 

Karan was the first to tell me I had to direct it. The biggest challenge was to convince myself that I could do it. The next was a person I trust, Sanjay [Suri]. He said the same, and I asked him 'Will you act?' and we came down to the decision. 

I have been in acting for 20-25 years, but directing is a different ball game. I am the kind of guy that if I don't know what I am doing, I would not do it. 

The visual element is important for films of this genre. In My Birthday Song, the film's palette seems to be red.

When we are conceiving a theme, we do not say 'light'. The conversation we are having has a mood to it. It is not all about shine. It annoys me that a lot of thrillers are shot like romantic films. There is a lot of brightness, style to it. 

We are dealing with a genre where you can't have that. In this film, there is no brightness or anything of that sort. I like dark films that make me think. The fun is only when the challenge arises. 

Everywhere I would go, I would watch a film and think what can be, not what is. They would tell me, 'Yaar, you are not supposed to bring your brains.' Typical! I want to make a film where getting your brains is a necessity. 

The cast is an important aspect of this creation. You mentioned Sanjay Suri being a friend. How did you decide on the rest of the cast?

Casting is very important to me. I had a vision for everyone. Sanjay was perfect for me. I have known him for a long time. I wanted a guy who was upmarket, and likeable. It is pretty much one day in his life. You will see him in every frame. I wanted a guy who would be there, and with no baggage. 

Sanjay Suri in My Birthday Song

Even if our budget was Rs100 crore, I would not have gone for a star. They will come with their own baggage and expectations. 

Nora's character was very interesting. She is the temptation. Every character is symbolic of something, and she was Temptation. She had to be an NRI as well. Nora, because she has travelled a lot, there is an element of hardness which you get glimpses of. This, I could not even tell anyone to do, because they would be faking it. 

You are also co-producing the film. Was it difficult to move away from the project and look at it objectively as a producer?

You have to be practical and realistic. You are telling a story, you have to keep in mind how many words you can use. I have to keep in mind the budget. I can't think of Swedish-New Zealand thingy if I don't have the money for that. That's the good thing about psychological thrillers, that you don't have to go there. You are going deeper and closer to the person. 

Sanjay kept telling me, 'Why are you going so close on characters?' Why would I use a wide thing when I don't need to? To me my principal character is this. Once I have established who he is, I don't care where he is. If in my narration I am not saying he is in a big green field, then I don't need to show a big green field. What is important to me is the framing. That has to be aesthetic. 

When I wrote it, I was constantly tweaking it around. I just want to tell a story. You make adjustments for that. That is what filmmaking is. 

As a producer, you can see that there is an audience for these films. But there is also serious competition right now. Do you worry about that?

I didn't even know how much a film costs. I don't have that experience. Sanjay does. I was ready to put all my savings in this. I had reached the stage while making this film that even if I don't make a penny, if I died tomorrow, this was the last thing I want to do. It was compelling. I had written it 5-6 years back, my acting career was still on. I had put it on the backburner. It took time, but it is not a business for us. 

We would like to make money, to make more stuff like this. But it is not a business for us. I am very happy with what I have, and so is the team. 

Does the content available to the audience need to change? In cinema, television, or the internet?

Right now, I think we are in a flux. Everybody is kind of sussing things out. The television, film and web series are trying to figure out what is the correct platform for what they are doing. Since there is no censorship on the digital platform, people are going all out for sex, violence and cuss words. It is becoming a USP. It can never be so. You can only show so much before people go 'what is your show about?' 

While production values are the same, they do want to keep the budgets down. I don't know how people recover money. The space is already getting crowded. 

The big spectacle films will always be for theatres, the middle-aged and elderly crowd will turn to television, while people on the go will choose digital. That's what I think. 

Murder mysteries have not always worked in Hindi cinema. What are we missing?

It is difficult. We are in an industry where even for a film worth Rs50 crore, the pre-production goes to six months. It is still hero-driven or heroine-driven. Even if the producers care, there is the worry if the audience goes in expecting the 'star' to perform. 

Writing a mystery or psychological thriller is not easy. To me, it is instinctive as that is the way I am. 

Memento (2000), the genius is in telling three parallel stories, in reverse. And what did we do with it? Ghajini (2008)! I am sorry, I was offended. After seeing Memento, you come up with Ghajini? Even if it is Aamir Khan sir, I am a little disappointed. 

But I guess they have to stick to the trappings, include songs, action. It is important to be sincere to what we are dealing with. 

The biggest problem here is the most important thing in a film is the screenplay. It is not the story, but how you tell the story. We are still stuck in the chronology.

Take biopics. Amadeus (1984), for instance. It is a biography of Mozart, but seen through the eyes of his arch-rival. You have already given it a twist. The subtext is that it is a film about a genius, and a man who aspires to greatness. At heart, it is a biography. But see what they did with it! 

I have seen The Prestige (2006) five times, but I still can't get the screenplay. They keep shifting and editing it so fast. The moment your senses adapt to something, you lose interest. You see a photograph, your eyes seek out the flaws in it. That's why you tend to stare at a perfect picture much longer. That's what a thriller and mystery needs to do. Keep you looking. That is cleverness. 

Does the future hold more thrillers?

Well, I don't know. I have finished seven drafts of my second script. I am still not happy with it. The story by itself is fabulous because it messes with you. Obviously the budget is going to be an issue, and how well this film is received is going to be an issue. 

It will be a psychological thriller. It is dark and plays with perception. We will see. If it does not work, I will just go back to TV serials.