Interview Hindi

The loneliness of the urban Indian fascinated me: Director Kanwal Sethi on the complexity of Once Again


Featuring Neeraj Kabi and Shefali Shah, Once Again captures the loneliness, insecurities and limitations of a society that hinder a sweet romance.

Shriram Iyengar

The first glimpse of Kanwal Sethi's Once Again simmers with poetry, food and touches of wonderful acting. The coming together of food and two lonely souls was an instant reminder for many of the Irrfan Khan-Nimrat Kaur-starrer The Lunchbox (2013). But where Ritesh Batra's film ends, Sethi's begins.

In a candid conversation with Cinestaan.com, the director shrugged off the comparisons, saying it was natural for similarly themed stories to emerge when an issue is so visible in society. "If similar stories on a similar theme happen, they are very real and current issues in society," Sethi said. "To each his own. I knew my approach, style and storytelling were very different. Even the story is very different."

It certainly is. Neeraj Kabi and Shefali Shah lead the cast through conversations about their own loneliness and insecurities and come face to face with the prospect of society's approach to their love for each other.

That Sethi, who read political science and economics at Dresden university in Germany, chose this as a subject is a surprise. Once Again is the director's second feature, after Fernes Land (2011), a tale about an illegal immigrant in Germany meeting a native German who dreams of emigrating.

Sethi is fascinated by the loneliness of urban lives. "I did not want to reduce the Indian reality to a social issue and trivialize it," he said. "I wanted to keep the poetic romance as the key plot point, and all the complexities behind it." 

Once Again is available for viewing on Netflix. Following are excerpts from an interview with the director: 

How does a political science and economics graduate from Dresden turn to a middle-aged romance for his second feature?

Actually I was working on a different project and a friend told me an anecdote from his life. It fascinated me. The major part of it was about the loneliness of the urban populace in India. That's how it all started.

How did you bring the different layers of loneliness, urban existentialism, and insecurity through your characters?

There are multiple layers to the characters. I did not want to make it a social issue. I did not want to reduce the Indian reality to a social issue and trivialize it. I wanted to keep the poetic romance as the key plot point, and all the complexities behind it.

For a widow or a middle-aged woman, it is not easy to look for love or to marry again. She has been lonely a long time and has to break the boundaries she has drawn for herself.

For him, he has to learn to fall in love again. So, this was a vertical and horizontal journey on each other. Vertical in a way that he lives much above her in terms of status. There is also the element of their psychology, for when you talk about love, all these elements come into play. 

What led you to cast Neeraj Kabi and Shefali Shah? Kabi has not exactly been known to play a romantic lead.

Actually, Shefali was suggested to me by a friend. She read the script and immediately came on board the project.

I believe in India we tend to reduce them to small roles very often. She is such a great actress. The same goes for Neeraj. I always wanted to work with them, and it was a very organic decision that came together.

I believe the film was completed a couple of years ago. Why the delay in releasing it?

Actually, the film was completed. A major part of the funding [for release] was also there. Then The Lunchbox happened. It was difficult to get a release or distribution partner because everybody immediately connected this film with it. Though the story is different, my approach was different, but only because of the story being set in Mumbai, and having food in it, people thought it was similar. 

Did that comparison bother you? No filmmaker likes his original work to be compared with somebody else's.

If similar stories on a similar theme happen, they are very real and current issues in society. Second thing, I got a call from a funding agency saying, "We have just funded a story that sounded very similar to yours." To each his own. I knew my approach, style and storytelling were very different. Even the story is very different. 

The competition today makes it very difficult for a niche film to find distribution platforms. How did the tie-up with Netflix happen?

We were in talks with a couple of studios, including some producers, for the distribution. We know in the last couple of years things are changing, but you need the courage to pick projects. It is changing slowly.

Then the possibility of Netflix came in, and we thought why not? I know the history of Netflix, their reach to other countries and the choice of projects aligned with our story. They bought the rights for all countries except China. We sold it, but we are still in talks with cinema halls to screen it. After all, we made the film for cinema halls. 

Netflix is a great thing that happened for different reasons, but I would still like it to be screened in a theatre.