Interview Hindi

Religion is not going to be our saviour, only love and humanity are: Kedarnath writer Kanika Dhillon

The screenwriter discusses the journeys of her last two films, Manmarziyaan and Kedarnath, and insists that banning works of fiction will never solve real-life problems.

Kanika Dhillon

Mayur Lookhar

Men have defied tradition, rebelled against injustice. No big deal. Celluloid heroes are meant to be path-breakers, trendsetters. But put a woman in the role and a raging debate begins. While patriarchal minds abhor her actions as an act of defiance, feminists beat their liberal drums.

Writer Kanika Dhillon’s Rumi from Manmarziyaan (2018) and Mandakini aka Mukku from Kedarnath (2018) have evoked different responses. Dhillon herself, however, doesn’t offer any adjectives for her characters. “Liberal, non-liberal, why can’t we just let people be what they want to be,” she says.

Through the course of a half-hour telephone interview, that is what struck us about the writer. Liberal, non-liberal, feminist, such adjectives seem hollow. Much like her characters, Dhillon is unapologetic, fearless, a woman who speaks from the heart.

Kanika Dhillon does not shy away from admitting there is a bit of herself in both the characters. Taapsee Pannu was Dhillon’s Rumi while first-time actress Sara Ali Khan essayed Mukku's role.

While she can speak at length about her characters and her stories, Dhillon is guarded about her personal space. Born in a Sikh family from Amritsar, she is married to fellow screenwriter, actor and filmmaker Prakash Rao Kovelamudi, son of the popular Telugu filmmaker K Raghavendra Rao.

The London School of Economics graduate started her journey as a script supervisor in Shah Rukh Khan's Red Chillies Entertainment before working on projects like Ra.One (2011) where she wrote the screenplay and dialogues.

Dhillon is also an author, having penned three books — Bombay Duck Is a Fish (2011), Shiva and the Rise of the Shadows (2013) and The Dance of Durga (2016). Excerpts from the interview:

At the peak of one’s career. After Manmarziyaan and especially Kedarnath would that be the right phrase to use for you? Or this is just the beginning?

I definitely would not want to say 'peak' because after the peak, the logical thing is the downfall. This is just the beginning. When it is a beginning, there is a peak to climb. When you are at the peak, you have to go back to the base.

Both films had their own tough journeys. Both faced uncertainty at some point. Given all that has happened, is there a sense of relief that the films have been released?

Both journeys have been very emotional and difficult, but when the end result comes, it is that much more special. I am happy that Manmarziyaan has turned out to be Anurag Kashyap’s most commercially successful film. [Similarly], Kedarnath is Abhishek Kapoor’s most successful film. This gives me the belief that all those issues, problems that came our way, were in some way... (trails off).

It [the response to the films] was a sweet kind of ending. All the artistes in these films have been appreciated for their efforts. I am glad that despite going through troubles, both stories found an audience, found love. Overall, I’m happy for my directors and actors.

Of course, as a writer, I have found an audience which had an emotional experience with my films. That was the most satisfying thing. As an author, I have a direct link to my audience. Through films, I want to form that bond with the audience.

An inter-faith love story [involving a Muslim labourer and a well-off Hindu woman] set in the backdrop of the 2013 flash floods in Kedarnath. To be honest, before the film I had doubts if it would work. As the writer, what do you make of the response Kedarnath got?

Sushant Singh Rajput and Sara Ali Khan in Kedarnath (2018) 

For me, Kedarnath is a very important film of our time. On the face of it, it is a simple story. Some people also said Hindu-Muslim clichés have been used. I pray for the day when I wake up in a country where Hindu-Muslim itself becomes a cliché. The day that happens, we will be the happiest nation.

I believe that if Manmarziyaan reflects one kind of India, Kedarnath is reflective of another. Being a Hindu or a Muslim affects your entire life. It is not a cliché. Your actions, reactions, attitudes, sometimes even life and death depend upon who you are.

I believe that the world outsides the metros, outside social media, has a different kind of reality. Kedarnath is set in that reality, the reason I chose to write Kedarnath the way I did, with a Muslim hero and Hindu heroine.

Questions have been raised why we took a Hindu Rajput actor [Sushant Singh Rajput] to play a Muslim while a Muslim woman [Sara Ali Khan] played a Hindu character. The fact that these questions have been raised tells you how important the Hindu-Muslim cliché still is.

Kedarnath found an audience and emotional resonance because it is a very relevant film of our times. It gave an emotional experience through its characters and storytelling.

It must be disappointing that the film wasn’t released in Uttarakhand.

I am very disappointed. I didn’t understand when a ban was sought on Manmarziyaan. The whole idea of censorship is very bothersome to me. I don’t understand what you can achieve by curtailing fiction. When people come down to curtailing an idea, a thought process, then it is very dangerous. This extreme censorship, where there are these factions which say they are offended by the film, how do they get offended by a woman thinking about her love in a gurdwara? I don’t think these fringe voices represent our country. India has been such an open, tolerant country. These voices can’t dictate our narrative.

I’m saddened by the ban in Uttarakhand. Kedarnath is about people coming together. Kedarnath is a celebration of the human spirit. It goes beyond Hindu or Muslim. It sheds those identities along the way. Ultimately, what is left is humanity and love. That is what we really need, especially in 2018, when we have seen mob lynchings.

Some felt it was a little insensitive to set a love story in the backdrop of a real tragedy.

My question to those people is, is it insensitive to say that when calamity strikes, all your religious rituals, everything fades away? It [a natural disaster] is a leveller. It is a reminder that life doesn't intend to bifurcate, it doesn’t intend to divide. There was no other way to show it.

In my view, this was a beautiful expression of reminding us that when the end is near, [death] will not see whether you are Hindu or Muslim. The only thing that is going to save us is our humanity. Religion is not going to be our saviour. When disaster arrives, it is going to be our compassion and humanity that is going to save us.

There will be voices who argue that we are exploiting the victims of the Uttarakhand floods. I think the way the floods are shown in the story, and the way they are woven into the backdrop, the perspective of humanity, I don’t think it is insensitive at all.

The district magistrates of seven districts in Uttarakhand banned the film fearing it could upset law and order.

Banning fiction cannot solve your real-life issues. It will not solve your law-and-order problem. Changing mindsets will.

Everyone has been praising Sara Ali Khan's performance. As a writer, do you feel she has done justice to the character?

Sara Ali Khan and Sushant Singh Rajput in Kedarnath

Sara is such a bright talent. I have come across very few such strong, opinionated young artistes. My first narration for Kedarnath was to Sara Ali Khan for the role of Mukku. Her mother Amrita Singh was there, and some of her family friends were there. After the narration, they had tears in their eyes. She instantly said, “I’m doing this film." The conviction with which she said I want to do it, it says a lot about her as an actor, her emotional quotient. She is a well-rounded personality. I guess that comes from her education. She told me many times that Mukku is a dream role for me. She really connected emotionally with the character. The result is there for all to see.

What is common to Rumi and Mukku is their stubbornness, how they follow their heart. Is this reflective of the writer too?

Taapsee Pannu and Sara Ali Khan

I wouldn’t call it stubbornness. I would say they are both unapologetic in the choices they make. In Rumi’s case, she is an independent woman. She makes her own choices personally, sexually, professionally. She is not apologetic about it. We have been seeing women being portrayed in a very subservient manner, servicing the man or the plot. Today, in real life, things are changing in certain parts of the country. In certain milieus, women are not apologetic. Rumi is a reference point for that. I heard comments that why is Rumi not working. Who says she doesn’t have a career? When men are taking forward a family business, it is supposed to be a career, but if a woman is looking after it, isn’t that a career? She comes from Amritsar, where you don’t have too many multinational companies. You don’t have too many corporate jobs.

Feminism is a broad concept. Just working alone doesn’t make a woman independent. If a woman is making choices in her house, in her professional life without fear, then that is true strength. Rumi is such a character.

As for Mukku, I won’t call her stubborn, but in her own way she follows her heart and mind. She comes from a patriarchal space. She doesn’t call her father father, but merely calls him a pundit for she thinks he is not worthy of it. She feels he has wronged her sister and her. So she is not afraid to show her displeasure at being used in a certain manner. She is not being disrespectful, but this is an unapologetic expression of what one feels. I’m not saying one has to be disrespectful or controversial, but express [your feelings], yes. If you are unhappy with a personal dilemma, Mukku will not keep quiet.

The reason I asked whether these characters are part of you is because you had an inter-faith marriage, too.  Such marriages are not easily accepted in our society.

I don’t want to talk about that, but all my characters are a bit part of me and the people around me. You will have some part of you in every story, every character.

Rumi was an interesting character, one who evoked different views. While some hailed her as this feisty, rebellious, independent woman, I also read an article that said women can be liberated without smoking, drinking or having casual sex.

Absolutely. I agree with that writer. Why are you defining an independent woman with smoking, drinking or casual sex? Look, if not more, Mukku is equally independent. But she doesn’t smoke, drink, or have casual sex. Would you then call Rumi more liberated than Mukku?

I don’t think we need to define a woman as liberated or not liberated if she smokes or drinks. We don’t judge men by that yardstick. Then why judge women? Why does one have to belong to liberated or non-liberated? Just let them be what they are.

The film [Manmarziyaan] thanked author Amrita Pritam. Was the platonic relationship between Sahir  Ludhianvi and Amrita Pritam the basis for your Manmarziyaan characters Rumi and Vicky (Vicky Kaushal)? Is Manmarziyaan a contemporary take on their relationship?

Sahir Ludhianvi

No. I borrowed her poem to describe a moment. But it was not the basis of these characters. The film is a contemporary take on modern-day relationships.

Last year we saw Anurag Kashyap make a romantic story and Vishal Bhardwaj make a family comedy. Sadly, both films didn’t do too well at the box office. The view in the trade is that the image of the two filmmakers perhaps kept audiences away from these clean, family dramas.

I wouldn’t like to get into that aspect of what trade pundits believe. Manmarziyaan was really appreciated by the critics and the people who saw it. Why more people didn't see it, I wouldn’t know. Did Manmarziyaan do what it needed to for all of us? Yes, and I am going to be happy with that. Many said it is Anurag Kashyap’s best film. So, I am going to be happy with that and don’t want to comment on the trade perspective.

Though Anurag Kashyap was the director, Manmarziyaan did not come across as an Anurag Kashyap film. Were you surprised that producer Aanand L Rai chose him to direct?

Usually, Anurag likes to do his own films, which have a specific Anurag Kashyap stamp on them. I was not surprised that Rai chose him. In fact, when I was writing my script, I told my sister that it is my dream that Anurag directs this film. Eventually, it happened.

The dancing twins of Manmarziyaan, whose manifestation was that? Anurag's or yours?

That was Anurag’s. Twins, always remember, is an Anurag manifestation.

Manmarziyaan wouldn’t be the same without its soulful music and the fine lyrics of Shellee. Do you agree?

Amit Trivedi has done a great job. Both my films have music by Amit Trivedi. So I guess there is some resonance somewhere. Shelleeji completely got the spirit of the film. The songs conveyed the spirit of the film. It all came together beautifully.

You have collaborated with husband Prakash Kovelamudi before on the Telugu film Size Zero (2015). Now there is Mental Hai Kya. What is the experience like? Do you have any creative differences?

I meticulously avoid talking about it because what happens is that it just becomes that you are writing for brother, sister, father, husband. So, I don’t answer such questions.

You were credited in the cast of Om Shanti Om (2007). And you look no less than any actress. Did you harbour any dreams of becoming an actress when you came to Mumbai?

That was a practical joke where Farah Khan [director of Om Shanti Om] made me a bride. I never harboured any dreams of acting. I always wanted to be a writer.