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Interview Hindi

The intention behind Hum Bhi Akele Tum Bhi Akele was to encourage acceptance, says actor Anshuman Jha

Written and directed by Harish Vyas, the film was released on Disney+ Hotstar on 9 May.

Photo: Courtesy Anshuman Jha on Instagram

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Anshuman Jha’s latest release, Hum Bhi Akele Tum Bhi Akele (HBATBA), sees the actor play a homosexual who struggles to come to terms with life. Written and directed by Harish Vyas, the film revolves around Jha's character, Veer, and Mansi, a lively lesbian played by Zareen Khan, who embark together on a journey of discovery.

Veer is a far cry from the character played by Jha in the recent series Mastram (2020) — an aspiring writer who finds success after penning erotica. From his impressive film debut in Dibakar Banerjee’s Love Sex Aur Dhokha (2010) to playing the lead in the musical show Jhumroo at the Kingdom of Dreams, Jha has essayed a variety of roles in his career, impressing audiences and critics alike. His latest film, which is also produced by him, was released on Disney+ Hotstar on 9 May. 

Reactions to the film have been pouring in and Jha opened up about the film's reception, saying, “The single biggest responsibility that we had was to be responsible to the LGBTQ community. My endeavour with this kind of content is that we bridge that gap between high-concept films that have the elements that appeal to the audience in terms of vibrancy, production value and so on. I knew this film will start conversations… and I’m happy that it’s happening.” 

Jha and Zareen Khan in HBATBA

Mansi’s spirited nature is in many ways a foil to Veer’s reserved, studied demeanour, and the duo strikes up a friendship in unlikely circumstances, slowly getting to know and understand one another. Vyas described the character to Jha during a taxi ride between JFK Airport and New Yorker Hotel when they had attended the premiere of Angrezi Mein Kehte Hain (2018). “What really attracted me to the film even before the character, was the story of friendship and unconditional love within that. All of us have had friends in our life, who may not be our sexual partners but with whom we have a connection like none else. For me, the most attractive part about the thought behind the film was when Mr Vyas told me, 'Let’s capture that humane emotion of love which is not based on conditions'. That core human value of discovering the love and friendship was the first thing that attracted me to the film,” said Jha.

Although the characters and their presentation have been appreciated by the audiences, the pace of the film has been a bit of a sticking point. Defending this aspect, Jha clarifies that the choice was a deliberate one. “We were very conscious about this [the slow pace]. We knew that Indian audiences, at some places, will have issues with the pacing but we wanted to stay honest to the film and its narrative style. Mr Vyas, as a filmmaker, thinks in frames, so there is a certain aesthetic to every frame and we did not want to compromise on his story flow and speed to meet a certain demand. It’s very important that filmmakers take a leap of faith and make something true to what’s written. So while we were aware that some people might find the pace slightly languid, that was the idea. The meandering nature of a stream is what the film is,” he said.

The other thorny issue is the ending. Jha revealed that they toyed with three endings and went back and forth on the ultimate choice, saying, “For me, it’s a positive ending because when you chose to take care and be with someone who is not going to give you anything in return… that’s a very big human quality to possess.”

Whether one agrees with the ending or not, one would wholeheartedly agree that HBATBA has shattered certain gender stereotypes and depicted its LGBTQ protagonists in a refreshing, fun way and that remains one of the biggest takeaways from the film. Jha said, “I’m very glad that the reactions are accepting because that was the intention behind the film — to encourage acceptance.”

Recounting the reaction of Marc Baschet, who produced the Academy Award-winning film No Man's Land (2001), to HBATBA, Jha said, “On watching the film, he said to me, ‘Of my 50 years in the movies, I have never seen a film with two protagonists of the opposite sex but from the LGBTQ community and I wonder why because it is the best way to talk about friendship’. He complimented the film on the conceptual level which gave me a lot of confidence.”

The film premiered at the South Asian International Film Festival in New York, in November 2019 and received a tremendous response there. After being on the festival circuit for a while, the plan was to give it a theatrical release. However, a few delays with the censor certification and the pandaemonium unleashed by the pandemic meant that the plan needed altering. 

Speaking about this, the actor said, “Mr Subhash Ghai once told me that every film has its destiny. When we set out to make this film [HBATBA], we were thinking of releasing it in a theatre. But it’s been a dismal time for theatres. We had the choice to wait it out or let it fly. I am very happy that the film is on Disney+ Hotstar VIP which is their biggest platform for Hindi films, so it puts us in a very reputed space and since they have an insane number of subscribers, we know that the film will reach the audience that we’ve always wanted it to reach. People have been in lockdown for over a year now and it’s a sad reality but theatres will take time… I’m really happy and grateful that the film is on a platform that I always wanted it to be on. I’m happy it's where it was meant to be.”

Of course, a year of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the viewing habits of people, perhaps irrevocably so. While it remains to be seen if theatres will see a resurgence, business is booming for online content, its creators and, well, actors.

Contemplating the current times, Jha says, “We are all very blessed to be in this generation of actors where we have so many ways to be a part of the storytelling process. It does not matter now if you are doing a 50 crore film or a 5 crore film because both films will come out on Disney+ Hotstar. The playing field has kind of levelled out. So, I think it’s the universe’s way of balancing things and I’m very grateful to be alive and working right now.”

HBATBA marks an ongoing collaboration with Vyas, a journey that began with Angrezi Mein Kehte Hain. Thinking about their partnership, Jha says, “He [Vyas] trusts me and I trust him. He never asks me or sees what I have done in the past, he always looks forward to what I can do. As an artist, that’s the best kind of confidence you can get, when you know there is a director who trusts your craft and is ready to hit you with anything that comes to his mind. I’m very grateful for him to bring these characters to me.”

The actor and writer-director are planning to collaborate yet again on what Jha describes as “a unique father-son relationship story.”

“It’s something very exciting” is all he will say for now about it while looking forward to sinking his teeth into yet another character.

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