It took me a long time to realise that television was much more open to women professionals than films- Nupur Asthana
Nupur Asthana who started her career as an assistant director before landing herself as a director in Yash Raj Films, where she has now been working for over five years, talks about her journey as a woman director and her recently released film, Bewakoofiyaan.
Being a YRF director is a coveted position. How did you get there and when did your infatuation with film-making begin?
Growing up in Kolkata means you are naturally inclined towards art and culture. Satyajit Ray’s work for instance did not fall under the art film category. For us it was commercial cinema. I used to head the dramatic society in Lady Sriram College (Delhi) where I studied. I directed and acted in plays. My natural interest in theatre led to more exploration.
I come from a middle class family. Everyone in my family was working in the corporate world and no one considered films, a serious profession. However, I was passionate about it and enrolled in Sophia Polytechnic (Mumbai) for a postgraduate degree. Right after college I joined Ketan Mehta as an assistant director and worked with him for three and half years. He is extremely deft with his craft and I learnt a lot from him.
I then got myself a meeting with Zarina Mehta who loved my concept of Hip Hip Hurray. She laughed, cried and reacted beautifully to the story. For a rank newcomer, it was a dream to get a chance to direct my own show and do eighty episodes. It became a huge hit. But it didn’t help me get anywhere close to making a film. It took ten years for the first film break after Hip Hip Hurray. I wrote a bunch of film scripts that kept getting rejected.
Did this delay, have anything to do with you being a woman in the industry?
I saw a lot of my male peers making films and couldn’t figure out what was wrong with my scripts. It took me a long time to realise that television was much more open to women professionals than films. Even now there are few women filmmakers in India. People were willing to invest six crores on project by male filmmakers but it’s difficult for them to see a woman do the same job.
What did you do after Hip Hip Hurray’s success?
I detached myself from what I was doing. I had to save myself for my film whenever it happened. I directed a mini series called Hubahoo starring Sandhya Mridul and other shows such as Kyun Hota Hai Pyaar and Time Bomb. I kept working to make money.
What other projects did you work on before Yash Raj Fims happened?
I signed with a corporate company to make a film. After working on it for a year and a half, it didn’t work out. That knocked me down and I couldn’t get out of bed for three days. Then there was another film with another corporate company. We reached the casting stage before they had to shut down their film division due to some problems. I thought maybe I’m not meant to make films. Right around then I got a call from Yash Raj Fims. Ravina Kohli called me for a meeting with Aditya Chopra. That was God sent at the time because I had almost accepted a job as a channel production head.
Why another TV direction assignment rather than a cushy job?
Yash Raj Fims offered me to direct the show Mahi Vay. I read the script and loved it. They had also offered me a film deal after Mahi Vay. So the whole package became very attractive. Mahi Vay was very film like in terms of production values, storyline and budgets. It was very different from the kind of television that was being done then. After that Y films was launched under Yash Raj Films banner and I directed Muhjse Fraaandship Karoge. Fraaandship was like an extension of directing Hip Hip Hurray in film format. The cast included newcomers so we did a month workshop before shooting. It is the lowest budget film made under the Yash Raj Fims banner. Considering the scale, the film did well.
How did Bewakoofiyan happen?
Adi narrated the script for Bewakoofiyan, written by Habib Faisal, a week after Fraaandship’s release. Habib was shooting Ishaqzaade at the time and it wasn’t clear whether he would direct Bewakoofiyan or not. So I started working on another other script with Devika Bhagat.
What resonated with you about the film’s script?
Sonam’s character is a lot like my sister. She lives the mall culture, is a credit card junkie, loves shoes and bags, is an independent woman and yet wouldn’t go against her parents’ wishes to marry her boyfriend but would rather get them to agree and give their blessings. My sister and brother in law both have corporate jobs in Gurgaon.
I could relate to Ayushman’s character and what he goes through. I have been broke a couple of times and had no money to pay rent.
You also write. Is it easy to make a film written by someone else?
I think, working on my own script and directing it would be far easier for me. Having said that, given a good script, I have the ability to run with it, make it my own and give it my best.
Was the process of directing this film different considering you had established actors?
Unlike Fraaandship, Bewakoofiyan had better budgets, more time to shoot (shot in fifty days) and well-known actors. Rishi Kapoor is a legend and both Ayushman and Sonam have a few films under their belt, so you don’t need to teach them the basics. Rishi sir made sure I was on my toes. He wanted to know which lens was being used to understand how much screen space he was taking up and accordingly give his best shot. I narrated the script to him twice at RK Studios. He put a lot of thought into the look of the character and building it. I would read the scene to him and then he would ask me questions. After discussing the scenes, he would come to the set, do a few rehearsals before giving a take. He knew how the camera moved from shot to shot and he worked around it. He thought like a director, without resting in his vanity van, learnt about new technology from the crew and was as enthusiastic as if it were his first film.
Ayushman and Sonam are an interesting pairing. What were your first impressions of working with them?
In real life, Sonam is extremely intelligent. She reads a lot, is well versed with current affairs and is very vivacious. When I met her for the first time, I told her I want this aspect of her to come through in the character. I asked her not to act. I wanted to exploit her real self in the film. My cinematographer, Neha Parti, Sonam and me used to hang out a lot. It was the girls gang. Ayushman kept oscillating between not minding working in a “harem” as he called it and saying “it’s a pain working with all you women”. We did a lot of readings with both of them. They are both directors’ actors. You can mould them.
What shooting style did you adopt in this film?
For this film, I wanted a fluid sense of filming. It’s a very conversational film. We used natural light and shot in live locations. I chose bungalows with a view rather than just the interior of a house on the set. We used backlit sun and very fluid camerawork. We wanted to give it the feel of watching these people from a space, slightly detached from them. When you watch the film, you will see fluid steady cam and actors moving constantly. We wanted people watching from their desks at work to feel like they knew the characters rather than identifying with them.
For the interiors, we used longer lenses in a room so you can see the detailing of the office but at the same time you are up close with the character. For the outdoor shots, I wanted to capture the romance of the glass and chrome architecture of Gurgaon. You will see a lot of shine and the sun hitting the glass. We tried to bring the character of the city into the film. The characters are influenced by the landscape of the city, the brands and are defined by it until they don’t have those luxuries anymore and question their identity. That subtext is running throughout the film. For me, this film is less of a rom com and more of a love story with an intense subtext.
This subject is so relevant today. I have many friends all over the world who have been laid off, friends from Dubai who came back with nothing. On one hand we are affected by inflation and yet there are those who drive the costliest SUVs; it’s a stark dichotomy of our society. The idea originated in Habib’s head when the Jet Airways’ lay offs were happening.
Who are your favourite filmmakers?
Frederico Fellini, Kurosawa, Martin Scorcese, Anthony Minghella, Alexander Payne, Nora Ephron, Satyajit Ray and Yash Chopra among others.
– By Priyanka Jain