Speaking to Shakun Batra is like talking to someone whom you’ve known for a long time. The 33-year-old filmmaker is a delight to speak to. With a personality that doesn’t shy away from calling a spade a spade, to being firm about his style of filmmaking, Batra comes across as someone who is passionate about sharing stories that resonate with real life. Though his debut directorial venture, Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu, gained him appreciation it was a moderate commercial success. With Kapoor and Sons, it seems that he’ll finally win both – critical as well as commercial acclaim.

Shakun Batra

Shakun Batra

Your debut film came in 2012. And Kapoor and Sons released now, in 2016. How did Kapoor and Sons happen and what lead to the gap of four years?

One year of stupidity, one year of writing, one year of waiting for the actors and one year of making the film. I think I should not term it as a year of stupidity as in 2012 after finishing Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu, I tried writing something else for around 8-9 months. When I realized that it is not working I started writing Kapoor and Sons in 2013. And then it took us a year to complete the film, after which it took us a lot of time to figure out the actors that we wanted to cast, as it is an unusual cast. It gets a little tricky to cast all the right actors and make sure that all of them are free at the same time. And they all had to complement each other because at the end of the day it is a family, so it has to feel like one. So it just kept going back and forth due to such problems. At one point of time, I almost gave up as three years had passed and it would obviously take another two years to make the film. Then all of a sudden everything fell in the right place. And before I knew I it, I was shooting the film.


Did you have any references for showcasing a ‘dysfunctional’ family in the film?

Firstly, I hate the tag of ‘dysfunctional’ family. I would just call it a family.

The emotions and feelings in the film are taken from real life

But it is projected that way.

I guess for marketing and giving it a genre, we tend to add this word. But those things are just tags to sell a film. That is not what it is. Which family doesn’t fight or have problems or secrets? I found the Bollywood films of the 90s to be such a problem because the families were so happy and had such a good time. I remember trying to run away from my family to have some privacy. And the families of the 90s Bollywood were always together – in the kitchen, bedroom, drawing room, bathroom and holidaying together. It made me think that who are these people and why don’t they have any other friends? I really found those films wrong until the time I saw Monsoon Wedding. Finally there was a film which was real and showed a family where its family members had their personal lives. That is a family for me – whether call it ‘dysfunctional’ or a just a family.

What about the characters in the film? Are they inspired from any real life instances?

When most things are inspired from real life and are rooted in it, they make the movie look real. The emotions and feelings in the film are taken from real life. But moments and how they unravel is obviously structured for a film. There is some influence from real life and a bit of the craft.

A still from Kapoor and Sons

A still from Kapoor and Sons

So what was casting criteria for choosing the main actors?

The main thing was to make sure that it looks and feels like a real family. When I met these people I felt that they understood what I was looking for. Kapoor and Sons is not a filmy film. It is a film without gloss or glamour. When I met these people they understood that they won’t be playing stars but characters.

And what was your brief to the actors?

To keep it as real as we can. Also the one thing that we all spoke about was to not think of the camera as something that they had to perform for. They just had to be in that room and do whatever they want and the camera would catch them. It wasn’t ever staged for the camera, unlike a cinematic film.

The main thing was to make sure that it looks and feels like a real family

You’ve directed Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu and Kapoor and Sons and also written the stories of both the films with Ayesha DeVitre. Tell us about the association. 

I have never heard of any other writer who is also a hair stylist. Ayesha is also Alia’s (Bhatt) hair stylist. In both my films, she is not just a writer but also a hair stylist. So every morning she would get everyone ready and then we would both talk about the scenes.

It so happened that we were both working on Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na where I was an AD and she was the hair stylist. I had met a bunch of people but I couldn’t get excited about their stories. I was not happy with the ideas that I was getting. So Ayesha and I started talking and I asked her if she would write along with me. Though initially she thought that I was stupid (laughs), but I told her that she is funny and I thought that we could come up with some really good stories. We decided to give it a shot and now we are two films old. We are very happy working with each other, though we try to kill each other once in a while. But it is a good collaboration because writing is not something that you can only do if you have a degree in it. You need to have that thing in you, and I think that Ayesha has it. I feel very comfortable working with her because when you work with someone, you need to have hundred percent honesty and I get that from her side. If she hates a scene, she’ll openly tell me.


Are you also open to directing scripts by other writers? 

If I read something that speaks to me and I connect with and feel that by bringing myself into it, I could add value to it, then I might. I find it so hard to write. It is very difficult thing to do. I don’t know how writers survive. For me, I’m only writing because I want to direct. To direct a film, I have no other option but to sit down and write a story myself. I don’t find material. But I hope that I meet interesting people and material that I connect to. Hopefully then it won’t take four years (to make a film).

Shakun (Picture: Shakun's facebook account)

Shakun (Picture: Shakun’s facebook account)

How’s your association with Dharma and Karan Johar been? Is he someone who gives creative inputs as a Producer? 

I’ve been with Dharma for six years now. And why I love Karan is not just because he is generous and supportive but also because he allows a lot of freedom. He has let me make things the way I wanted to make them. I really look forward to his feedback because they are very objective suggestions, without imposing anything on me. He just lets you be yourself to figure out how you want to solve things. For me that is how creative environments are. Everyone should be responsible enough and answerable but at the same time they should be left on their own.

I really look forward to Karan’s feedback because they are very objective suggestions, without imposing anything on me.

Tell us about your much talked about fights with Rishi Kapoor on the sets. How do you handle the situation when such a senior actor doesn’t really agree with your style of working? 

I don’t handle them at all. You just try and get your way around. As long as films have been made, sets have been known to have friction between people. I’m happy that he is being vocal about it but there is no animosity. He still calls me every day and laughs, saying that he has told three journalists how he would fight with me. He would laugh and say how the film is going to get so much promotion because of this. We obviously had our share of arguments because there was a particular way in which I wanted to make the film. It took him a while to understand why I was so sure about making it in that way. After he saw the film, he said that he loved the film and he’s glad to see how I did it. For me that was a good closure after all the discussions, anger and arguments.

How did you think of this particular look for him?

The character’s age was 90 and when we started working, it was obvious that we would need serious prosthetic make up that makes it look believable. I didn’t want people to say….Yeh make up bada ganda hai. At the same time Greg Cannom who has done The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was in Mumbai for Fan. So we called him over and tried some looks as he is the best in the world and there is no one better than him to do aged make up. I’m glad that it has come out properly and has helped the believability of the film.

Coming to your initial days, though you were an accounts scholar you landed up at Vancouver Film School to be a cinematographer. What was the inspiration behind this transition? 

Running away from the family, as I was done sitting in Delhi looking at my accounts (laughs). It was so boring that I wanted to run away. I loved photography so I just thought that I would do cinematography. While I was doing that I started getting inclined towards direction. Once I started assisting Farhan (Akhtar), it was pretty obvious that I enjoyed storytelling. So one thing led to another. After assisting a bunch of directors, I finally wrote my own film and directed it.

Rishi Kapoor's look in the film

Rishi Kapoor’s look in the film

You have also assisted Academy Award-winner Errol Morris and Emmy Award-winner Christopher Wilcha. What role has this experience played in your life?

What is amazing when you assist so many directors is that you get to know how different people work and try to adapt things. You try to pick the best of all these people. One thing common in the people that I have assisted is that they were focused and patient.


Which filmmakers have inspired you in your journey?

I’m mostly inspired from the West. There are obviously directors that I’m madly obsessed with. Woody Allen is one of them as he is someone who truly inspires me and I love the kind of stories he tells. Billy Wilder and Wes Anderson, Alexander Payne and Jason Rietman are a few others.

It is the content that dictates the format.

In fact you’ve also worked with Excel Entertainment and Aamir Khan Productions while both your directorial ventures were backed by Dharma Productions. Has this experience also enriched your learning?

Of course. I consider myself as one of the few lucky people who have got to work with people like Aamir, Farhan and Karan because they are all top-notch people. Seeing their dedication and hard work, you realize that what you read on Page 3 is not enough. There is so much effort that goes into filmmaking, which is so inspiring. These guys are working 24X7 and they are so consumed in their work and passion. The fact that how convinced they are of what to do, is what really inspires one and is a learning experience.

The spoof called Genius of the Year directed by you and featuring Alia Bhatt became very popular. And these days web series and short films are a rage. Do you plan to direct anything similar anytime soon? 

For me the format has never been a problem. I have done short films, advertisements, features; so different formats do excite me. But it is the content that dictates the format. As far as the content works, the duration doesn’t matter. If I get content which is great and should be told in 40 seconds I will try my best to tell it.

What next can we expect from you?

The search starts again. The search of an interesting story, theme and idea. That starts now and I hope I find it soon.

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Shakun Batra
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