It is very important for me that people connect with the story: Nitya Mehra
A look at her IMDB page in enough to tell you that hers is no ordinary directorial debut. This may be Nitya Mehra’s first feature film but her experience in filmmaking is more than a decade old. Mehra was born in Amritsar, studied at Dehradun, followed by enrolling at Jesus & Mary College in Delhi where she studied English literature and then did a three-month film course at New York. She then came back to India and assisted influential filmmakers including the likes of Mira Nair, Ang Lee and Farhan Akhtar, between 2002 and 2011. Five years ago she thought of venturing into direction and also got inclined towards writing. Here are excerpts from a conversation with the quintessential filmmaker who has directed the most anticipated film of the year – Baar Baar Dekho.
You have an impressive body of work – films ranging from Life of Pi, Namesake, Lakshya, Don, The Reluctant Fundamentalist etc. that you have assisted on. Why a romantic film as your debut project?
I chose those films because I really admired the work of those filmmakers. I think I was there to learn work ethics and filmmaking grammar from them, and eventually be able to make my own story. I have been very fortunate to have worked with those people.
At the same time, I have been a huge love story buff and have grown up watching love stories. Besides the love story genre, I’m a huge fan of the hyper-real stuff. Some of my favorite films are Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Truman Show. I find reality a little boring. So for me to be able to make a film which gives you a glimpse into life, a love story was ideal. I was really excited to tell this story as my first film.
For me to be able to make a film which gives you a glimpse into life, a love story was ideal
You are also the co-writer of the film. Tell us more about the writing process.
The reason I’m here, making this film, is purely because of Mr Ritesh Sidhwani (Producer). He gave me a concept, which I liked, but I did not want to make that film. He had received that concept from a writer, Sri Rao, who is an Indian writer from New York. So I asked him if we could buy that from the writer. And then I got Anuvab Pal, who is a great script writer, on board. Anuvab and I got together and made it ours. The first time I got the script it was more American, though it was about Indian characters, but NRIs based in New York. I wanted my characters to be grounded and rooted in India because I like everything desi. I like my songs and Indian vibrancy in terms of colors and palettes.
When I knew that keeping the same concept in mind, I can see the film happening, is when I decided to write the screenplay. We wrote a 15-page one-liner and put in front of the producers, who loved it. And then we went on to write the complete screenplay. Then I got Anvita Dutt, whom I got on board at a later stage, but have worked closely with. We did the Hindi dialogue draft. It is very meticulous and organized. Writing is really quite heavenly. I absolutely loved the process of creating the base for the film. I wanted to get it ready before I went on the floor or even before everybody came on board. I collaborated with wonderful people with whom I get along well. Our sensibilities and aesthetics are totally in sync.
It must have been a great team to work with.
Absolutely! Our make-up and hair team from India and UK was brilliant. We had Adhuna Bhabani Akhtar from BBlunt and Natasha Nischol from Fat Mu. We had a great prosthetics team including Mark Coulier from the UK. Then there was Arjun Bhasin who did the costumes. I think all these three departments – makeup, prosthetics and costumes did such a great job, that they made the characters evolve with age. Also, the film is shot by Ravi K Chandran who is a maestro. He added so much to the film with every frame that I’m eternally going to be his fan.
How did you zero in on a very fictional script that takes you thirty years ahead?
The fact that the story moves 30 years ahead comes from my interest in hyper-real. I like highly fictionalized stuff. I think film as a medium has no boundaries. That is the beauty of filmmaking where I can go as fantastical as I want to. There are characters that are rooted and believable, and then I can take the audience on a roller coaster ride if I want to. I find that exciting about filmmaking, where I have no boundaries and there is nothing to stop me from saying the things that I have said in the film. A situation where you are sleeping one day and wake up to not find yourself in the same bed is something that filmmaking and storytelling allow you to do.
A situation where you are sleeping one day and wake up to not find yourself in the same bed is something that filmmaking and storytelling allow you to do
In such cases what are the challenges that lay in making the audience connect with the story?
I think it is the seed of what you want to say. If your characters are rooted and believable, then the audiences are a beautiful entry because they are so loving and giving, that they’ll go with it. As long as they buy the characters and these characters are able to emotionally touch some chord that the audience can relate to. Eventually, we have seen all kinds of love stories and have seen them done in different ways with various conflicts. So what am I going to do as a filmmaker is what matters. Essentially I’m telling a sweet and simple straightforward story, but I have packaged it in an extraordinary world. And I think that is very challenging as an artist for me. Which is why I want to push those boundaries.
Katrina Kaif and Sidharth Malhotra are coming together for the first time. Why did you think that they would be apt to play Diya and Jai?
I cast Sidharth first, before anybody else. I had seen Hasee Toh Phasee and I found him to be very earnest. He is handsome and love stories require handsome romantic heroes. He fit into it. And with Sidharth, I could mould him because he is relatively new. He is neutral and so I could inject him with a lot of my character and try to find a beautiful balance between Sidharth and Jai. After watching Hasee Toh Phasee, I knew that he could act. And then there was a softness and bholapan (innocence) in his face and eyes that really fit Jai.
Once I got him on board, I was looking for the perfect female lead. And Karan Johar suggested Katrina. I remember speaking to Zoya (Akhtar, director) who had done Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara with her. She spoke really highly of Katrina. At that time, I hadn’t seen too many of Katrina’s films. When I saw Zindagi… I loved her. After seeing Raajneeti, I realized that no one has really portrayed her in the way that I would like to. I remember going to her house for the narration and before the narration began, she was sitting there without any makeup and talking to her staff in Hindi. I couldn’t believe that she has worked for ten years and no one has seen this lovely real side of her. Nobody has ever seen the real Katrina Kaif. So I thought that with Sidharth and Katrina, the pairing would be really fresh and the characters of Jai and Diya would be portrayed really nicely. And I think they both have done a wonderful job.
Nobody has ever seen the real Katrina Kaif
Which means that we we are going to see a different side of Katrina through Baar Baar Dekho?
I think so. There is so much realism to her character as it is beautifully written. She has put so much to Diya with her physicality; here I don’t really mean the body, but the little nuances that she does, which are not scripted. The minute the actors are able to relate to the characters, they are able to bring a lot to the table than what is there on paper. I hope people will like her. For me, it is exciting because we see Jai and Diya physically very different through the ages. And I was keen to take these two young characters and see how they evolve as human beings when they come to different age groups. It was important for me to show Katrina as young and youthful. At certain places, I wanted her to put on weight. Which Hindi heroine actually lands up doing that? It is a kind of method acting. Similarly with Sid, when I met him he had done Brothers and was quite fit. I wanted him to loose all that muscle and look more like a real professor. The good thing is that they both were happy to do that.
Also given the fact that both of them have very different filmographies and experience, it doesn’t really show any kind of awkwardness in their onscreen chemistry. How did you bring about the chemistry so naturally?
Because they didn’t know each other and must have just met once or twice at parties, the first thing I did was putting them into a room. We all said hi to each other and then I told them to look into each other’s eyes without saying a word. We also did an interesting workshop which had nothing to do with the film but knowing more about each other. When you give the actors strong characters, and if they believe in them and they come on set as those characters, then there is nothing that can stop the chemistry.
There are two-three wonderful moments where I didn’t direct them to do a particular thing and they came up with impromptu stuff that Jai and Diya would do. I retained all of that in the film. I think they also loved the script a lot. They indulged themselves so much into the characters that every time I saw them together in a romantic scene, it was amazingly natural. Also if you put them in a room, they both look beautiful together. The chemistry is actually because of the belief of the actors in the characters.
The chemistry is actually because of the belief of the actors in the characters
How much have you borrowed from real life in Baar Baar Dekho?
I think filmmaking is pretty much an extension of your personality as a person. Everyone asks me if there is a lot of me in Diya. And I say that it is not only in Diya, but there are certain scenes where I’m also in Jai. There is a character played by Ram Kapoor who is a Punjabi and I feel like that there is a lot of me in him as well. It is not that you consciously write the story like that. But influences of your childhood and whatever you have gained over the years seep into your writing and characters. You may remember a friend of yours and how the person would react, which would suit the scene very well and you just put it there.
Do you somewhere think that the film will give a reality check to couples?
It is absolutely a relationship film. Because the film is not just about a love story but your relationship with your parents too. It is about human bonding. And I think if it connects in any of those ways, with any of the audience, then my work is done.
Also tell us more about your contribution to the songs and the music of the film.
Kala Chashma is from my childhood. It came to me at two in the morning. So I went to Ritesh next morning and played the older version on YouTube. Everyone in the office jumped at just the mention of the song. When Ritesh saw their reaction, he instantly said, “Go ahead and make it”. In terms of other songs, I had a nice music supervisor from Dharma, Azeem Dayani. I gave him the situation for each song. Together we sat down and discussed what exactly we wanted at every particular place. And the journey began like that. I have five different composers who have composed six songs. Each one of them caters to a different audience. It is a wholesome album and has everything for everyone. There has been a lot of contribution from Azeem and myself in creating an album, which is this varied. And I hope when people watch the film, they enjoy where the songs come in because the songs are very much a part of the narrative and take it forward. This is what songs should actually do.
The film has been in talks since 2013 and is finally releasing now, after three years. With productions houses such as Dharma and Excel, you definitely have a strong backing. Was Baar Baar Dekho’s journey as smooth as it looks?
It has taken me two years to make the film. In retrospect, I think it has been heartache and pain. But isn’t that the case with every film? I’m highly privileged to have Excel as my parent company and Dharma who have come in as co-producers. Filmmaking is a tedious job. No matter whether it is a small or a big budget film, the pain is the same. But I have been blessed. They have supported me and my vision without any question. They have given me a free hand in everything.
In the end, if there are any mistakes they are mine and any accolades are all of ours. I’m quite happy with it. Though struggles always exist. First, there is the struggle to finish the script, then the producers have to say yes to it. Then the struggle is to find the perfect actors, locations etc. Then you have to make it within a certain budget. At every point there is a struggle, but I have loved every pain and sorrow that has come with the film.
In the end, if there are any mistakes they are mine and any accolades are all of ours
But with such players being associated with your debut film, is there any pressure that one faces?
No. The only pressure that I’m facing at the moment is about the audience coming out and saying that it’s a really beautiful film. It is very important for me that people connect with the story. So even if anyone connects with anything from any scene, and I’m able to reflect their emotions, then I’m home.
What is your process of working with the crew, actors and every other department? Are you more meticulous or spontaneous as a director?
I do believe that I’m meticulous because that is how I like to work. I enjoy a peaceful atmosphere. I love my crew. I have been an AD and I understand that there is a lot of passion that the crew brings to the table. I’m all about being one big family. I try and keep a calm and cool facade. But you should talk to my crew to know more about it (laughs).