Youngistaan director Syed Ahmad Afzal is a happy man. His debut film has opened well at the box office. Ahmad, a BTech in Mechanical Engineering from Delhi has an interesting tale as to how unlike most children whose parents ask them not to pursue humanities, his parents told him early on that’s where he would do well. ‘I didn’t take them seriously then, and ended up wasting six years,” he rues. After a long stint in engineering and running a trade business simultaneously, he decided to give it all up and come to Mumbai one day.

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Tell us about your journey in Mumbai.

I came to Mumbai in 2008. Initially I started ghost writing for other people. I also conceived some television shows while I was writing my own scripts. I didn’t wait for anyone to green light my project. I also didn’t go to too many producers. I wanted to position myself and my script in a way that people look at it as a sensible approach and a sensible script.

I conceived a few shows for an upcoming history channel called Epic. There is another script that I was working on for 3-4 years. That was to be my debut film but somehow it got delayed twice due to the actor’s dates. I finally decided to move on. Then I met Vashu Bhagnani. In the first meeting itself he wanted to work together. That’s how it started. I had gone to him with another big budget film. He said we would do that later but meanwhile let’s start with something else. I and my co writers Ramiz Ilham Khan and Maitrey Bajpai went to them with five different concepts. I liked only one of them but I had to go to Jackky and Vashuji with a bag full of ideas for the meeting.  I had a gut feeling that Youngistaan, which was the last concept we narrated to them would work. And it did. I have a 3 film deal with them now.

How does a person with a mechanical engineering degree break into writing with no prior training in it? Did that come from your family background?

I come from a family full of poets, academicians, teachers, historians. My family’s branches spread across the literary field. My father and uncle are historians and my mom retired from NCERT recently. My late maternal grandfather Gulam Rabbani Taban was the most noted Urdu poets in the sub continent. He is a Padmashree awardee. Late Khushwant Singh had authored a book on the best of Urdu poetry where he translated works of 20 best poets of Urdu into English. One of them is my grandfather. I had a flair for writing since childhood but I never took it seriously until a few years ago. I think I must have absorbed the atmosphere at home.

Your promos have a haunting effect and the film inevitably is looked forward to because of Farooq saab’s last performance.

I am missing him terribly. On the day of release I went and sat beside his grave and prayed for some time. I also messaged his wife saying we missed him. It’s a terrible loss for us that he isn’t around.

I had met him two years ago with another script which was a historical love saga. He told me to make sure I make that film someday. Since that film got delayed, while I was writing this film and I had met him, his mannerisms seeped into one of the characters we wrote.

During the making of the film there was this scene which I had just finished canning and he came to me and said, “Miya galti se aapki film acchi banti jaa rahi hai.” That was the quintessential Farrooque saab. He would make such a strong satire so subtly.

He reflected positivity just with his presence on the sets. I was a new comer but he was always nice and respectful to me.

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When was your last conversation with him? What did he say?

We spoke around eight days before his death. I was talking to him and I asked him how was his experience working in his debut film Garam Hawa? “It was very nice and I enjoyed working with Balraj bhai,” he said. He narrated an incident where director M S Sathyu sir had called Balraj sir to finish a dubbing session. Balraj saab did the dubbing and went home and slept. He never woke up. Balraj saab gave his best performance in his last film and was not there to see it. He passed away three days prior to the release of the film. This incident Farooq saab narrated to me eight days before he passed away. I had goose bumps remembering what he said when I heard of his death. I get very emotional remembering him.

Your film comes at an interesting time when the great Indian election saga is unfolding and there is acute resemblance of Jackky character to Rahul Gandhi.

My film is a very aspirational film. Its about how a PM would balance his personal life with his professional life in politics. That was the germ that came to us first. Every love story has a conflict. In our film, the conflict in the love story is politics. This guy is getting torn apart between his love and politics.

We have picked up the positive points of various politicians and made an ideal PM, someone all of us would want to lead us in real life as well. Obviously we are fortunate that the election is close and the timing of the film’s release is working in our favour.

Explain the process of getting Jackky and Neha in the character they were required to play.

Jackky has done a stupendous job. All the credit goes to him for living the character of Abhimanyu Paul’s so beautifully. He has that raw energy that vulnerability that first half of the film requires. For the second half where he has to show more restrained more subtle performances, he cracked that as well with practice. We would sit on every scene and did workshops together. He has prepared for 3-4 months for this role and a speech within the film to get the correct voice modulation and dialogue delivery. He very laboriously works on his role and is always punctual on the sets. There is no air about him. He became Abhimanyu he didn’t enact the character.

Neha’s character could have easily bordered around being on the annoying side but she has done it so well that it has turned out a bubbly spontaneous character. We wanted an actor who would look so innocent and cute that even if there is a whiff of annoyance in how she behaves, you look at her and forget all about it. So Neha fit in perfectly.

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What was the look and feel that you had in mind while shooting this film?

In this kind of a film which is talking about both politics and love, I and my DOP, Amalendu Chaudhary agreed that we want to stick to the basics. I didn’t want anything gimmicky. We went by the book. For times where we wanted to enhance the mood – the tense moments in the film, we went handheld with the camera.

What are the filmmakers you enjoy watching.

I keep watching M S Sathyu saab’s Garam Hawa, films of Satyajit Ray, Rishikesh Mukherjee and Shekhar Kapur. Some of the historical films that I love are Mughal e Azam, Umrao Jaan and Saving Private Ryan.

Where does the road head from here?

I have written two more films – set in real historical background. But for now, I am just thinking about the long holiday I need. I will go to Delhi, sit with my parents, have evening tea with them, listen to their stories. All my stories come from the conversations I have with them.

 -Priyanka Jain