The overwhelming response to the promos of Kahaani have pleased director Sujoy Ghosh as well as made him anxious.
His first film Jhankaar Beats had heralded the arrival of a promising filmmaker, but Home Delivery in 2005 and Aladin in 2009 failed to live up to that promise.
Ghosh talks to Ankur Pathak about his new thriller featuring the can-do-no-wrong Vidya Balan, his strong associations with people in the industry, the difficulty in getting funding after two failures, and why he is a fan of films like Bodyguard and Singham.
Your new film's tagline is quite amusing: 'A mother of a story'. So, clearly, it's a plot-driven drama.
Yes, it is an intensely plot-driven film. In my previous film Aladin, I had a crutches like the VFX, costumes etc, but in Kahaani I have only two things: Vidya Balan and my story.
Hopefully, this should keep you glued to the screen for two hours otherwise I would consider myself as having failed.
You would take sole responsibility if the film turns out to be a debacle?
Of course. Because one cannot find fault with Vidya Balan's acting.
About the tagline you mentioned, I first wrote a very boring tagline: 'A story of a mother' (laughs). Just before I submitted it, a gut feeling told me to invert the words. And it makes such a big difference!
I remember you saying that this is a film inspired by your mother.
It is a study of motherhood. It is inspired as much by your mother as it is by mine. The entire transformation of a woman due to motherhood has always fascinated me.
I have seen girls become mothers and it is terrific as much it is beautiful. She is this petite little girl at first, but as soon as she becomes a mother, she is the most powerful individual there.
She will go to any extent to protect her baby even if that includes slapping a physically powerful man if he is messing around. So, it is the protective instinct that draws her out and also something that drove me to write this story.
Did you pick on the theme also because women-centric films seem to be the flavour of the season?
As a filmmaker, I have a responsibility towards my audience. I cannot just catch onto whatever has worked. When the public pays the admission price, they give me a chance to tell them my story, so it should be a story that I strongly believe in.
There is no rocket science involved; this is the way I pick my films. When I made Aladin, it was like my Harry Potter. I wanted to convey to the kids that there is no magic lamp. If you have to do anything, you have to do it yourself.
When a male director works on a film whose theme is a woman's journey, what sort of preparation must he do to explore the female psyche?
We worked heavily on the character graph. Starting right from where she was born and raised, to her likes, dislikes and the place she met her husband, to her eventual landing in Kolkata.
Since I was working with Vidya, I incorporated many of her nuances, like the way she acts when she's angry or sarcastic.
Basically, I wanted to know, if I let a woman lose in an alien environment where she doesn't know the people or the language or the city at all, how will she look out for herself and her (unborn) child while at the same time fulfilling the purpose that has brought her there?
Since this is a film driven by a single character, you must have paid exceptional attention to the details. What are the fine nuances that you have drawn?
One, there is a lot of sub-text, and then there is a lot of rational detailing as well. Like when Vidya's character has travelled for 14 long hours from London till the time she reaches the Kalghat Police Station in Kolkata, you see her sitting uncomfortably in the chair at the inspector's office. This is obviously because her bottom is hurting after travelling all that time.
She is also a little irritated; maybe she wants to use the washroom but cannot do that since it must be quite unhygienic in there. When she smiles at the officer, it is a tired, lethargic smile since the commute has left her exhausted.
How crucial is Kolkata to Kahaani? It looks more like a character than merely a backdrop.
Absolutely. There are two heroes in my film -- Vidya Balan and Kolkata. I have exploited both to the hilt because I know both of them very well. I desperately wanted to go back to Kolkata and more than me, Vidya wanted to go to Kolkata.
I also knew I could incorporate the city quite well into a thriller. The environment does play a very important role in a thriller such as Kahaani.
Vidya Balan gave a phenomenal performance in The Dirty Picture. How do you think Kahaani can capitalise on that?
It helps in generating a lot of curiosity. I have a great pillar of support in Vidya. She's been there ever since I thought of Kahaani, till the time Aladin flopped and everything seemed dark, till we actually got rolling with the film.
I gave her as much as I could from my research of the character. Then it was up to her to interpret the character and behave like the character. Which she does brilliantly.
She fits the job description of a "real actress". She brings the character alive.
How do you think she manages to do that?
I think her biggest, strongest point as an actor is that she is very secure as an actor. That woman is not scared of doing anything. She doesn't care about the size of her role or any stuff of that type. She can happily sit in one corner of the shot and let others take the limelight.
After an impressive debut with Jhankaar Beats, you made two mediocre films like Home Delivery and Aladin, which were insignificant critically and commercially.
Again, the story idea of both these films excited me tremendously. Home Delivery was a new language of cinema which I wanted to try. Aladin was my Harry Potter. We did scenes which weren't seen globally at all. When you see the film, it is totally Indian and none of the technique is borrowed from Hollywood or any other industry
Was it very difficult to get funding for your new film when you have Home Delivery and Aladin red-marked in your portfolio?
It is incredibly difficult to get finance when your films haven't done too well. But there is no choice but to keep going. There is no logic, method or formula to this. We are here to make films and I can only do the ones I believe in.
I cannot give my producer the formula for sure-shot success. I cannot post-mortem Home Delivery and say, "Oh this is what I actually meant."
Bollywood is an English language exam not a Mathematics paper. There is no formula.
On paper, Kahaani is an expensive film. But I knew I could pull it off with a certain budget so I went ahead and borrowed money. What else can one do? Films are made with a lot of difficulties and you have to take them head-on.
You approached Amitabh Bachchan for a song in the film. How tricky was to get him to sing?
It wasn't tricky at all. There is no drama or conflict. It is a simple process of going about and asking. I did that and Sir was kind enough. He promptly agreed.
Would you say Bollywood is an industry that functions largely on, let's say, sentimental associations?
Yes, this is indeed very true. And that has also been my greatest asset. Whoever I have worked with has been extremely supportive. They have spoilt me rotten. Perhaps that is the only wealth I carry -- my associations and my goodwill. It is my greatest strength.
I can go any time to Sanjay Dutt, Juhi Chawla, Riteish Deshmukh. All of them are my darlings.
What are your expectations from Kahaani?
I expect it to do well and people to see the film and like it a lot.
More than anything, I expect the audiences who see it don't feel I have let them down. Because they would be giving me another chance and I better live up to their expectations.
Which recent films have you enjoyed?
I enjoyed Don 2. I felt Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara was amazing as well. I loved Bodyguard, Dabangg and Singham. I liked the first half of Rockstar, but later it went haywire. But Ranbir Kapoor was phenomenal and so was the music. I also liked Ghajini.
You name grossly commercial potboilers as your favourites while you come up with a Kahaani, which is like a major art-house attack.
A film is a film. You shouldn't classify it according to genre. I watch a film without any particular affection for its genre. As a filmmaker I can't afford to believe in genres.
I should be competent enough to tell any story, just like a Satyajit Ray or Yash Chopra. I can't be making a Jhankaar Beats-type movie over and over again. I won't grow as a filmmaker then. Like Vidya Balan, I want to push the barrier.
Your favourite Vidya Balan performance?
Kahaani. And apart from my own film, Paa.