The movies have single-handedly changed my life. Most of my informal education has come from the motion pictures and my everyday references date back to my movie watching experiences. Therefore, it only makes sense that I want to know everything about the film-making process. And I suspect you want to as well. With this post, we’re kicking off the #MMCinemaSchool series that, through interactions with film personalities, explores the craft and what you need to know to be involved in film-making yourself.
Since we loved Queen, we took up this opportunity to speak with the film’s director, Vikas Bahl on 5 things you need to know to be a director, what making Queen was like and what’s in store (read: Shandaar). Are you ready? Silence. Start Sound. Rolling. And action!
Vikas Bahl walked in and the table adjacent to ours literally clapped and cheered for him. The society ladies were lunching and they spoke to Vikas for a few minutes about how Queen changed their lives.
When we could finally sit down and talk, this is how our conversation went:
Team MissMalini: In Queen, we liked that Kangana’s character unabashedly admitted that she was on her honeymoon alone. Of course, she had taken her time to deal with it. But the idea itself is quite brave.
Vikas Bahl: She’s confronting the situation. She says it to Mrs. Varma. By then, she has travelled a bit to be able to say it again. The first time, she says it to her dad but she is seeking his permission. She lets him decide. She’s not the person who has the attitude, “I’m going. Do what you feel like.”
Team MM: Do you write a film like Queen, developing the story around the character? What is the process?
VB: The character is pretty much embedded in your head. When you start working on the costumes and look and all, you know where you’re going. Are you making it caricaturish or real? You need to know what she is going to look like in the beginning of the film, how she is going to change. The struggle in a film like this, largely, is that you know she’s going to be in every frame of the film. Will she still hold the audience’s attention or not? I felt I could hold the audience. But it took me a year to write it. I also knew she was not going to come back with short hair, wearing shorts, etc. So, if I wasn’t going to give the audience that kind of satisfaction, I had to make sure it was engaging enough. In a film like this, you’re constantly battling that the graph shouldn’t jump too much, nothing should seem like it happened too suddenly. And I should be enjoying. Enjoyment to me is prime. Therefore, I decided to stay away from the character. I never wanted to be sympathetic towards Rani and because I could decide that, I could make people enjoy watching her. But if I started seeing life like her, I would have been depressed myself. I just stayed away. I was constantly seeing the funny things happening. Which is how I am even as a person.
Team MM: Even though Rani goes through tough situations that might make you cry, you’re laughing watching her. When her bag is going to get stolen, in 5 seconds, you burst out laughing because of the way she counter-attacks the thief.
VB: The small things I had to deal with, were, when she lands, how she’s going to be that day, will she open the curtains, is she going to step out or not, how far will she go from the hotel to have dinner. Will she go out to have dinner or not? I have shot things like her going down to the reception and asking for food and being told “no food in the hotel”. So, she goes out. When she’s coming back, she runs away from there. The importance is in the small things. For instance, when she goes to the hostel and sees the guy. Actually, being with three guys is more comfortable than being with one guy. One guy and you in a room is more difficult. I was constantly trying to put the two of them in a room.
Team MM: (For those of us who’ve watched the film and wondered) Was there something between the two of them (Rani and Aleksander)?
VB: He’s a person she connected with a lot. I’ve consciously put in the effort of people thinking there might be something. When you’re telling a story, the audience is constantly thinking, these two are going to hook up and she hooks up with the other guy instead. Also, if she had kissed Aleksander, it would be serious. Whereas, with the other guy, it could be casual.
Team MM: That’s so true. What was also interesting about Queen was that every character was of a different origin. Not only did all the characters she met have their own cultural baggage but also they spoke different cultural languages.
VB: Actually, I thought when I was writing the film, that right now, I’m telling the story from her point of view. But it could have been told from anyone’s point of view: Taka, or anyone else. I was constantly ensuring that their stories are strong, sometimes even stronger than her. You realise that my story is not such a big deal. I wrote all characters. I could have written it from Rajkumar Rao‘s point of view. Why does he come back? You don’t have an answer. Was it the photograph? Or did he just start missing her after she was gone?
Team MM: I’m sure you’re talking about Queen all the time now because it’s definitely left an impact. How do you deal with people asking if it’s a woman-oriented film. How often do you find people who take the film for what it as opposed to slotting it?
VB: I’ve always stayed away from calling it a woman-oriented film. It’s a character story. I could have told the same from the point of view of a man. I just find women more entertaining in such situations. Men have the best solution: go to bar, get drunk. I think guys go through more planned trauma in our country than even women. They’re told they have to become an engineer, then they have to start working, they have to look after the parents after 55, get life insurance. There is no scope for them to even say, “I’m taking a 2 year break.” I was told that I have to be working from the age of 23, so by the time my dad retires, I should be earning well. So, it’s all in your head. When you get your medical insurance, when you get your life insurance, when you die, who’ll get the money, it’s all like planned.
For me, Queen is the story of a character whose life is planned, and hardly by her. I don’t think she ever even thought, “Let me sit this Sunday and decide what I want to do in life.” I don’t think that moment came in her life. Or that moment she even wanted to have.
Team MM: Initially, even the thought of being with Vijay comes with parents’ approval.
VB: I’ve actually shot a scene of her with the father, asking if she could go with Vijay to eat Chinese food. They tell her to take Chintu along. And they’re happy that that’s the guy she’s going with and not someone else in college.
I remember, when I was in college, doing my management, almost every Saturday, the girls were going to see a boy their parents had found for her. They had to finish their MBA and get married. And they were also willingly going to see the guy and figure out which one of those guys they’ll go for. It’s a part of the system and you’re following it.
[At this point, we were interrupted with another visitor who works out in the same gym as Vikas Bahl. He goes to Watson Fitness, just FYI, if you were planning to spring a surprise audition ;)]
Team MM: I’m really interested in knowing your relationship with food and work.
VB: We used to sit every night, after the shoot was over, with the cook and decide what has to be cooked the next day, for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks, to the T, whether it’s roomali roti or tandoori roti, to that extent. I love cooking and I love eating. I think everything revolves around that. So, basically, we used to all step out to eat and drink and in between shoot a film. That’s how we found perfect locations at Paris and Amsterdam. And Delhi, again.
Team MM: So, did you eat the fish head shown in the film?
VB: In fact, they don’t eat fish head in Paris. They eat beef head. But I thought fish head was more. A beef head on the table would have been quite something. We spent a week finding the fish head. I wanted to put snails there. But it didn’t look so gory on camera. It was almost like I wanted to put a fish on the table that is looking at her and she is looking at the fish. They could have a conversation.
Team MM: (On that note, we speak about his next, Shandaar. Or at least I try to.) What do you mean by India’s first destination wedding film?
VB: I said it’s a destination wedding film. First has been added by others. You know how, nowadays all of us pack our bags to go to a wedding, that’s what it is. Basically, no one belongs to the place where the wedding is. So, it’s no one’s home, where two massive families are going.
Team MM: And, so for research, you’re attending weddings.
VB: Ya. And destinations. Anyone who wants to call me for a wedding, I’m available, and I get to eat!
Team MM: When you’re intensely working, is there a particular food that can distract you or throw you off?
VB: Lots of food can distract me but particularly, rajma chawal throws me off. In general, anyone says food is ready and I’m distracted.
Team MM: Let’s talk about the 5 things you need to know to be a director!
VB: I don’t know. Most importantly, you have to know that your film can be entertaining for 2 hours. There is no escape from entertainment when people walk into a theatre. It’s something worth spending 1 or 2 years of your life on. Finally, a director is just one person working on a film. You need to really collaborate and ask your team if they would want to spend time on this.
I also think every film has its own crew that it deserves and every crew has its own film that it gets, so it works both ways. I really sit and talk to people a lot. When you talk to them, you figure it’s something that is exciting them, something that is going in the right direction. I’m very happy people bouncing off my ideas or telling me it’s not working. A director is the guy who ensures the team performs. Personally, I look forward to working with young talent. The youngest person on this set was a girl called Vinati, from Delhi, who looked like she had been kidnapped.
On a serious note, even though I don’t have formal training, I think it is very important. I am totally dependent on my crew. I don’t know right of camera or left of camera. I go with what my chief A.D. tells me. My crew decides everything. I can just decide at the end of it, whether we got the scene or not. What lens to put, etc. I just know where to put the camera and what to ask the actors to do.
If I’ve gone off for lunch, they wouldn’t even miss me. They pretty much drive everything.
Personally, I’d like to have the cast in mind after I’ve written the story. Then, you start playing with the strengths and weaknesses of the actors. I like to have a bit of the casting in place, at the story stage, before you get into your final screenplay.
I also have a really good marketing team. I come from a marketing background, so for me, because I’ve done a lot of producing. So, when I hear a story, I at least know if the film has potential to be able to market or not. Thankfully, that I can figure two years before the film is made. Some films just don’t have the material to be marketed. It gets very difficult.
I think every director/producer is a marketing mind at some level. The name of a film is marketing. Every small thing is marketing at the end of it.
Team MM: We loved the the social media timeline at the end of Queen! Tell us more about it.
VB: It was the doing of our making guy. He didn’t know why he was making it. My D.A. Chaitali and him, Abhijeet put it together.
Random trivia: Kangana’s character uses Meswak toothpaste in the film because it’s the D.A.’s toothpaste.
Team MM: How are you going to deal with the expectations of you now, post Queen?
VB: I have no expectations of myself. I didn’t, before making Queen either. The good thing is, now people are watching the earlier film (Chillar Party) and talking about it. I’m okay. Let’s make a flop film. Finally, we’re making films only. It’s not like we’re flying planes. So, we’re okay.
Team MM: How do you work with the off-screen images of the actors who play characters in your films?
VB: You cast a person because of the character and you can pretty much leave everything behind. I think this confusion of a ‘star image’ and a ‘character image’, if in a film, you cannot transport from the actor to the character in the first 5 minutes, it’s a lost battle anyway. You can take the biggest actors and get into the character in the first 10 minutes. Unless, you’re saying your film is about the actor and not the character. If you’re making a Bodyguard, don’t get into the character.
Team MM: How is it going to work with Shahid Kapoor?
VB: I think he’s the best guy for the character I’ve written and I’m sure by the time we finish marketing the film, people would have forgotten everything he’s done or not done and then want to watch him like this. I think he’s a very good actor. I loved him in Kaminey. I’m, very excited to work with him and make him play that character.
(As are we! We’re looking forward to this destination wedding film. I’m going for one and Vikas pipes in that I should bring back stories. I couldn’t be more elated to contribute.)
Parting words from Vikas: I think we take life too seriously. Everyone’s assumed we’re living for 90 years to begin with. If we decide that we’re only living for today, and your plane is going missing tomorrow. Before you board that plane, I’m traumatised of flying, so I’m always living it up before boarding. I dunk a beer and then the bumps also become nice.
Vikas Bahl’s pix: Himani Shah for MissMalini | Queen stills: courtesy film’s PR