The Stree hitmaker’s recent release, Bhediya, is undoubtedly one of the most entertaining yet poignant films of 2022. Amar Kaushik, known for his funny bone, talks about the importance of sugarcoating bitter pills while attempting to hold a mirror to society, and the prospect of a Bhediya prequel.
My first introduction to Amar Kaushik was through a short film in Apatani called Aaba, about an orphan girl whose grandfather is battling the terminal stages of lung cancer. It was 2017. The 22-minute short, shot entirely in a remote village of Ziro with local people forming a large portion of the cast and the crew, was a heart-warming story rooted in the simple, daily life of the Apatani tribe of Arunachal Pradesh. It was Kaushik’s directorial debut, and won the Special Prize of Generation KPlus International Jury for Best Short Film at the 67th Berlin Film Festival. It was also the same year that the Rajkummar Rao-starrer Newton won the Art Cinema award in the Forum section of the festival.
One year later, I was watching Rao in Stree, a horror comedy that was also a commentary on patriarchy. The film was credited to one Amar Kaushik, the same Kaushik who made Aaba. He seemed to be a shapeshifter. “I love to be a shapeshifter. It might backfire someday, but I love to dabble in different genres. That, for me, is the fun of making movies,” chuckles Kaushik, as we sit for this interview. He had picked up the Best Debut Director Filmfare that year.
Excerpts from a freewheeling chat with the filmmaker:
While Aaba had minimal dialogues, all your feature films since then — Stree, Bala, and Bhediya — are especially known for the quirky conversations among characters. In fact, your debut short is so different from the movies you did afterward that it almost seems like the works of two separate directors. Which one is the real you?
Dialogues are very important in comedy. But, after making four films, I can tell you that I am not someone who is here to make a particular kind of film. We go through all sorts of emotions and they are expressed depending on the situation, I want my films to be like that. I think when you start a movie with a particular genre in mind, you thwart the story’s organic development by confining it inside a box.
Talking about genres, people expected Bhediya to be a horror comedy. But it hardly had any scary moments.
Well, I never claimed it to be a horror comedy. People assumed it would be one because I am the person who had made Stree. It is not a horror universe I am trying to create. If you have to put it in a genre, it can be called a creature comedy. Animals, unlike ghosts, can scare you, but they seldom evoke horror. Also, if I attempted horror with this one, I would have alienated the kids, and they formed a big chunk of my target audience. I didn’t want to show too much blood and gore — which is a much easier way to create an impact — and hence stayed away from showing the actual murders directly on the screen. Comedy is a part of me, and my movies will always have some elements of comedy. Also, I prefer comedy because through it, you can talk about serious things without hurting anyone’s feelings. I want my films to hold a mirror to the society without being preachy. I want to talk about real issues in my films. But in the mainstream, you can’t make a film like Aaba. And I am very okay with the things that one needs to do to make a commercial Bollywood movie.
Bhediya has such a poignant subtext. Did the cause come first, or the comedy?
Bhediya was initially just a comedy movie about a boy getting bitten by a wolf and turning into a werewolf. But I wanted to push the envelope, and thought of bringing in animals and showing their emotions. Then the idea of making it a creature comedy started to develop. Then, we decided to talk about urbanisation, deforestation, and its impact on animals. It is something I feel very deeply about. I had spent my childhood amid the forests of Arunachal; my father was a forest ranger there. Forest has always been a part of me. And when we shifted to Kanpur, the ‘forest’ became confined to flower pots; I missed that forest so much that it became an even more significant part of me. I saw the potential of talking about saving the forests through this story. It is then that Bhediya became a story of animals protecting the forest and since they can’t keep protecting it forever, they will hand over the responsibility to the humans; and the forest will give them the energy to save them. In its first draft, it was just a simple comedy.
There is a sudden interest in creating MCU-like universes in Bollywood. We have already seen characters from one Rohit Shetty movie popping into another. What made you to introduce a character from Stree in Bhediya?
It came organically. I love my characters, and I don’t want them to die with the film. I want them to live on, I want to know what happened to them after we left them in a particular film, and you will see my characters travel from one movie to another. When we made Stree, we had this in our minds that we can do more with these beautiful characters; we were not done with their stories. There was a possibility of extending their universe. But we didn’t want to rush into a sequel. I want to bring back Pari Mishra of Bala in some movie. Even Panda can have his own story. Let me reveal a secret here, we also had an elaborate backstory of Anika (Kriti Sanon’s character) in Bhediya, which we couldn’t use because we had to build the suspense. We had shot scenes that we had to chop out. So, after the Stree sequel, there might just be a prequel to Bhediya coming up, where the scene where Bhaskar gets bitten by the wolf would be the last scene (chuckles).
What can you tell us about Stree 2? Why a sequel?
After Stree was released, there was a lot of pressure from the audience to make Stree 2. I thought people will eventually move on, but even after a year, they were asking me about the sequel. I was still apprehensive. I knew that there will be the expectation to match the first. The hype was so much that I had to give it a thought. But I wanted the story to happen organically. So, I took the time. In between, I made Bhediya. Now, four years and two more films later, I feel that I can do another Stree with a fresh mind.
Horror comedy is becoming your signature. What, according to you, are the five crucial elements that make a good horror comedy?
Four years from now, if I am still making movies, I will give you the answer to this. I don’t want to give out the ingredients of my recipe yet; let me hold on to it for a few years (laughs). But if you want to make a horror comedy, I would suggest, you find your own set of ingredients and make your own horror comedy instead of copying anyone or any film. Do it with honesty and for the right reason, and not milk something because it is working in the market.