The Interview: Shakun Batra On Gehraiyaan, Layered Characters, And Storytelling
With a knack of bringing some of the most uncomfortable truths about human complexity on screen through compelling stories, film-maker Shakun Batra talks acceptance, connection, and always finding a way to speak his mind
One of my favourite scenes in a Shakun Batra film is from Kapoor & Sons, wherein Ratna Pathak Shah and Rajat Kapoor quarrel in front of a plumber. They just don’t care about their image in front of an outsider, and most families are like this and have witnessed something similar in their lives, including mine. Batra, with his keen observation, is able to showcase such glimpses of reality in his films. As the world waits with bated breath his new film. Gehraiyaan, the trailer of which has taken the internet by a storm, we sit down with the film-maker to talk about life’s messiness, the crossroads, and the journey of a film.
Gehraaiyaan’s trailer ends with the line, ‘Are we just messed up people? Haan Shayad.’ Do you also believe that?
I think we all go through various waves in our life. There is always a part of us that is messy. I think the word ‘messed up’ has a negative connotation, but I believe that we all are messed up somewhere, and we need to accept that. When you go through certain things, your messy side comes out. You can’t help it, and you start to accept it. So, everyone is on that spectrum, and everyone is messed up. It is just about accepting how messed up you are.
I read this tweet that said: How a Karan Johar film had ‘Pyaar dosti hai’, and you went ahead and made Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu. Then his movie had ‘It is all about loving your parents’, and you made Kapoor & Sons. His movie then had the theme of infidelity, and you made Gehraiyaan.
(Laughs) You are making it sound like I’m making anti-Dharma movies. You know, the funny thing is that Karan and I are interested in the same stories. I’m exploring similar themed stories that he did a decade before me. Both of our movies are set in a similar world, wherein characters deal with similar issues, milieus, friendships, infidelity, family, and unrequited love. It’s just that we made it at different points in time, and our points of view are very different. Our tones, perspectives, and pitches differ, which is also why Karan and I connect so well. We are often excited by the same idea, then I go and write, which is usually 180 degrees from what has been done before. Karan is always supportive, and makes sure that I continue to speak my mind. I never had any pressure to see it any other way.
You were supposed to shoot Gehraiyaan in Sri Lanka when the lockdown was announced. You did manage to shoot in the pandemic. Even the film’s release was postponed because your team tested positive.
I call Gehraiyaan my Covid baby. It was with me throughout the pandemic. We had to take special care of this one. It had its own challenges, be it the safety or the security. The schedules and locations were constantly changing. If I were to look back, Gehraiyaan was the best way we could have gotten through the pandemic. As a team, we were together. We were in a bubble; so we had a social life within the bubble, unlike people who were stuck at home. Yes, we were shooting in Goa, and it was challenging to wear PPE suits and face masks and shoot. But at the same time, we had friends, and we made some new friends. We had a beach in front of our hotel, we could go and take a walk in the evening there as it wasn’t very crowded.
You’ve a distinctive style of film-making. Is it deliberate?
The distinctive style comes from my point of view, and it is the only tool I possess that makes my story different as a storyteller. So many stories have been told already; what matters is how you tell them. It is imperative to have a point of view on the story I’m telling, the characters I’m exploring, and how I’m communicating it to the audience. I have never gone out to have a distinctive visual or dialogue style.
You have explored a specific relationship in each one of your films. It was about friendship in the first, family in the second, and romantic in the third. What intrigues you about these relationships?
What makes a relationship exciting is the dynamics or the intensity they possess. I’m interested in exploring interesting people, and not necessarily likeable people. It is more important to see people go through complexities. I don’t like oversimplified characters or oversimplified situations. I always put my characters into complex mental and emotional places to see their most authentic form. It will only happen when you push them up the wall or put them in a corner. I push them enough to peel off all the layers. I take the character to a point wherein I can understand the more significant questions at play. For instance, in Kapoor & Sons, we understood how fragile life is, how quickly things can turn around, and we all are running out of time, and have to mend our ways. I like to take characters to a place where it gives me an insight into bigger things, not just the character but insight into life and philosophy. It is so gratifying to do that as a writer and director.
Do you think any relationship is perfect?
I think you can have a deeply gratifying relationship. With humanity, the one thing we all rely upon is relationships. But we often box them into a very idealistic romanticised version, which is not always the case in reality. You are a very fortunate person if you fall in love with one person and spend the rest of your life with that person, and that is what we usually see in films. It is not necessarily the case with everyone. People go through messy relationships and bad heartbreaks, and at the same time, people go through very complex life situations. I want to be inclusive of those stories as well. I want to bring these stories or those characters into the mainstream. I think we are done with oversimplification. When we start to bring out the greys and not just simple black and white, it would really mean fresh takes and fresh stories.
Are the writer and director in you always on the same page?
The writing process on this one had constantly evolved. Ayesha Devitre Dhillon was with me from the word go. Then Sumit Roy joined us for the screenplay, and then Yash Sahai came in with Ayesha for dialogues. It was sometimes hard to juggle writing and directing, but they are the same job because you are the storyteller. I had a great set of people who have contributed so much. They made sure everything was prepared logistically, visually, and aesthetically. That’s why I could be the director and make the film. It can be tricky, but I’m learning to switch between a writer and a director. I feel it is not difficult, and I can juggle the two.
How do you look back at Finding Sheela now?
I grew up in a house where my parents were believers of Osho, and I totally see how that story has defined so many things for me. I wish I had done things differently on that project. That project took many unpredictable turns for me, but it is a story that is extremely close to my heart. We had a lot of ups and downs. The experiences that the project gave me will stick with me forever. It made me a better storyteller, and that, for me, is the real success of that project. I still want to tell this story in a fictional way, and hopefully, it will happen someday. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.