The Interview: Vasal Bala Talks About Ray, Harsh Varrdhan Kapoor And His Future Projects
It may have taken him a film festival hit and some more years to finally come to the forefront of film-making, but with his unique creative process and zest for the reel, writer-director Vasan Bala has arrived
‘Try, try, and try again until you succeed’. This adage summarises the career trajectory of the talented writer-director, Vasan Bala. His first film, Peddlers, screened at Cannes in 2012, and received a fantastic response. The film never saw the light of the day in India, even though a huge production-distribution company bought its rights. After a long wait of eight years, he made his second film, Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota, and people finally sat up and took notice. His segment in Ray, Netflix’s anthology based on Satyajit Ray’s stories, received mixed reviews. He was still working on the superhero film titled Phantom. Currently, he is working on his next film, starring Rajkumar Rao, Huma Qureshi and Radhika Apte, and is quite in an unstoppable mood.
If you had to describe a Kafkaesque moment in your career, what would that be?
It was an eight-year-long Kafkaesque moment when Peddlers screened at Cannes in 2012. I thought I’m going to be making films and for many years I couldn’t. I hope our current conversation with Eros will be very fruitful in securing the film’s release.
You’ve had long breaks in your directorial career. How did you keep going in those times?
It is challenging because there are so many developed scripts in between, but you get to make it when you are on a roll. I don’t know how it works, but I can assure you it is not because I wanted to take a break, or for lack of trying. I’ve always been at it, but the conversion hasn’t happened. I also hope that I enter the mad phase soon where I just keep shooting. This pandemic has also been one more forceful break, but I hope we can tide over this and unleash ourselves.
Your segment in Ray received mixed reviews. How do you feel about that?
Making Spotlight was extremely fulfilling. If given a chance, I’ll probably make it exactly the same way again. It was fun reading the columns. I think these kinds of attempts should be polarising. It was not an all-pleasing film anyways. Unanimous love is excellent, but polarising is also not bad at all. I loved the whole experience because people who have known me for 15 years hated the film, and people who don’t know me at all loved the movie. So, it has been an interesting response and reaction from friends, acquaintances, and people whose work I admire. I also liked that some people were disappointed, which means they have expectations, which is nice.
What makes Ray so relevant that film-makers choose to tell his stories even today?
People associated with cinema and literature, including me, know that Satyajit Ray’s stories are about the human psyche. The human psyche is always relevant. Our joys, anger, and rage remain the same. So, you can read any story by Ray and place it in any milieu, and the drama will hold. One will only need to make cosmetic changes to place the story in the past or present, but the conflict will always hold true and resonate. I always wanted to make a movie about people in the movies. So, when it came to choosing my story in the anthology, I chose the Spotlight story to adapt to modern times.
And you got Rajeev Masand to make an appearance in the film.
Incidentally, that was the last review he recorded. Back then, I didn’t know he was quitting his job. I couldn’t catch the reason behind his urgency to ask me; When do you need it? He recorded it, sent it, and said this was his last.
What made you choose Harsh Varrdhan Kapoor for Ray?
I’ve known him for a while. I’ve seen his movies. Not many people know that he was also an AD on Bombay Velvet. He seemed extremely passionate about films and is an affable guy. He has a very interesting take on things. Everyone attached to the project reacted positively when his name came up. He said yes to the project before we completed the film script.
Speaking of Bombay Velvet, you were a part of the Anurag Kashyap camp. What equation do you share with him now?
We still share a great rapport. I would love Kashyap to watch my films, and I’d be disappointed if he doesn’t like them. There is some sort of approval that I will always seek from him. He built an ecosystem for all of us, put us together, and accommodated so many varying people.
Besides being a writer and a director, you are also active in the advertising industry. Your Surf Excel Ads have become the talk of the town. How was that experience?
It is funny that when the feature format of Surf Excel ads was being discussed five or six years ago, I didn’t know that I was tailor made for a format like this. But it was Carlos Pereira, the man who conceptualised the ads. He had more faith in me than I had in myself. I told him this is not my zone, but he said, you should do it, and when I did, I realised that I love this expression.
Any plans of making a Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota sequel?
I had a few ideas. Maybe if I make Phantom and if it’s a big hit, I will get to make the Mard Ko Dard Nahin Hota sequel.
Speaking of, what is the status of the film Phantom?
We are still writing the film. I’m collaborating with Niren Bhatt, who also wrote Spotlight with me. We should be completing it soon. It has taken a while to complete the project as it is an origin story. It is a one-of-a-kind superhero. So, it is a big responsibility and a huge deal.
You have already begun shooting for your next film, Monica, O My Darling. How did this project come together?
Sanjay Routray of Matchbox Productions had approached me a couple of years ago, and we had been in touch ever since. This is one script that I had loved. Yogesh Chandekar has written the screenplay for the film.
Prerna Saigal is an accomplished editor, and your wife. How different is it working with your spouse?
She is an equal collaborator, and it’s been fun. I always seek her approval. I’ve shot a scene, and if she makes a face, and I go ‘have I gone right or am I going wrong?’ She gives me a reality check. She keeps me grounded all the time. While making the film, we have our arguments like any good director and editor need to have. Prerna knows film-making means a lot to me. We collaborate to make the film better.
Have your movie choices changed post your daughter’s birth?
There has been a significant consideration that she should be able to watch whatever I make, probably sooner than later. It does lay on my mind.
There has been an ongoing battle waged by writers for not getting credits. What is your take on it?
It is important because it’s a director’s and a writer’s journey from the beginning to the end. Many people come, do their jobs, and leave. But the writer comes at a point when the film may or may not be greenlit. The writer puts in their effort, without knowing whether this will be completed or not, payment aside. The writer is part of the genesis, and the whole creation process. So, credit must be given. There is no reason to hide who a writer is, it should be in big fonts, and it should be there right with the director. There is no doubt in my mind. It 100 per cent needs to be there, in all glory.
Are you interested in making a web series or do you want to stick to features? Where do your priorities lie right now?
I have been trying to avoid six to eight-episode long-format series. I’ve not wrapped my mind around how to go about it. But I think sooner or later, I will have to get into it because, you know, it looks like a natural progression. For now, I’d really love to make films.