Director R Balki’s Unconventional Stories and Powerhouse Performances
R Balki has a penchant for making unusual films, with the uncanny ability of remaining a part of the mainstream film industry even though his films are uncommon stories. While he doesn’t pander to the Hindi-speaking street audience, his urban stories resonate with universal emotions, making him well-loved even with middle class movie goers. As a director and writer, Ki and Ka is his fourth film, and his first without Amitabh Bachchan (though he has a cameo). Though consciously trying to stay away from being preachy, most of Balki’s films have always questioned social mores and tried to sensitise audiences towards certain societal issues. While his debut, Cheeni Kum, was about the age gap in Indian romances and the judgement unmarried women over a certain age face, Paa dealt with single motherhood and society’s approach towards differently-abled children and adults.
With Ki and Ka, he is attacking gender identity head on, waging a subtle war on stereotypes and introducing a healthier mindset. He does not have the air of an activist, though, and his approach does not have the highhandedness of “art cinema”; like Raju Hirani, he has been able to establish the fact that commercial cinema can also be intelligent and compelling. A successful ad-man for years — He is the CEO of Lowe Lintas India, one of India’s biggest ad agencies — Balki brings the rigour of ad-making to his films — brevity, novel narratives, crisp dialogue and an intelligent use of music. While he did seem to lose his way with Shamitabh (which came across as a propaganda project for Senior Bachchan), Ki and Ka is something that comes very easily to him — an intimate story told casually, minus celluloid frills.
To start with, according to you, what is cinema’s responsibility in today’s society?
To entertain, engage and involve. To make the two hours worthwhile for the audience. That is the fundamental responsibility. Everything else is secondary, according to me.
Could you define “entertainment” for me? In this country, that is such a subjective term.
Entertainment need not mean to lose yourself completely. Entertainment could mean connecting with characters, to laugh, to think… it depends on how the film is able to engage with the audience. In this country, we confuse entertainment with masala films but for me, anything that has the power to engage is entertaining.
How do you decide upon your target audience, then?
I have never understood what that is, you know. I don’t know my audience. Even in advertising, I have never made an ad keeping the audience in mind. I always write for myself, because I believe that you are like a lot of people, and mostly, chances are that all of you like the same thing. It is impossible to fathom the target audience, and I never believe anyone who says they understand it. I think they understand themselves really well, and understand the core audience and more people than other film or ad makers. That is why ‘successful’ and ‘unsuccessful’ is also subjective. Unsuccessful film makers are not necessarily bad. They just don’t have enough takers, that’s all.
You are a successful ad man too. Tell me this: what does advertising add on that, say, a film school does not?
I write ads, I visualise, I think of ways to sell. I believe everything is about discipline and communication. It is about the way the lateral thought travels. Advertising and feature film making are, at the core of it, a problem, or puzzle solving exercise. It is like a jigsaw. You have a story. How do you weave it into a narrative?
Do you remember your first ad campaign?
Oh yes! I was working at Mudra then. I was sitting in a corner and had to come up with something for a new shaving foam. I had no idea what advertising was all about, and I said, listen, this shaving foam is damn good if it can make me shave (I always had a beard). So, I said, let me make a song about not shaving, and then a hand can come and foam my beard and make me stutter and slowly change my mind. It was great fun. I thought I had figured out everything about advertising. It is all about convincing another person about the idea and the thought.
What made you venture into feature film making?
I have always loved cinema. I watch everything. I actually got into ads thinking it was a feature film making company. I used to watch Buniyaad, the TV show, and at the end there would be the Mudra logo. And I thought it was Ramesh Sippy’s company. One day, an ad appeared from Mudra in the papers for writers or something. I just knew it was Ramesh Sippy’s company and I applied. I wanted to meet him. But then I got addicted to the business of advertising and finally met him 14 years later (laughs). Both advertising and film making are about telling stories. In advertising it is about making people feel favourable towards a thought or product and in films, it is to engage people to the stories.
How do you strike a balance between advertising and film-making?
It is easier now, of course. I have a fantastic team in place in Lowe Lintas and that is why I am not required to come in everyday or be there all the time.
What drives you to make films with such offbeat plotlines?
I don’t think they are obeat. See, making a film is a very painful process. If you are going to be spending two years on one project, there has to be some motivation. For me, there has to be some original thought that makes those two years worth it. That thought is the driving force. Is it different in my circle, my space? Because, at the end of the day, nothing is original in this world. Somebody has lived that life or someone has written a poem on it.
Ki and Ka is possibly your simplest film.
It is a happy, light film, yes, with depth, of course, that is generally unseen in our mainstream space. It was the easiest film to execute to date, I would say. I wanted to do a romantic love story post-marriage. And our country is very narrow minded about gender roles. So, this film basically became about gender role reversal, and that is why I selected a hunk of an actor like Arjun [Kapoor], who was a revelation for me. I was amazed by Kareena, and I think she is a phenomenal, spontaneous talent. She is so fuss-free, non-intellectual, yet she is as good as the so called “masters of acting”.
Do you watch your own films?
Not at all. I am so embarrassed. It is like seeing yourself in the mirror. I think I am grotesque and I am often scared by my reflection. Whenever I am about to see my work, I might say to myself that “You are a genius” but the moment I see the first shot, I know I am nothing but the scum of the earth. The joy of telling stories motivates me to keep making films. I love writing. I just wish there was a magical device that could immediately transform my writing into a film.