With a bagful of accolades and critical acclaim, Mehta’s second innings is the stuff of film-makers’ dreams — and with Simran being the talk of the town, he has no plans of slowing down.
Everybody knows every juicy detail about the Simran controversy, which blew up online a month ago. A lot of mud-slinging and dirty linen -washing took place on social media, with a Rashomon-esque situation leaving everyone quite confused. Hansal Mehta, on the other hand, was quietly shooting in a village in West Bengal through all of this. “I am not even on Facebook, it’s too much,” he tells me, as we sit down in his plush office for a chat (and some really great coffee). Mehta refuses to delve into the subject much, a stand I personally appreciate. In a time when all it takes is one Facebook post to start a storm of uncorroborated slander, film professionals (and politicians) should not befriend journalists. Our closest friends should not be the media, just so that we can threaten others with outing our beef in public.
Every situation turns into a social media trial these days. Are you angry about how the whole Simran-Kangana-Apurva controversy played out online?
What is important is what is right and wrong for me. That is all that matters. See, I am quite seasoned and it doesn’t affect me. I am very focussed. I am here to make films, and that is all I will do. My focus is on Simran, and that is all I am going to do. It is a very special film and it needs a lot of love and attention. That is why I have chosen to not speak about this incident, and I won’t in the future either. Whatever I feel will go with me to my grave. And this is not one stray incident, this has happened in the past. It is a part of making films, because it is all about passionate people coming together, and passions can run high. For me Simran, and making sure that it gets all my love, is all that matters.
On a personal level, what are the realisations you have had after this incident?
See, I really don’t want to dwell much on it. It is very personal, and it will just lead to opening up a Pandora’s Box, which I don’t want to. Everybody should prosper, and everybody should be happy. That’s all I want.
Were you affected, personally?
OK, that says a lot. Let’s talk about your films now. While they might not be style-heavy, they depend completely on the narrative. What attracts you to a story?
I am attracted to film-making because of stories. Characters and stories drive my passion to make films. So, for me that is paramount. And it has taken time for me to realise that. In an artist’s life, recognising what you want is crucial. Sometimes, I am envious of new filmmakers, like Chaitanya Tamhane, Amit Masurkar and Neeraj Ghaywan, when I see that they’ve had that clarity from the time they have begun. I have taken time to come to that understanding that I am driven by stories. So, my life post-Shahid has been about the stories I want to tell. So, the craft is the means to tell the story. And the biggest tool I have are the actors who play out my stories.
I am glad you brought up how important actors are. Kangana Ranaut is the first mainstream movie star you have worked with, and we hear a lot about how difficult she can be. What was your experience with her?
I enjoyed the process. With every actor, you build a process. It is a constant give and take, you devise a process based on the person you are directing. With Raj [Rajkummar Rao], we have a process based on an understanding we have of each other. There is a personal relationship, and we have had the time to build that and through Shahid, we built a process around that relationship. With Manoj (Bajpai), it is completely different. He wanted to be left alone to discover the character and show me his interpretation on set.
Kangana is an intense person – very professional, very focussed – and the celebrity status does not affect her professionalism and her dedication to the craft of film-making. There is always an adjustment process when you are working with someone for the first time, and we did that, and we found our comfortable, happy space. We have reached a point where now I have been calling her to discuss other stories and scripts. She discusses her scripts with me. There is a lot of mutual respect as artists. Now I want to make more films with her, because there is so much she has to give as an actor. I am excited by her as an actor. The way she has moulded the script, by contributing to the dialogues and the story, she has added a lot of value to the film.
Of all the actors you have worked with, who (and which film) has been the most memorable experience?
Every film has been memorable, you know, but I must say that Shahid will always remain very special, because it gave me a new lease of life. I was dead before that. I was very indifferent to what I was doing. I was only focussing on the craft. And that is coma. Because when the craft takes over an entire narrative, you are not a film-maker, you are a technician. That life, and new energy, that Shahid gave me is priceless.
You had a terrible slump in your career, and you are enjoying a wonderful run now. Is there a fear in you that there might be a dip in the curve again?
That fear got me to make a lot of the films I should not have made. What I discovered with Shahid is that, as long as I am honest and dedicated to the film I am making, nothing else matters. Shahid has made me fearless. The worst thing that can happen is very beautiful. The time that I spend not making films, being with my family, rekindling my love for cooking, my wife and I keep talking about how lovely it was. That fear will not bog me down any more. I have to make my films fearlessly.
What made your partnership with Apurva Asrani work?
I think both of us have similar wavelengths, he understood me. It is like the relationship I share with Rajkummar. And I will always cherish that. It is a very special relationship, and it will always remain special. That relationship has given birth to something as special as Aligarh.
In recent times, which would you say are the best written Indian films?
I loved the way Masaan was written. I don’t know how much of the written word has translated into the film, but eventually what I saw was beautiful. I found Thithi remarkable. Queen was special. Dil Chahta Hai was extremely well written, except the climax maybe. It changed a lot of things for our cinema. I think the mainstream space went through a lot of changes after Dil Chahta Hai and Satya.
Of your contemporaries, whose work do you admire?
I really admire Nagraj Manjule, and I think his work is spectacular. I like the audacity in Anurag’s [Kashyap] work. I enjoy Vikramaditya Motwane’s work. There is a quality of delicacy he brings in, even in something as hard as Trapped. I have been a big Dibakar Banerjee fan. I look forward to what Ritesh Batra, Ashim Ahluwalia and Anand Gandhi are going to make.
What’s the last film you saw and loved?
The Salesman, by Asghar Farhadi.
And the last film you saw and hated?
(Laughs) As a film watcher I am very forgiving. Everybody thinks there is some wicked satire in this, but I enjoyed Sajid Khan’s Himmatwala. I laughed and I am unapologetic about it. I don’t remember hating anything because I don’t watch something I think I would hate. Having said that, I recently saw Allied, and I had a lot of expectations from the film, and I hated it. I thought I had wasted my time.