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A 21-year-old Oxford student, whose debut novel is a fantasy about a young clairvoyant in a dystopian world, is being touted as the next JK Rowling.
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A pithy play can be a satisfying theatre experience as the growing popularity of the Short + Sweet Festival proves.
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Of Bhopali patakhas and Lucknow's mangoes
Why did you choose a small-town setting for Ishaqzaade?
It's set in a fictitious town called Almore. I chose a small town because I find more colour and vibrancy there. In a country like ours, there are two realities - one is a filmic reality, which is bigger than a myth, and then there's our own reality. Over the years, falling in love and that love being accepted is taken for granted. But we all know that it's a reality for a very small percentage of people in this country. For most regular guys, love is taboo and I'm not talking about caste, religion or creed issues here. Being in love becomes a crime in itself. So the film's story is about those who are able to stand by their love, protect it and nurture it.
The title is very interesting.
Yes it's a very zameeni (colloquial) title. The very being of these two protagonists defines love - Ishaq. I see them as love's offspring, hence, Ishaqzaade. Earlier we didn't have a title as such. We'd gotten into pre-production, recce and casting had happened but we didn't have a title. So Kausar Munir, who's written the songs for the film, was working on "Jhalla Wallah" - the mujra song - and I was explaining to her the attitude of these lovers. I told her that they were like haraamzaade. So then she said "haraamzaade na ho gaye Ishaqzaade". That word got stuck in my head. She wrote a couplet, Ishaqzaade hai jitney fasaano mein, milte hai kahan ab jahano mein (Lovers are found in stories and not in real life). That's how the love story got its title.
Who did you model your protagonists on?
They are from present day, post-internet small-town India which has got this new funk and is no longer saying "chalo Dilli, Mumbai or Kolkata". Now if you go to Indore, Bhopal or Kanpur, they don't want Delhi, Mumbai or Kolkata anymore. They have bigger malls than Mumbai can have. Consumerism apart, there are opportunities with internet and all. So now there is this akad (attitude). They don't suffer from this 'we are second to a bigger city' syndrome and that's the attitude of my protagonists who love Almore. They don't want to leave the town and that pretty much defines their love.
After my recce of Lucknow, I incorporated all its little nuances in the film - like the people, the sounds that you hear, the food etc. Lucknow is a great place for food and mangoes, so my second draft included mangoes, which are dished out by Parineeti. Also food is a very important aspect of my films like the butter chicken and paranthas of the Duggals from Delhi's Lajpat Nagar in Do Dooni. . . There was this person Avneesh Yadav who drove me around in Lucknow and within five minutes of meeting, I knew this is the person Arjun must meet and if he nailed him, his body language etc, I'd have got my Parma - the hero. That's what I eventually did.
So is cinema going local with new writing today using a lot of local flavour?
Yes, cinema today is all about these little nuances. For example when Ranveer Singh uses the word kand for the love-making scene between him and Anoushka Sharma in Band Baja Baraat, the entire cinema hall was in splits. This was Gaiety, single screen with a primarily Marathi speaking audience. When they could relate to the nuance of that word, imagine the impact of it all India. When Jab We Met was released, half of India was speaking Punjabi. Similarly, Santosh Duggal has a lot to do with my father, the educationist. Parineeti's character is set on the patakha girls that I've seen a lot of in Bhopal. They go around driving village jeeps;they go on shikars, especially girls with some kind of nawabi (royal) blood. They are very well educated. They can speak like Bhopalans as well as break into very polished English.
Other filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap, Imtiaz Ali etc are all bringing in sensibilities of their towns, stories, their education. . .
Earlier everybody used to think that we need to make pan-India films. But what is being proved is that the more culture specific you are, the more universal you become. Paan Singh Tomar saw all of Mumbai getting the Morena accent. So now no one is scared of cultural specificities. It's a great time for cinema.
How did you make the transition from journalism to cinema?
Actually being a newsperson was a diversion and also it wasn't as if that as a five-year-old watching 'Chitrahaar', I thought that one day I will get into films! I was actually studying to become a doctor in my 12th standard. And I flunked all the exams, not deliberately but unintentionally. But I really wanted to become a doctor because I had this fantasy to become a doctor in AFMC - to wear the army uniform and wear polished shoes etc and state that I'm an army doctor.
Where was all this coming from?
Well I guess my middle-class upbringing. My elder brother had got into IIT. So he was the role model. My dad was an educationist so achievement was measured in terms of excellence in academics. And here I was flunking left, right and centre. So I joined BSc Zoology in Kirori Mal College to prepare and take the exams again. And one month into the course, I was walking down the corridor and there was a poster asking for auditions for a play. So I walked in for that and I was chosen to play the lead. It was Harold Pinter's play, A Night Out. And then everything changed. Even then, it wasn't about films. I wanted to do theatre badly at that time. So I switched from Zoology to English Literature and hats off to my parents for letting me do it in spite of their middle-class insecurities. The only English reading I'd done till then was James Hadley Chase, Nick Carter and Alistair MacLean. Robert Ludlum was literature for me. But my teachers didn't discourage me. After three years of English literature, I went to Jamia Millia Islamia for Mass Communication where the excitement of putting two shots together and editing them finally got me interested in the visual medium.
Was it risky to come out with a seemingly simple story such as Do Dooni Chaar, delving on everyday life, as your first film?
Actually, when you're doing your first film then nothing is a risk. And in my case, I had been writing and I knew that in case it bombs then I can always go back to writing. I've always been very excited about writing and have continued to do so for others. Even now I'm in the process of finishing a script. And if nothing works I can go back to my camera work. So I've always had my fallbacks - plan A and plan B.
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