In the Beginning There is an Opening Scene

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After Aamir and No One Killed Jessica, Raj Kumar Gupta’s third film, Ghanchakkar, is going to hit the screens in June. While the earlier films were hard-hitting gritty fares, Ghanchakkar is a darkly humorous, quirky entertainer. Gupta speaks about realism, changing genres, working style, creative process and his evolution as a filmmaker

Q Your films have never been commercial, but they still cater to a mass market. How do you walk that line? Does realism enhance your filmmaking?

A Yeah, we live in a real world, and the stories that you tell are based in that real world. Stories are about people, people live in a society. We don’t live in isolation. So obviously, when I’m writing a film, I’d like to make one that is based in this world, where people and circumstances look and feel real. The milieu of the film should be real or at least close to real. Thus a certain kind of connection, a certain kind of authenticity, and a certain kind of energy are brought to screen. As far as the commercial aspect of films goes, I try to make good films. I don’t necessarily think of how it would work with an audience. Of course we all make films for an audience and we all want as much of an audience as possible. I’m one of those filmmakers who try to get that balance right. That’s my process. I don’t think there’s a formula to it or that I consciously try and do something to make a scene in a particular way; it just comes naturally. You’re right in observing that I try to bring in a certain kind of authenticity and a certain kind of credibility to the characters, as well as cater to the audience. It happens quite naturally, there’s no formula to it.

Q What are your earliest memories of film? At what point did you realise that this was your calling?

A There was never a calling in that sense. I never really wanted to become a filmmaker. My interest level in films was to the point that I enjoyed going and watching films—they were a source of entertainment. I didn’t know what I wanted to do until graduation, but I was inclined towards creative writing. That’s really what brought me to this city, Mumbai. Even at that point, I was not sure about the direction I wanted to take with my career. By then I was sure I didn’t want to get into a 9 to 5 kind of job space.

Here, I did a diploma in Film and Television from St Xavier’s. After that I started working as an intern, did a television show as an associate. Then I worked on two films as associate director, Black Friday and No Smoking. But simultaneously, the writing process continued, even while I was working with Anurag [Kashyap].

But those were desperate times. Somewhere down the line when I was writing, I was approached by a friend who was doing a television show, so to survive, I started writing for television. I wrote a couple of episodes, and that gave me some money to survive. But simultaneously, I kept writing film scripts.

That’s how I finished writing my first script, Aamir, in 2006 and we made the film in 2007. That was the journey for me. So even though my interest in film started out as being inclined towards creative writing, one thing lead to another and filmmaking just happened. It wasn’t like I wanted to be a filmmaker since I was born. It just happened.

Q Tell us a little about your working style and your creative process? How does it begin?

A It begins with a story idea. For me personally, it begins with an opening. If I’m writing a script, I get the very first scene of my film. It’s about the beginning scene and where it takes me from there. So when I start writing, I don’t know what the beginning will be, or what the middle will be or what the end will be. I just know the opening. I start writing and see where the script takes me. Once the script is done, I begin gauging it to see whether it is what I want to make and whether I feel the same way about it as I did when I started. That’s when I decide whether I’m doing this film or not. Then the casting begins. That’s how it works. We put the cast together, decide on dates and so on. It just kind of evolves on its own, it’s not planned. I don’t think you can plan anything in this industry.

Q How were you received by the industry after Aamir? What changes do you see in yourself since then?

A I don’t know really. I think the more work you do, the more you try to hone your craft. After Aamir, when I did No One Killed Jessica, I think there was a sense of maturity in terms of handling of affairs. Ghanchakkar, as a director, is a space I’ve not explored. It’s black humour, a quirky comedy. So, as a director, I’m feeling much more open about subjects. And in the case of Aamir and No One Killed Jessica, I directed my own material. I co-wrote Ghanchakkar with another writer, who brought the idea to the table. So as a director, your thinking becomes broader, your approach to en you realise what your characters will be like and what their journey will be. When the screenplay was ready, that’s when I knew I wanted to do the film. It was space I hadn’t explored, and as a filmmaker you always want to try new and different things. What’s the fun of doing the same thing you have done over and over again?

Q Both Aamir and No One Killed Jessica were well received. Do you think that you’ll score a hat-trick?

A Of course I would love it if the audience receives it well. As I said before, we all make films for an audience. You don’t make a film for your friends; you make it for the audience. However, I don’t think I keep the audience in mind when I do that. You don’t know what an audience will like and what it won’t. Everyone has different opinions about different things and there is no way to judge that or predetermine what reactions you’re going to get. The best you can do is what you’re convinced about. But there’s no doubt that your viewers are the most important variable in terms of filmmaking.

As far as my third film goes, I would love it if audiences loved my film. I’m looking forward to the release.

Q Tell us about the casting process. Why did you think Emraan Hashmi and Vidya Balan were right for the part?

A The casting process is a tricky one. Either you can write a particular part with a particular actor in mind, or you can go about writing a screenplay and figuring out the cast later. I prefer the latter. I write the screenplay or script first and then I try to see who would suit the character the best. In the case of Aamir, I felt that a newcomer, a new face, would have suited that character, so that’s how we casted for that role. In No One Killed Jessica, we needed a star to portray a character that needed to be larger than life. For me, Aamir was not about a larger than life character, while No One Killed Jessica was.

This film [Ghanchakkar] is about characters that are believable. I’ve worked with Vidya before and I knew she would suit this character the best. This character has a lot of layers to it and I felt that nobody else I have worked with or know of could have portrayed her better than Vidya. She’s one of the finest actors in the industry.

As far as Emraan goes, I hadn’t worked or interacted with him before. But from what I had seen of him in his films or in his interviews, I saw a man that was an enigma. He has this mystery to him. At the same time, he’s very cocky and you’re unsure of what he’s thinking or what he’ll do. And my character is exactly like that. You can’t make up your mind whether you believe him or if you’re sure of him or not. And I think he suited the character the best.

They both loved the script and wanted to do the film. And they too hadn’t explored this comic genre before. They didn’t want to do the usual in-your-face, below-the-belt kind of comedy. And I think it’s because it was a new space for all of us that we came together so well.

Q Do you think you’ve set a standard for yourself that you have to meet with this film?

A As I said, I believe in making good films. That’s what I would like to stick with. The moment I start gauging with the notion of setting a standard, I don’t think that’s the right way to do things. What are the parameters to decide what the standard of a film is really? I feel like I have done good work, and I want to keep up that good work. I’m glad people are appreciating it and accepting and encouraging my voice, but I don’t want to set a standard. I want to keep making good films, different films, and yet very relatable films. Ghanchakkar is also very different, yet relatable; it looks like it belongs to this world. I’m waiting to see the audience’s reactions to this comic space and to the characters. I’m really looking forward to it.