Reema Kagti, the 40-year-old director of Aamir Khan’s upcoming Talaash, is a picture of calm when confronted with questions of her so-called ‘difficult’ working relationship with the actor. Tabloids have it that Khan, who has been accused in the past of ‘interference’ and ‘ghost direction’, squared off with her routinely through the 90 days of filming. Kagti, a strikingly skinny lady who sports a close-crop, says right off the bat that there were no ‘creative differences’. And certainly no fiery ‘showdowns’.
“Not everything you hear about Aamir is true,” she says, obliquely referring to ‘rumours’ that much of the film had to be re-shot on his insistence, and that, according to one Mumbai Mirror report, he ‘sat for the edit of the trailer and saw to it that his vision for Talaash was retained.’
On the contrary, Khan is the sort of actor who “goes out of his way to put you at ease”. Impressed by his dedication, she says, “He doesn’t behave like a star. He is very low maintenance and hangs out on the sets, doing his own thing. He is 100 per cent there. Maybe his involvement gets misconstrued as interference.” She adds that it is largely a myth that stars throw their weight around. “Aamir is the most chilled-out actor any director can ask for. There were times when we needed him just for 45 minutes in the entire day and my [assistant directors] would schedule his shot at 3 am. But he never complained. Every time we needed him at such odd hours, he was there. It only proves his enthusiasm for his character and for his film,” says Kagti, who started off assisting Kaizad Gustad on his 1998 indie film Bombay Boys.
A crime thriller that also has Kareena Kapoor, Rani Mukerji and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Talaash has been a subject of much media speculation since it was announced. To begin with, the role was apparently first offered to Shah Rukh Khan. When Aamir was posed this question at Talaash’s music launch event, he laughed it off: “I didn’t know about it. Even for my other films, I have no idea who they are offered to first before they come to me. But the next time someone offers me a film, I will include this question.”
The director is disturbed by the culture of gossip and hearsay that she feels drives India’s film press. “Why should everything be about gossip—and about who you went to before a particular actor said ‘yes’ to your script? How does it matter?”
Coming to Aamir, nothing has changed in their personal relationship since she first came to know him during Lagaan and Dil Chahta Hai, on which she was an assistant director. It was the kind of relationship that any AD would share with a star. “Aamir himself was an AD before he became an actor. So, he understands the process of filmmaking better than most actors. As for my equation with him, well, let’s put it this way; when you get to know a star when you are a second AD, the relationship is such that you became frenemies. Not exactly a friend, or an enemy, but something in the middle. During Talaash, I found it easy to slip into the role of a director, but otherwise with Aamir, it has always been like it was during the Lagaan and Dil Chahta Hai days. I am his frenemy No. 1,” she chuckles.
Talaash, in which Khan plays a cop pursuing a mysterious case, is Kagti’s second film after Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd., an ensemble comedy about half a dozen honeymooning couples travelling in a bus.
Unlike Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd., Talaash’s treatment is realistic. It called for a great deal of legwork and research. To get the mise-en-scène right, they sought the help of Amitabh Gupta, a top cop of Mumbai. “We wanted to get Aamir’s wardrobe right, his lifestyle and his work schedule had to be drawn up. Mr Gupta was very helpful. He let different people come to him for all sorts of small things—like, say, the production designer who had to survey the police station.” Given his perfectionist reputation, Khan stayed in character ‘look’ for the entire duration of the filming.
Refusing to draw any comparison with Sarfarosh, the much-acclaimed 1999 film in which Khan played an upright ACP battling the challenges of terrorism, she says: “The only similarity is the presence of Aamir and that he is a cop. I don’t know about Sarfarosh, but there is a strong emotional hook to Talaash. There are things he has to solve beyond the case, the deep anguish that he is going through needs closure. It’s clearly a very different premise.”
The cast and crew, when in no mood to work, indulged in a bit of fun. “On the whole, we had a whale of a time,” she says.“We had this cricket match once. Captain Aamir boasted to us that he hadn’t lost a match in 25 years, which we got to know later was a huge lie. Of course, we beat his team. But he sought consolation in the fact that he scored the highest runs.”
Originally from Borhapjan, Assam, Kagti (a three-times FTII reject) co-wrote Talaash with her best friend, Zoya Akhtar, about eight years ago. “We had this one-line idea and we started building it up from that point.” She pitched the idea to Zoya’s brother Farhan Akhtar, who immediately got hooked and decided to produce it.
With Zoya, it is a relationship of mutual admiration and respect. Usually, the Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara director is her bouncing board. “The minute I get an idea, Zoya is excited to hear it out,” she says, and if by chance she runs into Farhan that day, “He will be all ears” too. As depicted in their movies, there is evidently a lot of bonding among people who work with the Akhtars.
“We are friends first. There is a lot of mutual support and I would say we have a common vision for cinema.”
But it is with Zoya that she gets along exceptionally well. She met her on Bombay Boys. With their somewhat similar nature and habits, they struck an instant friendship. “What was happening was that both of us were being sent for these lock ups during Bombay Boys,” she recalls.“It was not the glamorous filmmaking job that we had imagined. We were simply given a walkie-talkie and sent 10 or 15 minutes away, where we had for company a bunch of construction workers who would be hammering away at something. And when the shot was going on, we would get a message on the walkie-talkie to hush them up. Then, you go and beg everybody to be quiet. After a couple of hours the workers would get upset and they wouldn’t even listen. And every time we complained, we would be hushed down by a senior. If we were very angry, we would be quietened down with fake compliments, ‘Oh you are so good at your job.’”
She adds, “Because we kept getting thrown into similar situations, which were frustrating to say the least, for Zoya and me that became our common bond. Also, we liked the same things, we have a similar sensibility. We have been friends for 20 years now.”
She counts Anurag Kashyap, Farhan Akhtar and Dibakar Banerjee as her inspiration, but is quick to point out that Zoya is the one to watch out for. “Luck by Chance may not have been a commercial success, but I still think Zoya made the best first film among all of us. Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara was an excellent follow-up. She is going very strong.”