Minding their Ps and Qs in Kahaani

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Making the unit behave itself in a horrifying morgue, enforcing the discipline of working in real locations, and the other prefect duties of director Sujoy Ghosh

Director Sujoy Ghosh’s film Kahaani, featuring a strikingly pregnant Vidya Balan in the lead, grew out of an amazement that has refused to go away for many years now: what is it that motherhood does to women? What is that peculiar blend of fortitude and generosity it brings to them? The girl he loved used to dance late into the night without a care. Now she gets up early to make tiffin for his children. In the evening, she learns the physics and chemistry she left behind in high school to help them with their lessons. “I love my kids too,” says Ghosh, “but hell, I’m not going to make breakfast for them.”

That motherhood and its transmutations have occupied him is evident in his work. His first and most successful film so far, Jhankaar Beats (2003) was a cheerful, bright-hued bromance feauring three men played by Sanjay Suri, Rahul Bose and Shayan Munshi. In an interview given around that time, Kareena Kapoor had called it the small-budget version of Farhan Akhtar’s Dil Chahta Hai. But equally significant to the film, and here is where it differed substantially from the seriously male focus of DCH, was the gentle presence of a mother-to-be from start to finish. Juhi Chawla played the generous and loving anchor to the often silly men, though it was she who should have suffered the vagaries of pregnancy.

In Kahaani, Ghosh’s fourth film as director-writer, the pregnant woman has come to occupy the heart of the story. “For many years now, I have had the image of the young mother in mind: the girl who suddenly finds the courage to fight the whole world for her child. But it was amorphous, I knew I wanted to tell her story but I didn’t know what. Two years ago when I sensed a story was beginning to take shape, I sat down and wrote Kahaani, a terse, taut, full-on thriller about a pregnant woman, both fierce and fragile, in search of the father of her child,” says Ghosh. The tagline for the film, appropriately, reads ‘A mother of a story’.

The requirements of this “full-on” thriller were similarly, full-on demanding. The tightly structured plot and budget meant Ghosh’s team had to shoot real time in the chaos and smelliness of Kolkata. Ghosh wanted the city going around him in its usual rhythms as he shot his film, he wanted the overwhelming multitudes and undisguised nosiness that make Kolkata so exasperating. “I am the sort of filmmaker who believes in drawing from cultures and subjects that I know well. And a thriller needs those little things, the details that set up the texture for the tension.” Sometimes, it is the minutiae that engineer the tension. In Navdeep Singh’s excellent debut feature Manorama Six Feet Under, a sordid murder mystery set in a dismal, dusty town in Rajasthan, the director uses the desolation of its small town streets after dusk, the silences of its burning afternoons to superb effect. Murders could be committed on such afternoons as people nap in homes nearby, curtains drawn, windows shuttered.

The Kahaani team shot the film on one 52-day schedule in Kolkata. Permissions had to come in from “150 places” even before the shooting schedule could be planned. And the unit had to behave itself. “Discipline is one of the toughest things about shooting on real locations operating on their regular rhythms. You have to be mindful of and respectful to the people who stay or work there. If something does not look good, you can’t change the camera angle as easily as you can on set. You have to ask the people whose home you are shooting in. Getting a 150-member unit to keep all these things in mind, while on a tight deadline, is not easy,” says Ghosh.

The hardest thing, he reckons, was the morgue. A sequence in the film, easily identified in the trailers, is shot in a morgue; you see Vidya Balan keeling over to retch. For the team too, it was like that when they shot. “You have this image of morgues from American TV, from CSI [the series Crime Scene Investigation]. Which is stark, unnerving, but hygienic.” What they got was just horrifying. Sickening, Ghosh calls it. But they had to be “prim and proper” because the place has a decorum. “I was very particular about being respectful; these things matter in Kolkata. So here we were all trying to focus on the job at hand, while remembering not to breathe through our noses. The actors didn’t need to emote. The horror was real. ”

Also difficult was shooting during Durga puja, which features prominently in the film. For reasons of manageability, Ghosh had wanted to wrap up these sequences during daytime when the crowds are less colossal and the light is better. But his crew protested, stridently. For them, the film wouldn’t work without the ceaseless energy of Kolkata’s puja crowds at night. It quickens the pulse of the film, it sets the suspense alight. “You are only the director, Ghosh da,” the director of photography Setu told him. “Let us do our job.” And so it was done, camera mounted, crew in place, while implausible numbers of people came out of their homes to celebrate and somehow accommodated themselves on the finite streets.

Kolkata during Durga puja has been done before in Bollywood, red and marvellous. Director Pradeep Sarkar shot a lavish, old-style puja for his film Parineeta in 2005 (incidentally, Vidya Balan’s debut film in Hindi). Yet Kahaani manages to capture an uneasy vibe, a hint of foreboding in a jubilant, joyous festival. Independent of how the film fares on its release, this much is already evident from its trailers—that the film has succeeded in giving a darker undertone to a wholesome celebration of good over evil. And here, of course, is the biggest metaphor for the mother in Ghosh’s story: Goddess Durga, a mother of four, is a celebration of the extraordinary might of a mother.

In Vidya Balan, Ghosh had a collaborator right from the days of writing the story. “The character was created with her inputs and this helped especially at the shooting stage. I had cues ready, I could point her to her reactions at the story stage before a take,” says Ghosh.

Balan is also the sort of actor, Ghosh adds, who responds excellently to improvisation on the sets. In the film, Bengali actor Saswata Chatterjee plays a fat man with an unsettling presence. To bring this out, Chatterjee had the idea of standing a bit too close to Balan in their scenes, in the way that some strangers instantly set you at unease by breathing in your face. “Saswata discussed this with me, Vidya didn’t know. But she didn’t step back, she got it right away,” Ghosh says. This is Chatterjee’s first Bollywood film appearance.

The director is also thrilled with the other Bengali actor Parambrata Chattopadhyay, who too makes his Hindi film debut with Kahaani. “This whole unit in fact was outstanding. And so good at improvisation, which is so important in filmmaking where real life intrudes in your vision all the time,” says Ghosh.

In the director’s career, Kahaani is an especially important film, coming as it does after two consecutive flops, Home Delivery and Aladin. The last was an extravagant failure, a fantasy made at a considerable budget, but Ghosh is unashamed. “I made the film I wanted to. I always sleep well at night. If you ask me to list what I did wrong, I can’t. Then you’ll ask me for a formula. It’s not a math exam, cinema is an English-language exam,” he says.