In the 1970s, the bar for screenwriting in Indian cinema was raised significantly by a creative duo whose work has rarely been surpassed. With an amazing legacy films such as Sholay, Zanjeer, Deewar and Mr.India, that duo was Salim-Javed.
And now today’s creative screenwriting partnership seems to be that of Reema Kagti and Javed Akhtar’s daughter Zoya. Though the undoubtedly talented Zoya had the help of familial connections, Kagti has on the other hand tread a very different path. Without any formal training in filmmaking, she has created her own path to the top and found a kindred spirit in best friend / creative partner Zoya. We spoke to Kagti about her journey to her upcoming film Talaash, and the state of the Indian film industry today.
You’ve assisted some amazing Indian directors in your career: Ashutosh Gowarikar on Lagaan, Farhan Akhtar on Dil Chahta Hai, Zoya Akhtar on Zindagi Na Milega Dobara. What would say are the most important lessons that you’ve learnt?
I’ve learnt different skills from different people. They’ve given me a very close vantage point to directing, which was great for someone like me, who had had no formal training in filmmaking. In regards to Zoya, I co-write scripts with her so I’ve obviously taken away much more. I think that we have very complimentary qualities. She has poetry in her blood, and I’m very happy to work with her, with some of that poetry naturally coming into my scripts.
You also assisted Mira Nair on Vanity Fair. Do you find many differences between working with male and female filmmakers?
Not really. Honestly, I think gender is a bit irrelevant. By definition, the mindset of directing is a bit androgynous. I’m not saying directors themselves are androgynous, but their approach is. Filmmaking has a tendency to objectify a man, or the scene may call on you to objectify a woman, and you need to be able to do both well. I honestly don’t think gender is a good variable for describing a director.
Honeymoon Travels was a very different genre to Talaash. Did you approach both films differently or were there similarities beneath the surface?
Generically, they are very different films. It started not as any conscious effort from my part to go a different route, but organically from the story. Zoya and I were just sitting and talking to one another. She said something to me, and really the idea for the film came from a casual remark that she passed. Then when we started developing the screenplay that would best justify the story, we finally arrived at a suspense drama.
Similarly with Honeymoon Travels, when I started off on day 1 to write the film, I didn’t really know what it was going to become. I just had an idea about the story and the characters but I just let the film lead me. It’s not conscious decisions I’ve made. It’s really the stories that I’ve fallen in love with that have organically led me to these genres. I try and take them in with a spontaneous, intuitive kind of approach.
With Talaash being a much bigger film, did you have more responsibility on your shoulders than Honeymoon Travels?
With Talaash, I was actually a lot more at ease. I think that came from the directing experience I had with Honeymoon behind me. Honeymoon was my first film and I didn’t really have any kind of practical training experience at the time, but I think it really helped me hone my craft. Because of Honeymoon, I am better off on my second film, and I’m sure I’ll say the same on my third film. Directing is a learning process.
You worked with Aamir Khan before. Was he someone you always had in mind, or was his casting again something that developed organically?
When we were writing the script, there were several reasons we thought why Aamir would suit the role best. By the time we got the screenplay ready, we approached Aamir – he was the first actor that Ritesh (producer) approached, and he said at that point he was busy with Ghajini, he’d decided to do a small film after it and wouldn’t be hearing any more scripts for the next two years.
So we took it to a couple of other people, but nothing really worked out and then another two years went by, Ritesh called Aamir again. And thankfully at this point he was hearing scripts. He actually came on board way quicker than I expected him to. I was at a poker tournament in Goa when I heard and it really took me by surprise. I feel very fortunate that he came on. Working with him has been so wonderful. He’s been very supportive, operative and I’ve had the best time working with him.
Being the director of Talaash, do you feel you had more of a say in how the script was developed than you did with Zindagi Na Milega Dobara?
No, Zoya and I have a very democratic kind of partnership. Obviously we both know who’s going to be directing it, but I don’t feel like I had less control over Zindagi as a script as opposed to Talaash. We don’t write like that.
Part of why I enjoy working with her is that it doesn’t matter who the script is for. We’re both trying to put out the best possible script and my career is as important to me as my best friend's. For me to feel really happy and successful, I want Zoya to be there with me too. I would love for my films to be doing well, and her films also to be doing well. So I put in as much of an effort with my films as I do with hers, and I know that she feels the same way too.
Were there any films that inspired Talaash?
No, it’s an original story. We’ve not used any film for referencing as such. You can’t classify Talaash as a specifically ‘Bollywood’ or ‘Hollywood’ film. I think its something new, something organically coming from the Indian film industry.
It’s got all the makings of a commercial Hindi film. It’s got songs, it’s got a star cast. But I think in terms of content, it has much darker emotions and undertones that commercial mainstream films of India tend to go towards. The challenge for me as a writer was taking a film that deals with darker emotions and making it as entertaining and interesting to an audience as a masala movie.
There’s a whole new generation of films like Talaash and Kahaani that are not commercial in feel yet seem to find a huge commercial audience outside the arthouse.
I think we are reaching a point where there are commercial arthouse films that you can no longer toss into one or the other. Indian films are now changing their face, their vocabulary, their form. They are evolving with the times.
Would you ever be tempted to go back to do the smaller independent films like Honeymoon Travels?
I definitely would. For me, I don’t decide “Oh, I’m going to do a small film” or “I’m going to do a big film.” It’s really about the idea, it’s about the story. I have a huge bank of stories that I want to develop. Some of them come into the category of smaller films, and I would like to pursue them with the same excitement that I wish to pursue the bigger film ideas.
I’m developing another two projects with Zoya – one for her to direct and one for myself. The one that I’m doing is a kind of comedy-drama, and it’s based on a newspaper article I read a couple of years ago. That’s all I can say for now.
Talaash will release in cinemas worldwide on November 30th 2012.