- Punam Mohandas
- 29 May 2020
"Right now our audiences are open to new content and different ways of telling a story."
SWA Exclusive interview with writer-director Hardik Mehta
Hardik Mehta, who has tasted sweet success with his debut film, ‘Kaamyaab’ (Story and Screenplay Hardik Mehta, Dialogue Radhika Anand and Hardik Mehta) and whose first web-series as a writer ‘Paataal Lok’ (with Created By Sudip Sharma, Written By Sudip Sharma, Gunjit Chopra, Sagar Haveli) is cresting the waves of audience acclaim, is now gearing to release ‘RoohiAfza’. Having dabbled with different aspects of filmmaking, the writer-director surprisingly says that the element he finds most fascinating is that of editor.
Excerpts from his SWA exclusive interview -
What was the inspiration behind writing a simple but true-to-heart script such as ‘Kaamyaab’? Did you ever think it was a risky proposition that wouldn’t get made?
“I have always believed that the first film of any filmmaker should come from the heart,” says Hardik quite earnestly. “It should be a story that you truly want to tell the world, because you are never going to make a first film ever again in life! I have been a big fan of the Hindi films of the 80s/90s, which was an era driven by typical formula films and lots of henchmen, inspectors, lawyers, smugglers type of characters would pop up on screen. I first thought about the idea of ‘Kaamyaab’ around 2013 when I spotted the legendary actor Sudhir in the by-lanes of Andheri. Now, Sudhir is a part of my growing up days and to see him in Mumbai, walking in his bathrobe, just made me obsessed with the idea of telling a story of a character actor,” Hardik exclaims. “I never thought it to be a risky proposition because, like most good Hindi films, I wanted to tell the story with a lot of humor, compassion and emotion. What was risky was mounting the film on an actor who not only has to shoulder the whole film but also portray the genuineness of a character actor and that’s where maestro Sanjay Mishra came in. So to be honest, the risk was taken by Drishyam Films, Manish Mundra and Red Chillies and of course Shah Rukh Khan sir. I just wanted to tell this story, no matter what,” Hardik smiles.
How challenging was it to finally get this movie out to the audiences?
“A lot of people say that making your first film is very tough, you have to go through so much pressure and stress and I realized during ‘Kaamyaab’ that yes, making your first film is tough, but what is tougher is releasing that film of yours in the exact way you had envisioned it. ‘Kaamyaab’ was completed in late 2018 and we premiered at the prestigious Busan International Film Festival in South Korea and we thought that’s it - we would release in early 2019 or so. But instead we kept going to a lot of film festivals, garnered a lot of love and then after a year and a half it finally released in March 2020. During this time, I had to undergo several sleepless nights, a lot of white hair but throughout this journey, my producers at Drishyam films and our crew of ‘Kaamyaab’ were right beside me. I would like to thank all the film festival authorities where ‘Kaamyaab’ was selected; our film and in fact my passport, thanks them the most,” he says fervently.
Did you write the script specifically keeping an older character actor such as Sanjay Mishra in mind?
“Yes! There was no way I would have cast a superstar in this role, because that would have completely defeated the purpose of the whole film. And, to be honest, for me Sanjay Mishra is nothing short of a superstar!” Hardik declares. “Also, right now our audiences are open to new content and different ways of telling a story, so why not give them a more authentic experience? To add to it, I don’t think that ‘Kaamyaab’ was such a huge budgeted film that it would run the risk of a big loss if we didn’t take a typical hero to play a character actor. We wanted a character actor to play a character actor – as simple as that.”
Has being a script supervisor impacted you as a writer somewhere; helped to hone your writing and make your scripts tauter?
“It helped me to understand filmmaking better. As an assistant director, if you also choose to be a script supervisor, then you are forever seated behind the director and get opportunities to interact with actors and cinematographers and that’s where a film is getting made, so it really helps you understand the process much better. Filmmaking doesn’t happen in lunch tents and AC vanities, it happens when you understand your role on the set and take up responsibilities!” Hardik emphatically asserts. “The most challenging aspect of creative writing is discipline. To wake up every morning and then sit in front of your writing pad or laptop and keep coming with newer ideas is the most challenging aspect. If you are dedicated and disciplined, then you can learn creativity, but if you are highly talented and not disciplined enough, well then, God save you. I make a cup of tea for myself and keep playing the sound of rain on infinite loop and then write; it makes me feel like I am writing while being at a hill station. The basic idea is to keep you entertained and invested,” he explains rather endearingly.
What was the entire experience like, working on a film like ‘Trapped’?
“’Trapped’ was the result of the genius of Vikramaditya Motwane and a brilliant idea by screenwriter Amit Joshi. I was very privileged to co-write it! Urban loneliness is a theme that I highly associate with, so when the idea was narrated to Vikramaditya, he himself asked me if I could join Amit Joshi and co-write ‘Trapped’. We did our jamming for a few months and, would you believe, we just had a 30-odd pager as a script for the whole film! Vikramaditya wanted to keep it very organic, especially when you have an actor like Rajkummar Rao. We knew the progression of the story but the script kept evolving as we kept shooting. I think it was a great learning to see how small ideas can be translated on the screen, if you have a great vision!”
You’ve also worked on shorts and documentaries. As a writer, how challenging is it to condense a story into 20-minutes vis-à-vis the usual two hours of a feature film?
“I absolutely love short films! Even if they are boring at least they are short, unlike so many boring feature films that get made around the world and they end up wasting your time!” Hardik laughs. “The audience wants to see something creative which is why she or he has come to watch a short film, so don’t give them an ordinary story or typical treatment that they see in feature films - that’s exactly where short films differ. If the audience wanted to be safe, they will go ahead and spend 1000 bucks in a multiplex for a superstar-led film. With the short genre, you can narrate your story economically and, in fact, short films allow you to be even braver when it comes to choosing characters, depicting ironies, using creative transitions, telling a story with a fresh perspective and shooting in real locations. I truly believe shooting a short film in a studio or indoor is a crime and filmmakers should get on streets and public places to make short films!” he avers. “I have always tried to utilize the ‘scale of life’ and brought it into my frames. In fact, I have this theory that if you want to make good short films, always take public transport in whichever city you live. Once you travel with your fellow humans, you will come across so many stories that you would want to tell them, somehow.”
You’ve been a director, producer as well as scriptwriter. Which element of film making fascinates you the most?
“None of the above,” Hardik says, somewhat wryly. “Editing fascinates me the MOST! It’s the best aspect of all the cinematic tools. Editing is the only time you can honestly assess yourself as a filmmaker and can sculpt something without 200 people looking at you. Editing is where you can change perspectives, change timelines, shift the point of view and get a whole fresh perspective on what was originally on paper. For me, all the genius lies in editing and editing can take a lot of time of yours, so how patient and how much in love are you with your film, is something that editing can tell. Editing is also a kind of writing and I respect editors the most in the filmmaking process. Also, every filmmaker should ensure from his producer that she or he should be allowed at least six months for editing. Anything less than that and you are inviting trouble for yourself.”
Is there a huge pressure on you as the writer as well as the director of a project, when you think of the amount of money riding on your film?
“Hmm, it can be intimidating for a middle class kid to step on a movie set and realize – oh my God, all these resources, all this money for an idea that I thought of! But then you have to understand the process well, which is where having been an assistant comes to your help. You can’t take too much pressure while working – what you need is commitment and passion for the work of art that you are doing. At the end of the day, every head will turn towards you for the answer on a movie set and at that time if you don’t have an answer then you will look like a deer caught in the headlights, so always be very prepared, be very well prepared with all your departments, be very, very communicative - but never take pressure!”
You’ve stated in a previous interview that you really looked forward to directing your first mainstream film. How different has this been compared to ‘Kaamyaab’? Moreover, how different is it to direct a film scripted by someone else?
“Kaamyaab is as mainstream as it can get, after all, it was backed by Shah Rukh Khan!” he says somewhat defensively. “But yes, making mainstream films with more stars and still having your own voice and style intact is something that I have always aspired to. So, post ‘Kaamyaab’, I wanted to try and take this risk. Thankfully, Maddock Films gave me this opportunity. Also, I truly believe that all films don’t have to have social messages! I wanted to make a film where everyone has dollops of fun and lots of quirky ideas for me as a filmmaker to play with. And with ‘RoohiAfza’ I have experienced the best of both worlds – fabulous mainstream actors as well as a really quirky adventurous script by Gautam Mehra and Mrighdeep Lamba. The latter is also producing the film along with Dinesh Vijan."
Given the on-going COVID-19 situation and with several top filmmakers already planning OTT releases, do you think ‘Roohi Afza’ will head the same way?
“Well, that is a question for our producers at Maddock Films. I can only try and make a good film. But as far as I can see, the biggest event of 2020 after COVID, is going to be Christopher Nolan’s ‘Tenet’ and that film is arriving in theatres only in July, so well, I am keeping my fingers crossed and will expect the virus to be a fan of Nolan’s and get out of our way!”
‘Paatal Lok’ has created a sensation among viewers. What was it like writing a cop thriller, a genre you have not previously been exposed to?
“’Paatal Lok’ is a result of what happens when you put a fabulous team together led by a committed showrunner. I was very happy to be a part of this writers’ team along with Sagar Haveli and Gunjit Chopra. We began writing the series in late 2016 under showrunner Sudip Sharma. We four were involved with the whole process from day one and bit-by-bit, Sudip put the whole series together. Thanks to Amazon that we were also sent on a screenwriters’ research trip in the hinterlands of UP and Chitrakoot where the series is based. Eventually I wrote episodes 4 and 6 but ideally it’s not like only I worked on those episodes; a lot of times Sudip made some changes and made my episode look better than before and similarly I contributed my ideas on someone else’s episode, but that’s a natural process of writing a series. A cop thriller is one of my favourite genres; it was my dream to work on this genre and thanks to Tulsea, our agents, this opportunity came by. An investigative thriller has to be much more than just a plain simple investigation, it has to be about the world that the protagonist belongs to, it has to be about the current nature of things that our nation is experiencing and it has to be very engaging. The one big reason that I can tell you why ‘Paatal Lok’ is so successful is because it was given a lot of time in writing and re-writing. And of course if you are a screenwriter then you know that writing is nothing but re-writing after re-writing."
How did you find the entire experience of writing for an OTT platform? Do you think OTT is weaning audiences away from theatre or multiplex experiences?
“I love writing for OTT! Certain themes and subjects lend themselves to OTT platforms and they need to be created that way. No, I don’t think OTT is weaning the audience away, in fact, it is creating a separate assured space for itself and I am very glad to see that. At the same time, an intelligent audience knows that he or she won’t watch ‘Dunkirk’ at home; it has to be enjoyed in a theatre. Similarly, a horror comedy or a sports biopic can be enjoyed more with 200 people around to get that feeling. What is important is that the theatrical films now need to pull up their socks and compete with good content that’s coming online. Look at how Disney and Pixar keep making movies for families and kids; we don’t have a single producer in India who can make something like this. Every family would want to take their children out once a month, but they end up watching some of our crass comedies which frankly children have no business to watch, if only they were given an option,” concludes Hardik.