Shakun Batra: There’s no shock value to Gehraiyaan

The director talks filmmaking, infidelity in movies and finding fodder in the past

author_img Shilajit Mitra Published :  09th February 2022 04:49 PM   |   Published :   |  09th February 2022 04:49 PM

Shakun Batra and Deepika Padukone

Love, relationships, rivalries, resolutions, dissolutions. These are themes director Shakun Batra usually traffics in. He’s a hard one to slot; his films (the narrative ones) are brisk, Allenesque affairs, and they look and feel cozier than they actually are.

After Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu (2012) and Kapoor & Sons (2016), Gehraiyaan seems possessed of the Shakun touch. Yet it also marks a shift. This for one is a film about infidelity, a topic of much moral hand-wringing in Hindi cinema. Think of Yash Chopra at his cagiest—or the coyness of Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna. Have Shakun and his cast—led by Deepika Padukone and Siddhant Chaturvedi—gone all the way?

A conversation with the director…

You’ve mentioned Hannah and Her Sisters and the Richard Yates novel The Easter Parade as early influences. What was the writing process of Gehraiyaan?

I had a thought and I developed it with Ayesha (DeVitre), who is one of my oldest collaborators. She is always the first person to come on board. We worked on the story and basic plot structure. Then Sumit Roy, our co-writer, came in. In about six months, I had what I call my English draft. It is what I took to the actors. Finally, Yash (Sahai) did the Hindi dialogues.

Whom did you cast first?

Deepika, obviously. Her character, Alisha, was most crucial for me to find. I always wanted her while writing the film. So that was a huge encouragement when she came on board.

You said something interesting during the trailer launch. Infidelity, you said, is often construed as a character looking for their soul-mate, while in fact they are looking for themselves.

That’s probably the most important revelation for me. I obviously don’t take credit for it. It was something I read in Hanif Kureishi’s book Intimacy, about a man who wants to leave his wife and kids. It gave me a huge insight to tell this story.

My intention, with Gehraiyaan, is to not oversimplify the concept of love. It’s not done for shock value or to break new ground. The idea is to do justice to these characters and the journey they are on.

It looks like your most visually well-realized film.

I’d have to thank my cinematographer (Kaushal Shah), production designer (Abid T.P.) and costume designer (Anaita Shroff). In a story like this, it’s all about what is not being said. I wanted a visual, observational style where we can catch these characters when they are hiding something. They also come from two contrasting worlds: Alisha from middle-class Mumbai and Zain (Siddhant) from the upper one percent. 

There’s chatter about having an intimacy coach on board. It’s a fairly new concept in India.

A misconception is that an intimacy director is brought in because you want to go bolder. It’s just a step to make your environment better. It’s about making sure the actors are secure and comfortable. I feel an intimacy director should be a part of every crew. I really didn’t overthink it.

How did you go about creating the album?

Honestly, I was sh*t scared to put any kind of music in the film. There is an assembly line feel to how we treat music in our movies. Every album sounds similar. I was really cringing and feeling scared about where we will go with it. With 'Doobey', for example, I didn’t want a love song. I wanted a song that was like a freefall, what it is like to be in a freefall with somebody. That was the brief and I am so glad that I met Kabeer Kathpalia (OAFF) and Savera Mehta who have no Bollywood conditioning.

You fold in a lot of past into your stories. There’s an emphasis on family histories, trauma, guilt.

That’s where I find my fodder. In my first film, Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu, I was too engrossed in the present of my characters. I didn’t bring out a sense of their pasts. It’s been my effort ever since to do the opposite. As Hemmingway put it, we only see the tip of the iceberg in fiction. The real hard work is to create what’s underneath.  

Your favourite romance/drama titles from recent years?

I liked Normal People, Euphoria. I hugely loved Succession. I haven’t seen The Souvenir movies yet. I’m taking a vacation to update myself.

(with inputs from Priyanka Sundar)