Below follows a very in-depth interview with the writer and director of Barah Aana and Bas Yun Hi, Raja Menon. In the interview, Raja talks about the shooting process of Barah Aana, his background in advertising, the director-screenwriter and director-cinematographer relationship, memorable moments of making Barah Aana, his definition of direction, and much, much more. Chalo, what are you waiting for? Read away!
I’m going to start off the interview by asking you, do you think there is a revival of films in which the protagonists are, for lack of a better term, “ordinary people”—for example, we’ve had films like Tahaan, Amal, Frozen, and now Barah Aana?
But, I would kind of differentiate those films—maybe not Amal—but the rest of them, because I think there are two levels...One is the kind of more...well Frozen is clearly art house, right? It is meant for a different kind of audience. I think Tahaan also may be kind of in that space. I’m not completely certain that the audience has changed enough into that space. But, I definitely think there is a movement towards it from the filmmakers, though.
I read that the shooting for Barah Aanaa was just 38 days—Do you wish you had spent more time? Were you in a rush?
The actual shooting was about 34-35 days and it was super well planned out. Everything went pretty much as planned.
What camera did you use to shoot Barah Aana?
We shot on a Super 16 ARRI SR 3.
What editing software did you guys use?
We edited on the Avid.
Could you describe the shooting process for someone who has never been on a set before?
(laughs) Well it starts off—do you want me to get into the entire process or the shooting process?
Well could you describe what someone would see if they came onto the set for Barah Aana...What would grab their attention?
I spent a good year writing the script, right?
I got Raj Kumar in, to write for me…the dialogues and the dialects I wanted and the kind of feel that I wanted. Now, at this point we’d already cast and stuff. Once we cast I did about 2 weeks of workshopping with the actors where we kind of honed in on exactly what we wanted in terms of how to structure the sequences or what would that character say. Here I have to say that most of my technicians are people I’ve worked with on maybe over 40-50 commercials. So these are guys with whom I share an extremely strong rapport. My DOP has shot about 40-50 films for me. My production designer—she’s my wife. My sound engineer is someone I’ve maybe done 80 films with, commercials, tv commercials, that is. So, we come from a very strong core unit. So, it was kind of easy to work with. And, once we workshopped we had pretty much everything down on how we wanted to do stuff. Post that, once we started shooting, we concentrated really on capturing what we had planned and allow the actors to explore the environment that we were allowing them to live in as those characters—that was the main part of the shootings. So, we didn’t have any technical questions to ask of each other because we sorted that out pre-shoot. Everybody on the set was so into what would be happening that day, that hour, that moment, that it was actually extraordinarily smooth. Having somebody like Naseer bhaai on the set is a real advantage because someone who has been in 200 movies has a point of view that’s well worth thinking about. Vijay Raaz is another tremendous, tremendous actor. A couple of younger actors. Tannishtha was brilliant. We knew each other intimately by the time we finished shooting. So, it was pretty much a happy set. My sets tend to be low key in terms of noise and activity so it was pretty much a silent set. Once we shot the film, we went to edit. My editor is someone that I hadn’t worked with before but someone who has done a lot of fantastic work and we gave her a month to do her cut and then stepped into the edit and both if us kind of re-cut the film given whatever perspective I had. After this we went through the DI process etc. I did the music in London with this music director, Shri, he’d never scored music for a film before but he’s part of the British underground scene and his albums are quite popular there. I spent 2-3 weeks in London with him and then the film formed from there onwards.
Wow, that’s really cool. A lot of planning went into it. Could you tell us a bit about the casting process. Do you go into the screenplay writing phase with actors in mind already?
Well, for the character of Shukla, I always had Naseer in mind simply because I couldn’t imagine anyone else who could play a role where he had only 2-3 lines at the end of the film and pretty much most of it was mute, so the actor had to be able to express himself without having dialogues. So Naseer bhai is someone that I always had in mind. I hoped that he would kind of want to do the role. Luckily, he did. Vijay Raaz was someone I again from the start wrote keeping him in mind because he fit the character so well. But, I did go through a journey of different actors before I came back to Vijay Raaz and signed him on. Tannishtha who plays Rani—Tannishtha and I, we are old friends and she’s actually the first person to hear the 4 liner of the film because at that point she was kind of working with me and stuff—so, she came in. So, we got a bunch of brilliant actors. Some of the characters I didn’t exactly have a particular actor in mind for, but I knew the kind of space I was going into. Aman was the difficult character to cast since he was a man of many contradictions. Since in film, unlike in life, we have to quickly establish the character, I had to choose between the two contradictions that Aman represented which is what I did while casting Arjun, who I think did a fantastic job playing a very difficult character that too while sharing screen space with Naseer Bhai and Vijay Raaz.
You mentioned you’ve worked on a lot of commercials. Did you get into advertising with the intent of later transitioning into films?
Well, advertising was kind of my learning phase. The kind of films I wanted to make, I just knew I kind of had to take my time over. So it’s a great, great, great learning ground. It allows you to really experiment with all kinds of forms because you are telling a story in a short period of time. The difference between advertising and films is really that to maintain a kind of level of story telling for an hour and forty minutes. It’s actually much tougher because all the different graphs of the character have to be maintained. You need to get used to kind of running the marathon. They are completely different training grounds, but advertising teaches you a certain rigor and gives you a certain discipline.
Do you think it’s possible for someone who hasn’t worked in advertising or who hasn’t been to film school to directly jump into feature film direction?
My view is that anyone can...I think direction should generally be demystified so it’s not such a big deal. But, I would not trust someone to directly direct a feature film, unless the guy is a genius. I don’t think he or she will be able to do a good job. So, I think that the point is that it doesn’t matter if it’s advertising, or corporate videos, or music videos, whatever, it is the ability to make decisions as you create something where there are so many elements involved, that ability comes from practice. The practice is really required. If I were a producer, I wouldn’t put money in a film with a director who hasn’t directing anything at all because it’s just too difficult to make those decisions and then you end up compromising too much.
What is your definition of direction? Do you define it as people management, for example?
It’s a mix of things—it’s having a vision. It’s having an ability to drive people to give you the best they can in order to achieve that vision and I also believe that it is about inspiring people and giving them the environment to do good work. So, a director does a lot of things, one of them is definitely people management - the idea that to be able to create the environment where people will be able to thrive. That’s the whole idea. A film at a creative level is the director’s medium. A film can never be made unless an entire team comes together and everybody is really adding oodles of stuff into the project—you need to make the actors feel safe, the technicians feel safe, to make them to be able to take chances and to be able to state what they feel like—that’s the people management part. But, beyond that also is the vision of where it’s going—you need a very strong vision especially when you are working with people, with talented people, because at the end of the day, the point of view has to be yours and you can’t be swayed. So, end of the day you need to be really clear that this is the film I’m making, so, while there are ten options I could take, this is the one that represents the film I’m making. It’s not the actors, cinematographer or sound engineer’s vision. The film is yours and they are all helping you create that vision. But it’s that part which is the difficult part, getting everybody to the space where you are able to communicate that vision across the board. That’s the biggest job of a director.
Could you tell us about the director-screenwriter relationship and also the director-cinematographer relationship?
See, in this case, since I wrote the script myself, there was no screenwriter involved at that stage. What Raj Kumar brought in, the guy who wrote the screenplay in the end, was actually something that’s a really interesting second perspective that comes in after I knew exactly where the film was going towards. He came and brought a certain colloquial touch. He brought elements into the film that makes it full-bodied and the relationship is based on trust. It’s really important that the screenwriter feel he’s bringing a perspective to the film even though the film is going to be made from the perspective of the director. He has to have the trust that it’s going to be handled properly. In all these relationships trust is the number one factor. Once you believe they’re all on the same page then it gets easier. In my case, Raj Kumar came in after I had written 50 pager of the film and he came and embellished it with a view and got a lot of colloquial stuff to it. Every level in the film, he took it to the next stage. As far as the cinematographer goes, Priya is someone I worked with for so long, we know each other intimately. It’s almost like I don’t have to say what I want and she knows exactly what I’m talking about. A lot of trust. Same goes with the editor. You need to allow people to trust each other enough to allow them to bring their perspective to the film, and they need to trust you, that your perspective and theirs match.
So it’s all based on trust and understanding. Do you feel that sometimes a screenwriter might get too attached to their screenplay?
Uh, because I don’t see myself as a writer I generally don’t get too attached to it—I like to direct and allow things to happen on the set. So, with this film I didn’t have that problem. But, yes, I can see that as a possible pitfall.
Do you follow the screenplay strictly, or do you improvise a lot?
Oh no, the screenplay is just a guideline.
Don’t you think if it was set in stone it would help prevent shooting extraneous scenes and all?
Well my background is that I grew up as an editor in this business.
So, yes, I’ve already pretty much cut the stuff in my head, which can be dangerous of course. So, no, having said that I actually took out an entire storyline from the film at the end. I took out a 10 minute, 12 minute chunk. When I wrote it, it felt important and when I shot it, it felt important. It was a beautiful, beautiful scene. But, I thought it was slowing down at the end and not giving it any real meaning, so I had to take it out. I’m lucky enough to be able to detach myself quite a bit from the film.
How many times have you seen Barah Aanaa?
(laughs) Probably between 75 to 100 times on the screen.
Oh my gosh! Wow! (laughs) Is there anything you’d like to go back and change if you could redo the entire process?
There are always improvements that one thinks of after seeing a film in the sense that there could be a scene that would could have one additional line here, or the ending could have been held a little longer. But, having said that I think, you know, that is the growth of any creative person…I think you’ve given a look at what you’ve made and say “I can improve on this.” I think given what we’ve tried to achieve, I feel really, really happy with what we have achieved and I’m very, very satisfied with the product that came out but there is always scope for improvement—there is always something you can improve and that is part of life. There is really nothing, though, that makes me think I really should have done this or should have done it another way.
Okay, one thing that you mentioned is that Naseeruddin’s character has very few lines. And that was really amazing. Do you think overall Hindi films are too dialogue intensive? It was amazing how much he could convey with just his facial expressions.
(laughs) Yes, films...yes he was kind of playing a metaphor out...the metaphor of the silent generation...and I believe cinema is an audio visual medium that does not really require both to be equally omnipresent. If you can show it without saying it, you are better off without saying it. But, his character didn’t really have much to say...that was the character. I believe it’s a very difficult acting proposition to actually be able to bring about a certain believability in your character without actually saying stuff while you’re not dumb, deaf or mute. So, that was why he was quiet. Now you said too much dialogue in Indian cinema...I think Indian cinema. at least Bollywood cinema, it tends to be very over-explanative. It explains everything in words. It does get a bit tedious.
Have you read The White Tiger?
Yes, yes I have.
Okay, because my next question is if you’ve noticed any similarities between the book and Naseer’s character?
(laughs) Yeah, it’s funny because I hadn’t actually read The White Tiger until the film released. One of the journalists from the UK called me and said, “Hey! Have you read The White Tiger?” and I was like “What’s that?”and he said you should read that and I picked it up. I think The White Tiger comes from the same place…it originates from the same kind of place Barah Anna originates from. Seeing a certain lack of dignity in life, in big cities in India…But, beyond that I didn’t really see any real parallels. That’s a big parallel to me, right, in the sense that it’s interesting that two creative people would write about a similar mindset and that’s where the parallel ends, but its interesting we talk about similar characters in the sense from where they come and that we’re taking about an apathy towards dignity. That’s the parallel.
Are there any memories, any memorable moments of Barah Aana you’d like to share with our readers?
Quite a few. For me, I think the way Naseer said yes to the script...Which I had kind of procrastinated over for months wondering how to approach him and then I approached him. It took about 30 minutes for him to say yes, and it was the most shocking thing. Not only did he say yes, but I said my producers will call you and we’ll talk about money and he said it doesn’t matter what the money is we are dong the film. It was a great, fantastic confidence booster for me. Vijay Raaz to me is one of the most underrated actors in India, such a brilliant person and really responsible for making it a fun set. Dharavi was beautiful. Actually we shot using sync sound so we had to go to every house and ask people to not put on their TV and not to cook food because the pressure cooker would make sound and everyone told me that’s not going to work, you can’t do that, but we did it and they did it and not only did they do it, they did it with happy faces. They would sit there and we were the circus going on. There would be thousands of people hanging around and I would walk up and say can we have silence because if you speak we’ll have to take the shot again, and there was pin drop silence. It was completely a wonderful experience. In fact, while we were shooting the scene at the end of the film when Aman goes back to Rani, it was 2.30 AM in the morning and there were a few hundred women around and the shot was going on and suddenly I hear crying and I’m pissed off because you know sound is being picked up and I look around and there are five women weeping (laughs). I said, man this must be a great shot. I’m emotionally attached to that shot after what happened on the set. I don’t think I ever had more fun than those 34 days—the film was not only being made but we had relationships being developed over the film and I think that’ll last a long time. We’ve all really become great friends.
Do you think Barah Aana would have done better at the box office if the film was marketed and distributed properly? I mean there are people I’ve spoken to in Delhi who were like what, yeh film kab aayi? I don’t understand why someone would spend so much effort in making a film and then totally neglect marketing it properly!
Sure, I think the point is that there are two kinds of audiences in India. There is one that will never know about a film like Barah Aana because it doesn’t have a big star like SRK or whatever and there is another audience which is more of the people going for something which they call offbeat. If the film got twice or thrice the marketing it did, it would definitely be better and increase ticket sales. But, I’m actually quite happy with the way things were. Audiences that saw the film, 85-90 percent really appreciated it. I got emails and smses and people would meet me in the strangest places and realize Barah Aana is the film I directed and got such a fantastic reaction from people. So, we achieved what we set out to achieve. Yeah, marketing plays a big part and I think a small film needs more marketing than a big film, but those are more economic, producer questions. You need to be more targeted to get people, to find innovative ways to make people come and see something. You have to learn through these things. The reason marketing would have helped is people were reacting positively. I went to 2-3 theaters and saw the film in different weeks and even when a theater was not really full, was half way full, the reactions were fantastic.
Are there any actors you’d really like to direct?
Well...you know what, Naseer in a way always was the dream. He was actually the biggest dream and I’ve been lucky enough to do that. I definitely want to work again with Vijay Raaz because he is one of the most wonderful persons I’ve met in my life. I would definitely like to direct Aamir at some point because I think he is tremendously talented. I would like to work with an actor from the south, from Kerala, called Mohanlal, who I would love to direct. Not anyone really specifically...Naseer was that special someone I wanted to direct.
Would you like to direct any South Indian films? I believe you were born in Kerala...
Well, I was born in Kerela. I grew up in Bangalore. So yeah, I grew up in the South. I think Malayalam cinema has had an impact on the way I think. It’s a much more educated audience therefore the kind of cinema being produced there is a bit different from what you’d expect in Bollywood. There are actors there like Mohanlal, I mean Kerala probably has the best compliment of actors. If you look across the board in the industry, they have the best writers and such fantastic directors, so yeah, I’d like to direct a film there.
Could you tell us about the script pitching and narrating process…what was the log line of Barah Aana you used?
Well, you know what I did—the story is about dignity and it’s also a story that you see if you live in Bombay and if you narrate it people will react very easily to it. It’s very close to my heart, the film. I made it a point to, whenever I narrated the film, to really go out there and narrate the entire story with the screenplay and the dialogues and everything because I felt that anything else would be detrimental to the way the film was being perceived. I dunno if that’s the way people do it or not, but I like to do it that way so someone gets a complete perspective of what it’s about. So, I never really pitched a single line or a log line or a two liner or a four liner. In fact, at some point, when the film was in one of the festivals, someone came up and said give me a four liner and I was stumped so I didn’t have a 4 liner. So there was somebody else with me who had seen the film who said, ”Well, it’s about kind of you know someone who makes 5000 rupees a month living in close proximity to someone who can spend 5000 rupees over dinner.” (laughs) So, I said ok that’s the logline or whatever.
Could you tell us about your forthcoming projects? I believe you are working on a political satire...
Well, it’s still being scripted and I’m actually doing two films. One that’s already been scripted and one that I’m scripting right now and I’m still kind of weighing which one to do first in terms of how I’m feeling at that point. I’m still in the middle of writing...I need to take some time off. The political satire, I wouldn’t want to talk about the scripts yet because it’s too early…but, hopefully I should be able to talk about it in a couple of months.
Fair enough. Is there anything else you’d like to tell our PlanetBollywood.com readers?
Uh, well I think this has been pretty, pretty intensive interview. (laughs) You’ve kind of covered most of it and not left me with much to surprise you with but, well, now we’re going to try to travel with the film outside of India. We’re going to New York hopefully before the end of the year. We’re going to a couple of other festivals and stuff and the idea really to me is now to make as many people in the world I can to see the film and understand the whole concept of dignity in the film. Film is my medium and I like to convey a story, but, it’s not only a story, it’s closer to the story, and I’m trying to get that across that the film is also talking about dignity and about respect and how we should be living together.
Thanks, Raja! It was really nice chatting with you.
Thank you, thank you so much.
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