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Finding the soul of comedy

Homi Adajania talks about ‘Angrezi Medium’, which marks Irrfan Khan’s return to Hindi cinema

Homi Adajania directs Deepak Dobriyal and Kareena Kapoor Khan; and Adajania with Irrfan Khan on the set.
Homi Adajania directs Deepak Dobriyal and Kareena Kapoor Khan; and Adajania with Irrfan Khan on the set.

Four films in, Homi Adajania remains a bit of a conundrum for Hindi cinema. Directors here are expected to be prolific, and the ones who aren’t, are expected to resurface after their time away with a tortured masterpiece. Adajania certainly takes his time: Six years between Being Cyrus, his debut, and Cocktail, a shorter gap of two years to Finding Fanny, then six more years till his latest, Angrezi Medium. The reason is simple: He values his life away from cinema, an outlook that’s confusing to Bollywood.

Angrezi Medium has elements in common with other Adajania films—colourful characters, a search for self or someone else—but he has switched his urbane, English-speaking characters with small-town ones, and the comedy seems broader. The film is about a father in Udaipur (played by Irrfan Khan) whose daughter (Radhika Madan) wants to go to college in London, and the lengths he will go to see that she does. It’s a spiritual sequel to Hindi Medium, the sleeper hit from 2017 which also starred Irrfan.

Angrezi Medium, which released on 13 March despite coronavirus worries, is in the spotlight for reasons no one could have predicted when it was announced. After he signed on, Irrfan was diagnosed with neuroendocrine cancer, which caused production to shut down for a year. This is his first release since the diagnosis. Lounge spoke to Adajania about how he and his star dealt with the illness, his priorities apart from cinema, and why he just wants to make people laugh. Edited excerpts:

Were you looking for a project when this came along?

No, I was working on a dark script, about a schizophrenic serial killer. This office (Maddock Films, in Santa Cruz, Mumbai) has quite a few directors—we feed off each other and discuss all the projects. Dino (Dinesh Vijan) called me into his cabin one day and said, I am listening to the narration of Angrezi Medium. Will you hear it and give some feedback?

I was rolling on the floor, then I was crying. Before I lost my dignity completely, I asked the writers, do you have a director attached? They said they didn’t. I said, I am directing it.

This film was done in a different way to how I have done any of my films.

How so?

I don’t know if it’s a phase I am going through but now, when I watch a movie, I don’t sit and figure out the flaws. I watch it in a very holistic way and I leave wondering, am I happy? I felt if I can give others this kind of joy through this story why wouldn’t I do it?

I have been in a theatre with the audience watching my films. When there’s a funny scene and they all laugh—I mean, laugh from their bellies—there’s nothing more fulfilling.

I am a father and the film is about a father-daughter relationship: the unconditional love, the madness, the friendship. I spend a lot of time with my two kids. I know that one day is going to come where you will have to let that little hand go—with hope in your heart that one day the hand will come back and hold yours. That for me is the soul of the movie. I told the writers, Bhavesh (Mandalia) and Gaurav (Shukla), this is the sur of the film. If we can get that, we have done our job.

Also, Irrfan and I had wanted to collaborate for the longest time, so that was one huge draw for me. Everything about this was right. As clichéd as it sounds—even with Irrfan being ill—love and positivity made this film, and you can see it.

Was Irrfan sick when it started?

No, he wasn’t. We were going to start shooting in a few months and that’s when he got that pain and went for his diagnosis. We waited for a year. There’s no way Dino and I would have made this film without him.

I spent some time with him in London, where he was undergoing his treatment. We had the best time ever, spoke about everything except the movie. He told me, Homi, mujhe craft se bahut mohobbat hai (I love the craft), but I don’t want anything else, I don’t want the fame, the recognition.

There was never any tiptoeing around the fact that he was unwell. There was a sort of honesty, an openness. I was extremely sensitive to how he was feeling through the process: I didn’t want him to push himself more than he needed to because at the end of the day, all we were doing is making a bloody movie.

Was setting the film partly in London a chance to look at immigration and citizenship?

Yeah, but I never planned it that way. It seeped into the story. The counsellor in the film actually brings up Brexit; she says, I haven’t met my brother in two years, how will you get in? It’s not that I wanted social commentary—it just bases it in a reality.

Did you always have Udaipur in mind for the India setting?

It was set in Rajasthan—originally in Bikaner. I went for a recce there, to Jodhpur and Jaipur. Udaipur visually for me was more interesting. I met a line producer there who was very similar to Champak, Irrfan’s character. I asked him if he had ever been abroad. He said, no, everything is here, kyun jayein? That’s exactly how Irrfan’s character is in the movie. Whereas Radhika’s character, Tarika, is obsessed with going abroad ever since she was a child. He can’t understand that, so he keeps evading the topic.

Radhika was doing research with these school and college kids. She would tell us, it’s crazy, after school they go to cafés, have milkshakes, chatting away in Marwari and Hindi about Gossip Girl. They know everything because of the internet. They have a wide view that there’s a world out there, whereas the father doesn’t care.

Were you like her when you were young?

I didn’t want to go abroad. I just wanted to travel. I used to travel a lot when I was young and had no money. I have gotten arrested for sleeping on roads, driven in a jeep for three and a half months from Bombay to Bhutan.

Irrfan had mentioned in an interview that he had a new approach to acting in this film.

Yes, it was. I was sitting with him once before the shoot and I asked, you haven’t forgotten how to act, have you? He said: “Homi, it’s possible. I don’t know if I have forgotten how to act but I am not going to depend on any of the processes I used to before. That was a different Irrfan."

Whatever an actor is going through in their lives, when they are doing a role, I feel they definitely draw on it—or even if they are not doing it consciously, it comes out. I think that’s the reason he has been able to play such a beautifully sensitive character.

Radhika is only two films old, but she has her own comic persona.

I haven’t seen either film. Dino asked me one day if I wanted to see this audition Vishal (Bhardwaj) had sent for Pataakha. It blew me away. Then she came to office for some other project, and looked completely different, I couldn’t believe it was the same girl. She asked if she could audition for Angrezi Medium. I said, we are looking for 17-year-olds, you will be wasting your time. She did it anyway. Midway through watching it, I stopped and said, this is the girl.

You are asked a lot about the frequency of your films. Why do you think directors here are expected to make a film every two years or so?

I think it’s flattering when they ask that, because it means they miss it when you aren’t giving them anything. I don’t eat, sleep, breathe, think films. I am not some insane cinephile. If you ask me about films, I won’t know too much. For example, at one point, my crew was saying this song should be playing when Dimple Kapadia is driving in the van. I asked, what it this? They said, it’s Bobby. What’s Bobby, I asked. Dimple told them, “Yeh ***** bawa ko pata nahi hoga (this crazy Parsi won’t know the film), that’s why I love him."

Just being a director doesn’t float my boat. I love telling stories through a visual medium but I also love plunging into the depths of the ocean and jumping off mountains on a snowboard. And spending time with my kids—I don’t want to miss them growing up.

Do you plan to take that dark film you were working on off the shelf?

It’s a very creative piece of writing. I am just not in that space right now. I want to explore comedy with a soul, because I had such a great time doing this film.

Angrezi Medium released on 13 March.

Homi Adjania with Irrfan Khan
Homi Adjania with Irrfan Khan

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