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Shakun Batra: 'When I create a world, it just needs to sound real'

Gehraiyaan director Shakun Batra talks about adjusting to frequent breaks in filming and creating a safe environment for actors 

Deepika Padukone and Shakun Batra on the set of ‘Gehraiyaan’

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Shakun Batra doesn’t like to rush things. In 10 years, he has come out with three features, the comedy Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu (2012), the widely praised family drama Kapoor & Sons (2016), and now, Gehraiyaan (he also executive-produced the 2021 documentary on Ma Sheela Anand, Searching For Sheela). In his new film, Alisha (Deepika Padukone) embarks on an illicit affair with Zain (Siddhant Chaturvedi), who’s engaged to her cousin Tia, played by Ananya Panday. Batra speaks to Lounge on Zoom about setting actors free and making them feel comfortable. Edited excerpts:

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This is your third feature with Ayesha Devitre Dhillon. Tell us about your process as co-writers.

Ayesha and I go way back. It’s not a very strict process. On this one, I had a germ of an idea. We started discussing. When we had a story in place, Sumit (Roy) came on board to work on the screenplay. So then I was working with Sumit on one-liners, structure, and then in the evening Ayesha and I would sit and flesh out the scenes a little more. We would keep going back and forth between the three of us. And then on set, because our first draft was in English, we brought in Yash (Sahai) to work on the Hindi dialogues with Ayesha.

Writers, for me, go beyond credits. They stay till the very end, especially Ayesha, who is also creative supervisor on the project.

Are you particular about actors saying lines exactly as written?

No! In fact, I get disappointed if I don’t feel actors have brought something of their own. Because I am trying to just find an essence of what we have written, the truth on the page should come out. It’s not necessary actors say it the way I have written it. Also, the films I do, they work best when they sound authentic. It’s not dialogue-baazi, where the line has to land a certain way. It’s not filmi dialogue. When I am creating a world, it just needs to sound real. As far as the meaning, the feeling, doesn’t change, I am okay with words going up and down.

How did you deal with the enforced breaks due to covid-19?

We were supposed to go on floor in March (2020) and then the covid-19 lockdown came in. We were fully prepped. At that time, we were going to Sri Lanka. Then there was a two-month halt, and we had to move the film to Goa. We started shooting there, and again two or three months later we had a break because of covid surges. Then we shot and again there was a break.

All in all, we had maybe four different breaks. We did get delayed six-seven months but it wasn’t in one go.

I wouldn’t say the broad strokes changed (during the breaks), only the finer detailing, nuances, small character details. That was the best thing that could have happened. We had time to watch the film, edit, think about it. But it was also frustrating, because we hadn’t shot the whole film. So I was watching the film with lots of scenes missing.

Was it difficult for the actors to pick up the thread with the same intensity when they returned?

Thankfully, I think we had a very committed bunch. What we would do is before getting into a schedule, especially a bigger one, like five-six days, we would get on a call and do a reading of the scenes. We would speak about what we had already shot, what this means. And sometimes I would carry the edit of the scene on the set just to remind them where we are in the film.

Were there any works, film or otherwise, that you felt captured what you were attempting with this film?

I definitely wanted the complexity of these characters to come across. I wanted to have an observational style of storytelling. The Easter Parade was something I really enjoyed reading around the time. Hanif Kureshi’s Intimacy is the other one I enjoyed reading. I was also enjoying Succession —not that Succession has anything to do with the film, but I kept thinking, how can I bring this kind of authenticity into my work?

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You have this tendency towards clean, uncluttered frames. One can see this in the trailer for ‘Gehraiyaan’, along with a kind of melancholy.

I think you hit the nail on the head. Melancholy, ennui, the feeling of being stuck—how do we represent that, how do we represent the claustrophobia? How do we get the viewer into the headscape of these people? A lot of that comes from framing and music.

Did you workshop with the actors?

Yes, lots of workshops. We did reading and acting, intimacy, yoga, all of that. I wanted to make sure we delve into intimacy the right way, create a safe environment for actors to feel they can be vulnerable.

Intimacy workshopping is something that’s new to Indian film. I was very, very nervous. My friend, Dar Gai, had shot some beautiful music videos that I loved and so I called her in. It’s a lot of trust-building exercises, like theatre, so you understand each other’s boundaries, consent, what their vulnerabilities are.

Gehraiyaan releases on 11 February on Amazon Prime Video.

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