It takes so long to do things,” Reema Kagti says. “It’s hard to keep track.”
In her office in Santacruz, Mumbai, 39-year-old Kagti is tracing her new film back to its origins. Talaash, Kagti’s second film, is actually based on a story she and her co-writer, film-maker Zoya Akhtar, wrote about eight years ago, well before Kagti or Akhtar had made either of their first films. There have been technical snags and editing delays since the film went on the floor, and rumours about conflicts over the film’s release, strenuously denied by cast and crew alike, have been rife. Talaash has had a long gestation period.
“The idea came from Zoya,” Kagti says. “Farhan (Akhtar, founding partner at Excel Entertainment, film-maker and Zoya’s brother) literally walked into our room and asked us, ‘What are you doing?’ We told him and he said, ‘I’ll buy it for Excel,’ and we were like, ‘Yay! We sold our story!’”
Kagti had come to Mumbai as a teenager, via school in Delhi and a childhood home in Borhapjan, Tinsukia (Assam), where her father has a farm. “I watched all kinds of films, but I don’t know...” she says. “Partly because the North-East is a bit cut off, partly because the 1980s weren’t a very good time for Hindi cinema, most of the stuff I had access to was pretty B-grade. I was the only person who watched all of (the films).”
She was always a writer, selling tickets to friends’ parents to come and see the plays she wrote and staged as a child, and selling short stories to Tinkle comics for Rs.25 a piece—“Humble beginnings,” she smiles. Her life as a film buff began early too. Her Aha! moment came one morning in Chanakyapuri, New Delhi. “I bunked school to go watch Salaam Bombay!,” she remembers. “And that was it. The moment I thought, ‘You should do this.’”
In Mumbai as a college student, she entered the film industry as an assistant on movies like Kaizad Gustad’s Bombay Boys, where her fellow assistant director (AD) was Zoya Akhtar. They started to write together, and through Zoya, Kagti met Farhan, who was then writing his own first film, Dil Chahta Hai. “Before I’d gone off to work on Lagaan (a film on which Kagti was AD), he was like, ‘Listen, my film’s happening. Are you going to work on it?’ I said yeah. It just happened in an organic way.”
In spite of their continuing closeness, two years after the Talaash story had been sold to Excel, Zoya and Kagti had both begun to regret selling it. “But we’d taken that money. We went on holiday,” Kagti remembers ruefully. Excel wasn’t selling it back. Fortunately, in time, Kagti’s first film, Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd., was made and released. “They asked me what I was going to do next,” Kagti says. “And because I felt that it’s a special story and I think it’s kind of quite unique to what Zoya and I can do as writers, and that one of us should do it, I said, ‘Listen, that story that I told you all, that we really regret selling you. Can I do it for Excel?’” Kagti laughs.
The trailer of Talaash plays its cards close to the chest. So does Kagti, who doesn’t want to say anything about the film that can’t already be gleaned from its promo. A Mumbai policeman, Surjan Singh Shekhawat, played by Aamir Khan in a tragic moustache, becomes involved in a high-stakes investigation. “There’s a very strong emotional hook to the film,” Kagti says. “I don’t want to say too much because I want to maintain the suspense. It’s been designed to get people interested—in a kind of gripping, edge-of-the-seat way that you don’t normally see in contemporary Hindi film.”
With its glossy, stylized visual aesthetic and (we may presume) narrative of male self-discovery, Talaash joins a worthy tradition of Excel entertainers. But Kagti and Zoya Akhtar’s stamp, while recognizable, isn’t quite predictable. Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd. was a bold first-time feature: A massive ensemble film about six couples travelling together to Goa on a package honeymoon tour. What looks like a wacky, accident-prone road trip becomes a series of small, taut marital dramas that walk the line between tragedy and farce.
“I feel like I was unprepared in spite of my AD production background,” Kagti remembers. “It gives you a really good vantage point to see how other people do it, but doesn’t really teach you the basics. So my first film, I think, was about cutting my teeth. Film-making is also really expensive; you don’t really do it unless somebody funds you, or you get to film school. I think that’s a big advantage of film school.” Kagti applied to the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, early in her career, but wasn’t accepted.
“Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd. started as my attempt to do feel-good cinema,” Kagti says, and laughs. “A lot of people were like ‘Are you mad?’ What do I do? This is who I am! But it worked out. I got away with it.”
Kagti has another script in hand which she wrote much before Honeymoon—never made, she says, because it was “too dark”. She says she’d like to try her hand at it now. Audiences have changed over time; certainly Excel’s writers and film-makers have found the sort of movie-goers they may not have imagined when they first started out. “The amount of work most film industries worldwide are putting out grows significantly less every year,” Kagti says. “But the growth in the Hindi film industry is way more than even projected growth. I think the markets are changing very quickly. It’s a very, very good time.”
Talaash releases in theatres on 30 November.