If first-time film-makers were to be judged on the basis of whom they have assisted, Nitya Mehra would have the most impressive CV. Between 2002-11, Mehra worked under film-makers as varied as Mira Nair, Ang Lee and Farhan Akhtar. The experience, in her own words, taught her more about cinema than she could ever have learnt in a film school.
The Amritsar-born writer-director makes her debut with Baar Baar Dekho (BBD), with Sidharth Malhotra and Katrina Kaif in the lead roles. She talks to us about the film’s “unusual theme”, neutrality in actors, and why films should get the budgets they deserve. Edited excerpts:
Tell us about your years as an assistant director to Nair, Lee, Akhtar.
I always knew I wanted to tell stories. Once I decided that it had to be films, I knew assisting would be the best way to learn. But it began with working in a travel show in Delhi—where I did my graduation—travelling the length and breadth of the country. I started getting gigs there as a personal assistant with foreign projects. The AD (assistant director) circuit being small, I soon got a call from Reema (Kagti) for Lakshya (2004). One thing led to the other…Mira Nair, Ang Lee. I have been lucky because these are people whose work I admire deeply.
I was mesmerized by Mira when I first assisted her for The Namesake (2006). I was a fangirl on the sets and we got along like a house on fire. She loves girls and likes that kind of female power. I was technically not assisting her in The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012). But I wanted to help her as if she is my guru. I was inspired by her mad passion. She is passionate from the time she wakes up, about the food she eats to the way she talks or directs the actors. From Ang, with whom I worked on Life Of Pi (2012), I learnt the art of Zen film-making and how silences are really important. That the energy with which one walks into the set transmits itself to everyone around you and eventually finds its way to the screen. And from Farhan—whom I assisted in Don (2006)—I learnt meticulousness, the importance of having clarity of mind.
How did ‘Baar Baar Dekho’ happen?
Ritesh Sidhwani, co-founder of Excel Entertainment, had received a concept from a writer. When he gave it to me, I had almost rejected it after reading 25 pages of it. It was about NRIs living in New Jersey. Nothing against them, but I just don’t relate to the kind of nostalgia that NRIs have for India that is stuck in time. I have always wanted my characters to live here. But I read the whole thing on his insistence and realized that he wanted me to take the concept and make it in our own way.
The writer was gracious enough to sell it. I wanted a co-writer, whom I found in comedian Anuvab Pal, who is amusing and intelligent. We submitted a 15-pager to the producers and started working on it. Karan Johar, whom I didn’t know personally, heard about the script from Sidharth Malhotra and came on board as co-producer along with Excel Entertainment.
The film seems to have a somewhat fantastical theme but the trailer gives away very little. How would you describe it?
Some people think it is about time travel, it is not. It doesn’t have a car like Back To The Future (1985) or a device as in Mr India (1987). But I believe you can have experiences in life that you can’t put your fingers on. Like a déjà vu or an LSD trip. Some people wake up in the morning feeling something strange and strong but they can’t put their finger on it. I leave a lot of room for the human mind, the power of it and what it can do to you. And what we don’t do today is listen to it. There is too much noise.
There are universal questions like dream versus reality, science versus religion, birth versus death that I have tried to use in the film. It is all sounding complex. But it is a simple film dealing with simple emotions about human relationships, a glimpse into life through a love story. I have set it in an extraordinary world because I don’t like reality. Don’t get me wrong. I like watching documentaries but I don’t want to make them. I am very inspired and drawn to films like Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004), The Truman Show (1998), Being John Malkovich (1999) or even, say, Mr India. These films are slightly hyper-real but they say a lot. Of course, I’m nowhere close to these and BBD is not that hyper-real. But it is an unusual film.
Being a commercial film-maker is also about constant negotiations with external factors. For example, the compulsion of working with stars. How do you deal with that?
As a writer, I let my imagination run wild and that comes at a cost. Every film-maker makes that choice. Do you want to tell the story? What does it take to tell that story? I would say I have been lucky to have producers who let me make it the way I wanted to. But I also think love stories are star vehicles. I love the idea of the handsome romantic hero.
I had seen Sidharth Malhotra in only one film, Hasee Toh Phasee (2014), and I thought he doesn’t bring any particular personality to the screen. That is exciting for a director—to take someone who is sort of neutral and inject him with the character. Similarly, with Katrina, I had only seen her in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011). When I looked her up on the Internet, I found very little of her. I didn’t understand her at all. She was a blank slate in that sense, which was great.
Having said that, I just wish that we had more star-actors willing to take risks with different scripts. That would help many so-called smaller films get made with the kind of budgets they deserve. Everyone here is struggling to make a film because there are just fewer actors that can get you those budgets.
Do you think that as a woman film-maker you bring certain things that are different from a male director?
I wouldn’t know because I haven’t been anything other than a woman (laughs). It is mostly at the human level. But maybe women film-makers bring nuances that are skewed towards the female outlook. It is easier for me to write male characters because I constantly observe them. I love their minds, how easy they are. I don’t introspect on women as much. They are much more complex, in a nice way. It’s a lovely difference, and balances each other beautifully. And that’s why both the leads in my film have equally important roles.
Baar Baar Dekho released in theatres on Friday.