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Hansal Mehta: "I don’t impose my judgment or political opinions on my characters"

This interview was first published in The Telegraph Online by the same author.


Filmmaker Hansal Mehta doesn’t mince words when expressing his socio-political views neither does he succumb to pressure in telling the stories he wants to tell. He has often taken the path less travelled, and the director opens up about his process of filmmaking after the release of his latest feature, Faraaz.


What was the most important thing for you to capture or address in Faraaz?


I think for me the most important thing was to see that night (of the 2016 terrorist attack on Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka). I wanted to explore all the characters through the story of that night. There was a bigger challenge in terms of craft and storytelling. I was trying to sort of mould the narrative in a particular way that through the drama of the night, how do I get to know all the characters and yet land the film on an emotional note?


Also, all the things that the film is trying to say — the misuse of violence, the clash of ideologies — how do I establish all of these in one night? That was the biggest challenge and that’s why I took up this film to make.


Normally, we show biographies throughout their entire lifespan. In Shahid (2012), you saw Shahid’s life of 17 years in two hours. In Omerta, you saw the protagonist’s entire life. In Aligarh, you saw the last six months of Professor Siras’ life. In Faraaz, it was about how I see a person’s life through the 12 hours of the night.


Why did you choose Zahan Kapoor and Aditya Rawal in their respective roles?


We were very clear that we wanted new actors. We wanted fresh faces who do not carry the pressure of an image. Because the story is about two young boys on opposite sides of the axis, I needed to cast actors who were young and new and who would deliver the tonality that I was seeking. I didn’t want it to look like they were performing.


My work relies on a certain kind of naturalism and realism. The café also had to look real. It need not be bigger than the actual café. My production designer asked me whether the café should be slightly bigger so that it would be easier to move cameras. But I said no to that. It had to feel like I was in that place. So, the performances also had to look like they belonged to that space.


I have been collaborating with casting director Mukesh Chhabra for 10-12 years. He has always surprised me with the talents he got me. I have given him the freedom to give me good talent and I will give them a platform to shine, whether it was Rajkummar Rao or Pratik Gandhi or now these young boys in Faraaz.


What is the most challenging thing while making a film about a real person or an incident?


The challenge is to be as faithful as possible to what you want to say ultimately. And to be honest with the characters that have been created on paper. The writers do their research after which they come to me. I don’t bog myself down with research. My job is to be honest with what I see on paper and translate it the way I see it, with sensitivity and honesty. I never look at whether I am leaning toward the right or left wing. I don’t impose my judgment or political opinions on my characters. The characters have their own opinions and I let that be. I observe them.


In your films, you turn characters into persons. How do you do that?


It is the way I tell my stories. I look at my characters as human beings. If what is unfolding in front of me feels unnatural, I stop it then and there. There’s a very thin line between performing and being there. I keep trading that thin line. I always tell my actors, ‘It is neither your job nor mine to judge the characters. You’re there because you believe in what you’re doing and do just that. Have the passion that your characters have chosen in their path.’


Rajkummar did not judge Omar Shaikh as a bad guy. Aditya Rawal did not judge Nibras as a bad person. He believed that this person was like this. Zahan did not judge himself as a hero or as somebody who is going to be a saviour. All these characters belong to that moment. I always say, ‘Between action and cut, there exists a truth. And I just help everyone find that truth.’


Also, there seems to be a certain detachment because of the way you frame your scenes. What can you tell us about your gaze as a filmmaker?


It’s not detachment. The gaze is observational. I am observing my characters, I am following them and looking at what they’re doing. And through that exploration, I am also allowing you to explore. It’s a duet that I want – me and the audience. Both of us are working together in the story. The audience is my equal collaborator. That’s how I tell my stories. As an audience, I want you to participate in the moments.


You know, some of the biggest endorsers of some of my films are people with whom I share a completely opposite political opinion. Ultimately, I am a filmmaker, not a politician. I have no political agenda to follow through filmmaking. I have no political ambition. My ambition as a filmmaker is that I have chosen a path that is not easy. I have chosen a path in which I have to tell stories, get them made and released, and manage to recover money. Then I have to manage to make my next film. It’s a path that I have consciously chosen. Sometimes, my family asks me, ‘Why did you choose this path?’ I don’t know. I was thrown into this path and this is what I follow.


Is it difficult to make a film that has an ideology different than yours?


I don’t know. I make films about characters that fascinate me and that I want to explore. People say that this is a terror trilogy – Shahid, Omerta and Faraaz. But all I am doing is exploring human beings who are driven to do various things in their lives. Terror happens to be one of them. It scares me why somebody would choose terror.


Has terror stopped? Has the use of religion to justify violence stopped? No. Have we become more polarised because of religion? Yes. So, then, I have to tell my stories. So that there’s a better understanding of the world we’re living in. And I will keep telling the stories.


You’re vocal about your socio-political opinions...


I was. I am not spending too much time on Twitter. It has become extremely toxic and pointless. Because it’s no longer a place where we used to really enjoy sparring and debating with each other and expressing opinions.


Has it ever been awkward or difficult while working with people with different political ideologies?


I find it a waste of time. Actually, artists have no religion after a point. We have different ideologies, and we think differently but we also respect each other for what we do. When there’s no mutual respect, we don’t get along.


Your love for food is well-known. But you have not utilised it in any of your films except in Baai from Modern Love: Mumbai anthology. Do you plan to use it in any of your upcoming projects?


I wish I could find a story that has food at its centre. Shooting food is a very tedious and specialised job.


What other genres do you want to explore in the future?


I have made a film as part of an anthology that Anubhav Sinha has produced. I am excited about that film. It’s called Circle. It’s a very sharp satire. It is something that I have attempted for the first time and I enjoyed making it. It’s a bit of a twisted film. It’s really been a departure.


On a lighter note, would you like to cast a filmmaker in any of your future films?


I tried very hard in a show that I made called Scoop to cast Gattu (Abhishek Kapoor, director of Kai Po Che and Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui). But somehow it didn’t work out between the platform and him because of his dates. I think Gattu has the potential at this age to fit into a slot that many people are not filling in.

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