“One should never fear to seek love!” – Tanuja Chandra, Director of Qarib Qarib Singlle

It is almost the end of 2017, the era of Tinders and OK Cupids that decides the fate of love and relationships in a highly materialistic, post-modern contemporary India. Considering we have practically emptied our deep pockets by overdoing love stories for decades now, it has become a challenge to narrate something unique anymore, especially about relationships. Their flaws, the shelf life of a fast-food love affair that pops like a Shakespearean bubble, their heartbreaks, and if luck would have it, even their successes – might seem so simple at the outset, but no relationship can be made to fit in a DIY ‘happily ever after’ model anymore.

I had the chance to watch Qarib Qarib Singlle directed by the wonderful Tanuja Chandra who is known for her films like Sangharsh, Dushman etc, and the same thoughts about love and relationships enveloped me. Why must a celluloid love affair be perfect? Why can’t it have troubles like the real ones do? Jaya and Yogi are not perfect (thank god!) and I think that is what makes this love story unique. In this interview, I ask Tanuja about a lot of things, her films, her politics etc., read on…

Let’s start with your story. Could you tell us about your childhood, your growing and working years and education, to the extent that informs the work you do currently?

I’ve had a middle-class childhood. One learns what one is taught of course, but more than that one absorbs what one watches. So, my parents were the ideal teachers, in a sense. They’re incorruptible, their integrity is flawless, they are hardworking, funny, and graceful. They encouraged us to read books, my mother especially laughs out loud a lot and enjoys telling stories, so the love of the creative arts came from there. They’re also modest people and so none of my siblings, nor I can successfully be bombastic or boastful. All three of us studied in India and abroad. My sister and I returned to India to live and work in, my brother stayed in the U.S. where he teaches creative writing (Berkeley, California) and writes. The interesting thing here is that grace in one’s parents can often inculcate a kind of liberal mindset in middle-class children which is the case for my siblings and me. And this informs our way of working as well as the committedly progressive outlook in the stories we choose to tell.

What drew you to filmmaking? From journalism to filmmaking, was it a natural transition?

During my journalistic days as well, I planned to make fiction eventually. In my early years of work I directed and edited stories of social relevance, even did stories on the communal riots in Mumbai and the bomb blasts that followed. I did this in the form of video magazines produced by a company called Plus Channel. This formed my early training.

Filmmaking was something I grew interested in after I finished my BA in Mumbai in English Literature. I guess there was always a bent towards it but what my interest in journalism did was bring one’s social milieu, the world one lives in, into my movies. I like to make movies that are rooted in the world we live in.

No one wants a long lecture on equality. But yes, if there is a character whom you’re supposed to dislike because they are saying things that make you uncomfortable, and they charm their way into your heart, well, then that’s a storyteller’s job well done!

Through filmmaking, you have openly addressed a lot of social issues, those that are rather denied/brushed under by the consumers/lawmakers. Was there a specific defining moment in your journey that drew you into it?

I’ve always been interested in social culture, social concerns, values, justice, ills, especially to do with women and marginalized groups. I cannot remember a point in my life when I didn’t think about injustice or didn’t think that all human beings are absolutely equal. Naturally, this would percolate into my work. I try not to be didactic though. No one wants a long lecture on equality. But yes, if there is a character whom you’re supposed to dislike because they are saying things that make you uncomfortable, and they charm their way into your heart, well, then that’s a storyteller’s job well done!

In a world where all oppressions are interlinked, it might sometimes feel like a sticky wicket to talk about it from a privileged position – how do you navigate these personal hurdles – how do you describe your position as a filmmaker?

Of course, I speak from a privileged position. All the more incumbent upon me to do it. I can only present my own point of view, speak through my personal understanding of the world we live in. There is nothing I can do but this. But I don’t live in a vacuum, I see life around me, experience it. And I try to portray it as truthfully as I can. While films cannot change the world, films do play a part in the way we look at each other, especially how the world looks at women. I own up to that responsibility. If I ever have anything remotely sexist in my film, it will never be for the sake of condoning it. I’ll never make a film which downgrades women, makes it alright for them to be shown as inferior or unworthy.

I hope someday soon, there will come a time when films about women, made by women will be in big numbers, will be welcomed by audiences and producers alike and will change the way stories are told in the entertainment business.

What do you think are/about the problems which make funding process of the film difficult and often times impossible because of the gender of the filmmaker? How did you go about that aspect for your own films?

The gender of the filmmaker is not the problem. I’ve never faced any resistance because of that in any serious way. Possibly just the odd skepticism here or there or an action director who didn’t like taking orders from a woman, but that’s the extent of it. The real issue comes from choosing a subject which may be a woman’s story or may have a female protagonist.

When I started out, it was a bigger issue, now somewhat less. However, even now, the budget of a film with a woman at the center of the story will necessarily be smaller than one in which the protagonist is a male. And this comes from the price tag of the female film being lower, such a film sells for less and that’s why the budget needs to be adjusted accordingly. I think the audience is fairly open in this regard. If there is an engaging film, whether comedy or drama, with a woman at the heart of it, people will watch it. Television has proven this beyond doubt.

For my films, I proceed with an understanding of this mathematics. I don’t exist in some kind of bubble ignoring these constraints. I work towards making a film as best as in quality as possible with its given budget. I hope someday soon, there will come a time when films about women, made by women will be in big numbers, will be welcomed by audiences and producers alike and will change the way stories are told in the entertainment business.

Could you tell us how QQS came about? How was your experience taking a piece of your mother’s work, who is a veteran screenwriter herself, and immerse that in your own film?

I had always loved my mother’s radio play because it was cute and fun! When I decided to make a screenplay out of it with my co-writer, Gazal Dhaliwal, I was sure it needed to be contemporary and progressive, as well as funny and entertaining. We worked on it hard and for quite a long time.

A screenplay is possibly the most difficult part of filmmaking. One can never perfect this skill, one never fully controls a script, it keeps getting away. But one pushes and revises many, many times and tries to keep one’s head above water! That said, the soul of QQS is very much from my mother’s play, which is why it rings true. It is what I call a ‘Hindustani rom-com’ and that comes from her worldview.

What thoughts do you want to leave the audience with after they finish watching QQS?

That one should never fear to seek love. Love can never be perfect, it brings all sorts of heartache and tears with it, but then life is also more fun with it. More complete.That first love need not be the final one. There is a second, third, fourth time possible, which may be even better! 

And finally, that one need not forget past loves. We should, in fact, remember them, cherish them, and alongside that, we should move ahead. To future love. (And if all this is too lofty, then hell, I’d just like the audience to leave with a smile!)

Could you take us through the casting process, how did you arrive at the final cast of QQS?

While writing I always had Irrfan in mind for the role of Yogi. He just fit it too well. Irrfan took his time to say yes for this and if he hadn’t, I would’ve obviously gone to other actors, but it wouldn’t be easy to find such a perfect Yogi.

As for Parvathy, she came about later. For the role of Jaya I needed someone strong and at the same time, someone vulnerable too. Someone who was self-made and independent but also unsure of herself in the relationship scenario. She was sorely out of touch with the dating scenario but was searching for love. I found these layers in Parvathy. She also was so different from Irrfan that this cultural difference itself added to their chemistry.

The rest of the cast came about from quite an exhaustive auditioning process. Neha Dhupia was perfect for the role of Anjali, who is wealthy and sexy but also someone who deeply remembers the love she once shared with Yogi. A layer of a quiet sorrow was required and Neha brought this about wonderfully.

Any interesting experience, funny moments that you wish to share about working with Parvathy and Irrfan?

Both are from different schools of acting in a sense. He doesn’t like rehearsing much, likes to improvise, likes to be challenged and because his command on Hindi is so great, he adds his own nuances to the dialogues. With him, they don’t feel like dialogues at all. Parvathy memorizes her lines, doesn’t deviate much from them and improves with rehearsals. I had to often break her down, as in, remove her idea of the performance from her mind and bring a naturalness to it, an urgent truth to it. And I confess, I pushed her hard, pushed her with aggression. And she was able to withstand that. My expectations from actors are always sky-high. I love a truthful expression more than any other part of filmmaking and I’m willing to go on and on pushing till I get that. Both these are experienced and good actors but both have different styles. That itself provided an interesting chemistry.

The sound of people giggling in a hall, this is just so pleasurable. I’m very sure I want to make another ‘happy’ film again before diving back into the deep end of my comfort zone.

A filmmaker need not be tied to the genre of films they have made, of course. But having focused on serious subjects in most of your earlier films – was it a conscious choice to shift genres with QQS?

I had always wanted to do something fun. I love funny! I laugh a lot. But I didn’t have the guts to try this genre because it’s a very difficult one. Thrill, drama, women’s strong stories – these are my comfort zones. Those come naturally to me as a director. But to make people laugh, or to charm viewers, that’s tough. I loved my mother’s story for its innocence and sweetness and I must say it’s been tremendous changing genres. And now, I’ve tasted blood! The sound of people giggling in a hall, this is just so pleasurable. I’m very sure I want to make another ‘happy’ film again before diving back into the deep end of my comfort zone.

What do you think about the lack of women behind the camera – much to popular opinion of this spell being allegedly broken, I don’t think there are enough women making films, what about you?

It isn’t even close to being broken! Till half the directors/producers/technicians of the film industry aren’t women, we cannot use the word ‘enough’ for sure. In the television industry, women are present in big numbers but the film industry is very far behind. Women need to tell stories. I would love to see many, many more women directing films, writing scripts, and doing just about everything in a movie! How awesome would that be?

Your films have always been ahead of their times, almost like a premonition to the times ahead. Considering the state of affairs of our country right now, politically speaking, would you consider writing and directing films that reflect the times now?

Even though I may sound conceited, I agree, my films have been ahead of their time. If Dushman or Sangharsh had released in recent years, they would’ve been bigger hits. At the time they were made, those kinds of films were absolute anomalies. Even my latest release, I have a feeling will become more loved over time.

I always try to say something about the world we’re living in and I will do so, always. Sometimes this may come about in a hard-hitting way, at other times this may be softer like in Qarib Qarib Singlle, but still unmistakably there. This is what makes a story relevant, makes it breathe, makes it something to relate to. And as a writer-director, it gives me something to chew on, something to hold close to my heart.

Could you name some of your favorite women writers, directors? Of the films you’ve watched, what according to you is the most memorable film with a female protagonist?

I like Juhi Chaturvedi, I have enjoyed films made on her scripts. I of course, also love my mother’s Prem Rog and 1942-A Love Story. I quite enjoyed Alankrita’s Lipstick Under My Burkha (dialogues by Gazal), I think 36 Chowringhee Lane is amazing, I also think Konkona is an unusual director. I liked Zoya Akhtar’s debut film a lot and also had fun in Farah Khan’s debut. I would love to see many more films by these women as well as several new female directors.

For me, the greatest female protagonist is Nargis in Mother India. I can never get over how great a character that is and how amazing the performance is. (And in a lighter vein, I enjoyed Hema Malini in Seeta Aur Geeta.)