‘Cliches give you instant accessibility’

Director Habib Faisal talks about his kind of cinema

Very few may know Habib Faisal for his directorial debut in 2010- ‘Do Dooni Char’. The film managed fairly well at the box office but didn’t get him the kind of recognition that he deserved. Regardless, his heart-warming story of a middle-class family that aspired to own a car (in Do Dooni Char) earned him a National Award for “Best Hindi film” apart from a couple of Filmfare trophies. Today, he is excited about his latest directorial venture ‘Ishaqzaade’ which is releasing under the Yash Raj banner. His association with the production house has been a seasoned one as he has had story, screenplay or dialogue credits in many Yash Raj movies like ‘Salaam Namaste’, ‘Jhoom Barabar Jhoom’, ‘Ta Ra Rum Pum’ and even the breakthrough hit ‘Band Baaja Baraat’. While the promos of his latest reveal the larger plot of the film, he seems to be cautious about letting out too much. The reason for his secrecy, “It will be a spoiler if I tell you more than the promos tell you.” Fair enough. But he does agree to chat up with Kunal Guha about his ideology behind picking subjects and why he loves clichés.

What are the calculated risks in making a film with no stars?

Calculated, I don’t know but every film is a risk from the point that you start writing it. When you’re writing something, it would be something that excites you but does it excite the audience? So you just go with your excitement and hope that the same excitement will have a connect with the viewers. So from the writing stage to the casting stage, would anyone be interested in seeing Neetu Singh in a sweater, considering the fact that she’s Ranbir Kapoor’s mother and there’s a risk in altering her glamorous image? Will burger fights be entertaining? These were questions that I thought of when I made ‘Do Dooni Char’. In any film, you’re trying to showcase an interplay of emotion between your characters. You’re putting that out on the screen and whether the audience will be entertained by that and take something away from it is the risk. In industry parlance, it is considered a risk to not do a film with established stars because you don’t get the eye balls and then you don’t get the numbers. But I was a part of ‘Band Baaja Baraat’ and we took the risk that paid off. Anushka wasn’t a star. She had done ‘Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi’ but that was more of a Shah Rukh Khan film. She had done ‘Badmaash Company’ but that was an ensemble film. So, she was 2 films old and Ranveer was a rank newcomer but it paid off and that gave us the confidence to do it again.
In this case, we didn’t go for a newcomer because we wanted to create two new stars. This film is set in a fictitious small-town called Alnor although we have shot in Luknow and around. Mainly because it dealt with such universal issues that I didn’t want it to imitate or be located to a Rampur or a Saharanpur or a Bhatinda. If it is a fictitious town, you can imagine R K Narayan’s ‘Malgudi Days’ and if you have very well-known stars in that film, it would be a different take. But I strongly felt that it should be new people. Not just Arjun and Parineeti but the rest of the cast as well. We had cast people from Luknow, Kanpur, Banaras, Allahbad, some from Delhi and Bombay and many  of them were coming in front of the camera for the very first time. This was a very conscious and creative choice and I am lucky that I have a producer who backed that choice. There is a certain risk involved because you make a film and you put it money and you want that money. Both the lead characters have to get the attention of the viewers and so far it seem to have paid off since there is a strong buzz around the film.
Habib Faisal on 'Ishaqzaade'
What was the central idea for Ishaqzaade before you began working on it?
In this case there wasn’t one single incident as such. This has a lot to do with my observations. There are two realities- one is a filmic reality, which in a country like ours where films are very important for us, is almost considered to be the truth. And the second one is the actual reality. So in filmic reality- falling in love and society’s acceptance of love have been taken for granted. But in real life, whether in cities or small-town, whether it involves people from any level of education or any religion, any young girl or boy who takes his lover home to meet his/her parents and say that they want to get married and declare their love for each other is rarely greeted positively. So the outcome is generally against the filmic reality. So that was my observation- that in the world around us, this falling in love was such a big deal that those who managed to stand by their love and fight for their love are ‘Ishaqzaade’. But this script is not such a simple one that can be triggered by the launch of a Nano which was the starting point for ‘Do Dooni Char’. I don’t want to talk much about it because it would be a spoiler. It is about the small town attitude and spunk of present day India. Like people in small towns don’t want the big cities anymore since they’ve developed quite a bit. They want to live in their Indore and their Bhopal etc.

In ‘Do Dooni Char’ you said that you were conversant with the language and tone of Delhi, how did you manage to master the language spoken in small towns since your film is based in one?
My five-year stint as a news cameraman has really helped me with that. I have travelled extensively to the interiors of the country and in the process, one would meet so many different kinds of people. I would get to not only shoot them but also listen to them. Somewhere, being from the theatre also helped since your observations become a part of your subconscious. When your script is ready, the place where you plan to shoot in gives it that authenticity and colour.
Habib Faisal
In what way does the place where the story is set in influence the characters?
In a major way. The city is like a character to me. For me, that has always been the case. ‘Jhoom Barabar Jhoom’ bombed but London was as important a character as Abhishek and Preity. ‘Do Dooni Char’ couldn’t have been anywhere else but in Delhi. The story and concerns are very universal but the entertainment is there because it’s coming from a certain kind of Delhi (in Do Dooni Char). Earlier everybody used to be scared of cultural specificity in a film. So there was one language of all Hindi film in which everyone would go through the ‘jazbaat ki aandhi’ and everybody’s love was expressed only through a set bank of dialogues. But today I can call love- ‘mauj’ and love-making- a ‘kaand’ and people would get it even if they don’t know the literal meaning of ‘kaand’ as in the case of ‘Band Baaja Baraat’ but just the sound of it says that this guy is irreverent about in his experience. When Bittoo Sharma says ‘raita phehal jayega’, the raita is not going to literally phehlo from a katori. But everybody gets it. So it is the cultural specificity that gives it that flavor.
Today everybody understands what Paan Singh Tomar and his ensemble cast is saying, sitting here in Mumbai. They may not have understood the literal and exact meaning of the words and you don’t take a dictionary to the movie but they still get it. Like you don’t get a word of Brad Pitt’s character in ‘Snatch’ but it doesn’t matter because it is a visual medium. That confidence allows you to experiment with language.

When I interviewed you before ‘Do Dooni Char’, you had said that you don’t want to make all your films about adverse situations. So where does Ishaqzaade derive its juice from?
What I meant was everything won’t be about the lack of something material. Every story has a lack or absence of something and that leads to conflict. So therefore if two people are in love, in a post modern love story, it would be accepted and it would become a habit and then there would be an absence of love and there would be a conflict. Then whether that love is replenished or not will become its conclusion. In ‘Ishaqzaade’, it begins with absolutely obsessive hate- these two characters hate each other enough to kill each other. They fire at each other with the intention of killing. So there is an adversity of love. When they find love, there is opposition to that and then what do they do with it becomes the story of the film. When I meant adversity what I meant was that it won’t be about material adversity like it was for a car in ‘Do Dooni Char’. But it will always be about the lack of something and all stories are driven by that absence.
A still from Ishaqzaade
Your cast has admitted to have gone through a rigorous workshop designed by you to get into the skin of their characters. So what was the workshop all about and how did you manage to transform them?
It’s not like I can wave a Harry Potter’s magic wand and scream ‘Abracadabra’ and it’s done. It’s a long process and it has primarily to do with them. I just give them tools. Like if someone is good, you cannot just say that. You have to create a scene to prove that and show if that good has to do with generosity or with honesty or what kind of good is it. So I gave them scenes to learn about their character. The workshops had to do with making them flexible with their body language and getting used to the language. I met a driver whose name is Avneesh Yadav and his language was ditto like the character I had imagined. So I asked Arjun to hang out with that guy and learn his way of talking. I took Arjun and Parineeti to Luknow where they met people and hung out there and learnt how to flavour their character. This is done in every film, it’s just that it was harder for them since they have no knowledge of these spaces. Parineeti has just returned by Manchester a few years back and Arjun has always lived in Juhu- which is a posh area in Mumbai so they had to learn their characters.

Since you’ve had a long association with the Yash Raj team, has your perception of them changed since you’re directing a film for them? Or do they see you differently now?
No, I am directing for them but my perspective hasn’t changed. This is something that had been brewing between Aditya Chopra and I. Writing and directing doesn’t change your perspective in anyway. And if you ask me if their perspective has changed towards me, again, not really. I have been writing for them for quite some time. Them- is Aditya Chopra. And when you’re writing, there’s a director and there’s Aditya Chopra and in that process, he would’ve figured out whether I am worthy of money being invested in me or not. Be it a film I am writing or a film I am making, they had seen my work and that Adi (Aditya Chopra) really loves and likes. He won’t expect me to make a Kabir Khan film. He wants Kabir Khan to make his kind of films. He wants Shimit Amin to make his kind of films. He wants Victor to make a ‘Dhoom’. He wants Ali to make a ‘Brother ki Dulhan’. He wants Manish Sharma to make a ‘Band Baaja Baraat’. So, he wants Habib Faisal to make a Habib Faisal film.
A still from the movie 'Ishaqzaade'

What is a Habib Faisal film?
Habib Faisal has just made one film and the other one people will get to know about only on 11th May. But what excites me and what I want to make- that I can tell you as a writer and director. My biggest challenge has always been to make something very simple which is very important and take that and turn it into dramatic. Every time people would be completely surprised by a simple story, like about buying a car and how it can be made into something very big. By big, I don’t mean scale but big in terms of the larger message- like ‘Do Dooni Char’ explained the position of a teacher in society. Likewise, ‘Band Baaja Baraat’ is the most clichéd story. Boy meets girl, rom-com kind of banter happens and then the conflict gets resolved. But in that journey, you got to understand how a behenji can also have very strong ambitions and the whole conflict between ‘pyaar’ and ‘vyapaar’. So what I strive for is simple equations becoming big. And not mounting them to make them so big that they become un-relatable.

Since almost every love and hate story has been explored, will the future of B’wood be devoid of love stories?
Not at all. That is the beauty of a love story. It can be a Casablanca, it can be a Harry Met Sally, it can be a Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, it can be a Dev D and it can also be a Devdas. I love clichés. The best thing about a cliché is accessibility and instant accessibility so that you can tell a story quickly if you know how to use a cliché. Consider that Johnny Depp movie where he plays a chameleon. It’s a cliché of a western and they manage to weave in the topic of scarcity of water and that is the beauty of a cliché. Love stories and their structure are the best possible cliché that one can have and with that, as we evolve or regress or change as people, our love stories will remain boy meets girl or the other way around. There will be conflict and the conflict will get resolved. It could get resolved tragically or happily but in that process something new and interesting will happen because the makers will come from a different perspective. So love stories will never die. We always fantasize about the perfect falling in love and the trick is that we filmmakers set it up and then we obliterate it and then in that journey we take you through what we as people are.

You might also like:

Ishaqzaade: Behind the scenes

Movie Song: Pareshaan from Ishaqzaade

All about Ishaqzaade

Here are the best dialogues in Ishaqzaade: