Whether it is ‘Shahid’, ‘Aligarh’, ‘Omerta’, ‘Scam 1992’ or the upcoming ‘Faraaz’, National Award-winning filmmaker Hansal Mehta seems to have found his space in telling stories that are based on real-life characters or incidents. ‘Faraaz’ is based on the events that took place on the night of July 1, 2016, in Dhaka when five militants attacked an upscale cafe and held over 50 people as hostages for more than 12 hours. The film is jointly produced by Anubhav Sinha and Bhushan Kumar.
In an exclusive interview with Outlook’s Eshita Bhargava, Hansal Mehta talks about his upcoming films, staying non-judgemental while telling the stories, working with Zahan Kapoor and Aditya Rawal, his take on OTT platforms, and much more. Excerpts:
Tell us something about ‘Faraaz’.
‘Faraaz’ is a story of deep humanity and its ultimate triumph in the face of violent adversity. While it is based on true events, it is also a deeply personal story that I’ve held close to my heart for nearly 3 years (early 2019). I was fortunate to meet Faraz’s family and to have understood him more intimately. I’m also glad Anubhav and Bhushanji are backing this story and enabling me to make this thrilling drama exactly the way I envisaged. It is exciting to collaborate with such diverse young talent on this labour of love. I can’t wait for the world to see this film.
How did you go about the casting? What made you choose Zahan Kapoor and Aditya Rawal. Tell us something about them and their characters?
I liked both the boys and when you’ll watch the film, you would know why I chose them. I cast based on my instinct – I saw Zahan in the lift (we live in the same building) and the choice was almost made when he said ‘hello’ to me. I called him a few days later and offered him the film, but mentally I had made my choice. So was the case with Aditya – I had seen his pictures and felt that he was perfect for the character. I met Paresh Rawal for some other work and he narrated a script to me that was written by Aditya, so I asked him for Aditya’s number. The film has four other boys and two girls – I wanted a fresh cast to portray the characters with conviction. For me, this is not the launch film of Sashi Kapoor’s grandson or Paresh Rawal’s son. I told them clearly that I am not the right person to launch anyone. What I can offer is the opportunity to immerse oneself in the character’s journey and to blossom as an actor in a conducive environment.
How was it collaborating with Anubhav Sinha?
Anubhav is a dear friend and it’s been 29 years now. We parallelly began our careers and were doing a different kind of work, but post ‘Shahid’ and ‘Aligarh’, ‘Mulk’, we crossed paths and we started finding our voices. Anubhav had a dream run with ‘Thappad’, ‘Article 15’, ‘Mulk’ and he wanted to produce a film for me and it was ‘Faraz’. He has backed something I was passionate about and then Anubhav himself is a very good writer, so he added valuable inputs to the script.
Did the lockdown help you be more creative?
By God's grace, the lockdown has been busy for me. I was busy completing the edit of ‘Scam 1992’, was finishing ‘Chhalang’ – I can be only grateful that I could be creatively engaged during the lockdown.
‘Shahid’ and onwards, the kind of films you make or started making completely changed. How was that process?
You know, just before ‘Shahid’, I had made a film called ‘Woodstock Villa’ (2008) which was a complete failure and I was completely despaired and started questioning myself as to why am I even making films. I took a break that extended to nearly 3 years – I left the city, lived in a village with family, I cooked, started a social business, attended a longish management development program, attended a screenwriting workshop, and just explored myself – that was the turning point for me in my career. And then Shahid happened.
How do you stay non-judgemental while telling a story?
A film is an extension of a filmmaker’s character and I am personally non-judgemental. I like to interact with people and try to understand them, accepting them with all their flaws. I approach my films and character keeping the same in mind – they become a part of my extended worldview. Through the process of telling the story, I explore my characters and try to understand them – not judge them. Through this exploration, I seek a greater understanding of our world.
You’ve been open about the many professional rejections that you faced. What kept you going and humble?
By working all the time and by balancing the time with my family. At home, I am the least interesting person. I am simply the messy cook who they demand food from. Somewhere cooking regularly helps me stay grounded. Even while shooting for ‘Faraaz’, I used to cook for almost 25 people and that gave me immense happiness.
You are vocal on social media. Why is it important for you to speak up?
It’s an extension of the way I have become. I cannot keep quiet now – I’ve kept silent for many years and I don’t want to be a silent spectator anymore. It kills me from inside to see something wrong happening around me and to remain silent. This is how I always will be. I will voice my opinion and I will never be afraid to do so.
What do have to say about OTT platforms?
OTT has been liberating for me as a filmmaker and storyteller. I am enjoying the freedom to narrate a story through my films. It gives you more time to spend with the characters because of its long-form nature like we did in Scam 1992 with Harshad Mehta and all the characters who inhabited his story. On the other hand, a film like ‘Aligarh’ would not have translated into a long-form story. But it would have found more audience on OTT (it is currently languishing in a censored version on an obscure platform owned by its producers). Long-form and feature films will always co-exist. So will OTT and cinema halls. Stories will find their audience.
What’s your equation with Rajkummar Rao? When are we going to see you work with him again?
Rajkummar is more than just an actor for me – he is family to me. I love him like I love my children. A lot has happened in my life since 2013 when Rajkummar became a part of ‘Shahid’. He was recommended by Mukesh Chhabra, Anurag Kashyap and I met him hesitantly that time as I was unsure about how I as a failed director could find the resources to make the film with him. It was a difficult choice back then but after I met him, I was clear that no one else could play my Shahid. That one decision changed my life. If my current day filmography is appreciated, a huge amount of credit must go to Rajkummar.
I’ve missed shooting with him since we finished Chhalang in mid-2019. We’ll soon be working together and we’ve already discussed a script.