Surrogacy, the Aarushi-Hemraj double murder and now the India-Pakistan equation. It is always the subject, says Meghna Gulzar, whose films reflect her preoccupation with issues of relevance to the India of today. The director of Filhaal, Talvar and now Raazi, a cross-border spy drama that explores the India-Pakistan dynamic against the backdrop of 1971 War, believes her growth as a filmmaker has coincided with the maturing of the audience.
"As filmmakers, we tell stories that come out of our surroundings and we tell them for the people who are going to see them, of the people who are going to see them. We are making these stories for us. I feel there has been a mutual growth between me as a filmmaker and the audiences. They are also appreciating these films more and maybe I am also doing my job better," Gulzar said.
Her 2002 debut film Filhaal, on surrogate motherhood, was a "little too ahead of its times", she says. The critically acclaimed film, which did not do too well at the box office, was followed by Just Married, about the travails of a couple after their arranged marriage, and a story in the anthology film Dus Kahaaniyan.
There was an eight-year gap before Gulzar found her mojo again with the 2015 Talvar, which explored the sensational Aarushi Talwar-Hemraj murders and has come to be known as one of India's finest films made in the true-crime genre.
Gulzar, 44, considers Talvar her "rebirth" as a director. It has taken just two years for her latest, Raazi, starring Alia Bhatt, to be ready for release. Has she been "more prolific" in her second innings?
"Honestly, I am scared of that word. I think it largely depends on the subject rather than the filmmaker. It is always the subject for me," she said. She believes it was destiny that kept bringing the story of Raazi, based on the book Calling Sehmat, back to her.
"This story just kept coming to me but things did not materialise for a long time. By that time, the writer Harinder S Sikka and I had developed a bond. He said, 'No one else, but you will direct the film'. I said, If you trust me, let me develop the material and take it to a studio which is what happened," she said. Cross-border stories come with their own complexities, especially when it comes to exploring the theme of patriotism, but Gulzar says her exploration is rooted in the story.
"I am not looking at the politics of the state while making this film. You will get to see the situation that is related to the period it is set in, nothing more, and nothing less. I wanted to be as honest to the story as possible." Alia was her first choice for the role of the Kashmiri girl who marries into a Pakistani family to spy for her country.
"I could not see anyone else play this part. I approach my craft only on instinct, not with the standing or branding of somebody or what the audience would like or how the box office would respond. The starting point for me is always the instinct. "The story is about a 20-year-old woman who has to look vulnerable throughout her tumultuous journey. In my mind, the physicality of Alia suited the character the most. I was just fortunate that she agreed to do the film," said Gulzar.
If the trailers are any indication, Raazi is devoid of the Bollywood brand of chest-thumping patriotism that have become something of a mainstay in cross-border stories.
Gulzar, the daughter of filmmaker-lyricist Gulzar and actor Rakhee, believes it has a lot to do with her sensibility as a filmmaker. "There is certain sensitivity in the personality and that reflects in the work. If I give the example of Talvar, the story could have been told in different ways but it was told that way because a lot depends on the sensitivity and sensibility of a filmmaker."
Gulzar is excited that Vishal Bhardwaj, who produced Talvar, is taking forward the theme of urban crime in a sequel where he will explore the cause and effect of a child's murder in a Gurgaon school. "Talvar has a certain branding in the true crime genre. These stories are a reflection of our society and there are stories that need to be told and who better than Vishal Bhardwaj to do that," she said.
Besides Alia, Raazi, which releases on May 11, brings together a host of talented actors, including Alia's mother Soni Razdan,Vicky Kaushal, Rajit Kapur, Shishir Sharma and Jaideep Ahlawat.
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