Subhash K Jha Speaks to director Vasan Bala whose Monica Oh My Darling is a rage on Netflix
Monica O My Darling has been unanimously liked.Does that give you a big high, considering your sparse output?
Yes it’s definitely a big high. All the joy across the team who had come together during the second wave of covid and all the hard work has paid off. All the faith was bestowed on me by the producers because this was a script that was a script developed by them for four years before I came in, and giving this script to me. It’s a huge validation and relief that we as a team were able to put together a film that everyone liked.
Why so little ,only three feature films over so many years? Are you particular about what you direct,or just lazy?
One reason is of course the way the industry is, it is tough to mount projects, but I also would not discount the fact that I am lazy because I have seen other directors. Everyone faces the same problems but I have seen others who have tremendous output who keep writing scripts every day and by the time I have a story people have written five screenplays. So I think it’s both the way the industry is, the way I probably I want to see films or choose films, and laziness. I think its a combination of all that. But I am actively acknowledging it and trying to better it, at least trying to better the rate of making films in this time period that in the coming future is more than just this.
Where and how did the idea for this man-dumb- woman- smart plot in Monica come from?
I think the whole noire genre femme fatale genre, has always been the man dumb woman smart genre. because also what happens in the larger scheme of things is, it is a patriarchal society we live in.Where does the femme fatal come from?It comes from misogyny. It is a rebellion against misogyny. So it is always been this world, a world of one-upmanship, and also the fact that this world is driven by greed and also shows humanity in a fraudulent light so there are so many instances and scope to spice it up. The idea obviously stems from the genre, and we stayed true to the classic theme which is why noire is also being made, at the time goody-goody films were being made, noire kind of exploded and kind of jumped at the audience because it was addressing humanity in a slightly different way. It wasn’t giving you moral-science lectures, it showed flawed human beings and showed men and women equally wanting to be greedy, strong, treacherous and equally wanting to be after each other’s life. So I think noire in that sense lends itself into a great spectrum of human fatality and flaws
I loved Huma and Rajkummar Rao wrestling on the floor with no gender concessions.Was it hard to shoot that sequence?
I am so proud of this particular sequence; it was a short film onto itself wherein he enters the house, they have this conversation and then it intensifies, and gets into a fight. It starts off a little comical and the stakes go high. It almost seems like Jayant(Rajkummar Rao) will lose the battle but then something else happens. She is almost dead but then she comes back alive and then they have a conversation. So there were so many beats to consider and it was always a thin rope or a tight rope to walk .It can’t be too intense or too comical or farcical so I think, kudos to Raj and Huma who walked that line because when you are specifically engaging in physical combat, immense out of trust is required to engage in that physicality because it’s not just one take, it’s a couple of takes and every time they have to trust each other and the great camaraderie that they had off screen and trust they had as friends, they kind of brought that into play to trust each other and have a go at each other and both are incredibly generously accommodating actors, so I am not afraid in the sense that they are taking care of each other even while on screen , although they are not supposed to. So kudos to Raj and Huma who really really sprang up and the way it just built out. It was a pleasure watching them and somehow getting it right because we always knew that this was one of those really tricky graphs to arrive at from the start to end of the scene because it was also such a long scene.
Please tell me about your casting.Were all of these actors your first choice? I feel getting the casting right in a tragedy of greed is half the battle won.
Casting is the most important thing and also what I really feel is over the years having worked in so many films as an assistant director and also as a casting director, writer and as a director now, I feel casting is the biggest miracle.We have great ideas we have all our potential stars we have all our combinations of who will get what money, so much minds one puts into casting, very little discussion is about will they fit the character, but inspite of all this it’s almost like that phrase ” daane daane pe likha hai khaane wale ka naam“, it’s exactly that. Whoever is meant to play the role lands the role. And no matter what you do, no matter who says yes, no matter you are shooting, no matter what considerations you had, somehow things fall in place the way it has to and not the way you want. Of course, you have your fights, you want to hold on to certain things, you want to let go of certain things, we also take those stands but I always feel casting is some incredible miracle. We don’t know which phonecall we had taken when, we dont know which photograph we have seen when we dont know which photograph was sent to us but we have seen someone else in that photograph and not the person who had sent it someone else for consideration. So casting is exactly like that great Zoya Akhtar film Luck By Chance. It just falls in place when it has to fall in place.
Peddlers ,Mard Ko Dard Nahin and now Monica O My Darling …somehow Mard remains your calling card into the kingdom of quirkiness.What do you have to say about its retro popularity?
Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota happened at a time when after Peddlers I was getting no work. It was a different feeling.We made an extremely low budget indie film at a production of a crore and a half or maybe even less than that, and we to came as a team and celebrated. And once we came back, it was just a huge punch down because I came back to reality. Because going to Cannes, having the French watch the film and getting positive reviews, and probably traveling to other festivals didn’t mean that I am going get to make another film. I had written another script and I just struggled to convince anyone to put in any money into the film. It was almost like a ‘kala dhabba’ festival director art house label ; even today it is difficult to break those shackles. It was a very difficult time and I felt punched down so hard.Also after the failure of Bombay Velvet(which I co-wrote) the only way to get out of it was laughing .Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota was that deep-dive into my childhood, into my comfort zone, into VHS movies, into my Kung Fu Hongkong movie and that innocent laughter had to be found because otherwise I didn’t know if I could ever make a film again. So all that quirkiness may have come out of being punched down that deep and the only way to get up was to laugh at myself and to get up with joy. That was the only option left.
The OTT has created space for all kinds of cinema? is that a good thing? or is the digital space being misused?
I think every space creates new opportunities in its first couple of cycles then there is a cycle of success or failures according to which the OTT will choose to curate the future projects .That kind of brings in a certain level of safe-play which is extremely boring .That is when projects are created, money is put into popularity and not into vision , and then when you again learn making projects is not going make you successful, then you again come back to backing vision. So I think as long as OTTs are backing a vision, it will always be successful. Of course the ultimate thing that we have grown up with is ‘Cinema’, going to the cinema hall, watching movie in a darken room with strangers and have a community experience, that should never die. Even when VHS, cable TV satelite , pirated vcds came , internet came in, it survived all that so I hope movie-theatres still survive and we have a healthy mix of watching content everywhere. Also what OTT does is, it’s giving employment to so many people, so it is not just the distribution, its also a balancing act on the amount of content being made, also the amount of people being employed, so I think it is really right now, a really great time to be in arts, because through somethings you’ll get to express yourself and be in the game.
Finally what are you making next? Not after a five-year gap I hope?
What I am making next is still being written, a couple of things I am writing and obviously, we’ll get into casting sooner I really really hope that I do not take these long gaps and come out at more regular intervals. I mean that is the idea always but life obviously has other plans when we are making our own plans .The conscious attempt is to be more productive and be less lazy and try and be inspired by people who churn out work at more regular intervals .So that is what the future seems like.