Congratulations on the massive impact of your episode ‘The Heart Skipped A Beat’ in Made In Heaven2. It wouldn’t be wrong to say this episode is very close to your heart, would it?
Yes, it is very close to me because I put a lot of my personal life into it. It was scary to put yourself out there for scrutiny. The love the episode has received from over 200 countries is the catharsis I needed.
How did this opportunity to do something so relevant and personal come to you?
The writers, Zoya Akhtar, Reema Kagti and Alankrita Shrivastava wanted to pursue an inter-caste wedding centered around an accomplished scholar still facing caste prejudice during her wedding. When I met them, I ended up talking about my life journey the whole day.
Share that journey with me?
Many years ago, when I asserted my caste identity publicly, it was reported in one of the leading newspapers. My house help happened to see that and kept asking me why my picture is there on the front page of Bombay Times. It took me a whole three days to find the courage to tell her. She has worked with me for over a decade. She said it doesn’t matter to her. This relieved me so I then spoke to my driver about it. He said his parents are casteist but he doesn’t believe in all this. The small act of even speaking to your staff about your identity felt so daunting.
How did your family react to your outing your caste identity?
The newspaper reached my parents too. It took them some time for them to be okay with it more so because they were just worried for me. Some of my relatives had not publicly owned up to their caste identity out of fear and I inadvertently exposed them (this helped build the brother’s character).
All of this went into the episode ‘My Heart Skipped A Beat’ in Made In Heaven 2?
Anecdotes like these helped the writers understand the complexity of caste assertion. Some of my personal moments, like hiding my last name and masking with a caste-neutral name ‘Kumar’ for a large part of my life, repercussions of my public caste expression, and the constant self-doubts were then put into the episode’s writing. The Buddhist wedding you see is how my sisters got married. But having said that, foregoing my last name ‘Kumar’, much like Pallavi Menke, is not just my story. It has been the story of thousands and lakhs of us who took time to claim our real identities. We didn’t have the courage to face the world like our fellow members who have lived with harsher experiences because they always owned up to their identity. While we lived in fear of being found others took the hate head on. In either case, it is a trauma that we all have lived.
The episode has left a deep impact?
Many people called me after watching the episode sobbing and saying how ‘seen’, ‘heard’ and ‘represented’ they felt. An IAS couple told me it is their exact life story sans the names and the location. They were so overwhelmed, they even invited me to their home to talk more about it. Many people from around the world have reached out to me and spoken to me about their similar experiences. Each of them is unique and at the same time, each of them follows the same beats of the larger narrative that is our reality. Pallavi Menke is a sum of all those who came before me and those who live in this time grappling with their caste expression.
There is a lady Yashica Dutt who claims you have borrowed her life in The Heart Skipped A Beat. Care to clarify?
A large part of this episode has come from my own life, the backlash I faced and my journey after having publicly claimed my identity. One person claiming it solely is akin to erasing me from my own story. And like I said, it is still not my story to claim. It is a collective identity of all of us and our experiences.
You have done another episode in this season of Made In Heaven 2 which did not work for me. Casting a real-life couple as furtive lovers seemed a little hard to digest. Your comments?
I am sorry it didn’t work for you but I am happy to see it has been loved by many. We felt the real-life chemistry between Samir and Neelam added to the depth of love that spanned decades and waiting for the rightful conclusion. Truth is stranger than fiction. This story was inspired by a newspaper article and it needed someone like them to make this seemingly impossible real-life story credible.
10 Years,4 short films one feature film and 8 episodes of another series. Why this low output from such an outstanding director? We want to see more from you?
I want to see more of me too. I am trying hard to get to that ever-elusive second feature for many years now. It’s not the external pressure but more internal of what I want to say. I am now charged to make my next feature film very soon.
How relevant is the OTT platform to an uncompromising filmmaker like you?
It relieves you from the shackles of commercial cinema expectations and trappings. You can be immersive and expansive with character arcs. You can choose bolder and more experimental subjects. Also, for a filmmaker like me, it makes my work be seen in 200 countries in an instant.
What do you feel about the kind of films that are working these days in movie theatres?
I am loving the box office success of films in the Hindi film industry. It’s the new lease of life we all needed post-pandemic. However, I am a tad worried about the frenzy to include toxic masculinity in every film and that tentpole films are the only ones mostly working. Hoping for a due course correction.
Tell me about your future plans. Is cinema your only chosen tool for social reform?
Honestly, I am a filmmaker above all. I want to be able to tell different kinds of stories. I don’t set out to make films about social reform but something that naturally comes to me because of my political being. As Pallavi says, “Everything is about the politics’. I want my films to be powerful stories and I expect to be judged for my narrative craft apart from the pats on the back for the subjects I choose. In cinema, narrative is greater than its politics.