INTERVIEW

Akshat Verma on ‘Kaalakaandi’: ‘It’s about who we really are when nobody’s looking’

Just don’t expect ‘Delhi Belly’, says the writer about his black comedy, which stars Saif Ali Khan.

Six years after the black comedy Delhi Belly, writer Akshat Verma is back with another project. This time, he has also directed from his script. Kaalakaandi will be released on September 8. The writer-director roughly translates the title to mean a “big mess”, which is what the characters, played by Saif Ali Khan, Vijay Raaz, Deepak Dobriyal, Kunal Roy Kapoor and Isha Talwar, find themselves in.

Kaalakaandi takes place over the course of one night, which, judging from the trailer, is a particularly wild one. Verma is tight-lipped about the plot: “It’s about who we really are as people when nobody’s looking,” he said. “It’s about what is our true self and that true self keeps changing.”

Verma is also keen on pointing out that his feature film debut isn’t Delhi Belly (2011). “I know Delhi Belly keeps coming up as a marker, but I hope it doesn’t become this thing where audiences go in expecting Delhi Belly and are disappointed when it’s not,” he said.

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Kaalakaandi.

If Delhi Belly was set in a grungy part of the capital, the Delhi-born director shifts the hunting ground to Mumbai for his feature. The characters are a lot more important than the setting, Verma said.

“You cannot separate a city from the people in it, these are layers that exist together,” he told Scroll.in. “You try to explore all the different parts of Bombay, the different social stratas, the different characters. If you remain true to the city, then you reveal it’s character and the soul.”

Verma is also clear that he doesn’t want to impose any particular opinion of the metropolis on Kaalakaandi. “There are so many individual opinions about what people feel about Bombay that I don’t want to impose mine,” the writer-director said. “I have to channel my story through them, to find the opinion my characters have living in the circumstances that they do. It’s not an equation I am trying to set up and then proving.”

Like Delhi Belly, Kaalakaandi will have dialogue in English and Hindi, and there will snippets of Marathi too. “You will hear multiple languages because that’s what is accurate for Bombay,” Verma said. “We are a multilingual society and we speak many languages as a given.”

Verma, who studied screenwriting at the University of California, Los Angeles, has previously directed the short film Mama’s Boys, which was inspired by the Mahabharata and was pulled off the web because of its risque theme. The switch to direction isn’t because of the need for more authorial control, but is simply a natural progression in his career, he said. There’s also a more practical reason: “You will always be at the mercy of someone calling you to work versus having to generate your own work.”

It’s easy to see where that line of thinking comes from. Both of Verma’s projects have had long gestation projects. Delhi Belly was only the second script he wrote while at film school, but was rejected by producers in both Hollywood and Bollywood before finding its way to Kiran Rao. Even Kaalakaandi was written soon after, but initially found no backers. Only when Saif Ali Khan came on board did things fell into place. The movie was completed over a 42-day schedule in 2016.

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Delhi Belly.

Verma doesn’t have any particular reason why people reject his scripts. He usually gets the rehearsed reply that typically involves such questions as “How should we market this film?” and “Who is the audience for it?” Some of the hurdles are logistical: Are any actors interested? Are their dates available?

“It’s fine by me, I don’t take it personally,” Verma said. “Everyone is free to put their time and money in what interests them. I just wish it wouldn’t take so long because you have only so much time to be alive.”

Verma doesn’t believe in inspiration. His scripts do not come from some special place of creativity. It’s writing every day that does it for him. Kaalakaandi was written over nine months with an added three months of editing. The long development process doesn’t mean that commercial considerations seep into Verma’s writing. “For me to begin to do that would be very cynical and compromise the story,” he said. “And I cannot predict how audiences or producers will reach. I don’t want my writing to be like manufacturing biscuits.”

Akshat Verma. Image credit: YouTube.
Akshat Verma. Image credit: YouTube.
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