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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Changing the conversation around mental health in rural India

Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

Questioning is the art of learning. For an illness as debilitating as depression, asking the right questions is an important step in social acceptance and understanding. How do I open-up about my depression to my parents? Can meditation be counted as a treatment for depression? Should heartbreak be considered as a trigger for deep depression? These were some of the questions addressed by a panel consisting of the trustees and the founder of The Live Love Lough Foundation (TLLLF), a platform that seeks to champion the cause of mental health. The panel discussion was a part of an event organised by TLLLF to commemorate World Mental Health Day.

According to a National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. The survey reported a huge treatment gap, a problem that is spread far and wide across urban and rural parts of the country.

On 10th of October, trustees of the foundation, Anna Chandy, Dr. Shyam Bhat and Nina Nair, along with its founder, Deepika Padukone, made a visit to a community health project centre in Devangere, Karnataka. The project, started by The Association of People with Disability (APD) in 2010, got a much-needed boost after partnering with TLLLF 2 years ago, helping them reach 819 people suffering from mental illnesses and spreading its program to 6 Taluks, making a difference at a larger scale.

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During the visit, the TLLLF team met patients and their families to gain insights into the program’s effectiveness and impact. Basavaraja, a beneficiary of the program, spoke about the issues he faced because of his illness. He shared how people used to call him mad and would threaten to beat him up. Other patients expressed their difficulty in getting access to medical aid for which they had to travel to the next biggest city, Shivmoga which is about 2 hours away from Davangere. A marked difference from when TLLLF joined the project two years ago was the level of openness and awareness present amongst the villagers. Individuals and families were more expressive about their issues and challenges leading to a more evolved and helpful conversation.

The process of de-stigmatizing mental illnesses in a community and providing treatment to those who are suffering requires a strong nexus of partners to make progress in a holistic manner. Initially, getting different stakeholders together was difficult because of the lack of awareness and resources in the field of mental healthcare. But the project found its footing once it established a network of support from NIMHANS doctors who treated the patients at health camps, Primary Healthcare Centre doctors and the ASHA workers. On their visit, the TLLLF team along with APD and the project partners discussed the impact that was made by the program. Were beneficiaries able to access the free psychiatric drugs? Did the program help in reducing the distance patients had to travel to get treatment? During these discussions, the TLLLF team observed that even amongst the partners, there was an increased sense of support and responsiveness towards mental health aid.

The next leg of the visit took the TLLLF team to the village of Bilichodu where they met a support group that included 15 patients and caregivers. Ujjala Padukone, Deepika Padukone’s mother, being a caregiver herself, was also present in the discussion to share her experiences with the group and encouraged others to share their stories and concerns about their family members. While the discussion revolved around the importance of opening up and seeking help, the team brought about a forward-looking attitude within the group by discussing future possibilities in employment and livelihood options available for the patients.

As the TLLLF team honoured World Mental Health day, 2017 by visiting families, engaging with support groups and reviewing the successes and the challenges in rural mental healthcare, they noticed how the conversation, that was once difficult to start, now had characteristics of support, openness and a positive outlook towards the future. To continue this momentum, the organisation charted out the next steps that will further enrich the dialogue surrounding mental health, in both urban and rural areas. The steps include increasing research on mental health, enhancing the role of social media to drive awareness and decrease stigma and expanding their current programs. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.