Multilingual actor Siddharth’s career graph has included an interesting mix of mainstream and unconventional roles, with the latter often overpowering the other. In his debut feature Boys (2003), Siddharth plays a lovable teenager. In his Bollywood debut, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Rang De Basanti (2006), he is the rebellious Bhagat Singh. In his recent Tamil black comedy Jil Jung Juk (2016), he is a blue-haired cocaine smuggler.
Having acted in nearly 30 films in different languages, the actor eventually turned producer with the Tamil comedy Kadhalil Sodhappuvadhu Yeppadi in 2012. But there was still one genre that he yearned to explore as an actor and a writer: horror.
Siddharth has fulfilled his wish with Milind Rau’s The House Next Door. The November 3 release features Siddharth as a neurosurgeon, and it has been co-produced and co-written by the actor. Rau, a like-minded horror genre enthusiast, assisted Mani Ratnam on Kannathil Muthamittal (2002) along with Siddharth in 2002. The House Next Door, which has also been made in Tamil as Aval, is inspired by a real-life incident, the actor told Scroll.in in an interview.
Acting apart, you have produced and co-written ‘The House Next Door’. What was it like to steer a horror project for the first time?
As far as our country is concerned, we have watched a lot of horror films, but mostly made outside this country. We have always been fans of that genre. I remember watching a horror film at the age of 10 in a theatre.
Being a part of a horror film here was completely different because any other genre I have done before this has been done correctly. So you have something of a reference point.
Compared to Hollywood, South Korean or Japanese films, we haven’t yet made that one iconic horror film. The recent memory for me is Ram Gopal Varma’s Raat and Bhoot, which were done across a decade of each other. Those were films that really inspired us. Apart from that, I don’t think horror has really gotten its due. In that sense it was very exciting and was new ground, if I can call it that, for us as filmmakers.
What makes for a successful horror film?
We wanted to make a horror film right, where it was developed and mature. Our material came from reality. Whatever happens is grounded and believable content. We kind of married the research that we had done with the real life incident.
When we set out to make a horror film, we were sure that the one thing we would not do was to dilute the genre. We travelled around the world and sat and watched the way people watched horror films. People really love getting scared. It is as big a high as laughing.
I also found this unbelievable similarity in the way people get scared all over the world. Back in the day, the theatre would turn silent. But in today’s age of mobile phones and social media, people use their phones and laugh when they are scared to hide their fear. These observations were really interesting and helped us learn what goes behind jump scares and ideological scares.
As a genre, horror doesn’t need star power. If you look at some of the biggest horror films in the world, they don’t usually have the biggest star in them. The genre is the star. So as a producer and a writer, I was able to make the genre the star and gave it more importance than the actor, which is me. Because otherwise, you end up diluting the genre.
What kind of preparation did you undertake as a writer and actor for the movie?
Any film takes the same amount of effort. We spent a lot of time on the writing. The film had many versions over a span of four years.
The main location was the mountains. We had to get all of it right. We had a very young company. The average age on the sets was the mid-twenties, and that is usually a boon and a bane. The millennials bring a lot of energy and enthusiasm, but you have to constantly monitor how efficiently the groups are functioning.
What Indian touches and elements are there in ‘The House Next Door’?
Every country has a face of horror. It comes from your cultural orientation and also the aesthetic that the filmmaker decides to use. If you look at America, the times of the Exorcist, The Omen franchise and then cult and pulpy horror like The Evil Dead started creating an imagery of horror. And then the Japanese came and changed everything in the 1980s and ’90s because they started making their own kind of horror. And they were followed by the South Koreans, who made it the turn of the century.
Similarly, we wanted to create that face for Indian horror. Till now, unfortunately, that face for Indian horror in Hindi is the powderwala bhoot, which is basically bad makeup and too much powder. We combined our sketches with [prosthetic designer] Preetisheel’s imagination. India has not fully come to terms with respecting prosthetic makeup as we like to do everything fast and quickly. And we are so glad that we have something original in the genre.
Did you face any hiccups during the shoot?
The most difficult part of making a horror film is that with most genres, when you watch what you have shot, you get an idea of how the film will look like. With horror, you don’t. Unless you get the technical part of it together with its sound design, picture grade and VFX, you don’t know what exactly you are giving to the audience. So we had to run a lot on gut instinct. That was really exciting because my partner in crime is someone with whom I have travelled together as a horror aficionado for a long time.
But since we were producing the film, we were able to take our gut decisions on the sets all the way till the finished product. So we made the film both as filmmakers and also as audience sitting in the theatre and getting scared.
There has been a slew of horror releases in the recent years in Tamil cinema.
It has always been quite popular. Everything is going well and then one day, boom. That is horror and that is why people like to watch it.
But coming back to Indian films, I don’t think there is a huge spurt of good horror films. A few of them have been really great and I have huge respect for them. But in the South, we have diluted the entire genre with comedy and with Bollywood we have diluted it with sex. So it is just these two.
There are a few things and perceptions that I hope to break with this film. For instance, people think that women don’t watch horror films. That to me is as offensive as saying women don’t enjoy cricket. It is very difficult to make a horror film well. But it is very easy to make a horror film for easy reasons.
You have never shied away from playing diverse, off-beat characters. What draws you to a script?
I have had the same rule since I started my career. The first thing I ask myself is, would I like to watch that film in the theatre and do I see myself in the film? As an actor, you think you should be allowed to do everything even though you shouldn’t. And the third thing is the learning. I am a BCom MBA graduate and I didn’t go into the corporate world because I didn’t see myself do the same thing.
That kind of leads me to why I became a producer, because I was bored and tired of waiting. In acting, you only work for 20 minutes a day and the rest of the time you are waiting. It is a very frustrating profession. And also everybody tells you what you can and cannot do. That is why I became a producer. If nobody else wants to do what you want to do, then you do it yourself and quite literally put your money where your mouth is.
This film marks your second collaboration with Atul Kulkarni after ‘Rang De Basanti’.
It was an absolute treat to act with Atul after 12 years. We have been friends all these years and have spoken about working and bounced scripts off each other. He would also help with the ideation process of the shooting, and that kind of commitment is great.
Being frightened is a very difficult emotion to convey on screen. So we wanted to make a film that was very well acted. Atul Kulkarni plays a father of a teenage girl and Andrea Jeremiah plays my wife. Since the routes of the film were reality, I didn’t want to lose that in the casting stage.