INTERVIEW

‘Tumhari Sulu’ is the Vidya Balan film we have all been waiting for, promises producer Atul Kasbekar

The ‘Neerja’ producer says his upcoming film gets into the space of the movies of Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Dibakar Banerjee.

Fashion photographer Atul Kasbekar, the man behind the glamourous Kingfisher calendar, turned producer with the award-winning Neerja in 2016. The biographical account of Pan Am air hostess Neerja Bhanot, who died while helping save the lives of passengers during a terror attack on board a flight to Karachi in 1986, was produced along with Fox Star Studios and released to wide acclaim. Kasbekar and his company Ellipses Entertainment are back with Tumhari Sulu, directed by Suresh Triveni and starring Vidya Balan as a housewife who becomes the host of a late-night radio show. The film stars stage actor Manav Kaul as her husband, who tries to keep up with his unstoppable wife.

In a conversation with Scroll.in, Kasbekar talks about how he is still incredulous about the success of his maiden production even as he is incredibly confident about his next.

After the success of ‘Neerja’, you had a problem of plenty, with at least eight scripts to choose from. Why did you settle for ‘Tumhari Sulu’?
There was a whole bunch of scripts in the pipeline. Some had been commissioned to writers by us [Ellipsis, his production outfit co-founded by former Balaji CEO Tanuj Garg], some we were in the process of acquiring. We had to put a stop to all of that.

If one had to write about how Neerja happened, it would tick all the boxes of the energies of the cosmos. I could not have written a better script. But the industry is in a flux. No one knows what works. When a film fails, the numbers are cataclysmic. It is not funny how badly it affects everyone when a film dies.

The two words that keep coming up are: honest and fresh. The two things that work for the audience. When we look at a script, we ask ourselves, does it get into a new space altogether?

With Neerja, when we were only on to the seventh page, we were on board. Because no one had done a film on hijacking yet.

With Tumhari Sulu, we are looking into the world of Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Basu Chatterjee, Dibakar Banerjee. It’s a gentle, urban, well-written slice of life film, as opposed to spoofs or a loud modern-day homage to this genre of filmmaking. The director, Suresh Triveni, pitched the film to Vidya Balan, who called us and told us that there is a script we might want to take up. We were completely sold on the script.

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Tumhari Sulu (2017).

Vidya Balan’s fans have been starved of a film and a script that does justice to her talent. Do you think this film could be the one that will put her back to where she belongs?
I am going out on a limb even before the movie releases and saying that this is one of her most nuanced performances yet. She is unbelievably good. If you are a Vidya Balan fan or love cinema in general, you cannot be happier.

Hrishikesh Mukherje’s films resonate because of his casting and the honest recreation of a middle-class milieu. Does ‘Tumhari Sulu’ have similar touches?
Even in Neerja, people appreciated the honest portrayal of a middle class home. It was a place where people would have grown up. In most films, we get to see a more glamourised version of this universe. I have had an exceptional production designer, Dhara Jain, whom Suresh trusts implicitly and other HoDs [heads of department] who were given the script and allowed to follow their instincts. We treat everyone from DoPs [directors of photography] to set designers as artists in their own rights, hoping that they are as inspired by the idea as we are. We wanted people to work with us because they are passionate about the film and believe that it will look good on their CV. And that passion shows.

For casting, we got Nandini Shrikent, one of the most prolific casting directors, who got on board immediately and sourced most of the actors, expect Mallishka and Neha Dhupia, who were my suggestions.

Casting Manav Kaul opposite Vidya was the master stroke. After the trailer released, a friend from Versova called up to say, listen it was a gamble to get Manav to do this role. I said, we never thought of it this way. When Manav came for the auditions, he was really good. We never for moment thought it was a risk. The chemistry that the two of them share is unreal. And also quite real.

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Guru Randhawa, Tumhari Sulu (2017).

You speak often of how at Ellipsis, the focus is on writers and scripts rather than stars. How does that work out?
Who are we that a Fox Star would pick up Neerja? We went in the capacity of first-time producers and they liked what we presented. But despite being greenhorns, the time and effort and money spent at the writing level was so good that it made for a compelling pitch. So much so, the script was all they needed to back a new outfit.

We do not discuss stars or directors but focus on getting the script in place first. When we reach version three of the script, that is when we discuss the director and the actor. Working backwards this way makes complete sense for us.

At a time when the mightiest product houses and biggest of films are floundering, do you think your approach will work?
We would like put up an altar to Rajkumar Hirani and light a lamp every day or showing us the way. He is our hero. None of his films are preachy but have a subliminal message in somewhere. Big studios have been wiped out because there are directors who just want to make a fantastic film that no one goes to watch. But Raju’s films have also done commercially well.

After Neerja was released, I met a secretary to a top star who had until then been a little cold. He shook my hand and said, “I wanted to meet you because some of us were wondering who is this c**** – pardon my French – who makes a film on a budget of Rs 16 cores about a girl who dies in the end, with no song and dance.” So yes, that gives me the confidence that what we are doing, and with a lot of passion, is likely to work.

Atul Kasbekar.
Atul Kasbekar.
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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.