“Each film has its own genesis”: Sriram Raghavan

Meet Sriram Raghavan. This writer first met him to interview him about his television series on Raman Raghav with the title role portrayed by Raghuvir Yadav. This was way back in 1991. I sat and watched a couple of episodes in that cooped up office on a now-outdated video recorder and was impressed. But I did not keep in touch as I migrated to Kolkata and got very deeply involved in journalism while Sriram rose up the ladder of success.

Director Sriram Raghavan. Photo courtesy: Sriram Raghavan/Instagram
Sriram Raghavan. Photo courtesy: Sriram Raghavan/Instagram

When I watched his debut film Ek Hasina Thi in 2004, I had no idea that Sriram was the director. But I loved the film and especially, the way he brought out the latent sides of Urmila Matondkar and Saif Ali Khan as actors. He later joined the Film and Television Institute of India. 

Perhaps it gave him the confidence he thought he lacked and today, he is recognised as the most outstanding masters of the thriller genre with beautifully woven doses of romance infused into it. 

Sriram continues to make headlines with his thrillers, the latest release being the acclaimed murder mystery Merry Christmas, starring Katrina Kaif and Vijay Sethupathi. However, his next film Ikkis breaks away from the thriller genre to focus on the heroism of a young soldier, aged 21, who died in combat and became the youngest recipient of India’s highest military honour, Param Vir Chakra. The fresh-faced 23-year-old Agastya Nanda, who recently made a very high-profile debut with The Archies, plays the lead.

Sriram Raghavan (right) interacting with Katrina Kaif (left) during the filming of Merry Christmas. Photo courtesy: Sriram Raghavan/Instagram
Raghavan (right) interacting with Katrina Kaif (left) during the filming of Merry Christmas. Photo courtesy: Sriram Raghavan/Instagram

This very grounded filmmaker opened up to this fan-cum-journalist in a recent interview.

What pushed you from a short stint in film journalism directly to films? 

I began as a trainee journalist for Stardust. Before that I’d written for various newspapers and magazines. I spent two years working for Trade Guide which (along with Film Information) were the top trade magazines in the 80s. My job at Trade Guide involved visiting studios, attending shoots and interviewing producers and filmmakers. I have fond memories of studios like Ranjit, Rooptara at Dadar… all gone now. On one such assignment, I met Mukul Anand who was releasing his debut film, Kanoon Kya Karega. He showed me the trailer and was excitedly discussing the film and what he wanted to do next. I listened, took notes and then confessed that I too would like to work behind the camera. He immediately asked me to join him as an assistant, though he said there may be no payment. I jumped at the chance and very soon I began work on his next film Aitbaar, which was inspired by Dial M For Murder, one of my favourite [Alfred] Hitchcock films.

Once the shoot began, I started getting a modest payment too. That was my introduction to filmmaking. I loved films but I was a novice and was learning every day. As the film neared completion, I also got admission in the FTII, which I had applied to almost as a lark. Mukul was getting busier and planning bigger films and I wanted to continue working with him. But he advised me to join the Institute. He was a visionary and could foresee the advent of video and satellite television. I remember he said, if you work with me, it will take you a minimum seven years before you can make a film. But at the FTII, you will be making films from the first year itself.

I have watched your diploma film The Eight Column Affair (1987) long ago and liked it a lot. How do you look back on it today now that you are called the master of noir?

I used to find many diploma films of the time, somewhat dreary and pretentious. Or maybe I just didn’t understand the filmmaker’s intentions. There were exceptions like Kundan Shah’s Bonga or Vinod Chopra’s Murder at Monkey Hill. So, my team and I decided we will make something that’s fun and fast paced… It was an ambitious film with multiple locations and scenes. My professor felt we would not be able to pull it off with our limited resources and time. My team, including editor Rajkumar Hirani, were very excited and the process made me realise the true value of teamwork in filmmaking. I remember our external examiner Saeed Mirza giving us a big thumbs up. A few months later, I learnt from the newspapers that The Eight Column Affair had won the best film prize in the newly constituted Award for best Short Fiction film. A bad print is available on YouTube. I keep thinking of expanding it into a feature though the “Big Idea” has not yet struck. 

How do you react to the “master of noir” appendage? 

It’s amusing and scary and I dare not take it seriously or believe in such hyperbole.

Your choice of the thriller+romance genre for your films. Is it incidental, designed or inspired by other films or a combination of all these?

The main quest is to find a good story. Each film has its own genesis. Ek Hasina Thi, began as a love story, became a prison film and then a revenge plot. I loved the combination. Merry Christmas began as a taut 90-minute film… but as we started fleshing it out, I felt I should not rely only on the plot or big reveal as it was a one-trick pony. Fredric Dard’s original novel Le Mont (Bird in a Cage) had a dream-like quality and was drenched in mood. I aspired to capture that… whether it worked or not depends on the viewer.

Over your evolution as a very successful director in a cut-throat industry, how do you define ‘cinema’?

Hitchcock said it best. “Cinema is life with the dull bits cut out.” A casual glance at the top 100 films on IMDB show so many films that I can watch again and again. A good film is like good music. Whatever the genre, a good film will be a deeply affecting experience that stays with you long after you have seen it. How a filmmaker uses the tools of cinema to tell a story is what attracts me. The mise-en-scene, the use of camera, sound and music… and of course the actors… so many things have to be right for a film to work. Box office validation is vital but that cannot be the sole goal.

What kind of director are you? Dictatorial? Democratic? Liberal – allowing your actors to improvise on the sets? 

I think democratic… purely for selfish reasons, because one never knows where the next great idea will come from. I always have a complete script, but I’m not bound by it. All ideas are welcome on the shoot. I encourage actors to improvise.

I love the way you take your chosen actors out of their stereotypical boxes from your first film Ek Hasina Thi right till Merry Christmas. Am I right? Please elaborate why. 

I’ve been lucky. Many actors refused Andhadhun and then Ayushmaan [Khurrana] heard it and loved it and he was so good. I got Varun Dhawan for Badlapur because he was just starting out and in a full mood to experiment with bold choices. Vijay and Katrina were the most oddball pairing, and I am thrilled and happy that their chemistry worked.

You mostly write your own stories. Do you deviate during the shoot? Or do you stick very rigidly to what is written down? 

The core story will not change but I am open to certain changes during the shoot. Often, some of the best ideas come when you are on location, in the heat of the moment. The actors, the technicians are all in the same zone and little wonders can happen. The characters start acquiring a life of their own. Sometimes, the director of cinematography sets up a frame that tells so much… An actor can come up with a beautiful line or expression. In Badlapur, we were shooting a scene where a kid falls from a speeding car. Of course, we had a dummy which was being thrown… but as the dummy kid fell, a stray dog suddenly started chasing the car. And that made such an impact. I love these happy accidents.

Why do you think that both Bollywood and Indian cinema have not been able to give us real, nail-biting thrillers? Elucidate please. Let us hear the names of five nail-biting thrillers.

A good thriller has to be a combination of a great story and solid technique. Also, whilst watching a thriller, the viewer is also making up his own script as the film proceeds. And if the filmmaker can subvert their anticipation or expectations, then the viewer loves it even more. If I have to name five nail biting thrillers… my pick would be films that I watched as a kid. Jewel Thief, Teesri Manzil, Ittefaq, Kanoon, Gumnaam. The most recent nail-biter I watched was the French film Anatomy of a Fall

Thrillers are a multi-layered genre – the detective thriller, the psychological crime thriller, the police thriller and the spy thriller. Which one do you subscribe to? According to me, your chosen genre is the psychological crime thriller. What is it according to you? 

The beauty of the genre is that within the broad format/framework of a thriller there are so many sub genres possible. I love them all. Johnny Gaddar was a Caper gone wrong. Agent Vinod was a tribute to the spy genre. Badlapur was an anti-revenge drama. And Andhadhun is a macabre black comedy.

Can you choose your favourite film from the ones you have made and why? 

I’ve made a few films so it’s very tough to choose. Maybe after a few more films… 🙂

Let us hear about your new film Ikkis.

Ikkis narrates the story of Arun Khetarpal, the military hero who was killed in action in the Battle of Basantar at Shakargarh, during the Indo-Pak War in 1971.  He’s the youngest recipient of the Param Vir Chakra. On December 16, 1971, he did something truly spectacular and heroic during the last two hours of his life. He had just turned 21 two months ago. The film is a drama with some tank battles never before seen on our screens.

Does this not take away from you your command over the thriller? 

Yes, this is not a thriller but a war film. I decided to take a brief break because the story was too good to pass.

Why the name Ikkis and who is playing the title role?

Ikkis is the title because Arun Khetrapal celebrated his 21st birthday just two months before he was martyred. The title role is being portrayed by Agastya Nanda, and Dharmendra is playing another significant role. Agasthya at 23, is closer to the age Arun was when he died at war. I felt he could be shaped up as Arun though this is not his debut in films. 

Actor Agastya Nanda. Photo courtesy: Agastya Nanda/Instagram
Agastya Nanda. Photo courtesy: Agastya Nanda/Instagram

Which filmmakers, Indian, Bollywood, international have you felt motivated and inspired by and why? 

There are too many to list them out. I often tell my assistants to dig out and watch the older classics because there is so much to learn from them. The films of Billy Wilder, Akira Kurosawa, Claude Chabrol, Fritz Lang, Stanley Kubrick, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Charlie Chaplin and more. There’s a wealth of great Indian films too, including regional cinemas.

When you watch your own film like a member of the audience, what is your reaction? 

Unlike other films, in Merry Christmas… I was curious… One is full of trepidation watching your own film with a fresh audience. I did manage to watch Merry Christmas in a fairly full hall. I thought they reacted at the right places… and I didn’t see too many phones flashing… which means they were engrossed.

Your music is restrained, subtle and flows like an undercurrent. How do you brief your music composers? 

I have worked with various composers. The main thing is how they react to the script. If they love the story… the battle is half won. After that it’s a lot of discussions and brainstorming. Also, my editor, Pooja Ladha Surti, has a fine sense of music. And that’s an asset.

I watched Badlapur thrice, Ek Hasina Thi and Andhadhun twice. I love thrillers. As a movie buff, which is your favourite genre and why?

I love all kinds of films. I love Teesri Kasam as much as Teesri Manzil.