Mrunmayee Lagoo co-wrote the Taapsee Pannu starrer Thappad along with Anubhav Sinha. (Photo: Mrunmayee Lagoo/Instagram)
The worries of a writer are such that the significance of a successful film for a writer is not measured by its earnings but that one extra opportunity to tell another story. That's how writer Mrunmayee Lagoo views Thappad's success.
"A colleague of mine told me, 'You don't have to take the pressure of it working,' and I told her it wasn't about the pressure of it working at the box office. It's just that it allows you to do more of this kind. If we have one such example, it makes our journey to a producer easier," the debutante writer says.
Lagoo co-wrote the Taapsee Pannu-led film with Anubhav Sinha, who also directed it. In an interview with indianexpress.com, she opens up about the joy of writing a film that's as personal as it can get for any woman, the various politics and criticism of the feminist film and why she believes the onus is on the women to support each other to fight patriarchy.
What were your beginnings as a writer?
I realised it very late in life. I used to write since I was in school and I knew I wanted to do something in creative arts but it took me a gamut of things- from acting to assisting- to realise that writing was my calling. This realisation didn't come in a day.
Would you say your inclination towards creative field was also because your parents were into it?
Yes. My mother (Reema Lagoo) was an actor. My father (Vivek Lagoo) is a playwright and an actor in regional theatre so I have grown up on theatre and movies. Our dinner table conversations revolved about fiction. So, it was a no-brainer that I would land up here. I did have a rebel phase in the middle when I wanted to do genetic research, which I find very interesting.
My parents were always involved in whatever I was doing. I used to share a lot of stuff with my father in terms of writing and my mother was my first bouncing board as I used to narrate to her because I had seen people come and narrate stuff to her.
Describe me your journey to finding your first film?
In a very well written web series how all tracks come together in the end, it was literally like that. In 2018, I was like what am I doing? I am not writing. How am I going to get there? It was a year of nothing.
At that time, sir (Anubhav Sinha) was looking for a female writer to collaborate with. I had worked with him on Gulaab Gang, which he had produced. So, the film's EP, Sagar, reached out to me asking if I wanted to give it a shot and I was like, 'You couldn't have come at a better time!' I met sir and when he told me this idea, it just hit home.
Anubhav Sinha has said that he was away shooting for Article 15 when you were writing Thappad. So, how did the whole process turn out for you?
Of course at the shoot it was a very different game because I was in Mumbai and he was shooting over there and Article was a very hectic film. But once he was back, we had very good, long sessions every morning from 10-1 where we would discuss everything about relationships, men and women, how Amrita should be.
So those became the building blocks. We would go through, 'Let's make Amrita like this,' we would live with that for a couple of days and then say, 'No, let's shift her a few degrees here and there.' Once we found Amrita, then we started looking for Vikram, Netra..
And some others came very organically, like the parents, the house help because you cannot think of a household without a house help. She provided us with a very organic inlet into her world, into her socio-economic class. The lawyer and the main two people had to be figured out, like their family background, upbringing. There's a little bit of an academic upbringing to Amrita, there's a business upbringing to Vikram. So, once those building blocks were established it became clearer for me to write the first draft.
Anubhav Sinha told me that of course initially the story was about the slap, but later both of you decided to broaden it. Was it an organic decision?
Yes. When he first told me the idea, I went back home and for a month, I was struggling to build a narrative around that incident. I managed to build Act 1, 2 and 3 but I began to feel it had become a bit insular, it was just going around that one path. Sir told me to look at the slap as the catalyst or a metaphor for a bigger conversation. All my doors kind of opened up.
He told me whatever conversation I wanted to bring into this, I should go for it. "We will see how to stitch it all," he said. At one point, we had a very heavy screenplay. Every character had some big story. But we thought it was getting too dramatic and we were losing the real one. So, there was swinging here and there and a few drafts later we knew this was our tone.
We kept writing even while shooting because sometimes, you think of a certain character in a certain way and write it. And when the actor is in front of you, he or she brings more or little different than what you had envisioned. Then to play to their strengths makes for a better product. So, we would re-write on the set. Taapsee, Pavail, all these actors had questions. Clearly they had read the script, they had thought about their characters.
So, they would come and ask questions and if we were unable to answer something, we would consider it and think if there was something missing. Thankfully, he is such an amazing director that he allows the writers to come on the shoot. He, in fact, wants us there and he seeks our opinion. So, it was quite open. Anyone in the crew could tell him anything.
Thappad is one such film which does not have light moments just for the sake of providing breather for the audience. Its tone remains consistent. Were there discussions with Anubhav Sinha about audience's general reluctance to consume a heavy film?
We never thought of it actively because the way we wrote the scenes, there was nothing overly melodramatic about it. It was very real in terms of how people were speaking. There were no moments, which were loaded with reactions and music. In that sense we knew that in the tonality of it it's very delicate.
That way we were convinced that even if the content is hard-hitting, there are enough silences in people to process, whatever the characters are speaking will be very easily relatable and they wouldn't be bogged down by heavy dialogues. So, this compensated for no funny track, songs...
Besides Amrita, I like how you shaped up her mother and mother-in-law. We are constantly trying to find a middle ground with women, who came before us and continue to practise patriarchy because we realise the difference between generations is conditioning. That's why I could see my mother in Amrita's mom. So, what's appealing to me was how you filled the two older women with a lot of vulnerability that we didn't see them as negative but could understand the space they were operating from. Was that difficult?
One reason could be that I have never actively suffered from any patriarchal norm in my life. I have been raised by some really strong women. My grandmother was a terror, in all disciplinary ways. She was a police constable for some time. So, she had set the tone in our family that you can do whatever you want as long as you do it right and it's respectable for yourself. That was followed by my mother and I hope to follow that.
My father is the most liberal... in fact in his family, they could call him the black sheep because he did nothing that they wanted. He left Pune, came to Bombay, did theatre with Vijay Mehta. He cooks brilliantly. So, I come from a very balanced set up. Whenever I have encountered a woman, who is slightly more typical or old school, I have always been able to see where they are coming from because I don't think anyone reinforces these things without a reason.
So, my mother-in-law is a bundle of contradictions. On some levels, she will still have some old school thoughts like you can't have non-veg on these days or we have to follow this in a puja but on some levels, she is really progressive. She keeps telling my husband, 'Your wife works in the same field so you need to allow her the same freedom that you expect."
So, I have seen a really conservative woman having some progressive views and I think that's how we all are. So for me, it is important to see that this mother and mother-in-law, even though they are guided by conditioning, they are able to see and process that the world has changed a little, we probably made a mistake somewhere but now we can correct it. Some of those conversations had to happen inside their own psyche first of all.
One of the criticisms against the film has been that a couple of scenes suggest you are putting the onus of much of the misogyny that Amrita is subjected to on the older women around her. So, while you are showing that older women are themselves the victims of patriarchal conditioning, by making a young woman blame them for her present condition, defeats your message.
We never went out to say correct things. That was never the idea. The idea was to say things that are really happening. So while the men have shaped us in a certain way for their own benefits for most of the times, the women have also found their own hierarchy within that. It would be a very foolish thing to say that we are only victims.
Women have found a hierarchy, they have found a way of finding superiority within that and at least in Thappad, these women were more open, progressive but there are enough and more women, who still control and think of finding their position through that.
It's a very silly example but in Finding Nemo, in the last scene, when they all kind of swim down and that whole thing breaks... So, it's basically all the fish versus humans. So the fish have to something. So, the women have to get up and start, at least, supporting each other. In that sense, the onus does lie on us a lot more now than maybe earlier, when it was difficult. Now, I think these things are changing.
Because we are more informed.
Exactly. So, women have to support each other in these kind of things and then we can deal with men because it will be much easy to deal with them if all of us are together.
It's also that women are always told to stand against each other because men fear their unity.
Yeah, exactly. I think divide and rule is the policy of any ruler. Tomorrow if the equation changes and women start ruling, I am very sure we will also divide men and pit them against each other. We need to understand that.
Kumud Mishra's character resonated with many because he played a man, who might be the most liberal father but is still held back by patriarchy when it comes to his relationship with his wife.
We didn't think of it in these many steps. Since our overall goal was to depict to as close to what really goes. So, like you mentioned, men, who are seemingly progressive, can be more progressive with their daughters than with their own spouses. So, that's very common.
No couple has this beautiful, amazing, no complaints relationship so at a point we felt that Ratna ma'am and Kumud sir's relationship was in danger of becoming unreal. So, we decided to do something with it but we didn't want to go outside of what we had already built. They are nice, great with each other and they are a warm, beautiful family so, what can be the conflict in such a family? So, we were thinking literally from craft perspective. So, that's how that thing came around.
There's a scene when Ratna Pathak Shah's character says something in her innocence, which her family makes fun of, and she says, 'Tum sabne mujhe bewakoof bana diya hai.' It hit home hard because that's been the story of a lot of families, that we have always mocked our mothers' so-called lack of intelligence, not realising that we have contributed to casual sexism in our own homes.
Like you are speaking from a daughter's perspective. Now if I have to provide you the perspective of a mother, my mother-in-law so many times she says, "We also become comfortable with our image, that we don't know things." The other day she had to travel somewhere and I couldn't drop her and she told me, "I will book Uber. Just guide me how to figure this out. I don't want to be handicapped."
So, she is very aware that overtime it becomes easier for them to let go and fall into that image, which everyone is saying they are. So, she had that perspective. I am glad people are seeing their lives through these characters.
The morning routine of Amrita, including her taking pictures in the balcony and sipping her tea, is that the only time she feels close to herself?
Every woman has this routine that before you take on the world, morning time is very precious to us. I used to be a late riser but even then, I would need 15 minutes to drink my coffee. So, I felt it would be very nice to see her by herself through very changing times of life- from a happy space to what happens with her to then seeing her father make tea in the same way, which connects and gives a pay off of what we have built so far. Also, we wanted a device to show the passing of days.
I believe Thappad was quite inclusive in the way it showed women belonging to different sections of the society reacting to misogyny in their own, different ways. And the difference in their reactions is so much to do with difference in privilege. And that's why Sunita, the house help, would not go for a lawyer or divorce unlike Amrita, because she does not have access to the same resources as Amrita. She would rather slap her husband back while defending herself.
But there has been criticism about this particular scene. People are saying that showing her defending herself with physical violence was conveying the message that one has to hit back to earn your place.
So, I know a woman, who actually manages to deal with violence every day in her life, who was one of our house helps. She would say, 'Even if I leave him, he will keep coming back. And I cannot keep going to the cops because they will slap him and put him in jail for one day and release him. And he will again find his way back home. So, there's really no way for me to distance myself from this person, even if he is completely useless.
So, how do I figure out how to live with this creature?' So she was like she had to find some way. 'What else? I cannot relocate to another town so that he doesn't find me,' she said. So, for her that recourse was only available because there was nothing else that she could do.
So, Geetika's character was brought in by you?
So, I had this idea where this woman deals with her husband beating her up with locking him until it all calms down and then she comes back. So, how would she stand up for herself? We used to have this discussion that there is a certain class of women, who deal with it in a different way.
They can't afford to fall back on intellectuals and morals because it's about their survival. So, they will use whatever they can. In that sense we weren't very worried if we were saying okay to violence or anything. After all it is about survival for a lot of people.
Anubhav Sinha has said he was quite conscious of having a female co-writer on Thappad. Would you also agree that the film did need a female lens?
I think so because it's as simple as a writer writing something that a writer can relate to. So, tomorrow if I try to attempt to write a movie about rocket science, I will heavily consult some scientists, even just to pick their brains to see whether what I am saying makes sense to you because you know.
So, if I were to write a movie about an ambitious man, who wants to make it, I will consult a lot of my male friends because it's research. I don't think it has anything to do with male, female. This subject demanded an understanding of man-woman relationship, in which woman is 50 per cent of it. So, that's what I think about it.