Anubhav Sinha directorial Thappad hit screens on February 28.
Anubhav Sinha believes it was a ridiculous idea to jump to individual stories of multiple characters in a film, whose central conflict was a man slapping his partner. But with Thappad, the filmmaker wanted to address the spoken and unspoken abuse suffered by women at the hands of men.
In this interview with indianexpress.com about the Taapsee Pannu-led film, Anubhav opens up about the importance of the female perspective in Thappad, taking the story beyond the "upper-middle-class woman", and the various stages in his life that made him break the shackles of patriarchy within himself.
After back-to-back successes, has the nervousness on a Thursday evening lessened? Do you feel more confident and assured ahead of a release?
No, no. Once the film has worked, I move on from there. If it hasn't, I keep it with me, and it keeps reminding me of the mistakes I have made. So, I have moved on (from past films) because if I keep success with me, then I will become confident and I don't like that.
At what point did you and Mrunmayee Lagoo think that the story could and should go beyond Amrita (Taapsee's character) and Vikram (Pavail Gulati)?
The two parents-in-law were there, and the house help was there. There was this feeling that we had a great position from where we could cover a large cross-section of our society.
If you do a film like this and restrict it to the story of the upper-middle class, then it's a waste of an opportunity. So, these characters were there, and we were trying to do more with them and then finally, we stepped on this screenplay idea, which seems to have worked.
Would you agree that the inclusion of women across classes has been a huge plus to the film?
That's the fun of it. They (women) are pretty much the same. The success is that nobody is asking me, 'Anubhav, why are you cutting from Amrita to this place or to that person? I want to know about Amrita.' That tells me that they were with the story for sure, but they were also with the problem.
Technically speaking, it is a ridiculous thing to do that the husband has just slapped the wife and that's what you have told me the film is about, and suddenly you take me to four different places. Then you come back to that girl, much later in the night. That should technically be irritating, which it was not.
Often when filmmakers from upper class/upper caste tell stories of the less privileged, they tend to appropriate them with their privileged gaze. What were the precautions that you and Mrunmayee took while depicting the house help's story to make it look more real and authentic?
You know, most of the times, the best tool I use in such situations is honesty. So, I spent some time in the location we shot at. I had been there before. I knew about it. So, it wasn't like a director was visiting that house or a character was visiting that place. It was just two people there, in their own space, and all you needed to do was look at them with honesty.
At a Q and A session during one of the media screenings last week, Mrunmayee spoke about how your male gaze helped the characters become well-rounded. What would you say has been your learning from collaborating with a female writer?
I don't look at her as a female writer, besides the fact that she had more insight into the female perspective. That line in the film- "No girl child, when you ask her what she wants to be growing up, would say she wants to be a housewife"- came in our conversation and not as a dialogue. Mrunmayee told me this.
It's because every girl has the same dreams and ambitions as that of a boy. But slowly after a time, most probably the mental training, and conditioning begins to be a housewife. Therefore boys pursue their careers, and girls develop their home management "skills".
This is the perspective of a woman which I would not have. I would have begun observing women and feeling their emotions when I was 14 or 15. What a girl feels when she is seven or eight is something that I would never know. I got a lot of insight from her. And she knows the law better than I do. So, that also comes from her.
Do you recall a specific time in your life when you realised you needed to keep your male privilege in check, and that you needed to break the conditioning that men grow up with, especially in India?
It goes deep back to my childhood. I am talking about early to mid-'70s. My father would get up with his plate after dinner and keep it where it was supposed to be kept. He wouldn't leave the plate for my mom to pick up.
But I saw that other men would do the opposite in their homes. I found that (about his father) very charming. I picked it up. So, sometimes I would take the plate from my father and keep it. In my house, it wasn't about men and women. That's something I distinctly remember. That memory must have left some impact. I would have been no more than nine-years-old.
My mom was more of a housewife. A lot of times during functions when there would be relatives at home, it would be a system of, 'Chalo bhaiya logoen ka khaana laga do.' So, all male members would sit together and all the sisters would feed them. Then, all the mothers would feed the sisters. And in the middle of all this, the older men would have their meal. But nobody would know if and when the mothers had food. Somehow, I have a memory of that also, which I didn't like. I don't remember if I resisted it, but I didn't like it. The fact that I noticed it means I must have disliked it.
Then a much larger change has come after knowing Shah Rukh. He is a very chivalrous man. I mean I hate to mention this because then it will become about the 'star' Shah Rukh and the headline will become Shah Rukh Khan, which is not the best thing to happen.
Yes, please save that because I am just talking about an individual, whom I have learnt so much from. And this is one of those things. So, he treats women very well. He has found a fantastic balance between chivalry and treating them as equals.
He would open the door for them. He would hold your hand and walk you up the stairs. The most recent memory of realisation (was this) and I also stole it from him. I do that often, and I feel all of us should. Now, this is not chauvinism. There's a big difference between chauvinism and chivalry.
In Thappad, the agency throughout the film lies with the women, and thankfully, there is no man coming in the end to become a hero. Was it difficult to not fall into the trap of having a male saviour, considering it's very easy to suffer from that complex, especially being a man at the helm of everything? Were you aware about not letting your gendered lens affect the film's narrative?
Now that you ask me, I am thinking about it. It means I wasn't aware about it then. I know that I don't have a problem with women knowing more or learning more or performing better or making more money. I truly believe that women are extremely talented people and with the right opportunities, they perform as well and maybe better than men. So, I don't think I was very aware about it when I was making it. I probably need to think about it.
I don't think Mrunmayee and I took any such decision. The only very conscious decision, which came from Mrunmayee's suggestion, was for Shivani (Dia Mirza's character). I was developing another man, who she was slowly getting attracted to. One day, Mrunmayee said, 'Maybe there's a woman in this world that doesn't need a man. She is happy with the memories of the man she had.' And I thought that was very interesting. So, there was a track of another man that we pulled out.
A lot of Hindi filmmakers despite making feminist, women-led films refuse to own these labels as they believe calling their work "women-oriented" would restrict its reach? What's your opinion on that, considering you have a feminist film, led by an all-women cast and co-written by a woman? Do you believe there is legit resistance by filmmakers to own up feminism?
I don't know who are these directors that you are talking about. But that's not important. I honestly don't know what feminism means. I don't want to. I don't care to know because I am sure there are 1700 definitions of it. What I am interested in is fairness and equality.
That is what feminism is.
Okay, fantastic. As a society, we should be like each other, which we are not. I am actually talking about that. If that's feminist, fantastic. I don't want to deny it.
So, you are okay with the label?
Yeah, yeah. I love it!
In a recent interview, you said you compromised on a few things in Article 15 because you felt that allowed it to reach a bigger audience. If I ask you to look back at Thappad, which you say you have emotionally moved on from, do you feel you stayed true to your vision, without compromising on anything?
No, I didn't compromise on anything. The most compromise was not with the content but about the way I was making you feel about typical emotions.
It's too early to talk about it, but I must tell you that the compromise is being loved by the most woke and feminist people. So, I think it's a fine balance. There's a sequence, where I did put some extra cheese, but nobody is finding it cheesy, so I am keeping it a secret. Maybe a year later, I will let it out!
In another interview, you said that had Vikram profusely apologised to Amrita after slapping her, she might not have divorced him. But don't you feel if she had stayed in the marriage after his apology, it wouldn't have felt right because a slap is still a slap?
When I take you inside a situation like this, a lot of couples will feel differently at different times, and they will have different options because not all of them will have the same situations.
What this movie can help them do is find a solution within themselves to make their relationship better. I don't think there can be any prototype for a man and woman relationship.
Coming back to your question, had he apologised, of course, things would have changed. If I were Amrita, I would probably give him another thought, but I will be very prejudiced. And it's not just about saying sorry. I think the person will have to change. I will have to feel that change for me to become normal again over an extended period of time. It will not happen over a week. It will take me one-two years.