Reema Kagti: Rani Mukerji is the front bencher; Kareena Kapoor is the proverbial back bencher!

Reema Kagti opens up on casting Aamir Khan, being a woman director and her professional relationship with Zoya Akhtar

Reema Kagti is back with a new film, five long years after her debut with Honeymoon Travels. And though it may have taken her longer to do her second film, she is back with one of the biggest movies of 2012. And to manage a casting coup of sorts too, with Aamir Khan, Kareena Kapoor and Rani Mukerji in the same film, is indeed a cause for celebration. Yet Reema doesn’t think that way. The outspoken director is confident about her story. And though she agrees that a big star helps in selling a film, a watertight script and content are more important to her. Reema opens up…

 What is it like, being a woman and directing a very masculine suspense drama?

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a man or a woman, as the mind that directs a film is more of an androgynous mind. It doesn’t have to belong to a specific gender per se. That hardly matters while directing. So, for me my sensibility and my aesthetics are the more important things when I am directing a film. I don’t think that being a woman, I was at any disadvantage while directing. And also, more and more women are making mainstream commercial cinema. Before me, Farah Khan has done it, and done it very well. Last year, Zoya’s film was also in a similar space. And more and more women directors are coming up.

Was it easy to convince Aamir to do the film?

I was very aware when we approached him that it is not easy to convince him to do a film, as I know that he thinks and understands the role before he commits to it. But even when I and Zoya were writing the film, we had Aamir in mind. This was during the time he was shooting for Ghajini. Now exactly how many times he thought about it, I don’t know. But I feel that with how long Aamir normally takes, I got away quite easily. I was not prepared. I thought it would take a lot of time, and I went to Goa to play a poker tournament. And during the tournament I got an sms from Ritesh (Sidhwani) asking where I was, and that Aamir had agreed to meet to discuss the film within one hour. Of course, since I was in Goa, I couldn’t make it to the meeting; I came back the following day. But to be frank, maybe I got somebody like Aamir because I focused on content. In my case, the fact that I had actors who are also superstars only helped and empowered me. I am sure there are directors who had problems with Aamir, but I don’t know about that right now. I for one was extremely satisfied with the way Aamir contributed to the film.

Was it tough directing an actor as big as Aamir Khan? And with his reputation as a perfectionist…

Not really, because I do not think about those things. I just focus on my work and on what I am supposed to do. And there were no creative differences between us. From the time Aamir has come on, he has been extremely supportive of the script, and has helped me make it into a film. He has been very cooperative; he is very talented and an amazing actor. It is also great to work with him as a producer. And about the news of our so called ‘rift’, it is completely in the minds of the media – because newspapers and magazines have to sell! In all the stories that came out, a few reporters actually called me. And I clarified that it was not true. But you know, they put your quote at the end and they make it feel like it is nothing.

 What about working with two big heroines, Kareena and Rani? How different were their working styles, and who did you enjoy directing?

Don’t ask me to answer the question whether I prefer Rani or Kareena. Because if I name one, the other will come and kill me! (Laughs) Kidding! They are two of the finest actors, and their processes of acting are very different from each other. Rani is used to doing a lot of practice before she does a scene. She likes to rehearse. And before the scene she wants to know what the character is about, the back story, what is going on in her head, etc. While Kareena – she has a completely different approach. She is more spontaneous. If you compare them both, then Rani is the front bencher, and Kareena is the proverbial back bencher! With Kareena also we did preparations, etc, but it was nowhere as intense as Rani’s. They both have different processes, but ultimately what matters is when the camera turns on. And both of them seem to have terrific control over their art.

Since Talaash is a serious suspense drama, how was the mood on sets?

We were quite focused on sets, but not at all morose or super serious. Sure, Aamir most of the times puts on a very serious air. But usually he is a crazy prankster, to be frank with you! It doesn’t have to be anything big that he does. Like, you know, the camera guys use a little pump to clean their lenses. So he would pick that up, and suddenly when someone was working, he would go and blow it in their ears. It’s a very schoolboy thing to do, but yeah, he has been doing it since Lagaan and Dil Chahta Hai!

Is the industry ready for women as directors?

I know that this industry is male dominated. Bu then so is our country and so is half the world. Having said that, I feel that the situation in the Hindi film industry is progressing; there are several women working, not just as directors – over the last ten years a lot of women have joined the industry. And the only reason that has happened is because it is a safe place for women to work. There will always be stray cases and unpleasant incidents where people try to take advantage of some poor unsuspecting girl, but by and large, in my experience – and I’m not just saying this as a director; I have also been an assistant director – is that our industry has a very good working environment.

How much are you looking forward to Talaash entering the Rs 100 crore club?

See, I won’t make distinctions like that. I will make distinctions like ‘good film’ and ‘bad film’. You know, nowadays what happens is that films are judged by the amount of money they make – I mean, all these films nowadays that make RS 100 or 150 crores. But rarely do you meet a person who has seen the film and liked it. At the same time there are films like English Vinglish that made just Rs 60 crores. I personally have not seen it, but kudos to the filmmaker, as whoever I have met has loved the film. So you cannot just take numbers and use that as a way to judge films. Accountants function like that!

Your reaction to the current Jab Tak Hai Jaan vs Son of Sardar controversy?

See, I am a knee-jerk liberal. I feel that free trade should be allowed. And I don’t think that it should be allowed as a legitimate business practice to compromise or jeopardise someone else’s work. Everyone should be able to release their films without any pressure from anyone, is what I believe in.

You and Zoya have written a number of films together. Any conflict between you two when it comes to writing?

No, because when we are writing, both of us are wearing a writer’s hat. Of course, we are clear about who is directing the film, but it doesn’t make that much of a difference because at that point we are really trying to justify things as writers. In fact, no one is allowed to say that since I am the director, we should do this. No. In fact, that’s a rule, that you cannot say that and you have to make sense. You cannot suddenly show some kind of superiority as a filmmaker. Also there is not a lot of conflict, because part of why we decided to write together is because we share a similar aesthetic and sensibility. So I never feel in conflict with Zoya. I think that we complement each other.

You’re known to be a real tomboy….

Oh, then you should have seen me as a kid! I was a total tree climber, just one of the boys. And I remember, as kids in Assam, I got stuck on this guava tree. What happened was that it was the monsoon, and in the house where we were staying, there was this big guava tree at the edge of our garden. My parents had warned me to not climb guava trees in the monsoon, as they’re slippery. But one day, as they went out, I snuck into the courtyard and climbed it. And while climbing down, I got stuck. So I was hanging upside down for almost two and a half hours before one of the neighbours spotted something making noise, hanging upside down from a tree!

What about your movie influences? Who is your favorite actor?

When I was a kid, I watched all the commercial Hindi films. I loved Mr Amitabh Bachchan. I was obsessed, in fact. I wanted to be him. I would do a middle parting in my hair and spout dialogues from his movies. In fact, I have actually worked with Amitabh on Lakshya, but he was so busy on shoots that I never got a chance to talk to him properly. So, yes, I hope some day I can direct him. For him I think I will have to come up with something very special, ‘coz he has done everything! But getting to your question – obviously Hindi cinema has inspired me in my formative years. But I also watch world films now. I watch all kinds of cinema, because I am a film buff. So any good film, I will enjoy. I don’t enjoy horror and gore. And these love stories are a bit boring for me. But that’s it. I like everything else.