You’ve been acting since the 1990s. What prompted you to take up direction after all these years?
I am a professionally-trained filmmaker and I have worked behind the camera for around five to six years. The acting bug was so strong that I decided to postpone film direction for many years. I wasn’t offered good roles in the last 10 years or so, and I did not want to do something that I didn’t enjoy. The last time I enjoyed doing a film was Jolly LLB (2013). My role in Fashion (2008) made me feel like a glorified extra. It never helped me professionally and because I was choosy about films, I was suddenly out of work. I spent a long time feeling frustrated and so, it was important to put my mind to better things than just waste my energy.
Your directorial debut ‘Khajoor Pe Atke’ is a dark comedy. This isn’t a genre that is easy to crack and it’s still being explored in Hindi cinema.
My film is inspired from a few incidents that I have experienced. When you observe peculiar things around a situation multiple times, you start wondering if there’s a story there. So many times, in a serious situation, people observe or say something that’s off the mark and that becomes funny. My film explores such situations in life. I have always been inspired by films like Chupke Chupke (1975), Khoobsurat (1980), Khatta Meetha (1978) and Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983). They don’t make films like that anymore. I want to stress on the fact that there is a market for all kinds of films, whether it is India or abroad. I wanted to explore the genre of dark comedy because I won’t be able make a slapstick or sex comedy. I am no one to judge here because I just made my first film, but slapstick comedies in India are mainly about forwarded jokes.
You have an ensemble cast with talented actors like Vinay Pathak, Seema Pahwa and Manoj Pahwa in your film. Do you feel that there is a lack of opportunities for such actors in our film industry that’s always hankering for big stars?
In our industry, there is a general lack of opportunities for talented actors. We can clearly say that there is a lot of talent in the film industry, but unfortunately, good actors have to play merry-go-round around the stars in our films. The genre of comedy has taken centre stage for sure, and the ‘Yeh toh comedy actor hai’ kind of labels have thankfully disappeared. We have actors like Manoj Pahwa, Seema Pahwa, Vinay Pathak and Dolly Ahluwalia, who have great comic timing, but they are often labelled as comedians. They can deliver so much more. Also, I feel, once you have a script that works, it automatically finds its way to good actors.
Since this is your first film with an ensemble cast of good actors but not big names, was it difficult to get a producer on board?
I waited for a long time, and then I came across some incredible producers who did not ask me, ‘Poster pe kaun hoga’. They were keen to hear the script. We also toyed around with the idea of roping in a star to sell the film. A couple of stars we spoke to were even happy with the script and suggested some changes. But the producers weren’t keen on changing the script, so we let go of the idea of having a star.
What were the challenges of donning the director’s hat, after having been on the other side of the camera for so long? Do you want to continue making films or would you want to go back to acting?
Most of your job is done when you work with talented actors. When I used to act, it was all about being in your space and following the director’s instructions. As a director, I was not just handling the actors, but looking after an entire unit of 100 people. To me, direction was a happily tiring and satisfying experience for me. As an actor, you can emotionally switch off once you come home from the set, but as a director, it is an emotional process that keeps going on for many months. I have made an honest film and I hope the masses will like it. I would love to continue acting too, if there are good offers.