He started off as a co-director (with Nitesh Tiwari) of the National Award-winning movie, Chillar Party (2011). But film-maker Vikas Bahl came into his own with the 2013 hit, Queen. As he works on his next, starring Shahid Kapoor and Alia Bhatt, we catch up with him at his banner’s (co-owned by Anurag Kashyap, Vikramaditya Motwane and Madhu Mantena) vibrant office in Andheri (W) to talk about his film-making style, hisinspirations and more.
You tasted commercial success as well as critical acclaim with your first solo directorial. Do you feel the pressure?
Actually, I feel the other way around. A director works hard all his or her life in order to get this kind of success. Since it has already happened for me, I am free of any burden now. I can make whatever I want. I feel very light as opposed to being under pressure. It’s like a scholarship that I have got.
How does it feel to be counted among the promising young directors of Bollywood?
I find it quite embarrassing. I still can’t sit and discuss shots or my thought process with people the way Zoya (Akhtar; director) or Vikramditya can. I think I can’t even speak about the process of film-making well enough.
What’s your process as a director like?
There’s a full method that I probably have in my head. But otherwise, it’s over-interactive, to the extent of over-abusive — abusing the product to make it absolutely correct. So, if there’s a screenplay or a scene, over-abuse it till you get it right. Everyone from my team is allowed to air their opinions at any point. It’s a very collaborative effort and everyone should feel that it’s their film.
Is direction a high pressure job?
I don’t feel any pressure. I love being on the set; I am so happy on it. The process is a lot of fun. For me, those are the best days. No amount of pressure gets me upset. Unless you have fun on set, I don’t think you can make an engaging film.
Did you become a film-maker by default?
Totally. I hadn’t come to Bombay to make movies. I remember, my closest interaction with the movie business was when I joined Sony TV, which was still a corporate job. I had a meeting with Urmila Matondkar. I didn’t know how to address her, what to say, and how to sit in front of her. It was a really bad meeting. One cannot expect someone with a management background to come to Mumbai, and become a film-maker. But the credit goes to Ronnie (Screwvala) and Ajay Bijli, who asked me to join the movies.
When did you turn towards writing and direction?
When I joined UTV, I was given a room in the corridor. And I didn’t know who to call to make a movie. I didn’t know whether you call a director first, or an actor, or the writer. Every day, I used to sit in the cabin and pretend to write — so that every time Ronnie passes by — he should feel that I am doing some work (smiles). While pretending only, I ended up writing Chillar Party.
Was it confusing at the start?
Every weekend, Nitesh (Tiwari; Chillar Party co-director) and I started writing, which took us a year. Then we went to 6-7 directors, and they said, ‘We are not interested in a film on a dog and 10 kids.’ One day, I called up Nitesh and said, ‘Sir, hum log hi banayein kya?’ And he said, ‘Okay banate hain.’
Were you in awe of the film-making experience when you started shooting?
Nitesh and I had no idea of it. But between each other’s intelligence, we were like, ‘How difficult can it be to make a film?’ I remember for our first shot, we thought you still say, ‘Lights, camera and action.’ But there’s no longer such a thing. I remember telling Nitesh, ‘Sir, aap bol do’, and he said, ‘Nahin, aap bolo. I will forget it.’ Somehow we made it.
Even when you were in Lajpat Nagar in Delhi, were you always interested in movies?
I was born and brought up in Delhi. I was a movie buff like anyone else in India. But I wasn’t an A-rated movie fan. But Chupke Chupke (1975) was my favourite, which I must have seen 200 times. Swades (2004) is a film I can watch again and again. When I was in class seven, I would watch Shakti (1982) every weekend. I would pick up some strange movies.
You are part of a company that has names like Anurag Kashyap, Vikramaditya Motwane and Madhu Mantena too. How does their association help you?
We all push each other every day, and the reason we got together is because we know that there will be good days and bad days, and we will need each other in such times. We are brutally honest with each other; we don’t hold back. I can’t expect to be in better company, and we are best friends. Nothing gives us a bigger high that when the other guy does well, and that’s a rare thing in life. We are connected to each other’s work because we are each other’s film’s producers. So the sense of ownership is very high.
Where do you see yourself five years down the line?
I love entertaining people so I hope to do that, and not become irrelevant. I would love to experiment with myself.
How personal is your film-making process?
It’s personal, in the sense that I make sure it’s relatable to me. If I can’t relate to what I am writing or shooting every day, despite it being fictional, then I won’t know what to do with it. And that’s when I will start going wrong. Even if I am making a superhero film, somewhere I need to relate to it. That’s what keeps me going.
So the ‘relatability’ factor is of paramount importance to you?
Yes, some amount of ‘relatability’, at the basic level of the story, that I am trying to tell [is important]. Once that happens, then everything is added on to enhance that feeling. Then, the music [composer] or actor must bring it to life. Every film has a basic core, and if I can relate to it, I can tell the entire story. That doesn’t mean I have to know all the characters, or that those events should have happened in my life.
Is being a film-maker a big responsibility?
I don’t like this term, ‘film-maker’. I feel we are all storytellers. So, I might have a story with me, but I have to go to a team to help me put it together. Therefore, all those people are also film-makers. There’s a story that a director wants to tell, so he is a storyteller, and then people help them become film-makers. Actually, I don’t even like to be called a storyteller. It’s something I feel we all should do; everything else should just follow.
Aren’t you afraid of comparisons with Queen?
In that way, anything you do in life can be compared. But that can’t be the reason for what you decide to do next. You have to go ahead and do what you feel like doing at that time. It should have nothing to do with what you felt previously.
Did you know that you would make a film like Queen?
When you are making a movie, you can’t do it with any expectations in mind. The only expectation you can have is that it gets made and released. Both Kangana (Ranaut) and I didn’t have any merit to put in that kind of money. By now, I feel Queen is a human being, living its own parallel life. Once in a while, we say hello to each other (laughs). When people come and talk to me about Queen, it feels like they are talking about a very close friend of mine.
Bombay Velvet didn’t do well. How important is your next film for the company?
Even if it had done well, it would still have been an important film. The thing is now what do I do with that information (that it has to do well) — we have already finished the film, it is in its final stages of getting ready and Anurag is editing. I can have that info that it does well and makes more money, but I don’t know how to apply it now on the film.
Worked in advertising and marketing for the longest.
With the dot com boom, joined Indya.com.
Then worked at Ogilvy with Piyush Pandey.
Headed marketing division at a radio station.
Later joined Sony TV as head of SAB TV.
Lastly, joined UTV Spotboy to create content for movies.