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An Interview with Nitya Mehra: 50 Films that Changed Bollywood

Feb 2017

An Interview with Nitya Mehra: 50 Films that Changed Bollywood

Nitya Mehra is a filmmaker. She has worked with directors such as Farhan Akhtar, Mira Nair and Ang Lee. Her directorial debut, Baar Baar Dekho, was released in 2016. A trailblazing woman, her passionate demeanour and presence are inspirations in themselves.  Here are her thoughts as told to the scribe on a sunny afternoon at KLF:

  • Your filmography is very inspiring. What have you learnt from the directors that you have worked with?

Each director there on that I have worked with has influenced me greatly. With Farhan (Akhtar), I learnt the art of being meticulous. I don’t think there was one moment of working with him when he didn’t know what he wanted and he articulated it. From Mira (Nair), I learnt passion. I remember being in Kolkata with her for The Namesake. Whether it was the chai she wanted in the morning or setting a scene to go a particular way, it was with passion. I learnt to translate that onto the screen. From Ang (Lee), I have to say it has been my greatest learning: the art of zen filmmaking. When you meet him, and when he speaks to you, you know that he’s a philosopher at heart. There’s a bit of him in every frame of every film he’s done. That is very rare. He’s the one who told me, ‘I think it’s time for you to make films, like you’ve told me you want to.’

  • These are very disparate lessons. How did you bring them together in your work?

I am very disciplined. I like things very organized. I want clarity of thought. If I don’t have my answer, I don’t speak to anybody else. My discipline helps me to bring these to the table. I think I brought passion into my film when I refused to settle for anything other than exactly what I wanted. A lot of people believed that the actors, Katrina (Kaif) and Sidharth (Malhotra), would not be able to bring the depth that I was looking for, because Sidharth was relatively new and Katrina is not fully comfortable with the language. To work with them as a team, Mira’s passion helped me in that. And I did it all while being very zen, with a smile on my face!

  • Was it difficult to make a transition from the Hollywood mode of filmmaking to the Bollywood mode of filmmaking?

Not really. Our films are very different in terms of narrative. Writers would always say that popular Hindi cinema needs to be very melodramatic. The characters always need to be put in extraordinary situations. Slice of life films were considered not very good Bollywood films. Dil Chahta Hain broke all those shackles. In it, men were looked at, not as heroes but as humans. They spoke like everybody else and they did not have six packs. When I saw that film I thought, ‘Oh, Hindi films have come of age!’

  • What kind of films inspired you to become a filmmaker?

Apart from Dil Chahta Hain and Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, Dibakar Banerjee’s Love Sex Aur Dhoka that broke form and narrative and spoke about the unspoken. I was greatly influenced by Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya and Rangeela. I also watch a lot of world cinema: American, British. I am a huge fan of Charlie Kaufman. I’m the kind of person who’s a little bored with reality. I find urban spaces quite boring. I want to make films that are none of these things.

  • How does literature and cinema tie in together for you?

I, currently, am appalled at the fact that in Indian cinema, we are not adapting novels nearly enough anymore. Any good film from any part of the world that I watch seems to be adapted from a book: there are very few original screenplays left. I am currently working on something through which we are moving to represent authors and adapt their novels into screenplays for films or web-series.

  • What are the challenges to being so passionate and knowing exactly what you want, and being a woman in this industry?

I think the only time in which I mind it id if I notice it, and if I notice it, I do not entertain it. I have been brought up to consider myself equal with my brother. I definitely want to help more women get into the film industry. When I joined, there were none. I used to get so scared, leaving the studio at 3 in the morning and travelling in an auto because I didn’t have money for a taxi. I couldn’t tell my parents who would fear for my security. It is my responsibility to make sure that kids who come to Bombay from other places are safe. Another time I really feel the difference is when someone asks, ‘What does it feel like being a woman filmmaker?’ I hope that they stop categorising us like this. More power to women, and I promise I’m going to get more of them into the industry!

  • Has there been a woman who has inspired you to choose your path?

As a woman, I think my greatest influence has been my mother. She lived in a small town and she started new things at a time when no one did. She educated us and made a life for herself. Besides that, I’m hugely inspired by Sai Paranjpye. She is a brilliant filmmaker who really broke the shackles. If you looked at the women who worked in the Hindi film industry in the 70s, be it Hema Malini, Rekha or others, they often starred in female-oriented films, not just in movies where the hero was the focus. As women of today, we owe a huge deal to the women who paved their way for us.

  • If you had to curate a reading list for yourself for the age when you were just starting out, which books would you recommend for yourself?

If it had to be film-related, I would choose a book called ‘The Kid Stays in the Picture’ by Robert Evans. The title seems to say, ‘Hang in there. Make sure you keep trying.’ And if it was just a book, I’d choose ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’, which is one of my absolute favourite books ever!

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