Producer-director Mohit Suri, who is hoping to make it good with Half Girlfriend, says he would rather do films with a heart than focus on numbers. He shares some back-end stories of his craft, detailing how he ended up proofreading Chetan Bhagat’s draft and demolishing Western belief systems in our films with Unnati Joshi
What is Half Girlfriend from Mohit’s perspective?
Half Girlfriend is a very Indian love story. I always have a problem with the way love stories are dealt with in India, probably because they are inspired by the West. But I think the way an Indian man loves is a lot different from his Western counterpart. People have interpreted Half Girlfriend to be of the Friends with Benefits kind but the fact is this isn’t what the film is about. There’s no sexual connotation at all. It’s about unconditionally loving someone, even if you are the only one doing it. It’s not that mad love where you write letters with blood or stalk someone. Unlike RJ from Aashiqui 2, who went off the bridge for a girl, Madhav Jha would let the girl move on if it was best for her.
That’s why I am afraid about the returns. Because when you put in so much heart and hard work and it is decided over one weekend, it’s kind of unfair. I am not complaining though, it’s a business that I have chosen and loved. I have put in a lot of myself in the film and have tried not to be too jazzy or larger than life. I have tried to be honest. And I hope India likes this honesty.
What made you take up Chetan Bhagat’s book instead of trying out an all-new storyline?
Love as a genre is stereotypical. It’s always boy meets girl, falls in love, loses her and tries to get her back. How many variants can you have? But what I liked about Chetan’s book is that it has completely got a new angle to it. It’s not only about the title; he has projected social differences through the whole language barrier. And it’s so relevant. I know so many people who are intelligent in their head but they don’t speak the language as fluently as other people and, therefore, are considered inferior. How would a person like this feel about being in love with the girl who speaks it fluently and how would she take it?
The second half of the film raises another social issue of how women are treated. They could be educated, could have studied abroad but it doesn’t mean they are forward. And that’s what Shraddha’s background essentially is in the film. It has a new twist to the love angle rather than just being about somebody making you realise that, “Oh God, you have fallen for her.” Normally there are “friendly” characters in the film who will tell the hero that he has fallen in love while in this film, Shraddha tells Arjun not to fall in love as she is going to mess with him. I just liked this newer take on love.
What was the biggest challenge as a producer-director?
I have never produced a film where so much material was already out there with people loving it. Usually when I am developing a character, I do impromptu things on the sets. Like I did with RJ’s character in Aashiqui 2. When he meets Aarohi for the first time, I suddenly thought he would not carry money in his wallet. Since he was stinking rich, he didn’t have to care about money. But here all of the material was already laid out, people had interpreted Madhav Jha in their minds and knew what they wanted out of him. So I was very worried about bringing that character to life onscreen, factoring in a common thread among varied perceptions. That was the most difficult thing to do. I am not talking about the fact that we shot in three continents, over six states, all over the country and always outdoors but that’s not the heart of the film. The heart of the film is how you connect to Madhav Jha’s character and since the content was already out there, I hope I have lived up to it.
Few know that Bhagat ran the proof of Half Girlfriend with you before the book was published. Tell us something of that encounter?
So Chetan came to me before the book was released and asked me to read the proof with his notes and corrections. I thought the book was fluff and I am not good at that. But when I read it, I found it had the angst, pathos, the journey of the arch of an Indian love story and was not, as I said, inspired by the Western belief system.
How did you end up casting Arjun and Shraddha together?
I have done two films with Shraddha in the past and I have a great rapport with her. She comes like a clean slate and then I just write my scene on her. Now she’s popular as well but she still comes and approaches me the same way as she used to in Aashiqui 2. What more would a director want? Now she’s become more crafted and she’s learnt her skill. She has the innocence of a debutante as well as the skill of an experienced actor. The fact is I can’t keep giving her the same roles. In Aashiqui 2 she played the girl-next-door. This time she plays a south Delhi girl who travels in big cars. So there’s a new body language. I felt that people who belong to this strata don’t really show their emotions when they feel something. They don’t cry openly. They feel that showing their emotions makes them weak. And she executed that to perfection.
As for Arjun, to be honest, I didn’t think much about him. I pre-judged him actually, just like I did Half Girlfriend, the book. I pre-judged him to be a producer’s son who’s got a break in Yash Raj and would never work hard as he had never gone to college.
We just caught up once at Mehboob Studio in Bandra and when I spoke to him I realised that he had grown up with a single mother. I have worked with Monaji in the past and she made a name for herself in the male-dominated industry, that too in the sphere of technology, which included setting up her own studio. That’s why Arjun respects women. Someone who has been brought up by a single mother will always appreciate the contribution that women have had in his life.
Fact is he didn’t get launched by his father. He auditioned at Yash Raj and rose from there. He was a fat kid, so he had to struggle hard and lose the weight. Whatever he has today, he has achieved on his own terms. That’s what Madhav Jha’s character is all about. He has been brought up by a single mother. Sure he belongs to the royal family but it’s not as if he enjoys the associated money and the privileges. He’s not good at studies. Instead, he takes up basketball, gets good at it and then gets through to St. Stephens college via a sports quota. All the emotional impulses were in place. I felt Arjun would understand the emotional graph of Madhav Jha better than anyone else.
Didn’t you get into films in similar circumstances, by chance?
I was not a film student as such. I just happened to find myself when I joined films. This was because I needed to earn money, which I didn’t have much of when I was a kid.
I was a science student who wanted to pursue aerospace engineering at Virginia Tech. University. Unfortunately, we were going through a financial crisis and so my father couldn’t send me. That left me with two choices, either be upset about this for the rest of my life or do something about it. I decided to work in an office and the only place that would give me a job at the age of 17 was my uncle’s production house called Vishesh Films. In fact, I went to work there in the back-end. But then Mukesh Bhatt saw something in me and encouraged me to go into film-making. I couldn’t figure myself out but Mukesh and Mahesh Bhatt did.
Before that, I didn’t even know what a set was. I went to one and saw how a shot was taken. I didn’t know what a trolley was. Gradually, I was drawn in. I remember once Emraan Hashmi, who is my cousin, and I were travelling back from Goregaon station to Bandra by train. It was late at night. I remember him telling me, “It’s too tough yaar, I don’t think I can become a director, instead I will become an actor.” I laughed and told him in that case I would become a director. That was the moment of truth. I don’t believe a person is a genius. I always believe that an idea is the real genius. When I watch a great a film, I never say wish I was its director, I say I wish I had thought it up.
What is your film-making philosophy?
Essentially, my philosophy is reminding myself that a film is something with which I will have to live for the next 12 months, maybe more. So I better have a connect with it. I choose my scripts the same way that a woman might choose her lover. It doesn’t have to be the best, richest or educated. It has to touch your heart and have substance. There have always been flaws and problems but something has to work in the heart. You will have bad days while making the film when you feel as though it is worthless or you are not pushing yourself hard enough but if you don’t love it, then you shouldn’t be in it.
How would you summarise the concurrent movements in contemporary mainstream cinema?
This can be compared to the kind of pictures that one chooses to see on Instagram, for example. There are only two kinds of pictures that you will want to see, either something so large and spectacular such as a person or place whom you admire, or a picture of yourself. That’s what I think films are going to be like in the future. Either they are going to be large or they are going to be personal.
Nothing yet. As Chetan says, I suffer from one-nighters. I can’t deal with more than one love at a time and I need to get Half Girlfriend out of my system before I can jump into something else.
Are you keyed up about box office numbers?
To be honest, there are many people playing that game, especially when we have Baahubali going strong in its third week and creating a worldwide phenomenon. But you know, Aashiqui 2 wasn’t a 100-crore film. It was 82 odd but even after four years, people ask me about it. Half Girlfriend, too, isn’t a big film but it’s one with a big heart. If it can move you or touch you in places or can make you cry, I would be very happy. I would want people to experience the bitter-sweet joy of love.
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