"Dushman", a psychological revenge thriller, came out in 1998, an era where films with female protagonists were few, and women directors hardly existed. Tanuja Chandra, who made her directorial debut with the feature, credits the producers -- Pooja Bhatt and Mukesh Bhatt, her passionate cast -- Kajol, Ashutosh Rana and Sanjay Dutt, and "highly receptive audiences" of the time for helping the film achieve cult status.
Even though the memory of the premiere night 25 years ago is a bit blurry now, Chandra said the film came as a surprise for the industry insiders who thought that women were more likely to make "love stories or pure emotional drama".
"Many distributors and film industry officials could hardly believe I had directed this film! I was quite small in size and this wasn't a soft film, so for a woman to direct it came as a surprise to people," the director told PTI in an email interview.
"Dushman" centred on twin sisters -- Sonia and Naina-- played by Kajol and a psychopath postman (Ashutosh) who sexually assaults and kills women. The film also featured Sanjay Dutt, Jas Arora, Tanvi Azmi and Pramod Muthu in important roles.
Chandra started her journey as a storyteller with television and during the course met Mahesh Bhatt who was the creative producer on one of the shows she directed. She collaborated with the ace filmmaker, his banner and daughter Pooja on films such as "Tamanna" and "Zakhm" before directing "Dushman".
The film, which had a screenplay by Bhatt, was an organic shift to feature format, said Tanuja, who believes it was only because of her association with the acclaimed director that she was able to work with some of the biggest names in film industry in her maiden movie.
"Mr. Bhatt helped me get some highly experienced and legendary people in the project. It was amazing for me to work with Sachin Bhowmik who had written many classics, and Anand Bakshi, lyricist of thousands of songs. Our Editor, Waman Bhonsle had cut hundreds of films. So it was such an enriching, almost magical experience for me as a debutant," she recalled.
Was it part of the plan to make a female-led story as her first film? Chandra said considering her "abiding love" for stories revolving around women, "Dushman" was a natural choice.
"I've always enjoyed dramas and thrillers and my abiding love for the female genre began right at the start of my career. So, I guess it was only natural that I would veer toward this kind of story. It excited me and the producers on board as well as the actors who decided to feature in it, made it happen."
Apart from being a perfect launchpad for Chandra, "Dushman" marked a shift in Kajol's career, established Rana as director's delight and gave Dutt's on screen action hero image a gentle makeover.
Chandra believes as a director her superpower is to be able to recognise an actor of depth and that has worked in her favour since the beginning of her career.
"Kajol was always the actor I had in mind for 'Dushman'. I knew we'd do something special together. I'm glad she said yes. She is very talented, yes, but what sets her apart is that she acts from deep within herself, as if the emotion is coming from her belly and erupting into the atmosphere. She is capable of unnerving honesty and that's such an amazing quality for an actor to have," she said.
Kajol said "Dushman" is one of the scariest films she has ever acted in or watched. Marking the 25th anniversary of the movie, the Bollywood star thanked Pooja Bhatt, Chandra and the team for making her feel comfortable on the sets.
"One of the scariest films I have ever said yes to or even watched for that matter. #AshutoshRana scared the crap out of me on screen and I'm sure out of all of you guys as well. And a big thanks till today to #PoojaBhatt and #TanujaChandra for making me so comfortable with such an uncomfortable topic. It is still such an uncomfortable film for me to watch!" she wrote on Twitter.
Much-like Kajol, Chandra said she was sure she wanted to cast Rana in the role of Gokul Pandit after working with him closely on projects where he had supporting parts.
The director believes Rana captured every bit of his character's "frightening and horrifying essence".
"Ashutosh grabbed the role of a depraved rapist and murderer with both arms and embraced it in every bit of its frightening and horrifying essence. For me it was clear - Gokul Pandit was an absolute criminal who operated under the cover of a postman - a tribe most people inherently trust. And that's how he victimises young women. I'm so glad Ashutosh agreed to play him, because he was raw in the portrayal and did it with absolute conviction," she added.
Rana said it was his good fortune that he got to work with Kajol, Chandra and Pooja Bhatt so early in his career.
"It is my good fortune that early on in my career I got the opportunity to do a film with such a great actress like you. #Pooja #Tanuja and thank you from the bottom of my heart," he posted on Twitter in response to Kajol's tweet.
"Dushman" was a story of the bond between two sisters and while both the characters had romantic arcs, the film was not a love story at its core. Casting for the roles of love interests of the two female leads was a tedious process.
Most of the A-list actors she approached weren't keen on playing a part that was smaller than the female protagonists, Chandra said.
"Keeping in mind, the character of the Major appears on screen at half-way point for the first time. So it was a difficult one to cast. Sanjay Dutt is adventurous and enjoys taking these kinds of risks. Mr. Bhatt had a close relationship with him and he approached him along with me...It wasn't a role that he had done before and he readily agreed to come on board," she said.
The film was the seventh highest grosser of the year 1998 and earned Rana the best villain Filmfare Award. Kajol was nominated in the best actress category for the thriller, but won the award for her role of Anjali in Karan Johar's directorial debut "Kuch Kuch Hota Hai" that year.
Looking back, Chandra said she never imagined that viewers would continue to find "Dushman" relevant, especially in the digital era.
"It makes me very happy. Even though there were very few female filmmakers at that time, I do remember a certain purity of intent and love for cinema with fondness. I cherish the memories deeply, of having wonderful producers, passionate actors, legendary heads of department, a fantastic team, and highly rece