Labour of love

National Award-winning director Onir talks to Shillpi A Singh about his recently released movie, Kuchh Bheege Alfaaz, which has been making waves at international film festivals

At first glance, Onir’s latest directorial venture, Kuchh Bheege Alfaaz (released on February 16), may look like your regular run-of-the-mill love story, but take a closer look and you’ll find something different. The movie boasts three National Award winners: the director, the female lead (Geetanjali Thapa) and the editor (Irene Dhar Malik).

It also introduces two exciting newcomers: Zain Khan Durrani (male lead) and Abhishek Chatterjee (story, screenplay and dialogues). And although composer Shashwat Srivastava is credited for the background score, the film has no original songs. All the tracks are from old Hindi movies, and all of them hit the right notes.

Onir has here, for the first time, attempted a true-blue romance. Shot entirely in Kolkata, the movie captures the essence of the city – its people, yellow taxis and bustling fish markets – and weaves into it the lives of his two lead characters.

When and how did you decide to embark on this project?

While I was a jury member at the Drishyam Sundance Screenwriting Lab in 2016, I read Abhishek [Chatterjee’s] script and fell in love with it. Although I did not know the meaning of the word alfaaz at the time, I liked the title. Moreover, I had never done a romantic film before, and that was reason enough.

Using Pehla nasha, from the 1992 film Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar, as the theme song of your film adds an oldworld charm to the storytelling…

I have many beautiful memories associated with the song as well as with the movie. I was in college when I watched Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar, and this particular melody has stayed with me ever  since. Also, the track fit the script and I did not want to remix or recreate the song because it is beautiful the way it is. And SaReGaMa [the music label] being on board helped, as it not only has an extensive music library but also the copyrights of all the old romantic songs in the film.

Can you tell us a little about the story, as well as the context it is set within?

The movie is about the courage to fall in love again after a heartbreak. It narrates the story of Alfaaz, a radio jockey who anchors the night-time show Kuchh Bheege Alfaaz, and  Archana, an artist who is battling her own insecurities and dealing with vitiligo, a skin condition. Alfaaz meets Archana over a misdialled call and they find their way into each other’s hearts, keeping their identities hidden from each other till they meet towards the end of the movie. It is a simple and endearing tale of love, loneliness and longing that blossoms in the age of social media.

The film also throws light on vitiligo, or leucoderma, not much explored in Hindi cinema. How did you approach the subject?

My attempt has always been to tell stories that no one has told before, because, in the process, I grow as an individual. In this film, I have included leucoderma, as the subject touched me, but the film doesn’t revolve around it. Yes, Archana has her set of complexes but then, through her, I have tried to emphasise that it is more important to love oneself and accept one’s flaws with a smile.

I wanted to portray that beauty is beyond external appearances. Tell us about the casting process, and the 

preparation that went into each role.

I had first met Zain when he auditioned for Shab. But since the role went to Ashish [Bisht], Zain assisted me as a director in the film, as well as in the documentary Raising the Bar. When I read Abhishek’s script, I knew Zain was perfect for the role. He auditioned, and even the producers felt that he fit the part. Geetanjali [Thapa] is full of life – simple, affectionate and affable. These were the features that made her closely resemble Archana. After finalising the cast, we held workshops to help the actors understand their characters. In the film, the characters communicate only through calls and messages, and do not come face to face till the end. I wanted to capture that raw emotion. So, even when the actors were attending workshops or shooting, my team ensured that they didn’t bump into each other. They met only during the scene where their characters meet in the movie. What you see on screen, then, is a real emotion that arises from meeting someone you have only been speaking to for a long time.

Tell us about your next venture. My next film is titled Driving Lesson.

It has been jointly written by Abhishek and Tannishtha Chatterjee, and the latter will also act in the movie alongside Ashish [Bisht]. The story will unfold at a driving school and bring together two people from different social backgrounds.

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