•  Punam Mohandas
    •  02 December 2018
    •  564

    "Screenwriters should get the first credit for any film." - Vinod Kapri

    SWA Exclusive interview with writer-director of Pihu

    Vinod Kapri is much in the news for his recent release, ‘Pihu’ – a movie with minimal dialogues, where the protagonist is a two year old girl! Needless to say, he had many problems getting studio heads to listen and believe in such a project! However, Vinod is no stranger to problems; his earlier cinematic ventures may have garnered many awards, but solicited little faith from industry veterans. In an exclusive interview to the SWA, the unassuming writer-director speaks of ‘Pihu’ and his other experiences and vehemently supports the write (right) to recognition that is gaining momentum in the film industry.

    Although much was made of ‘Toilet: Ek Prem Katha,’ the truth is, you were the first to highlight this national shame with your documentary, ‘I can’t take this shit anymore.’ What was the trigger that led you to make a documentary on this subject?

    “See, apart from making films, I’m a television journalist. I’m from Berinag in Uttarakhand and my relatives live in villages there. Whenever I visited, I saw there were no toilets and people were defecating in the open. This subject stayed in my mind for many years, but I was not very sure about the storyline. How much would it convince people? But I was convinced that it was a very important story waiting to be told,” he says earnestly.

    Continuing, he says that he got to know about a newly married girl who had left her husband’s home for this very reason – that there was no toilet in the house! “Tracking that story, I went to Kushinagar in UP – and there I got to know about five more girls who had done the same thing! So I decided to track all six women for the next six-seven months and cover every aspect – from their leaving home to returning once the toilets were built.”

     

    Did you ever feel disheartened or jaded that ‘Toilet: Ek Prem Katha’ managed to garner so much attention and media hype simply because an Akshay Kumar was associated with the project?

    “As a storyteller, I was happy that ‘Toilet…’ was made, because the story deserved to be told,” Vinod says immediately, with no guile in his tone. “It’s good such stories are in the mainstream cinema. In fact, I was angry at myself, for having made a documentary rather than a film! It was my bad luck it didn’t strike me; I didn’t think a commercial star or big studio would be interested, so I didn’t pitch it to anyone. It’s a part of life…anyway, I have many more stories to be told,” he says philosophically.

     

    After this social issue, you went on to cover another socio-political issue, ‘Miss Tanakpur Haazir Ho.’ Is this because of your training and experiences as a journalist?

    “Yes, that’s right,” he says immediately. “Being a journalist really helped me. I related to those stories; I need to do stories that I can do justice to. I don’t think I have the capacity to make a film like ‘2.0’ I believe I have a talent to tap stories related to our lives, however, we still need to check the commercial viability of such stories and so, one needs to strike the right balance.”

     

    You have been the story, script and dialogue writer as well as director for both these ventures. Is it challenging wearing so many hats on set?

    “Not really; in fact, my storytelling skill helped me as a director. When I wrote a scene, I immediately conceived how I’m going to shoot it as well. If the director is also the storywriter, it makes the director’s job easy.”

     

    Everybody has been asking you how ‘Pihu’ came about and you have given many interviews on the subject too. Firstly, what was it about this particular news item that made you decide to turn it into a film screenplay?

    “One of my friends had invited me for a party at his house one Saturday, then suddenly he called that morning and said he’s postponing it. When I asked why, he said they had fired the maid. He and his wife are a working couple and the maid had left their two and a half year old daughter all alone the previous day for two hours, while she went to the market. It was a small incident, but it stuck in my mind. At the time though, I was not sure about any story, I didn’t think I could make it into a film. There should always be a message in any film and I couldn’t see that yet,” he explains. “Then, I got to know a four and a half year old boy was all alone at home for about 13-14 hours, after his mother committed suicide and I thought – now THERE’S a story!”

     

    Secondly, there are minimal dialogues in the film - what made you have so much confidence that this child could pull it off?

    Vinod laughs. “When I saw this girl, I thought she was completely amazing and adorable. Maybe it was just a conviction! The audience will be aware in just a few seconds that this child is completely unaware of what’s happened to her life and - this is the contrast!” he says as excitedly as if he has just hit upon the nub of the story. “When you invest your time in a two and a half year old girl who is not aware she is in danger – this is going to work! This is going to engage people and keep them on the edge of their seats!”

     

    You have left the death of the mother for the audience to work out using their imaginations; on one hand, she is shown holding a bottle of pills but on the other, there are scratches on her face and marks on her wrists. Is it a deliberate move to provoke the audience in this manner?

    “What I wanted to show was that there was a major, violent fight between husband and wife and that’s the reason she committed suicide.”

     

    Is this even plausible – that a mother would commit suicide knowing her little toddler was going to be alone at home, may eat the tablets or be in other dangerous situations as, in fact, you have shown in the movie?

    “There are many such incidents happening these days, it is very common these days,” Vinod expostulates. “Last year, an IPS officer in Noida shot his wife and then jumped, leaving his six year old son at home with the grandfather. This story is for those parents! That’s why the tagline of ‘Pihu’ says that every child deserves a parent, but not every parent deserves a child!”

     

    All your ventures thus far (‘I can’t take this shit anymore,’ ‘Miss Tanakpur Haazir Ho’) have gone on to win many national and international awards, even if they may not have quite set the box office a-flutter. Is that vindication enough for you?

    “Film making and storytelling is a long journey and it’s just my fifth year in this medium,” he theorises. “Good people who understand cinema are appreciating my cinema. Every film is a learning - one day, I’ll reach out to many audiences too.

    “When I conceieved ‘Pihu,’ I went to many people and they said: ‘Do saal ki bachi ko picture mein dekhne kaun aayega.’ That was the question studios and producers were asking me. But the fact that many people watched it and we're here talking about it is a big award for me! People like Sid (Siddharth Roy Kapur) and Ronnie (Ronnie Screwvala) backed me and released it in 7-8 countries - This is a big award for me! It’s a vindication of the conviction that I had,” says Vinod humbly.

     

    In an interview to the Hindustan Times on ‘Pihu,’ you are quoted as having said that: “This is definitely going to change the course of Indian cinema.” Have Indian audiences become more discerning, in your opinion?

    Aaj se chaar-paanch saal pehle it was almost impossible to release this kind of film. Indian audiences are changing; pichle teen hafton se ‘Pihu’ jaisi film chal rahi hai, ‘Tumbbad’ has been running for four weeks. I salute such audiences who are becoming more mature!” he declares unequivocally.

     

    Both your feature films have banked on a fail-safe script rather than a bevy of stars. There are many other films – especially this year – that have been made with offbeat subjects and yet garnered immense appreciation from audiences. Therefore, do you think writers are finally coming into their own?

    Jo films box office aur critically acha kar rahi hain, it is because of writers!” says Vinod roundly. “I am very sad to say writers are still not getting their due – and they are the soul of the project! Not even the biggest superstar can run a film for the second day is there is no story! Sabse pehle writers ko credit milna chahiye koi bhi film mein. Sabsi badi problem hai ki ek-do saal lagte hain ek script likhne mein, phir payment schedules ki 10% ab, 10% tab, 20% after green signal…! Ek superstar ke saath 6-7 logon ka convoy chalta hai and (the price of) even their combined air tickets are not paid to a writer as salary! Agar writers ko importance aur izzat milna shuru ho jaaye toh film 600 crores kama sakti hai!”

     

    Of all the films made on varied subjects in recent times, which one stands out in your mind; which writer do you think is the most promising?

    “I liked ‘Dum Laiga Ke Haisha’ a lot. And then Ashwini Iyer Tiwari – bahut kamaal ka kaam kar rahi hai. She is very promising,” he signs off.

    Punam Mohandas is a film buff, a journalist, an author, an accomplished travel writer and an expert on South Asia. She also writes columns on film personalities. She has lived and worked in India, Dubai and Bangkok.