I was eight years old when I saw my first horror film. It was The Exorcist and it was an adults only show at this film club in my hometown Borhapjan in Assam,’’ remembers Reema Kagti. “I got the fright of my life and started screaming. I ran towards my mother who was sitting somewhere in the dark and she dragged me out of the room.’’
Kagti laughs as she recounts the story, and the look of exhaustion on her face dissolves momentarily. Clad in her trademark jeans, T-shirt and jacket ensemble, the petite Kagti looks in desperate need of sleep. The dark shadows under her eyes are prominent despite the dim lighting at this five-star hotel coffee shop in suburban Mumbai. She has just returned from a hectic, weeklong, city-a-day tour promoting her latest film Talaash.
But rest is not something that Kagti, touted as one of the hottest women film directors in India today, can look forward to right now. Her iPhone chimes constantly with news about reviews, box office records and publicity meetings. She looks preoccupied, but answers all questions patiently and in detail.
Talaash has not been through the kind of pre-release hype that characterises big banner productions these days. This was a deliberate move, Kagti insists. “Usually it is much more hectic, with 10-12 city tours. This time it was more laid-back because of the content.’’
Talaash is a suspense drama, something Kagti repeatedly emphasises, unhappy with the reviews that have called it a thriller. The film is centred on a police probe into the mysterious death of a movie star. It is also about loss, relationships and the paranormal. The story was born out of an incident co-writer Zoya Akhtar witnessed one night many years ago when she was out with friends. But Kagti refuses to say more on this.
On the whole, Talaash has been well received, both critically and in the box office, but Kagti says its early days yet. There is plenty to do on the publicity front. She especially hates the travel that comes with promoting a film. “I hate flying. I suffer from a slight amount of anxiety. I grit my teeth and can’t wait for the flight to land and run out of the plane and kiss the tarmac,’’ she laughs.
Those nerves didn’t come in the way of this 40-year-old filmmaker from the small town of Borhapjan, who, post Talaash, seems to have broken into the big league in the Mumbai film industry. It was a journey she was destined to make given her obsession with films from childhood, says Kagti. “I think I got the bug from my grandfather. He was a businessman but he also acted, and partly produced some Assamese films. My parents were horrified by my interest in films.’’
On Sunday evenings young Reema, who left for a boarding school at the age of 10, would sneak into the local film club when films for adults would be screened. Her defining moment was watching Mr Natwarlal. “You know that scene where Mr Bachchan sings to the kids Ye jeena bhi koi jeena hai Lallu?’’ Reema mimics the dialogue and expression. “That was when I decided that I wanted to make films. Mr Bachchan is still an icon for me,” she says, her face almost glowing with reverence.
Kagti was 24 when she joined the film industry. Her first big break was as an assistant director in Rajat Kapoor’s Private Detective. The film never got released but she learned a lot working with Kapoor. Three years later her dream came true when she was taken on as assistant director in Honey Irani’s film, Armaan. Playing the lead role was Amitabh Bachchan.
Were you tongue-tied with him, I ask her. “Well, he used to call me a Bodo militant so I don’t think I gave out that tongue-tied, overawed vibe,’’ she laughs. “He is so gracious and professional!’’
When she started out, Kagti felt that the industry was very male dominated. “Especially when it came to direction, which is what I wanted to do.’’ She recalls the words of a production manager who told her that women directors never made films because they were jinxed. The remark still rankles.
“Farah Khan changed all that,” she says. “The industry has changed a lot before my eyes. India is not a very nice place for women. Given that, the film industry is actually a very good place. There are horror stories but it’s not happened to me. It has become much more democratic now. You see so many women now working as gaffers and light assistants. That wasn’t the case earlier.’’
Kagti’s association with Zoya Akhtar, her co-writer in Talaash, started during the making of Kaizad Gustad’s Bombay Boys. Through Zoya, Kagti met Farhan Akhtar and came to be associated with some of the big banner Excel Productions like Lakshya and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. The company backed her debut film Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd as well.
Surely the association helped open doors otherwise denied to rank newcomers in the industry?
Kagti denies that. “Look, it took me five years to make Talaash. It was a difficult genre and I had a hard time pulling it off. Initially we had a lot of problems casting the film. Only when Aamir came on board did things change. It turned the lights green, so to speak.’’
What about those clashes with Aamir Khan reported widely in the press? “The film you see is the film I set out to make. Aamir brings a lot to the table and it is always in a spirit of participation,’’ she says firmly.
For Kagti, Talaash is also bound up with a personal tragedy. “Personally, I had a difficult time shooting Talaash,” she says. “My dad was dying. I spent his last days doing something else. Six months into the shoot I lost him. I barely spent any time with him.’’
Though Kagti is now ranked among the leading women directors of Bollywood, it’s a tag she is uncomfortable with. “It is a misleading term because we are androgynous while we are directing. We are not sticking to women-centric films. At the same time I believe we owe a lot to the filmmakers before us who explored feminist themes. It is because of their work that we are able to explore larger themes. I believe my struggles are not connected with my gender but with the themes that I want to explore. They are alternative, hatke se and that is my struggle.’’
A subject that’s especially close to her heart now is the trouble in the Northeast. “I do feel that this part of the country is forsaken by everyone,’’ she says, sounding emotional. “The situation is bad politically and economically. There are 40 different terrorist groups in that region. We have to acknowledge the enormity of the problem. As someone who is from there, I feel I owe it to them to focus on it,’’ she says.
In January, Kagti along with a group of filmmakers like Zoya Akhtar, is organising a film festival in Guwahati. She plans to hold a short film contest during the festival to help bring the region into focus. “With the new technology available anyone can shoot their story on their phones and laptops and show it to the world. They should be heard. I feel like I should help them do that. For a region that is politically so involved, it’s important for personal stories to come out. Not objective, but subjective accounts.’’
For the moment she is looking forward to some peace and quiet at the end of what has been a long, hard labour of love. She also wants to play some poker, which she is supposed to be pretty good at. “I picked it up during a period of severe unemployment.’’
And perhaps now she can spend some time with her family too, as family ties mean a lot to Kagti. “My family is so thrilled about the film. They go to different movie halls and email me audience reactions. They are so enamoured by all this that I don’t expect any critical reactions,’’ she laughs.
The great thing for Kagti is that even the real critics — and they’re certainly not family — have mostly given a thumbs up to her film.