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Dhak Dhak director Tarun Dudeja: ‘Even today when we see a woman on a bike, our heads turn’

Dhak Dhak stars Fatima Sana Shaikh, Dia Mirza, Ratna Pathak Shah and Sanjana Sanghi as four bikers who team up to ride to Khardung La

Sameer Salunkhe Calcutta Published 04.11.23, 04:07 PM
A poster of Dhak Dhak

A poster of Dhak Dhak

Writer-director Tarun Dudeja made a bike trip to Khardung La before making his film about four women bikers who team up and zip to the world’s highest motorable pass. Dhak Dhak — starring Fatima Sana Shaikh, Dia Mirza, Ratna Pathak Shah and Sanjana Sanghi — has struck a chord with many women, which has only reaffirmed Dudeja’s conviction to tell more such stories. In an exclusive chat, Dudeja talks about the challenges of making Dhak Dhak and why it has been a very rewarding experience for him.

How does it feel to have your debut feature film released in cinemas?

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Tarun Dudeja: It feels very nice. People are reaching out to me on social media and telling me how the film has inspired them, moved them and brought them closer to themselves. There are so many people who want to learn how to ride a bike and go on a road trip. It’s a kind of very good validation for me as a storyteller who wants to tell these kinds of humane stories.

What was the idea that gave rise to Dhak Dhak?

Tarun Dudeja: My co-writer Parijat Joshi and I come from Delhi. There are many bikers who go on road trips to Khardung La and it is quite a big thing for them. So, we thought that we should do something about it. But then we also thought what is new about four guys going on a road trip? Believe it or not, even today when we see a woman on a bike, our heads turn. We don’t associate women with bikes easily.

So, we thought why not have female bikers in the film? There are many female bikers who go on road trips. Then the challenge was to write four women from different walks of life – different generations, different economic strata, and who don’t know each other, who are doing this trip for their own reasons. However small it might be for others, there is a big valid reason for these ladies to do the trip.

Did you go on a road trip?

Tarun Dudeja: Yes, we did a road trip from Mumbai to Leh. We went in a car to Leh and from there we took bikes to Khardung La. That trip also helped us evolve as a storyteller. We learnt a lot of things about life. It was not life-changing but it changed the way we were looking at life as writers/artists.

We met so many female travellers. We got to know about the problems that they face such as there are no toilets for female travellers. And whatever there is, it is in a bad condition. So, whenever they go to a new place, they look out for the possibility of hidden cameras. These stories are research-based and have come from listening to the experiences of many women.

Who came up with the title, Dhak Dhak?

Tarun Dudeja: Dhak Dhak was a symbolic title that everyone liked. We debated over many titles but Dhak Dhak was symbolic of heartbeat as well as the sound of a bullet (bike). So, it was unanimously decided.

What was the most important thing for you to capture in the film?

Tarun Dudeja: As a man, when you write female characters or direct a film where females are at the centre, you have to be very cautious. Having said that, I was not treating it through a male gaze or a female gaze. I tried and succeeded in treating these characters with a human gaze. I think the characters’ goals may not have been too big, like dethroning the government or bringing their son back from Pakistan, but their reasons were equally strong.

For someone, it could be a big thing to give her daughter a laptop. And our idea was to keep these women as ordinary as possible so that people relate to them and get inspired. And of course, when you collaborate with such amazing actors, they come with their input, so it adds to the nuances of the character.

Why did you cast Fatima Sana Shaikh, Dia Mirza, Ratna Pathak Shah and Sanjana Sanghi in their respective roles?

Tarun Dudeja: As a director, when you meet an actor, you understand how that actor is thinking about the character. There’s an instant vibe if both of us are on the same page. It was a dream cast to come together. Every person imbibes a different personality. Ratnaji is very learned and experienced; she brought wisdom. Fatima is so dedicated to her craft that I get inspired by her. Dia ma’am is full of compassion. Sanjana brought a lot of innocence to Manjari. In the first meeting itself, I realised that we had found our cast – Manjari (Sanjana Sanghi), Uzma (Dia Mirza), Sky (Fatima Sana Shaikh) and Mahi (Ratna Pathak Shah).

How did you manage to shoot Dhak Dhak across more than 80 locations in just 40 days?

Tarun Dudeja: It was a tremendous task to move a crew of 200-250 people from Mumbai to Leh. Hats off to my producer Pranjal Khandhdiya, associate producer Joshua Shirsath, and executive producer Anandbrata Ghosh. The weather used to change drastically. We were shooting in Delhi at 48 degrees Celsius. When we reached Manali, it was 10 degrees Celsius but it rained there. At Rohtang pass, the temperature used to be zero degree Celsius, and finally in Leh, it dropped to minus two.

As a director, I had to keep the crew motivated through these extremities to get the film done. People who understand filmmaking know that location shifting is a very difficult thing. On 30 out of 40 days of shoot, we moved to at least two locations every day. Otherwise, how would you shoot at 86 locations? It was a mammoth task to shoot one scene at the top of the mountain and the other at the bottom. The actors also cooperated a lot.

How was the experience of shooting at Khardung La, which is the world’s highest motorable pass?

Tarun Dudeja: It’s a magical ride to Khardung La. You feel that elevation. There’s a mountain over the Khardung La board where you see eternity, which we have captured in the film. Having said that, we shot at a height of 18,000 ft with low oxygen, that too under two hours. We had permission for only two hours. Because of low oxygen levels, if you stay there longer it will affect your lungs. But we did it smoothly with the support of BRO and the Army. It was an overwhelming and accomplished feeling.

What are your favourite road trip movies?

Tarun Dudeja: I really like the work that Zoya Akhtar has done in India (Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara). I also like Thelma & Louise. And of course, The Motorcycle Diaries.

Road trips can lead to moments of revelation or teach one a life lesson. Has anything of that sort happened to you?

Tarun Dudeja: Yes, of course. When we took the road trip for our research writing, we met migrant workers who build roads. It’s very easy to say that we are here to ride motorcycles, breathe in fresh air and admire how beautiful the mountains are. But there is a man who is building a road there and he doesn’t find the mountains beautiful. That’s what I learnt – how different it is for people to see and understand things. That road trip made me more compassionate and empathetic. It was humbling for me to see how people live in close-knit communities with so much love and affection.

Why did you decide to become a writer?

Tarun Dudeja: Nobody decides to become a writer. It’s actually the passion of telling a story. There’s a story that you want to tell people and you enjoy the process of telling a story. When people feel the emotion that you are feeling while telling the story, the reward is something else.

After watching Dhak Dhak when people reach out to me saying that I have told their story and made them realise what they could do, and the way our film is travelling because of word of mouth, the lonely process of writing and pitching this film and then making it seems like it was worth it. There’s nothing more that I am passionate about than the itch of telling a story.

What are you going to make next?

Tarun Dudeja: Another film of mine is coming out soon in which I am a screenplay and dialogue writer. It is Anand Tiwari’s directorial starring Vicky Kaushal, Triptii Dimri and Ammy Virk. It will come in February 2024. Apart from that, I have two more films which are humane stories of ordinary people in extraordinary situations and I am very glad that I got the validation that, apart from action and romance, there is a space for these kinds of stories.

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