I have never been to Lajpat Nagar or Rajouri Garden, the Punjabi hubs of our capital. But the crowded streets that smell of freshly fried jalebis and the girls who make a fashion statement in their “knee-length capris” are all too familiar to me, thanks to Vikas Bahl’s much-acclaimed film Queen. When Bahl takes his protagonist Rani to the exotic locales of Paris and Amsterdam to get over her fiance who dumped her at the altar, it was her Lajpat Nagar-ness that calls out to us and what we immediately connect to. The way she breaks into a “mummy-daddy ki kasam” at the drop of a hat, the way she rolls her eyes at even the faintest sign of PDA, the way she wants to add some “burnt garlic” and red chillies to her pasta… we find a bit of ourselves in Rani or a bit of Rani in ourselves. And when Bahl reveals that he was born and spent a good few years of his life right in the centre of the chaos that is Lajpat Nagar, we see why it all fell so nicely into place.
The film, which has been declared as one of the two biggest hits of the year till now by trade pundits (the other being Ragini MMS 2), is that rare gem from Bollywood which has balanced itself out well. It has both viewers and critics raving about it and Kangna Ranaut, who played Rani, went on record to say that she sees love and respect for her in the eyes of whomever she meets now. The applause hasn’t died down yet with Bahl’s phone being bombarded with congratulatory messages and calls, some from people he hasn’t met even once. Dressed in a casual grey t-shirt and jeans, with a checkered shirt thrown in as a jacket, Bahl, however, seems to be in total oblivion about his recently acquired celebrity status. His hair is unkempt, he wears not-so-clean sneakers and he laughs loudly on jokes he makes on himself. Just before he sits down to talk, Bahl makes sure that he photobombs a picture that Rajkummar Rao, who plays the male lead in Queen, is posing for.
Bahl laughs as he recalls how clueless about movies he was when he started out in the business. In 2008, when he was appointed the studio head of UTV Spotboy, Bahl found himself in a fix. “Ronnie [Screwvala, then CEO of UTV] gave me a room and told me now you can start making movies. I sat in that room and didn’t know what I was supposed to do,” he says. “I didn’t know whom to call. Do I call the writer first or the director?” Walking upto Screwvala’s room and popping out these questions was definitely not an option, Bahl knew too well. So he devised a rather intelligent plan to kill time. “I thought, chalo, I’ll only write a story and take it to someone,” says Bahl, about how he penned his National Award-winning debut film Chillar Party.
This is, in a way, Bahl’s life story. He is driven solely by instinct–not of the normal kind–but of a rather quirky nature. Many of the decisions he has take in life were thought of as irrational and highly risky by those around him. Like that of breaking his “good boy image” and rebelling against his father, who wanted him to do CA, and moving to Mumbai to do an MBA. Or that of quitting his well-paying job at Ogilvy & Mather at its peak to join Indya.com in Bangalore, just because he liked the “idea of moving to a different place”. Or that of adopting an anti-TV strategy by ignoring the saas-bahu trend and bringing in youth-related lighter content on SAB TV, when he was helming it. However, the outcomes were all positive; Bahl topped his MBA class and won a gold medal, he was one of the four employees who were retained when Indya.com shut shop and in just seven months SAB TV jumped from its 16th position to a number four rating.
Under Bahl’s leadership, UTV Spotboy, too, went on to make many acclaimed films like Aamir, Dev.D, Paan Singh Tomar, No One Killed Jessica and Udaan. However, for his own story, he found no takers. Although every director he narrated the story to loved it, no one was ready to take the risk of making a film about a bunch of kids and a dog. That was when Bahl met Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi (of Children of Heaven fame) who convinced him that it didn’t take much to direct the film on his own. “Neither me nor Nitesh [Tiwari, co-director and co-writer] had any idea or experience to direct a film,” says Bahl. “When I watch Chillar Party today, I wonder how we managed to do it.”
This might make one feel that Bahl is being too modest, considering that the duo won the National Award for Best Screenplay for their debut venture. What he missed the most while making Queen was this partnership, says Bahl. After having written the story and travelled around Europe to finalise the locations, he admits that he did stumble once he started shooting the film. “When they asked me where to put the camera and all I was like, ‘Oh! All these questions have come up all over again’,” he says. “When Nitesh and me were together, we could bounce it between us and say some rubbish and everyone would think we were discussing.” It took Bahl three days to find his feet, he says, after which he “was flying”.
While critics and viewers are happy that a woman-oriented film has been made after a long time, Bahl is quick to counter that saying that was never his intention. “Personally, we had no intentions of making a woman-centric film or any statement on women’s issues or empowerment,” he says. The story of Queen, he believes, is true for most Indians who meticulously plan their lives down to the smallest of details. “My film is the story of one such girl who has planned so much for her wedding and honeymoon that her life comes to a standstill when her fiance dumps her,” he says. “In that sense, Queen could have even been about a man, too, whose plans went haywire.” The germ of this idea was born out of a small tiff Bahl witnessed between his parents. Midway into the fight, his mother revealed that she longed to become a librarian and had given it up to get married and start a family. This was what got him thinking. Rani’s character in the film, thus, mirrors a lot of Indian women, like his own mother, who centre and in a way restrict their lives around their husbands or fathers.
The concept of space, thus, means a lot to Bahl, which is why he believes in giving his cast and crew a lot of it on the set. This is also one of the qualities that his peers appreciate the most in him. “Vikas respects what each and everyone brings to the table and is open to suggestions and creative inputs from every corner,” says Rao. “He allows a lot of improvisation on set which helps in bringing out the best in everyone.” The fact that Ranaut was given a dialogue credit in Queen itself speaks volumes about Bahl’s flexibility. He feels no urge to control anything or anyone, says Bahl, and he attributes this as the reason why although the team shot at over 150 locations in three countries in 45 days, it ended up being a lot of fun. “I believe that a team makes a movie so I don’t get a team that I don’t trust,” says Bahl. “And then I give them their space and let go. If everyone is on the same page about the film we want to make, the process will be fun and the output will be good.”
Writing is liberating and directing is addictive, but his real passion lies in producing other people’s films, says Bahl. “I wouldn’t give up on any of this but what I love most is partnering other filmmakers in their journey of making the film they want,” he says. And Phantom Films, the production company he co-owns with his friends director Vikramaditya Motwane, Anurag Kashyap and producer Madhu Mantena, is a realisation of this vision of his. Although their first film Motwane’s Lootera didn’t make a lot of money, their subsequent releases Vinil Mathew’s Hasee Toh Phasee and Queen were huge hits. “Fame or money doesn’t excite me,” says Bahl. “We trusted Vikram’s instinct and made Lootera, same way we are now making Anurag’s Bombay Velvet. What matters more is the how hard we have worked on these films and not whether we are credited for it or whether we make money from it.” Bahl is happy, though, that two of their comedies (Hasee Toh Phasee and Queen) did well, as this will discourage those who come to Phantom with dark stories thinking they would only invest in “Anurag Kashyap-type” films. Next up on Phantom’s slate are Kashyap’s Ugly, Motwane’s Bhavesh Joshi, Navdeep Singh’s NH10 and Pushpendra Mishra’s Ghoomketu.
Two things that never fail to excite him and cheer him up are good food and travel. “The happiest and most fulfilling thing about Queen was the time I spent in Europe,” he says. And he now has found a bigger excuse to go back to his favourite destination. Shaandaar, the next film that Bahl is directing, is set in Europe and revolves around yet another wedding. This time one that is just in the process of being planned. The film, which reportedly stars Shahid Kapoor and Alia Bhatt in leading roles, is touted as the country’s first film on destination weddings.
With such a diverse resume and limitless energy, isn’t there an itch to try something new? Bahl answers with a smile that seems to be hiding a lot. “I love this space. It is unpredictable yet fulfilling in a strange way,” he says. On prodding him a bit more, he gives out the secret behind that smile. “I would love to do something for the country, I am very patriotic,” he says. “So maybe politics!” He is not entirely a newcomer in the field, though. Probably taking after his freedom fighter grandfather, Bahl was active in college politics and he was the one who sent out the first SMS post the 26/11 attack to gather people for the rally at Gateway of India. However, the current political scenario has left him feeling let down. “I have a point of view on how the country should be run. And I know that I can be fairly violent and vociferous about it,” says Bahl. “But now politics looks like it is at an unachievable distance. Once films, too, looked like that, but now I am here making movies. So you never know what the future holds for you.”