Besides loving Hindi films and music, I also love Jane Austen books and films. I have re-read my copies over and over and I own every film adaptation of her books. In fact, it was a Bollywoodized version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice that started me on my Hindi film journey, which led me to where I am now, writing this article, but that is another story. So you can imagine my excitement when I first heard the rumor that another favorite Austen book, Emma, was going to be made into a Hindi film. That film, Aisha, starring Sonam Kapoor and Abhay Deol is getting ready to make its big screen debut this Friday August 6th. I got the chance to chat with director Rajshree Ojha and we had a fabulous time talking Austen, Abhay and of course Aisha!
If someone does not know the story of Emma/Aisha how would you describe it to them?
It is a romantic comedy of a girl who does all these mismatches when she tries to matchmake. She never realizes that while she is doing this, that there is a man who loves her. She goes on this journey that while she is trying to change another person he is trying to change her. Through all this she is kind of missing the point and she almost loses her true love. In the end, it is the story about this girl trying to find herself and trying to find love.
Why did you choose to adapt Jane Austen’s Emma?
I actually had read Emma along with Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility in High School and somehow Emma stayed with me. When I came back to India, I had broken my leg and during that time once again read Emma and found the character very interesting. Also at that time the movie Balle Balle (Gurinder Chadha’s Pride and Prejudice remake) had come out and I was thinking if you really are going into the “marriage story” there is nobody else who has spoken about this better than Jane Austen in the story of Emma. It is all about match making and which class you belong to and how you want to get married… Since I had come back I was seeing India in a very new way. I was seeing that class had replaced caste as the prevalent society. I was seeing the matchmaking, the marriages and all this was going on. This is all so relevant in our society and what else to translate into a fabulous story like Emma. So, I began developing Aisha.
If you think about it Regency English society and that just marries perfectly together.
EXACTLY! Thank you Stacey, you are the first journalist who has said that! True, true, true! I think no one knows that, exactly, it married very well. Whenever they asked me how can you… To me, I think it goes so well… that Victorian society and today’s Indian society works because in a sense they are similar.
What defines the character of Aisha?
Her sincerity. For me, Aisha is an everyday Indian girl, the modern Indian woman. What I really wanted to portray in Aisha is that she is a young woman who is trying to find her place in this new modern society and yet there is something very traditional about her. She is trying to do this old aunties thing…I mean, if you come to India everyone is trying to match you and trying to get you married. (Laughs) I wanted to capture the essence of that. That in the end, it is all about marrying good and having the perfect house and the perfect everything. Yet, a very educated girl having just a career is just not enough – you HAVE to get married. That is what I wanted to capture in this film.
What was it about Sonam that made you think she would be perfect as Emma/Aisha?
I had seen some photographs of Sonam, which I thought, were fabulous. What I liked about Sonam was her eyes and her smile. I felt her face was so innocent and yet, there is something mischievous in her, you know? Her face is such that even if she goes into a grey character you will fall in love with her. Even if she commits like the biggest crime she is forgiven, because she is so naive and innocent in her way of looking. That is what I wanted in this character. So, when I saw her photographs I said this is the girl I would like to approach to play Aisha. Later when I saw her films, I was so happy to see them because then I honestly thought there is nobody else that could play Emma but Sonam.
How was it working with Sonam?
She is very, very interesting to work with. She is a young actress and I think she has a long way to go. I am also a new director. We were very collaborative, but yes, it was really interesting working with her.
Tell us about approaching and casting Abhay Deol?
I have known Abhay as a friend for a long time. My casting director, a very fabulous lady was actually really keen on Abhay and so was my writer and my producer. I needed an actor who could mold himself, he could not just be the actor, he had to become Knightley. We had just all seen Oye Lucky and I knew after I saw that film that Abhay is an actor who can mold himself to the character. I approached him and he loved it. The rest is history!
So, has he become Mr. Knightley?
Yes, he did and even better than I thought. He has done a very, very fine job and I am very happy to have worked with him. He and Sonam worked very well together. He played Knightley exactly the way I wanted him too. As an actor he brought a lot to the table and so did Sonam. So, it was a very good collaboration with both of them. I am more than happy with him as Knightley. He will be the next Colin Firth from India… he will be the next Mr. Darcy, every girls dream!
Another story I would love to see made into a Hindi film is Austen’s Persuasion.
Oh, I love that book. Someone asked me if you were to make another Austen what would be the next book. I would say that or Mansfield Park because it has a very strong woman character. So, if I were to make another it would be one of those…but at this time I am not making another Austen.
Well, if you do I request Persuasion!
Okay, done! (Laughs)
Tell us about the other characters Pinky (Ira Dubey), Shefali (Amrita Puri), Randhir (Cyrus Sahukar), Dhruv (Arunoday Singh) and Aarti (Lisa Hayden). I can’t figure out who Pinky would be in Emma.
Pinky is actually an amalgamation of many characters. If you remember there are so many characters in Emma, there are the Bates sisters; the vicar gets married to this rich woman. So, we took all these bits of these characters and we have also taken a character from Pride and Prejudice and added a bit of her to the others and created Pinky. That is the only addition to our adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma. Otherwise, we have kept very, very close to the book. All the other characters from Harriet Smith, which is Shefali, to Elton, the vicar who is played by Cyrus are there. We have Jane Fairfax, our Aarti who is played by Lisa Hayden and the other male character our Dhruv, who is Emma’s Frank Churchill. So, you can see these are all the characters we have adapted from the book. I always wanted it to be very close to the book.
I have to tell you this Stacey, I am so proud and I am so happy that each of the actors has really worked hard. They all came and rehearsed, they all did a back-story with me. They made sure they got into the skin of the character and forgot who they were. They all forgot their own personas, be they VJ’s, theater artists, or whatever. They really came and took this on and became their character. I was very happy to work with actors like this.
Did you have them read the book or watch a film?
I didn’t want them to watch the movies because every movie is different and everybody has a different adaptation. Shefali, (Amrita) I did tell her to watch certain movies because she was a new actor, so she could see certain nuances. I made them all read the book. I asked every actor to please read it; saying I will even send you a copy. If they hadn’t read it, I would photocopy Emma and give it to them and show them how like the character they are. I had all my notes on acting from my studies in America and I would give copies to them and say this is how I want you to do it; this is how you have to get into character. It was very, very, very interesting!
Overall did you enjoy the process of making the film?
Yeah, it was very interesting. The whole process was very, very fun. It was a long process because I started about five years ago developing the film. It took me 4 1/2 years to find the right producer and right actress, and then it took me a year to finish it. So, all told it has been a 4-5 year journey, which is a long journey, but I enjoyed it and I learned a lot. I am glad I finished it.
So, from 5 years ago to now the finished film did it turn out how you thought it would?
I think it turned out better in some places and in some places not so great. But, I think overall yes, it has turned out exactly what I wanted.
The film certainly has a distinctive style to it, especially set in modern day Delhi. Tell us about the styling of the film, costumes set etc.
The style of the film is very young and we wanted to go with a little couture kind of a feel, to give it an upper rich class feel to it. That is another thing that is very relevant in India today, fashion and wearing THE brands and holding the right bag – it is all about that. In a certain society that is what matters. To me, this is the world that Emma lived; it was that rich society that lived in their own world. Their fashion was important then and it is the same world I tried to create here. The perfect saree, with the perfect beads, with the perfect pearls, with her pashmina shawls and her Louis Vuitton or Chanel bag – the world is that. Aisha tries to bring another character up from another world and trying to make fit her into this world and making a mess of it is what the film is about. Fashion plays a very important layer to the film.
Fans love the music for the film. What do you like most about it? Do you have a favorite song?
I am very happy with the music. I love what Amit has brought in, he has brought in very different genres. I still remember there were times when he would be like what is this genre, nobody listens to this genre and I would be like No, No I want this, I want this! He would like be okay, whatever! He was very, very giving and he really understood where we wanted the songs to go and it has blended very well with the movie. It does not stand out on its own, it just blends in. I think the USP of the film is that everything blends in and that makes it a very strong movie. The music is another layer; just like the fashion, the music is another layer that brings the film up.
Yes, from what we have seen from the promos, the music is just another exponent of the whole feel of the film.
Exactly! I am not sure someone, I think it was Walter March once said, ‘Music brings the film up that extra notch’. I really feel that is what Amit has done; he has brought the film up to another level.
Do you have a favorite picturization for one of the song?
There are two songs that I really love the way they were shot. One is ‘Bekhe Bekhe’, which Ashley Lobo has done the choreography for and I thought that was very well done. I thought it was very, very sensual. He is fabulous to work with. The other is the credit track ‘Gal Mitthi Mitthi Bol’, which is a Punjabi song. That was actually picturized in one day and no rehearsals. There was this really fun choreographer, Feroz, who came on and he understood what I wanted. That day there was a very unique energy within the crowd. It is during the wedding in the film. It started raining, but we just went on, nobody stopped, everyone came on the floor and just danced. I think that was one of my favorite songs.
Do you have a favorite scene in the film?
Oooh, I have a lot of favorite scenes. I can’t pick one out really, but I love the ending. I think that is my favorite scene because the music, the acting, the synergy… everything just comes together beautifully. When you see the ending you will see what I am talking about. It is really magical, I think. Both Abhay and Sonam have really created magic there.
What are you proudest about the film?
I am proud that there are all these young actors that have come together and have played such amazing characters and that they really have brought my character to life in the film. They made it memorable and exciting.
What do you think audiences are most going to love about Aisha?
I think audiences are going to love the story. I think they are going to love that they will take a journey with a character and will go into her world and see her world for what it is. I think the audiences will love the innocence of this character and the way she is trying to figure out everything. You can really relate to her and the mistakes that she makes and how she has to fix it up and learn. Of course, also it is a fun family film so it is not something where you will sit with your father and squirm in your seat. You can come with your whole family, watch it, enjoy it and then come back hopefully again with your friends. That is one thing I always wanted to do is make a film that you can come and see and will enjoy with everybody. I really feel like everybody will like it! I think a 50-year-old person will relate and so will a 15 year old. They will all come out smiling.
I know I was smiling throughout the entire interview! I cannot wait to watch Aisha and see what Rajshree, producer Rhea Kapoor, Sonam, Abhay and the rest of the cast have in store on August 6th. Since Pride and Prejudice (Balle Balle), Sense and Sensibility (Kandukondain Kandukondain) and now Emma (Aisha) have been made I just have to wait and watch until Rajshree or someone else makes my favorite book Persuasion and then also Mansfield Park to complete my collection. Being the Bolly and Austen buff I am, of course I already have a cast in mind… But that is another article…