It is very rare that you meet a director who is as passionate and dedicated to their craft. Raja Menon is one of those exceptional filmmakers. Menon has gone from ad filmmaking to now the director of two films: Bas Yun Hi in 2003 and then more recently Barah Aana. The film released and has received many accolades, which include the likes of Aamir Khan, John Abraham, Imran Khan and Zoya Akhtar all of whom conclusively proclaim, “This is a must-watch!” The film filled with a unique storyline, set in the slums of Dharavi and packed with power-house performances from Naseeruddin Shah, Vijay Raaz and Arjun Mathur. When I found myself in conversation with Raja Menon, I couldn’t help but be in complete awe. Not only was he incredibly enlightening but somehow read my mind before I could ask the next question! If I had much to ask, he had even more to share! Check out this exclusive with Raja Menon as he talks Barah Aana, Naseeruddin Shah and metaphors of life.
From an ad filmmaker to Bas Yun Hi and now Barah Aana. How has the journey been so far?
It’s been an extremely long journey because I think for six years in between it completely changed the way I look at films and life even. The mistakes taught me helluva lot in terms what is important and what is not, hopefully I’ve incorporated that into Barah Aana.
But maybe Bas Yun Hi was ahead of its time? I’ve seen the film a couple of times and I always enjoy watching it.
Really! Thank you. Yeah, I think it came out at a time where we didn’t really have any multiplex culture at that time in India. So it wasn’t the kind of film that could be released in a big theatre in any case. But I think craft-wise it left a lot to be desired to be honest. It’s my film and I’m glad you liked it but there was a certain lack of experience as a director and I think that showed. I’m not complaining about but sometimes we jump into something without realizing the magnitude of what making a movie is all about. I think I depended on technique rather than the mindset of being bringing across the story across. But it’s part of making such a film. I think it’s those experiences that allow you to make the next one. However as a story, I do believe that if it was a few years later, it would have been more impactful.
How was the premise of Barah Aana formed?
I moved to Bombay in 1993 just after college. So I actually saw the boom happen in the city. From 1993 onwards, especially into the late nineties, there was an explosion of wealth and people were doing well into early 2000. And like anyone who first comes to Bombay, you first stay in chawal, which is terribly unhygienic. You live there and then you grow out of there but what happened was a lot of people who grow around me, never grew out of there. There is a slum behind the place I stayed in not much better than the one in the film, we used everything from the ironman, to the grocery man, and even to buy cigarettes. And years later I go back there and nothing has changed! The same person doing the same thing and not really unhappy actually. So that triggered some thought in me saying that yeah, we have this whole explosion of wealth happening in the country, how is it that people who aren’t really impacted by it directly, how do they view it? My initial thought was that there would be anger and they would react by saying, hey! How can you spend so much on dinner and not pay me my salary? Besides giving me an additional five hundred rupees. But interestingly enough, and I’ve explored that territory, I figured that there was no comparison with their boss and rather the comparisons was within their own class of people; a watchman compared himself to another watchman. And if he really believed he wanted to take himself forward, he would go ahead and make himself a driver because your salary was better, your life was a little better and you sat in an air conditioned car. So once that came through, I knew it was an interesting thought, something that I didn’t even know and then I said okay, this is something I want to tell. An addition to this, I had a watchman. I’ve always lived on the ground floor which is a very non-Bombay thing to do but I guess I come from a different city (laughs).
Yes! That is extremely non-Bombayish of you.
(Laughs) Yeah, but I’m at an advantage; nobody wants the ground floor and I want it. But my building watchman was a guy who had been working there for 34 years. Nobody even knows which town he comes from but everybody calls him all the time and he does everything for everybody. They did some good things too; they pulled together and got him cataract operation that cost about ten to fifteen thousand rupees. And he would kill for those people who gave him that operation – he is that loyal.
Interestingly that brings me to my next question; how true to real life is the story of Barah Aana or rather the situations and people?
Like any story there is a fictionalization; I don’t know anyone who kidnapped anyone though (laughs). So that is completely fiction but the characters and the heart of the story is extremely real. And the emotions along with the situations are real. What they do with it and how you of course, narrating the story comes from some other place. So you say if I was here, what would I do in this situation in a worst case scenario. Or somehow if I landed up with cash, would that change me? I think it would. It would make you think and say hey! Maybe this is what dignity is about; not everything else that we grow up as Indians learning. This is why for instance there are three generations in the film. Naseer plays the generation that learns to keep quiet; Vijay plays the generation that people would prefer if they kept quiet, which is why he says, “Chup rehna seekho“; And Arjun’s character which is Aman represents the new India. So he says, the world is in my pocket. Why shouldn’t I one day own this restaurant? Of course I’m not handsome enough to get the girl but I do believe somewhere that it is a possibility.
Yeah, I noticed you worked that idea that into Barah Aana very efficiently. There were three men at three different points of their lives who wanted different things but ultimately they were looking for the same thing.
Exactly! That’s the point. They all want something else but within a certain space. The solution comes from the same place but the question they are asking are different.
You’ve incorporated so many ideas into the film: the self-discovering firang, the lack of respect amongst the working class, the slums, comedy and yet thrill. How hard is it to incorporate all these ideas into a single script and then actually execute them onto a canvas?
I think it happens at the writing stage. What you notice is that if you are white and in India, you are expected to be wealthy and cool; which is not true at all! As you develop the script, a lot of the elements of what you see around you, if you’re open-minded enough to look at it from a different perspective, fit into it. The milieu of the film being Bombay city culture, we had to decide what we were not going to say in the film rather than what you are going to say (laughs). It’s almost the process of saying okay, I want to say this too but it’s getting too complex. Let’s avoid this one. And the girl, Kate came into it very naturally because I needed a character that didn’t come from a class cultural differentiation background but at the same time was looking at India as the escape. And Aman is looking at her as an escape, which I thought, was a very interesting conflict. In a part that is only there for five or six scenes, I thought that character would work well.
So I have a question about Kate. What exactly does she do? Does she run away with Aman’s money and disappear?
Well, she did leave but she doesn’t run away with his money. I think when she left; she had her own compulsions to leave which we don’t get into because we only see her from Aman’s perspective. But clearly, she was in a situation where she couldn’t stay either. And I don’t think she was trying to rob his money because if she were, she would have robbed more than twenty-thousand rupees. But the point is she left because she was compelled to leave and I would think that as she was leaving, she believed in her mind, that she will return the money or come back. She has a certain softness towards Aman’s character which is genuine but she’s a survivor; single girl, strange city, probably comes from a broken family with a drunk father… I don’t know. I don’t know where she’s going – she has nothing to go back to. It’s her desperation that mirrors his desperation. And one of the ideas was to maintain her dignity about it along with the way she lived. Society is a bit different in Europe. Everywhere in the world money plays an important part but I think there is a certain dignity in labor that we seem to miss in India.
How did you manage to shoot extensively on location in the slums?
Well, it was surprisingly one of the most wonderful experiences as a team that we had. We shot in Dharavi for about nine days; lots of which we were nights. We were the spectacle; we were the circus that came to town (laughs). So the locals all milled around – a few thousand people at any given time. And my sound designer was going nuts because we were shooting sync sound but it was beautiful. He would get on the microphone and would tell the people to please keep quiet or else we wouldn’t be able to do the shot. And there would be pin drop silence – three thousand people went quiet. We got them all to stop cooking! They all use pressure cookers and it makes the whistle sound. So they weren’t cooking for a day, but we were feeding them. They had no problem not cooking or switching off their television units in a one kilometer radius and they did it. Beautiful people, very generous with the stuff they had. There is a certain generosity in poverty, which you can’t replace. I don’t have it, so why not share it?
The film was made on a relatively small budget and yet you managed to bag the likes of Naseeruddin Shah. How was it working with him and directing him?
Like most directors who have grown up watching a certain cinema, it’s a dream to work with someone to work with someone with Naseer Bhai’s experience and capability. In my view, I think he is the greatest actor that Hindi cinema has produced in a long time anyway. I mean the question crossed my mind, how am I going to direct an actor of that status? But once I got to him, he read the script and he called me back and was really excited. I remember he called me and he said, “This is the best script I’ve read in years.” And I thought he was taking the mickey out of me. So he seemed really excited and once we go talking; we fenced around for a little bit. We did fifteen days of rehearsals with all the actors. Because my fear more than me was how Arjun would be in the same frame. So they spent about two weeks just doing stupid exercises including having a drink. It didn’t matter what it was – just so they were comfortable, to be able to say what you want to one another and not be in awe of each other at that point. And that process actually helped me. So I think by the end of the fencing and three or four days, we had grown a mutual respect that first of all as a team, and I mean everyone as much as it sounds clich