“The story of Teen Patti is a metaphor for life” – Leena Yadav

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For her second film Teen Patti, director Leena Yadav (Shabd) explores ‘mathematics, gambling, greed, youth, wisdom and most importantly choice’. As you can see, the story of Teen Patti is complex, but she says at its core, it is simply a human drama. If the intricate storyline was not enough to write as well as direct, she also cast 4 debutants and, oh yes, two of the greatest actors in the world, Sir Ben Kingsley and Mr. Amitabh Bachchan. In an interview with BollySpice, Leena talked about making the film, the underlying messages, working with star Madhavan and the newcomers, and the magic that happened when Sir Kingsley and Mr. Bachchan were in a scene. Read on to find out more about the journey of making Teen Patti!

Tell us the story of Teen Patti.

How the whole thing started was over a cup of coffee with music director Vishal Dadlani of Vishal-Shekar fame, who worked with me on my first film, Shabd. We got talking and he gave me this idea that sounded really complex but interesting. It never has been done in India before. I couldn’t get it out of my head, so just by default, I started researching the idea and looking at a lot of stuff. Then, I realized that if I wanted to write it, it would be a very, very complicated script and it would be interesting to get a co-writer on board. I had never worked with a co-writer before; my first film I had written myself. I approached Shivkumar Subramaniam, who’s a brilliant, brilliant writer. I have admired his work for many years – he has written films like Parinda, 1942 A Love Story, Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi. Shiv and I had worked together previously, so I approached him to co-write the script with me, and we started.

The film, as the title suggests, is that of a game called Teen Patti (three cards), which is basically Flush. The story is about a mathematician, Venkat Subramaniam, who has made a discovery in the probability theory, which really could break ground. To test this theory he needs to do a couple of trial games. He shares the idea with another professor, who is played by Madhavan. Madhavan suggests: why don’t we take this game out into a gambling den. Gambling is illegal in India; it is played at very underground locales. They end up going to this first gambling den, which is a world that Venkat didn’t imagine existed; he is a complete academician. After that first game, where they win a lot of money, basically all their lives change forever. It becomes a complete human drama with the six key characters, the choices they make and the destinies that they lead themselves into – that is what the film is essentially about. The film becomes more of a metaphor for life, because I think gambling is something we do every day in life by the choices we make; sometimes we take gambles.

It seems that the story has many layers. Was it a difficult script to write?

It was a very difficult script to write, but the journey was very, very complicated. We had to research math, we had to research gambling. Finally, in, I don’t know what number of drafts, when we put everything in there, we realized that the beauty of the film was at the complete human drama level and we eased out the other complications and technicalities. Sometimes to make something that is very complex a bit simpler is very, very challenging, but that is where I think this film works. It is a film that works at a very simple level, but if you are a cinegoer who is looking for layers and looking for that complexity it has that too.

So you have Mr. Amitabh Bachchan and Sir Ben Kingsley in the film. How did that amazing casting happen?

Actually, when we finished writing our first draft, it was very clear to us that we cannot make this film if Mr. Amitabh Bachchan does not do this role. There was nobody else in our heads who could do this role to the kind of justice it required, both as an actor and as a persona. He was the first person we approached; it was in fact before we had a final draft in place. There were a lot of things we knew we were not final with, but we thought we would bounce it off him to see how he would react to it. In that very first meeting, he agreed to be a part of the film. In many, many more ways than one, he gave us a lot of input on the script, so we went back and we wrote a couple of more drafts. We got his dates a bit later, because he was finishing some prior commitments, so that gave us ample time to revisit the script and give it the finishing touches.

In the script there is a role of a mathematician called Perci Trachtenberg who, fictionally, is one of the biggest living mathematicians in the world. He is somebody that Venkat really looks up to. So obviously, keeping Mr. Bachchan’s stature in mind, it had to be somebody that had a very, very strong screen presence and it had to be a brilliant, brilliant actor. I think the first thing as an Indian that comes to mind is Gandhi and Sir Ben Kingsley. I don’t need to tell you what a brilliant and absolutely amazing actor he is! It was a dream that came true for us, because the first person we wanted for the role was him. My producer approached his agents and we sent him the script. He really liked the script, he liked the part he was being offered, and he agreed to be a part of it.

What was it like directing him?

It was actually an amazing experience. I have to give him a lot of credit, because sometimes it takes months for an actor/director relationship to develop, but full credit to him, he handed me his trust as an actor in my first meeting with him. He had already read the script at that point in time. We just discussed his character and that was it. After that, all I had to do as a director was set up the scene and watch the magicians perform.

That must have just been amazing.

Yes it was! Professionally, it was one of the biggest highs I have had in life.

How about working with Mr. Bachchan?

Again it was an amazing experience. He is an extremely generous person. Nobody can claim they are not in awe of him. He just inspires that in you, purely for the fact that you have grown up watching his films and you are very, very aware of the kind of legendary status he has. Whether it was weird to start with, once you came into the director/actor relationship, again he just handed me the trust. He just settled in so comfortably and whenever he walked on set, he would make it his business to make everybody comfortable. He is such a joy on set – absolutely professional. One thing I have learned from him is that he does every shot like that is the only shot in the film. He puts in that shot more than 100%. There were so many scenes, I would think to myself, oh this, Mr. Bachchan will just walk through it, but he doesn’t take anything for granted and that is so beautiful. Even in my first film, my first thought was nobody will ever know that I didn’t have this or didn’t have that, whatever finally gets printed on the negative is what stays and that is what you are judged by. That is the biggest lesson: you have to give it your 100% each and every time, whichever, whatever, however big or small or inconsequential the shot is for the film. He is the epitome of that, you know, how after so many films, the kind of thought and work he puts into every character – that is something to really learn.

Was there ever a moment when you were standing on set and you had Sir Ben Kingsley and Mr. Amitabh Bachchan and you are thinking okay, wow!

(Laughs) That happened before I started shooting, actually. When I was shooting, I was just sort of absorbing everything I could from every minute of interaction of both of them. Watching them, seeing the process that both the actors put through. I was just trying to take in everything, you know, and store it up in my heart.

Madhavan, also another fine actor, is in the film. Tell us about working with him.

The character Shantanu Biswas, is a younger professor to Mr. Bachchan. He is extremely charismatic and charming. He is a complete ladies man. He represents the next generation to Venkat: in terms of values, in terms of a lot of things. He is also extremely intelligent and everything, but he is in a slight hurry and he wants everything now. He wants the slight shortcut to the good things in life. When we were casting it, we wanted a good actor and someone who was extremely charismatic. We just thought Madhavan was absolutely correct for the role. Working with Maddy was amazing. I had worked with Maddy earlier, but at that time I was an editor and he was an actor in television. He is very comfortable, very, very professional, and extremely fun to be with on set. He knows an amazing amount of card tricks, and I think he showed us more card tricks than the total days we shot. There was amazing and interesting chemistry between him and Mr. Bachchan on screen, so that was great.

Then in the film we have four debutants who play Maddy’s students and represent again another generation. So, it is like 3 generations you are talking about here. The debutantes are Siddharth Kher, Shraddha Kapoor, Vaibhav Talwar and Dhruv Ganesh – again amazing actors. We auditioned for more than a year and thousands and thousands of people to find these four, so they are the best and the brightest of the lot. Then we put them through training with two very big acting teachers Roysten Abel in Delhi and Barry John, who is now in Bombay, so for three months they went through training with them. I have to say that when they were on set they were completely in character and as Mr. Bachchan commented, ‘You couldn’t make out that this was there first film from any angle’. They are definitely kids to look out for, they are going to really shine and I know they are all here to stay.

Is it different working with the new actors compared to say Madhavan or Mr. Bachchan or Sir Kingsley?

Actually not. You know, in a very interesting way, when you are on set, and if you are on the same wavelength of being the character and being in the scene and being there, I don’t think culture, nationality, age, or anything matters – even experience, for that matter. It is one combined energy that just flows through everybody and it is magical. The process was different for me working with the debutants, just briefing them about the scene, but I think that once they were face to face on set, everybody was so much in character, it was really great.

Any special memories from the shoot?

Oh my God, I have lots and lots of memories (laughs). Every day is a memory, every shot is a memory. In fact, I think I am in a situation where I really cannot see this film as a film anymore, because everything has so many things that happened behind it, you know? I mean, I can sit with every frame of the film and tell you a story.

Your favorite moment from the film?

Oh, that is very difficult, and you know it has become a whole for me now. When we were editing there were a lot of moments, which were very special to me, again for the memory value, which we edited out for the betterment of the film. I used to keep holding on, you know, ‘ooh, I love that moment, that moment was so great’, but as I kept revisiting the film many times over it has become one. I am very proud of it. Whatever the fate, for me always the journey is more important than the destination and I think the journey defines the destination. The journey has been almost three years of my life and it has been worth every second of every minute of it. The destination, the fate of the film – I know what happens is for the best and something tells me something good is going to happen here.

What would you say was the hardest part of directing a film?

Actually, the hardest part is that you are dealing with so many creative people at various levels, whether it is your cameraman or it’s your sound designer or it’s your actors. Just everybody on the set at any given point of time and you are the center point for everybody, but that is also the reason I enjoy being a director so much. Then you have to make all of them think on the same wavelength, you don’t want everyone to be making a different film, right? But, you still have to allow everyone room to put in their interpretation. I am not a dictator as a director. I like actors thinking about what they are wearing. I like them thinking about why am I speaking this line and why am I saying it this way. I don’t look at those things as interference, or if the DOP telling me ‘let’s take the shot from here and not here’. I like input from everybody, but to be able to maintain a balance between letting them interpret, think, and bring their creativity to it and still synergize the whole thing into one product – I think that is the most challenging thing for a director.

What can audiences expect from the film?

A great ride and then lots of emotions – they will laugh, cry, sit on the edge of their seats and probably walk out with a thought in their head, for sure.

We had talked earlier about it being more of a human drama. What is the deeper message of the film?

Honestly, I don’t want to spell it out right now, but it has to do with and about choices that we make in life. I feel everyone in the audience is going to relate to one of the characters in someway or other, if not by the way they are, then by the choices they are making. Sometimes you realize that some choices you make so recklessly, that are gambles, you are gambling with a lot more than yourself. Then there is a much, much bigger and deeper message about knowledge, which I will let the film talk for that; you should watch the film to know all about that.

It seems there are so few female directors. Why do you think that is, and are there challenges facing women who want creative control of projects that aren’t an issue for most men in the industry?

I will spell this out through BollySpice, but I don’t want to be asked this question anymore!! I get asked it all the time, but I will tell you I haven’t faced any gender bias ever and I think actors and technicians that I have interacted with, either they like working with you or not. As far as I know it, it is difficult to make a film, man, woman or child and anybody who does it – hats off to them. You neither get special concessions as a woman, nor do you get punished as a woman, as far as my experience goes, but honestly I can’t speak for anybody else. I think if you are too aware of the fact that you are a woman and you are calling attention to yourself for that, maybe bias will come along with that. I think beyond the first five minutes when you have come on set and everybody says, okay, she is a woman, if you know your job and you get down to the basics, I don’t think it matters to anybody after that first five minutes.

I would like to thank Leena for taking the time to talk with us, and I promise never to ask that last question again! Teen Patti has intrigued me since I first heard the cast, but now seeing the promos and talking to Leena, I cannot wait to experience it. I am sure it is going to be a fabulous film. Teen Patti deals out on February 26th, so be sure and “ante up” the price of a ticket (forgive the pun) and get in there and see it!

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