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Daring to Hope - Director Anu Menon on 'Waiting'

Interview with Director Anu Menon

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Ruhi Sinha
May 28, 2016
Naseeruddin Shah and Kalki Koechlin in Waiting
Naseeruddin Shah and Kalki Koechlin in 'Waiting'. © Drishyam Films

There are two things you don’t know until you hit upon a moment of real crisis –who your true friends are and the depths of your own courage.

Such is the moment for the two protagonists in Anu Menon’s poignant new film – ‘Waiting’. Newlywed Tara (Kalki Koechlin) has barely begun enjoying marital bliss when news of her husband’s near-fatal car crash brings her young, carefree life to a screeching halt. Stunned and clueless, she arrives alone at the hospital, struggling to absorb the new reality with her spouse in a coma. There, she meets the much older Shiv (Naseeruddin Shah), whose wife of 40 years has also been in a coma for several months, and he seems to have a much better grasp of the situation. Unable to count on a single friend (among her thousands of ‘friends’ and ‘followers’ on social media), Tara finds solace in the words of this stranger whose optimism and zen-attitude give her something to hold on to. The third thing you don’t know until your world turns upside down –what unlikely friendships you may forge.

These two kindred spirits wobble around the hospital cafeteria and corridors reinforcing each other’s hopes for their partner’s survival and also generating plenty of humor thanks to their generational gap. While he is a gentleman reluctant to use foul language and who still listens to his LPs, she is the typical ‘couldn’t-care-less’ millennial who has to explain to him what Twitter is — ‘a bulletin board where people say random things and have a following for it’. He asks her “what’s the point?” and in a flash of realization, she concedes that it’s pointless. Their light-hearted interactions amidst their darkest emotional tunnels are a shining testament to the resilience of the human spirit. In one of the most deeply layered moments, they fondly reminisce the imperfections of their spouses –they are people who hoard the bathroom shelf space with too many skin creams or those who never learn to pick up that wet towel –how annoying they are!

Naseeruddin Shah and Kalki Koechlin in Waiting
Naseeruddin Shah and Kalki Koechlin in 'Waiting'. © Drishyam Films

With near perfect performances from its lead cast (including Rajat Kapoor as the prudent doctor and Rajeev Ravindranathan as the office colleague), ‘Waiting’ takes you on an emotional journey where there are so many things you can relate to –the unfairness of it all, doctors who don’t seem to understand, friends preoccupied with their own lives, and people who owe you nothing, sometimes going out of their way to help. It is as much a story about acceptance and the will to move forward, as it is a reminder of why all that counts is the moment you are living right now.

Director Anu Menon who was at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles last month, talked to us about her film. Here are some excerpts.

Anu Menon
Director Anu Menon at IFFLA 2016. Photo: Javeed Shaik

What made you choose to tell this story?
[AM] I did go through a personal experience long ago. So it was sort of my catharsis and the starting point of everything, but eventually, it is a story about two people and how they support each other and find hope in this crazy situation.

Can you tell us about choosing to cast Kalki and writing her character?
[AM] I wanted someone who was young and vibrant and represented today’s generation. And at the same time she had to have a sort of vulnerability and maturity as well. Writing Kalki’s character was more difficult than Naseer’s. When I first wrote it, I was basing it on myself. Not because of what she’s going through, but just because of the voice. She is a 20-something girl living in Mumbai. And that whole sense of entitlement, that invincibility that you feel at the age, that was very difficult to capture. I’d like to give credit to Atika Chohan who wrote the dialogues and to Kalki because we gave her a really difficult task. Her character is someone who, when the film starts, you don’t feel much sympathy for. She’s got a potty mouth and she feels like everybody should explain things to her.

“She is a 20-something girl living in Mumbai. That whole sense of entitlement, that invincibility that you feel at the age, that was very difficult to capture.”

The doctors in ‘Waiting’ are unlike the ones we are used to seeing in Hindi cinema. They’re not merely running up and down the hallways leading to the operation theater and then taking off their gloves announcing “…the rest is up to God”. They are people who need to maintain their sanity and make practical decisions despite emotional pressures and relentless interrogation from family members. Menon credits her co-writer, who is also a doctor, for bringing the authenticity in their portrayal.

[AM] Doctors are treated as kind of Gods in our culture and we expect them to perform miracles. I think they deal with it so much that they are sort of desensitized. Maybe that’s the only way they can operate. I remember seeing them on their morning ward rounds and thinking that they walk like rock stars. I do think that doctors have these kinds of responsibilities that we don’t understand and we do depend on them to save our lives. So there is a bit of a God complex. I’m not passing a judgment. My character is just doing his job. That’s his journey.”

Tell us a little about making an independent film. What was the hardest part for you?
[AM] Everyday is hard when you’re making an independent film. Or even a big film for that matter. The film was shot over 27 days in Cochin. It’s a bit of a blur now because, at the time, it’s that adrenaline – you just go and make the film. And only when it’s ready, you worry about bringing audiences and getting them to watch the film, getting all the numbers and making sure it makes some money. That’s a whole different ballgame that they don’t teach you in film school. If you’re a studio film, they do the marketing for you. With independent films, it’s your baby. You have to do everything. Having said that, even though it’s non-commercial and doesn’t have any songs, it’s a fairly accessible film. It does ask some profound questions, but it’s not some angry rant. it’s not trying to make a statement. I’m not an activist. I just tell stories.

“It’s about finding courage, no matter how difficult the situation is. Because I believe that’s what the human spirit is about.”

What do you hope the audience takes away from the film?
[AM] I think it’s about finding courage, no matter how difficult the situation is. Because I believe that’s what the human spirit is about. Whether it’s a medical situation or an emotional crisis, we want to find hope, we want to smile. The two characters in this film find that courage to accept their destiny.

‘Waiting’ opened in theaters across India on Friday, May 27th and has earned rave reviews from critics. Anu Menon’s first feature film ‘London Paris New York’ was released in March 2012. ‘Waiting’ premiered at the Dubai International Film Festival, 2015 and was the closing night film at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, 2016.

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