Nearly six years after the release of his directorial debut Masaan, which won him numerous accolades, Neeraj Ghaywan is yet to make his second feature film. However, he’s done Geeli Pucchi, a short film in the Karan Johar-produced Netflix anthology, Ajeeb Daastans, that features Aditi Rao Hydari and Konkona Sen Sharma as two women who bond over their gender in a male-dominant workplace until caste intervenes in their tender relationship. The former plays Priya Sharma, a chatty, gullible woman who comes as a breath of fresh air in her filmography.
Here’s Neeraj Ghaywan and Aditi Rao Hydari in a conversation with us, as they speak of creative choices, learnings, and takeaways:
Neeraj, you had said that your perception of Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ had changed, after you became uncertain about the subject of your second feature. How did you come out of this state?
Neeraj: I believe that our perception regarding any film is bound to change over time with repetitive viewings. For instance, Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa, Gulzar’s Ijaazat, and Vijay Anand’s Guide are some films I revisit frequently. Every time I rewatch Pyaasa, I find a different meaning. The same can be said about Fellini’s 8 ½ and it shows that our perception keeps evolving with time. To put it another way, the works of Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski bestow a completely different meaning when seen through contemporary lenses.
The idea of Geeli Pucchi stemmed during the development of Masaan, but I held it back because it felt radical. The concept, however, continued to brew in my head and I finally committed to put it to fruition and give it some shape and size. I could not have asked for a better platform, and more importantly, better actors to bring these characters alive.
For someone who has extensively played tight-lipped and calm characters, how different was it to play the expressive, effusive Priya Sharma?
Aditi: (laughs) I enjoyed every bit of it! While it was fun, I had to perfect the Hindi dialect, and Neeraj was particular about getting it right. As someone who grew up in Delhi and spent a substantial part of life in Hyderabad, I sound like a Hyderabadi or a Delhi-wali. I had to hone the dialect, polish the pronunciation, and simultaneously be chatty. I had a lot on my plate! Pulling it off was not a cakewalk, but I enjoyed it because of the difference in tone; also, she comes from a different heart place. Neeraj says she is his version of a manic pixie dream girl, whose life and thoughts are suffused with hopes and dreams. In all honesty, there is a side to my personality that resembles Priya, although filmmakers see me as a quiet person. I’m not sure how Neeraj figured out that I have a chatterbox in me!
Neeraj: I have an aversion to the manic pixie trope because it’s a product of the male gaze. To subvert it, I used Bharthi (played by Konkona Sen Sharma) through whose eyes you see Priya. It’s the female gaze. Manic pixie dream girls don’t tend to have agency. However, Priya stands up against things she doesn’t want to be a part of; she puts out her opinion.
You had cited the Dardenne Brothers as inspiration for Masaan because their films discard the socio-economic baggage of their characters. Can you say the same for Geeli Pucchi?
Neeraj: This question summarises why the Dardenne Brothers and Satyajit Ray are my favourite filmmakers. When we see their films, we don’t feel that it is constructed around a ‘social issue’. Their films center on the moral dilemma their characters go through. As a storyteller, my focus is solely on the narrative. I believe the story is the foundation to the film. Social criticism is a secondary layer. I touched upon many intersectionalities in Geeli Pucchi such as class, caste, gender, and sexuality, but at the end of the day, the story is about the human connection between Priya and Bharati.
Do you like to put a moral cap on your character, Priya, considering her privilege adversely affects Bharti?
Aditi: When I play a character in a film, I don’t like judging and segregating them based on their beliefs and opinions. I hope I can do the same in real life. I would say that Priya is naive, pure, and innocent. She appropriately responds to every situation she is placed in, and I’m glad Neeraj imbibed talkativeness in her personality because that makes her unfiltered and lucid. Contrary to Bharti, Priya is not informed about society, the hierarchy, and the real world. All she has are feelings. Priya’s innocence draws Bharti towards her. For Priya, honesty is all that matters, and I think it ties in beautifully with the world of the film.
Although you have experience in making shorts like Shor, Juice, and The Epiphany, do you feel feature-length would have allowed you to explore Geeli Pucchi in depth?
Neeraj: I don’t think so. With my short film, Shor, I intended to put my learnings from the sets of Gangs of Wasseypur to use. I feel that a true accomplishment of a filmmaker is when he or she manages to tell a story with minimal resources, and that was my goal with The Epiphany. Completely set in a car, there was no way to add flourishes like wide shots and multiple locations. It was an attempt to hone my craft. Every film has a different grammar. With Geeli Pucchi, it was important to not overstay our welcome. I’m content with what we have. It’s succinct. I feel the short runtime sharpens the film.
What is your takeaway from Priya Sharma?
Aditi: I think it’s too early to answer that. I haven’t reached a place where I can instantly understand a character’s influence on me. At times, I realise after a while that I have absorbed something from a particular character. It has happened with Leela (Kaatru Veliyidai), Mehrunisa (Padmavat), and Sameera (Sammohanam). What struck me the most about Priya was her kindness and child-like innocence. Regardless of the broad context of the story, she is a sweet human, without a CPU that controls her thoughts.