BANDRA, Mumbai – It was 9 am on a bright and sunny morning. I was Waiting and a few moments later, with a bounce in her stride, entered Atika Chohan.
As soon as she sat down, post some greetings, the coffee arrived, right on time.
“Coffee all day, and then gin at night, that’s my diet!”
That first quote itself said a lot about her. The charisma she oozed, the zeal she possessed, the voice she carried and the ripples of change that she wanted to create. I knew that I was sitting beside a woman who had lived a life based on her own rules and spoke her own mind.
J – From Margarita with a Straw to Chhapaak, one thing that hasn’t changed is these strong female characters, is that they could easily do standalone roles if not thrown in a world of co-dependence. Why is this so?
A – The primary reason behind co-dependence between the male and female characters is because that’s real life! We cannot exist in a vacuum no matter how strong we are. We need something to operate on, for or against. I observe it, examine it and then try to replicate it in fiction. That for me is not a drawback, but rather the beauty of harmony and synchronization which I try to achieve. We seek to bring balance to an imbalanced situation where the world around us is always imbalanced, especially for women.
I am able to create strong female characters in a world which also has many men by informing them of a strong female agency that stems from my personality and my voice. But I see to it that it is not at the cost of the male character. The reason why it looks starkly strong is that even when you create something normal, against a B town canvas which is so tilted towards men, it comes off looking strong. In Chhapaak, since ‘a strong female narrative’ was the purpose of the narrative, it was created but that wasn’t the case for Waiting. Its purpose was to create a negotiation between two characters who coincidentally come into a situation on the same emotional journeys that binds them together with compassion irrespective of their differences in gender, age, personal journeys, exposure, and education. People have asked us if they are asexual or will they have sex? And I think that’s a good question because as a writer, to explore where the sex ends and intimacy begins, is a great area. It’s a grey zone that a lot of us, especially youngsters experience as they withhold intimacy and just want the sex. In this story, however, it’s about the deeper emotional intimacy over the sex to allow the characters to transform. But in Chhapaak, the story was around a very strong female voice with her own agency and yet we didn’t want to discount any character. It was really important to have everyone around her- father, brother, and the person she marries, to carry a certain level of sensitivity. Here the focus was Laxmi’s journey and considering the kind of film we were writing, meant for a mass audience, these were the maximum risks we could take. We were not dramatizing it in a traditional way, so if we had made it any more complex, we would’ve lost even more audience. Those were the tough decisions taken at a storytelling level.
For me, it’s always a conscious choice in how I write. In that regard, yes, I am a feminist because the world is tilted against women right now. If the world tilts against men, maybe I will start batting for men, but I will always bat for equality. I want to bring a balance to the female voice in mainstream cinema, and that is my driving force.
J – Chhapaak being a film which is based on the real-life story of an acid attack victim, and Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan, which was so real, do you believe that a male writer or director could have done justice to a female protagonist film and do you think to be a feminist plays in your favour?
A – I might be judged for answering this, but there is a certain gendered experience that I bring in to the narrative. The trauma has lived within me, thus it is definitely easier for me to be very sensitive to a subject like this. I can’t really say that a male writer would not have done justice, but you can definitely see how women tell stories of other women, there is a certain spark, sensitivity, magic and empathy which men have not been able to bring to the table. I am not questioning their craft, but their empathy and humanity. To challenge myself since I have done ample female narratives, I am now doing a male narrative. I am writing a war film, with two men and two male producers, and it has been the most testosterone-filled vibe. Having said that, when I came on board, I had a condition that I will create a slightly non-Bollywood male narrative and treat men for who they are. Real men are complex, wounded and masculinity is a burden. Their anxiety, rage, sense of powerlessness, stems from all the unrealistic expectations. It’s a crazy new experience for me, and we are having a great time writing as it’s a lovely negotiation between popular masculinity and a balanced narrative for men. They can honestly just feel, “Oh god! I had such a tough day. I had to be authoritative, and tell everyone to mind their own business.” You f**k up, we all do.
J – Talking about masculinity and the non-Bollywoodization of male characters, what did you think of a film like Kabir Singh, which though morally wrong on so many levels, received that kind of success? How do such films hold a mirror of society?
A –Why shouldn’t there be a film like Kabir Singh? I have no problem with the existence of a film because I believe in the Indian Constitution, democracy, and how people have the freedom to express themselves, regardless of dangerous repercussions. As a character, he is negotiating and bringing awareness to the burden of masculinity. He is a tortured male and he is living that narrative, which deserves screen time in order to examine it. The problem is not with the existence of such a character, as this exists in the real world. The problem arises when there is no take-away from his repentance and when he is rewarded for being a bad boy, which is dangerous. In reality, I don’t think the female character would’ve returned to a man like that. The other thing that is dangerous is that it is charming as f**k. It begins on a high, and since all of us have gone through this sort of toxicity in some of the other forms in life, we find ourselves emotionally pulled. This is where we need to draw the line, the visceral and emotional experience to watch cinema compared to something that is an imbalance in the world. It was irresponsible in its culmination as these characters are real but how you end it, is the real deal. I also have a problem with the fact that the director said, “Well so what, Thappad maar dete hain kabhi kabhi” and equated that as a sign of love and passion in a relationship. When this happens, for that also there needs to be a film like Thappad. It would also be interesting to see Preeti’s narrative. I do feel moved by what they’re going through, but the ending is irresponsible in a world like this, and it’s not okay to reinforce the ‘douchebag’ behaviour.
J – “Waiting” a film about two people at different stages of life, dealing with the same problem. The treatment of this film is so warm and nurturing that even when they’re not in that tense hospital environment, there’s still this certain sense of care. When a film that’s so simple and really doesn’t get the kind of reception, what’s your mind-set as a writer and what is the status of parallel cinema according to you in our industry?
A –I think I become even more stubbornly focussed on what I want to say, every time I don’t succeed. Instead of changing my truth, I try to focus on my skills as perhaps that’s not up to the mark. The fact that these forms exist, makes me want to go back to the drawing board and up my craft. I think I will just stop writing if I ever have to mutate my truth. A lot of people have told me that I would form enemies and would be considered a difficult writer but honestly, I think with each film, I have found more alliance. I have found more like minded people. Yes, it is difficult to stick by your beliefs, but it is getting easier for sure. There is a larger momentum that we can create and it will be possible only if we stick to what we want and not give up with every gush of wind. There will be challenges, films will be shelved, but that is life, that’s the path we have chosen.
It’s not like I haven’t suffered for work. It’s been 10 years and it’s only recently that people want to work with me and interview me. I turn 40 this year and the thing people thought I was crazy for, people want to interview me for that! I am less angry and more purposeful. The only thing that has changed, is my personal self being more evolved than before. My life becomes tougher with each film because I know that I will have to put in even more hours. With every project, I do take myself seriously because I actually think I am just an instrument of this voice. Even if I can get two people to go back and think about the work we’ve done, I think that the purpose is achieved for me.
J – “I am an emotional kleptomaniac,” you said this in an interview. What do you mean when you say that and how has it translated into your film writing?
A –It’s a frivolous way of saying that I am an acute observer of human life. It largely meant that sometimes I don’t think it’s possible to live all lives, but if you’re empathetic enough and if you have your antenna up, you will see people going through various kinds of emotional graphs. And sometimes you know in your heart that this is something worth registering. Like the “left-right” rickshawala scene in Chhapaak, is something that I went through as a young student in DU wherein two young girls in a rickshaw are hell-bent in speaking in Hindi because they wanted to respect to this rickshawala from Bihar, and hence they would say ‘daye-baaye’ instead of ‘left-right’, to which he goes like, “left-right nahi aata hai kya?” So that is what informed that scene. The other line is when Malti is younger and with her boyfriend in their puppy love, and he says, “wahan tak chalte hain.” This again really happened to me. So there are a lot of things across all these films which I have written from my experiences. Sometimes you gather, sometimes the other person gathers off you.
J – In the current scheme of things, with NRC and CAA being so much in the picture, what is your stand on it and how much impact does art have, as a form of rebellion?
A – I have been very vocal about my politics where I am absolutely against the mutilation of the Indian Constitution. I am still tolerant and democratic to the idea of people pursuing one party over the other and their personal views and biases. I was conflicted till I saw the violence against students and I don’t see how that is not to be opposed! It should be countered, defied and constantly protested against, till we find a balance in this. So I don’t see how any of us don’t have this responsibility, as nationalists and good citizens. I had never cried on the National Anthem before this, and it’s only recently that every time the Preamble of the constitution is recited, I have throbbed because my identity as an Indian was questioned to a degree where I felt the need to understand what being a good citizen meant and how can I uphold the secular nature of the constitution. Authoritarianism, dictatorship, majoritarianism, are not going to be tolerated and if we don’t make that stand clear, then we are really messing things up for future generations.
When it comes to art, history has shown us that art thrives the best when your societal fabric is under threat. So art in a non-violent way, as a form of protest, as a form of dissent will continue. As an artist, whatever work I do, should skilfully also employ my politics into it, but I also understand that if I am working on commissioned assignments, I will have to be sensitive to everyone else on board. It is not like people don’t have opinions. Even in the B town, people are humane, have opinions and nobody wants to see students die but they are not able to raise their voices because there is a lot at stake. That doesn’t imply that they are adhering to what is happening. There is this constant anger against what is happening and we need to keep at it.
J – Which film according to you, is the winner of the Oscar for best picture of the year and why?
A – I am the greatest Bong Joon-ho fan, and I have been rooting for his success as his voice really needed to be recognized. Having said that, I think this Oscar came to him a little late because I think he definitely deserved an Oscar for Mother, Snowpiercer, and many other films. Parasite is a great film without a doubt, but I have felt more impacted by some of his earlier works. This Oscar will not just be for this one film, but for his entire filmography.
My favourite film in this current lot is this film called Beanpole as it’s a fantastic film. If I were on the jury, I would have given all of the awards to this film because a 20-year-old Russian has made this really mature and beautifully visual film that has impacted me the most this year.
That past hour had surely brought a smile to my face. With that, Atika had to get back to work, to her ‘pretty desk jail’, so that she could produce some of the magic that we all know her for. Conversing with her has not only been fun but also insightful and highly inspirational. She is a trailblazer in Bollywood and continues to stun us with her work.