Rewind to the 2008 college romance Jaane Tu... Ya Jaane Na, and you’ll spot a young boy playing sidekick to a bully. The character, Nilesh, wears spectacles and a silly grin throughout the 3 minutes he appears on screen.
“My friends in Delhi thought I was trying to become an actor, and started sending me messages of support,” grins Shakun Batra, who was working as an assistant director for the film. “But actually, the script needed an impromptu character and I was just put in there. Of course, I was always clear I wanted to direct.”
It was this clarity that drove the Vancouver Film School graduate toward his destination as an A-list director. “I was this enthusiastic kid who walked into Excel Entertainment’s office, where Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti gave me a position. I got hands-on training under Farhan Akhtar, who was making Don 2 then. And of course Karan Johar has been a true mentor.”
After Gehraiyaan, made under the banner of Johar’s Dharma Productions, Shakun Batra found himself riding the choppy crests and troughs of critical and popular response. “It was my first experience of learning to embrace the good and the bad, the love and the criticism. Analysing what worked and what didn’t was also interesting; it helped me look closer at the small nuances of how you build character and shift emotions.”
Intentionally or not, the other thing Gehraiyaan did was to put him in the top league of today’s filmmakers. Does the new burden of expectation sit heavy on his shoulders? Seemingly not. “I’m feeling light and excited right now. The next thing I do will be its own monster and animal, so we’ll just see!”
That next thing, he says, is still “a very broad nascent germ of an idea” floating around in his head. “Hopefully in the next six to seven months I will know what it exactly is, but right now I’m enjoying the process, letting myself play with the idea until it takes concrete shape.”
So what’s his creative process like?
“Writing happens for me in spurts. I go back and forth between being extremely disciplined and giving myself an open schedule. I could have one week to 10 days of very focused work, and when everything is out, I need to go and find some more inspiration. There’s a lot of being lost and trying to make sense out of things, but I do try to wake up in the morning and allow myself two to three hours of writing once I’ve begun working on a project.”
His inspiration comes from a variety of sources—travel, books, music and movies. “I generally leave town and change the territory, so to say. And then it is long morning walks, drives along different routes…Driving in particular is very helpful, I find. Coasting along a quiet road gives your mind free rope to think and imagine.”
Shakun keeps his morning for books and evenings for watching films. Ask him to name some favourites and he instantly perks up. “On my bedside right now is The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer, a spiritual book about awakening your consciousness and living to your full potential, and The Midnight Library by Matt Haig, themed around the choices we make in life and whether they make us happy. I just finished reading Rock Paper Scissors by Alice Sweeney, an absolutely fantastic domestic thriller. Two recent films I watched are Everything Everywhere All At Once, centered around a mother-daughter relationship; and Noah Bombach’s debut Squid and the Whale on family dynamics.”Unlike some of his contemporaries, Shakun hasn’t positioned himself as a specialist in one genre. So far, he has made a light romance (Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu), a slice-of-life family drama (Kapoor & Sons), a docu-drama (Searching for Sheela) and a romantic thriller (Gehraiyaan). “For me, the positioning and the optics are secondary,” he reflects. “Sure, I could make five drama films back to back but would that give me happiness? Maybe not. I’m just trying to do what makes me happy and hopefully manage to have a career along with that.”