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More Than ‘A Kiss’

Director Krishna Bhatt and actors Priyal Gor and Leena Jumani in conversation with Team Box Office India about their latest web series Maaya 2, exploring the taboo subject of lesbianism, changing mindsets of the Indian audience and more

Box Office India (BOI): Homosexuality is still largely taboo in India. It takes guts to make a web series on this subject. Did you have any apprehensions?

Krishna Bhatt (KB): It took me 10-15 minutes to understand how to do it. There was no apprehension about whether we should or should not do it. The apprehension was about how to do it and how to show something like this. After a day or two, when I absorbed the story, I didn’t have any apprehensions.

Priyal Gor (PG): When I heard the story, I was quite happy with it. The kiss was just a part of it. People only notice the kiss. When we went for the meeting, Krishna narrated the story to us. I was very happy to be a part of it.

Leena Jumani (LJ): Same. (Laughs)

BOI: How did the story and the concept of Maaya 2 come about?

KB: Maaya did very well. It was directed by my dad. That was also based on the very taboo subject of BDSM, which we don’t discuss. The only thing close to it is Fifty Shades Of Grey, which we love watching. That subject was so sensitively dealt with. Even Shama Sikander, Vipul Gupta and Veer Aryan played their roles with extreme sensitivity. The series did really well and we had a successful season.

Web series are very similar to American television shows, where you have seasons. When we decided on season two, we decided to take up something that nobody wanted to talk about, something that was important to discuss. That is how the concept of Maaya 2 came about. It is a lesbian love story. It is something that people don’t want to look at, talk about and they find it dirty.

BOI: How has the audience taken it?

KB: When people saw the kisses in the promo, they wanted to watch the show only for that reason but some people genuinely liked the concept of LGBT. I received a lot of comments from people who actually appreciated the fact that we are dealing with LGBT without mocking anyone and it is a serious story. When you realise that you are getting such positive feedback and people are seeing more than just the kiss, you know the story is selling without getting sensationalised. Sometimes, we end up selling kisses and erotica, but in Maaya 2, we have tried not to sell anything sensational. The lovemaking scenes are there because the protagonists love each other, and it is the most natural process. We were appreciated for not showing certain things for the sake of it.

LJ: Those who have watched the promos say the show is looking good. As far as the kiss is concerned, it is not unnecessary. It was the requirement of the script. We showed as much as was required. We have received a really good response. I am happy.

PG: When people saw the trailers that portrayed a kissing scene, we received a lot of hate comments but after the series released, we stopped getting them. When people watched the entire series, they realised that there is a meaning behind the kiss. It is not lust.

KB: I checked my Twitter account after three days today. I have received such nice comments. These comments started coming after the series released. Before the release, no one knew what the series was all about. After they came to know the plot and that there was more to it than just lesbian drama, it helped change the situation.

BOI: How did you get Leena Jumani and Priyal Gor on board?

KB: They came on board one week before I rolled. I met a lot of people. What is meant to work out always does. I believe in that. Those who are meant to be on a certain project, become a part of it eventually. Priyal and Leena were not the first people I met. But when I met them, I knew they were the last people I wanted to meet. I was very clear about that. I felt like they could have given everything to the story because it is important for an actor to believe in the script.

When I narrated it to Leena, she said ‘okay’ in about 20 minutes and smiled. I said to her, ‘You heard everything, right? Did you concentrate on the story I narrated? Did you miss anything?’ That was refreshing. When I narrated it to Priyal, she also agreed to do the series. I was hoping that they wouldn’t get cold feet on the sets. I called them to say that there is a kiss with a boy as well. That is when I realised that nobody could do it better than they could.

We have worked with Priyal on another web show with another company before this one. That show has not yet released. One of the people in the casting team suggested Leena’s work to me. When you see someone’s work and you like them, you meet them and you realise that they also want to make a story or play a certain character. That is when you feel they are going to fit. After that, I did not look left or right. I went straight into shooting within a week. The look test was done on the second day.

BOI: Leena and Priyal, we have seen both of you in very different roles on television, where you have played sanskaari characters. The characters you portray in Maaya 2 are a dynamic shift. How did you sink your teeth into your roles?

PG: Sometimes, it is difficult to play a sanskaari bahu too (Laughs). Every character is challenging. Even the character I play in Maaya 2 is challenging. The only difference was that I was going out of my comfort zone to play a role. Only the kiss-related moments were embarrassing. Apart from that, everything else was the same. There was love. The difference was the love story took place between two girls. Setting that aside, it was a beautiful love story. I have done this before. I enjoyed playing this character.

LJ: I totally enjoyed it. I have played both positive and negative roles but it is the first time I have done a role like this. We have to try something different, eventually. If not today, then may be tomorrow. If I hadn’t played the part, someone else would have.

BOI: When the trailer was out, you said that people were looking at it only as a lesbian drama. How did you manage to show that there was a story or sub-plots in it?

KB: When we released the first two promos, they were just songs that portrayed love. After that, we released the promo that had the antagonist Puneet played by Pranav Sachdev. When we showed that promo, it showed the audience that there was more to the story. It was very important for us to establish a love story through the first two promos.

And then there’s the villain. A love story cannot take place without a villain. Once the viewers saw that there was a villain who was blackmailing the girls under Section 377, intruding into their privacy and harassing the character of Priyal, they started to realise it had a plot. After the release, it was through word-of-mouth that people realised that there was a good story and it was not what they thought it was. It was more than that.

BOI: Krishna, your father Vikram Bhatt directed Maaya. Did he give you any tips or guidance for Maaya 2?

KB: No, actually. I asked him, why do you give me such tough subjects because it is difficult to direct something that is so emotional. The only tip that I got from him was that he is the writer. He wrote Maaya 2. As a writer, he gave me everything in the script but nothing else. He just said, give all your emotion to it and make it from your heart.

So, Maaya 2 was quite independent for me. I never had him checking my rushes. When he finally saw it, it was at the edit stage. Yeah, he came to see one or two songs choreographed, to help me with that. But it was my baby as a director and his baby as a writer. 

BOI: Do you think this series was possible only because it had a digital release and that it might not have made it if it had a theatrical release as a film?

KB: For a theatrical release, a film has to be cleared by the censor board. The censor board is not limited to Bollywood films; it is also for Hollywood films. I think when the Titanic was re-released, uske bhi portions cut kar diye the. So the censor board has a fixed set of rules, which kind of limit us, it would probably have been an adult film. I would have gotten an ‘A’ certificate or I would have been told to cut some scenes or something like that. Those are the censor board’s limitations.

What digital does is that it removes censorship. You can do what you want, you can tell the story you want to and there is nobody to tell you that this much is fine and this much is not fine. You don’t have to limit yourself in any way, and for the characters to use expletives or for a filmmaker to show intimacy is not bad.

BOI: As you said, it was a difficult subject and shooting intimate scenes is always a challenge. As a director, how do you maintain the aesthetic balance?

KB: As a director, I maintain the aesthetic value by knowing that my actors trust me. They should know that I am not going to show them in a bad way. I think the second way to do it is by understanding that to show lovemaking or a kiss is not basically to sell erotica or vulgarity; it is just to show a dialogue. That is one tip that my father gave me.

I asked him, how would I say kiss karo? He said, bol do ki kiss karo. There is no better way to put it. He said that just as you tell someone that in this scene you have to slap this person or in this scene you have to say ‘I love you’, similarly a kiss or any intimate scene is an expression and it’s a dialogue. I was telling Priyal and Leena how to say the dialogue through the intimacy and they took it to another level.

BOI: As actresses, how do you prepare for scenes like these?

PG: Krishna has always been sweet to us on the set. Woh hamesha bol deti hai haan abhi karna hai… ye expression kabhi nahi hota tha ki KARO! That expression matters a lot.

LJ: I think she had the whole story in her mind, every scene. Like we sometimes used to forget what the back story was and took the thing lightly and then she said, aap ko yaad hai na pichlewale scene mein kya hua tha? That also helped. I am not saying this because she is sitting beside me right now but because she is a good director.

PG: A director who takes out all the shortcomings of an actor, wo director ka best part hota hai and she did it.      

BOI: We have also seen an emotional graph in the characters too. As actors, is there any mental preparation for a role like this?

PG: No. I am a very spontaneous actor. If you tell me to cry right now, I will apply glycerin and cry. If you tell me to laugh, I will laugh. There are two types of actors, one who follows method acting and one who is spontaneous.

LJ: I do it with feeling, the feeling that comes with the scene, with the character at that moment. I think after rehearsing or practicing it for long…

PG: (Cuts In) …it gets mechanical, spoilt. For the crying scene, if you think about your break-up with your boyfriend for 15 minutes, and you bring on the tears, but ab saamne toh koi aur actor hai, then it will be like main bhool gayi.

LJ: I had tried it earlier but it’s like if the actor in front of you makes you laugh even a little then pura mood kharab ho jata hai aur do ghante ki mehnat bhi. So it is better that you feel it and act according to the feeling.

KB: There are times when you have to put your personal emotions into it. There was one scene where she (Priyal) breaks down and I told her that there were two shots and in these two shots only I will make you cry but you have to cry for real. She took barely any glycerin but she said achha gaana chala dena mere liye, rone wala. And I think Leena is very spontaneous with her emotions, because I think she is so used to tapping into emotions every day as a television actor. Every day, she has to feel something. Sometimes you have to feel anger, sometimes you have to feel hatred, sometimes you have to feel love. I think both of them have that spontaneity.    

BOI: We have homosexuality on our shows and even in some of our movies today. Do you think the mindset of the Indian audience has changed?

KB: I think audiences are very intelligent and we underestimate their intelligence. We watch so much digital cinema nowadays, on platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hotstar. If they were not open to it, they would not have accepted this. I have been saying all along that we underestimate the intelligence of the Indian audience. We don’t think they will accept this but they are ready. They are basically saying give us good content. 

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