Phillauri is a lyricist’s second attempt at writing, and an assistant director’s first solo. Anvita Dutt and Anshai Lal on jamming as neophytes
It all started over drinks, lyricist-turned-screenplay writer Anvita Dutt says. “Yeh, Anshai, kissa accha sunata hai. He is a storyteller.”
She is speaking of Anshai Lal, director of Phillauri, the upcoming film from Anushka Sharma’s Clean Slate productions. “He said to me, ‘So, there is this boy, an NRI, who returns to India to get married’. I was already zoning out. Then he said, ‘And he is manglik, and gets married to a tree. Aur tree mein hai bhoot’. And suddenly, he had me. I want to write this, I thought.”
A still from Phillauri, starring Anushka Sharma and Diljit Dosanjh
The Anushka-Diljit Dosanjh-Suraj Sharma starrer scheduled to release on March 24, marks Lal’s debut. It’s Dutt’s second attempt at screenplay writing after Shaandaar. Lal has earlier assisted on Dostana and Chak De! India, and Dutt is well known for the lyrics and dialogue of Anjaana Anjaani, Student of the Year and Queen. Despite their mainstream backgrounds, Phillauri carries a fresh, indie vibe.
Named after the Punjabi village of Phillaur, which incidentally Dutt belongs to, is the story of Kanan, who gets married to ghost Shashi, and then has to help her find a solution to take away from her situation.
Dutt and Lal, both Dilliwalas, love Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s oeuvre, and are all about ‘content’. “I have been telling Anshai that the last few years have been leading up to this script. It has helped me flex my writing muscle. He has managed to look at every scene from a fresh angle, and make it better,” says Dutt. That they have associated on this project for two years means they are more than just colleagues. “I don’t how I will work without her. I have chewed her brains for two years; she’d write the scenes down on cards. That helped me see the movie. And she comes up with backstories for every character. That helps the director, because you can figure how an actor needs to react in a situation. I am glad ki picture ban gayi, yaar.”
A kid of the armed forces, Dutt studied literature, which is why it’s not surprising that she says most of her influences come from books. “I read all the time… Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.” That explains the supernatural undertone to Phillauri. “Once I bought a whole bag of books from London and paid £3,000 to fly them to India,” she says. Lal moved to Mumbai after a degree in media studies, and pursued a few stray modeling assignments. Here, he met director Saket Chowdhry at Bandra’s once-upon-a-time hot spot, Zenzi. “I assisted him on Pyaar Ke Side Effects, and realised this is what I want to do.” When we ask him to discuss his experience of being a first-timer, Dutt butts in: “Could I answer this? He has focus. He comes in [on set] and concentrates on the scene at hand. Where should something be, where should the actor be? The town can burn down around him, but he won’t lose focus. Then the words on paper [script] are simply hygiene. He’s the one who brings them alive.”
Lal smiles; a shade embarrassed at the praise. “And we had a great crew. It was the best production unit I could have asked for, he says.” Dutt laughs, calling the unit Lal’s protective shield, ensuring he was able to materialise his vision. And for that, they credit Anushka and her brother Karunesh.
This is Clean Slate’s second production after NH 10, a firm that seems focused on offering the stage to a new thought. “Although, nobody really knows what the audience wants,” Dutt says wisely, before Lal adds, “We are starved for content. So, the aim was to make a movie that’s not like another.”