Manav Kaul, Sayani Gupta bond over food, initial days as outsiders in Bollywood
Manav Kaul and Sayani Gupta talk about their initial days as industry outsiders in Bollywood, and how Kashmiri and Bengali cuisine makes them go weak in the knees
Sayani Gupta and Manav Kaul share grub at The Tanjore Tiffin Room. pics/Shadab Khan
Sometimes, two Bollywood personalities can exude such a genuine sense of camaraderie that, even as a third person, you can feel the warmth of their hug as you take a step back to facilitate it. That's what happens with us when we move out of the way as Manav Kaul walks into The Tanjore Tiffin Room in Versova and embraces Sayani Gupta, who had been waiting briefly for him for this edition of Lunchbox. Kaul is a theatre director, writer and film actor who has carved a niche for him with relatable roles and offbeat scripts. Gupta is an industry outsider just like him, and earned her chops in FTII, Pune, before taking the plunge into Bollywood. Here, after the hug, they exchange notes about their new gadgets — Kaul's smartwatch and Gupta's switch to an android phone — before settling down for a congenial conversation about making it big in movies, their grouses about the industry, and the superiority of Kashmiri and Bengali cuisine.
Shunashir: Both of you came from different places to set up your lives in what is essentially a really ruthless city, especially for people in films. What were the initial days like when you first arrived in Mumbai?
Manav: You know, firstly, when you say ruthless, I really like the in-your-face brutal way in which this city functions. You will be treated here on the basis of whatever your work is. So even if it's ruthless, nobody is wasting anyone else's time. If you are here and you are good, you will be treated well. But if you are not, people will be honest about it. And that's something I appreciate.
Sayani: Me too, there is certainly a sense of honesty about how your work is received. But when I first came here, the one thing playing on my mind was that everybody who is making a film needs to know that I exist. If there's good work happening anywhere, I need to be among the first few people in consideration for it. See, there are millions of us. Every day, there are thousands of people getting off at CST or arriving at the airport looking to be actors. So when I came from FTII, I was like, 'Boss, assist hi karna padega, nahin toh kaam nahin milega,' because I wondered why anyone would hire me as an actor when there were so many good actors here already. But thankfully, I got my first film within a month of shifting.
Shunashir: But do you have any reservations or complaints about the industry? Is there something you would like to change about it?
Manav: One thing I feel we lack is originality. We should produce our own stories and our own music. There's so much baggage about what works for us and for the West as well that we lose our own essence of story-telling. For example, we Indians have never seen anyone wearing a suit shoot someone dead. Who does that in this country? I am not putting commercial films down by saying that. I am talking in general. We have to understand where we come from and that we live in a complex country, with super-complex stories. But what's most ridiculous is that the moment you make something even a little complex, people are like, 'Arre, hamein samajh nahin aaya.' And I am like, 'You are bloody living the most complex and difficult life, and you can't understand this story?' That's why I say that the audience always gets what it deserves.
Shunashir: Right. And what about you, Sayani?
Sayani: I feel that wastage of resources and money is a big problem, especially with big films. I mean, I know for a fact that clothes that were bought for my character in a certain movie were super-expensive. But eventually, I didn't end up wearing them and they just lay unused in peti after peti. Of course, they might get used in some other film. But the point is that we both have friends who have written brilliant scripts, but can't make the film unless they are funding it themselves, or selling a kidney, or selling their soul writing sh*t for television. And then when you see so much wastage on big sets, I'm like, 'Yaar, thoda dekh ke chalo.'
The food — mutton stew, pomfret curry, tamarind prawn curry, appams and coconut rice — arrives.
Shunashir (to Sayani): Do you miss the street food of Kolkata sitting here in Mumbai?
Manav (smiling playfully): Let's not talk about it.
Sayani: Yes, let's not talk about it. Maharashtra can't even compete. There is a lack of evolution here, you know? I mean, if you're happy with missal pav, vada pav and poha, you can't really call it a 'cuisine'. Bengali and Kashmiri dishes are far, far superior, and they are my favourite Indian food.
Manav (he was born in Kashmir): In fact, Kashmiri vegetarian food is stunning. Everyone talks about yakhni, goshtaba and rogan josh. But if you go to a Kashmiri's home and let's say, his or her mother is cooking, just ask her to make veg food. You will die; it's that delicious. It's also really light because the non-veg food is made with so much oil and masala that they make sure that the veg stuff is water-based. So it's all balanced out when served together.
Sayani: Exactly, and that's what I like about Bengali vegetarian food as well. My mother cooks stuff with kaalo jeere, panchphoron, etc, and when people come home and say, 'Oh, there's so much oil in it,' she's like, 'I haven't put a single drop in it.' See, gastronomy has an art to it. It's a science that our grandmothers and mothers perfected.
Manav: Yes, with Bengalis having taken it to a different level. And Kashmiris, of course!
Sayani: Haha, yes, of course!
Your favourite place in Mumbai for comfort food...
Sayani: The Calcutta Club, since I love Bengali food.
Manav: Basanti & Co in Versova is a place I frequent.
Non-mainstream films that have stood out for you...
Sayani: Sairat in Marathi; A Death in the Gunj and Tamasha in Hindi.
Manav: Despite starring Varun Dhawan, a mainstream actor, I thought October was absolutely fantastic.
The most memorable place you have travelled to in your line of work...
Sayani: Kashmir, because of how stunning the place, food and people are. It's truly heavenly.
Manav: A resort called Sonapani in Uttaranchal. I recommend it to all my friends and go there myself to write scripts and stories.
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