“Vidya Balan was my strength on the set!”
He’s like a blushing schoolboy whenever he speaks of ‘her’. “She is awesome”, he gushes even as his super elegant and classy mom serves up delish homemade dosas and mouthwatering stew, smiling indulgently at her first time feature filmmaker son, Suresh Triveni and his fan-gush about Vidya Balan. Noticing his mom’s smile, he changes the topic and confesses, “I’m so lucky. I get this kind of meal almost every morning!” He is grateful.
For Suresh Triveni, who lost his father a little after his 12th standard, his mother has been an influential force in his life. And perhaps that explains the central character in his debut film, Tumhari Sulu,
“I have grown up in a household where my mother has been a very happy mother. I grew up in a colony where there were so many homemakers and they were just smiling and laughing. But maybe somewhere in a corner, they had some curbed desire, a self-controlled desire and it never came out.”
“So I wanted to look at that side of a homemaker. And my biggest challenge while writing Sulu’s character was that she is not a classic underdog. When you have a character that is an underdog, it is easier to root for her. And for someone who is already happy, how to do you root for her. So I went back into my life and found references.”
“But, he adds we ease into a chat, “I always had a very strong desire to make films. And to make a film with Vidya Balan.”
“I actually wrote 5 scripts before ‘Tumhari Sulu’ for different people. I even worked on a script for Revathy. But none of those took off. Also, I didn’t know too many people in the industry. But the latent desire remained. And every time I’d see a Vidya Balan film, I’d tell my wife, I want to work with her. And she knew it, because one of our earliest conversations even while were dating, was about Vidya Balan!
“Between 2012 and 2016, I was in advertising and I met Kedar Teni, at that time the Head of Marketing at McDonald’s. I did a couple of ad films with him and later, when I was having a chat with him on Branded Content, I shared an idea on what I thought would be good as a two minuter. But he heard it and immediately said, ‘this sounds like a great idea so why don’t you meet up with my sister in law – Vidya Balan!’ And I was like ‘no… this is not happening’. I thought it was a casual mention but two hours later he messaged me that the meeting with Vidya was fixed. And I had two days to create some ideas. So I met her with some ideas and most of the time I gushed. It was a nice, formal meeting and she liked one of the ideas.”
“And then I was determined to not let this opportunity go. So the next few months, we developed a script and I met her a couple of times. But when the final script was done, somehow it did not click with me. I felt it was not working out. So I told her that, but I also realised this is my opportunity lost.”
“And while leaving her place, I told her I’ve got another idea – it’s about a happy middle-class homemaker, who stumbles into a late night radio jockey job. And she said, ‘ya sounds interesting. See if you want to develop it.”
“So as I was thinking about how to develop the idea into a whole script as soon as possible, I remembered something Mr. Mahesh Bhatt had said in passing while we were shooting with him for the show Bollywood Bosses – ‘Har din agar teen page likho, in 30 days, you will have a script ready.’ I took a break from my advertising work in January 2016 and just wrote.”
And did you manage to finish your script in 30 days?
“I actually had a script at the end of 30 days. I had fixed a narration with Vidya on Feb 4th, 2016. I went and met her with a script and a speaker in hand because music plays a big role in everything I do. As the narration got over, she said, “Let’s make it.” And I couldn’t believe it. I was like no – you have to write it. So she wrote on the script, ‘Let’s make it’ and she signed it.”
“Yes, the meeting got over and I went down under her building and I was like, are these what dreams are made of? There was traffic going by and I thought ‘I want a 100-piece orchestra in the background. This is my slow motion moment.’ So I think it was a sheer determination that I wanted to make this happen.”
So, it was Vidya Balan as Sulu right from the start…
“See, you have an artist with whom it’s your dream to work with and whose body of work is exemplary and you know her talent. Then it’s like you are a kid in a candy shop. I wanted to tick everything off the list – from the way she would look to the way she would smile – I wanted to take all that and put it into her character and see where it went.”
What was the first day of the shoot with Vidya Balan like? Were you nervous?
“The first day of shooting with Vidya Balan – was the look test we did nearly a month and a half before the film shoot. I was behind the camera and calling action, but I was very awkward, even though I have been directing for while. But Vidya Balan has a knack when she walks on to a set – she makes everyone so comfortable. And she knew that I had this huge baggage of a fanboy. So the credit goes to her she just made it so comfortable. And the first day we shot the actual film, was a school sequence, and she sends me a message to me saying ‘I didn’t feel like I was in a shoot today.’ and that was big for me.”
Vidya is a superstar and you a debut filmmaker – did you at any point feel the pressure of the superstar overpowering your script?
“Never. We wrote 16 drafts for this film, and everything was discussed with her. She was so keen to listen to a first time novice director like me. She being on the set gave me strength. That strength I got from her.”
You have dedicated this film to your Dad…?
“So, I was a very bright student till the 10th standard and I was that student – I would sing, act, scored in my exams and was school captain. And then suddenly, in junior college – I lost interest in studies and did some stupid things. I became like a flunkey to the hero. And suddenly I realized all the heroes passed their 12th and I got left behind. My father was devastated. And he passed away pretty soon after that. And he had big hopes with me. I am not saying I have achieved anything – but just the graph from then to now – if he was here now – I think he’d say ‘Not Bad. Itna nahin socha tha, after that’ Also, it was his death anniversary recently and it was a very emotional moment for me.”
“She has been a massive force in my life, not in a very conscious way… but like in Tumhari Sulu, Vidya’s character talks to a pigeon and I’ve seen my mother do that. You know, there is a time, after 9.30 a.m. when everyone has left, there is a certain quiet in the house – even in a city like Mumbai. So, ya those are the things I borrowed a lot from her – a homemaker alone, after a certain time. And I think, she did have things she wanted to do for herself but she didn’t express it. Nor did my dad suppress it. Just that it never came out. So I think it’s very important to talk to them and talk about them. I have a lot of respect for homemakers, I think what they do is immense, invaluable and sadly underrated.”
“I have always been a huge Bollywood buff and a huge Amitabh Bachchan fan. I have grown up on his films. English films were not much of an option those days. We wouldn’t have much electricity in Ranchi and so while growing up, I used to read these magazines – where they would put images from a film, and the film would read out like a comic book.
“Every Durga Puja, for all the 9 days on an open ground, they would put up a purdah… and play films like ‘Tohfa’ and ‘Teri Meherbani’. My dad didn’t want us to sit there, so we would go to an uncle’s place and I would see films like ‘Tere Meherbani’ parde ke ulte se! So right to left – but I loved it!”
“So Bollywood films have been a massive influence. We used to get it late – I perhaps saw Sholay in 1987 or 88. But I watched a lot of movies. I have loved Phool Aur Kaante, Jigar. I used to love going to the theater – I never missed a movie once I got to the 10th-12th standard. But the one filmmaker who totally fascinated me was Mani Ratnam. So movies have played a big role in my life.”
“And I love the idea of a background score in life,” he signs off in true filmy style!