'A director needs to know very clearly what he wants from his actors' : Suhail Tatari's

Suhail Tatari's Breast Cancer, a story depicting the trauma of a woman suffering from this debilitating disease, has just won the Screen Videocon award for the best drama series on television. The story is part of a successful series dealing with women's' issues called Kadam on Sahara TV.

Tatari, who started his career in direction in 1990 with a documentary and later directed features for Surabhi on national broadcaster Doordarshan,has come a long way since and has created a definite niche for himself. His stories are about "real people, their real problems and their real emotions" as he puts it. Barring Farz and Nyay, two daily soaps he did for Nimbus, almost all his other projects reflect this philosophy. Tatari says he plans to extend this philosophy to a movie he's going to start directing very soon.

He took time off from his busy schedule to speak to's correspondent, Amar.

What brought you to direction?

Well, my father worked with Doordarshan. Though he went on to become the additional DG (director-general) of Doordarshan, I remember the early days when he would be involved with production. I would occasionally accompany him to the shoots and found the whole process very fascinating. Then I moved to Mumbai in 1985 and got a job in the client servicing department of an advertising agency. Two years later, on my insistence, they shifted me to the films division. But again two years down the line, I got bored of shooting inanimate objects. I guess directing documentaries and serials was a logical extension of all that.

Tell us about your experiences directing Breast Cancer.

Breast Cancer is one of the most fascinating stories I have done in my career. Apart from the issues raised in dealing with this disease, the story is a real roller coaster ride into the personality of the girl who plays the central character. For instance, this girl is a really jovial and bubbly character. She is independent, outspoken and can go to the extent of confronting her parents when she decides to marry a struggling painter. But the same girl becomes a new person altogether once she knows that she is suffering from this horrible thing called breast cancer. She becomes fragile and vulnerable. She cannot come to terms with the fact that from being the centre of attention in the past, she now gets attention only out of sympathy. The changes in her personality are so drastic that her husband doesn't know how to deal with this "new" woman.

To weave a story around something as dreadful as breast cancer and to have a parallel insight into what the disease does to the personality of the girl in a span of three episodes was an achievement.

What kind of research went into this story?

We spoke to an oncologist at Nanavati Hospital (in Mumbai's western suburb of Vile Parle). In fact, we took the entire script to him to find out if the technicalities were right. There he showed us a few pictures of women suffering from breast cancer. And believe me they were the most horrifying and saddening pictures I have seen in my whole life. I just imagined what a woman would go through when her breasts which are such a vital part of her sexuality have to be removed through mastectomy. Thereafter, we conceived a scene where the girl, distraught and completely shaken, compels her husband to see her once before she goes for the mastectomy because she knows she will not be the same again. This was the most crucial scene of the story and its impact had to be seen to be believed.

Don't such scenes leave you in a traumatic frame of mind?

Oh, it does. All of us were so stunned shooting this scene that long after the shot was over I even forgot to say "cut".

What were your instructions to Mona Ambegaonkar (protagonist) before this scene?

See, I told her that as a male I would be frightened to look at her after the mastectomy and her role as an actress was to evoke how she reacts to that fear and anguish from my side. At the same time her attitude would be like: "Just because I am losing an organ, it doesn't mean you won't love me."

Is dealing with women's problems easy for a male? Do you have an all-woman team?

No, not at all. In fact, it's the other way round. See, a woman would be more emotional and maybe even prejudiced on issues directly involving her. On the other hand, a male would have a more objective view of things. Besides, as so-called enlightened males, we are all aware of some kind of discrimination against women, aren't we? For instance, I know I would be allowed to return home at midnight, my sister wouldn't be allowed the same liberties. So, it depends on how much one can develop on these small issues and make them into sensitive stories.

What kind of research went into Missing (a series on missing persons hosted by film star Jackie Shroff on Sony Entertainment Television)?

For Missing, we had a research team that studied all details of the cases because they were all factual and had to be presented as authentically as possible. I was involved with the pilot of this serial also which was shot in the house and with the family members of the missing person. In fact to the extent it was possible we shot in the houses of the missing people because we felt that at times the parents could be hiding something.

Another area of major responsibility for a director in a serial like Missing is the casting. How did you go about this?

At the very outset, we had decided not to take any known face because then the credibility of these stories would not be there. So, we went in for fresh faces - we searched for them exhaustively within our databank and the theatre circuit. As long as a person matched the character, we took him even if that meant working with untrained actors.

What are the things you never compromise on as a director?

I need effective actors who can grasp what you're trying to say. If that happens I believe half your worries are taken care of. Besides, as a filmmaker I believe in striking the right balance between story telling and technique. I find that some directors are so obsessed with their technique that their storytelling goes haywire.

How much of an actor does a director have to be?

A director needs to know very clearly what he wants from his actors. See, I've interacted with a lot of actors and I've found that on many occasions they have a problem because they are not told properly what to do. For instance, if the director doesn't like a shot, he simply tells them: "This doesn't look nice, do something else." I believe you should know exactly what you want from your actor - what you want him to look like, what his expressions should be, how he should say a given piece of dialogue. Unless, all this is communicated properly, the desired results will not come through?

What do you feel of the present trend where daily soaps are dominating?

From a personal perspective, doing a daily soap has helped me in big way - it has taught me to think real fast. But from the industry's perspective, yes it is creating a difficult position for small producers who don't have the resources to go in for daily soaps.

What is your genre of film-making all about?

I love to work on realistic issues and genuine concerns of people. My stories are not actually real life stories but they are inspired by things happening in real life. For instance, when I conceived a story on surrogate motherhood, the idea came from the prevalence of this practice in society. From there I applied my mind and wove a story depicting the emotional side of the woman going through this. I don't intend to create an art movie sort of thing, but again I hate melodrama. Melodrama requires faking emotions which as a filmmaker I detest.

Do you write your stories?

I'm not involved with the actual writing but, yes I keep a close tab on all my screenplays and dialogues and do improvise on them while shooting.

Who are your favourite actors on TV?

Mona Ambegaonkar and Ashutosh Rana.

Is Ashutosh Rana receptive to your ideas? He is said to have a mind of his own.

Oh, no. On the contrary, Ashutosh is far more receptive and attentive to the director than many other actors. Besides, I've had a long rapport with him. I first worked with him in Farz, a daily soap, in 1996.

What has been the happiest moment in your career?

I had shot a story on a place called Mandu, in MP (Madhya Pradesh) for Surabhi (a culture and art series on national broadcaster Doordarshan's DD1 channel). The entire thing was musically done and I had attempted to tell a story with as little narrative as possible. When I showed this to Gulzarsaab (renowned writer, lyricist and filmmaker), he told me that he too had done a story on Mandu long time back but mine was better than his. I knew he was not speaking the truth but I relished this compliment.

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