Vishal Bhardwaj on turning to thrillers with Charlie Chopra, Khufiya: ‘Wanted to direct one long before I wrote Talvar’
In an exclusive interview, director Vishal Bhardwaj talks about helming an old-school whodunnit in Charlie Chopra and an authentic spy thriller in Khufiya.
Charlie Chopra & the Mystery of Solang Valley and Khufiya are not the first time Vishal Bhardwaj is adapting text to screen. His Shakespeare trilogy adaptation - Maqbool, Omkara, Haider - can never be divorced from his filmography. He has turned to other authors too, from Ruskin Bond for 7 Khoon Maaf (2011) to most recently, Agatha Christie for Charlie Chopra. But it's the first time he's directing true-blue crime thrillers.
In an exclusive interview, the filmmaker discusses his long-pending desire to helm spy thrillers and whodunnits, making every adaptation his own, and designing the soundscape of the Vishal Bhardwaj thriller:
Your journey with murder mysteries started with co-writing Meghna Gulzar's Talvar (2015), based on the Aarushi Talwar murder case. Was the keeda for directing a thriller planted back then?
No, it was much before that. These kind of genres are very exciting to me. I think they should be exciting to any filmmaker, where the story itself is a mystery. We've not made great murder mysteries like Hitchcock and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011). So it was a long, long desire for me to make these films.
You've obviously been a master at adapting text into Hindi movies, from William Shakespeare's to Ruskin Bond's. But is adapting an Indian text in the case of Khufiya easier than adapting a British text like in the case of Charlie Chopra?
I wouldn't say it's easier. But adapting a foreign text into the Indian milieu definitely gives more room for creativity. For instance, the girl in The Sittaford Mystery (the novel Charlie Chopra is adapted from), Emily, becomes a detective. But to find her parallel here was an interesting journey. Even all the suspects and their back stories was fascinating to get into.
Charlie Chopra's character intro is the very opening theme of the show, sung so buoyantly by Sunidhi. How did you come up with that? It's a simple address line, but with an irresistible rhythm to it.
I love that song of Amitabh Bachchan, My Name is Anthony Gonsalves (from Amar Akbar Anthony, 1977). He says his address line there, “Rupnagar Premagali kholi number 420.” So that's how Charlie also introduces herself. And I think rhythm comes naturally to me. I've worked a lot in music so poetry meter is part of my being. Main kuchh bhi karta hu, usmei wo nikal ke aata hai.
You've used Indian classical instruments like the tabla to drum up the suspense in Charlie Chopra. Was the reason behind that the backstory of Lara Dutta's character?
I'm glad you noticed that. See, we end up using the drums a lot in chase sequences. So I didn't want to go there. Tabla was so much more fun.
Was that also to distinguish between the soundscape of Charlie Chopra and Khufiya? Since both are thrillers and are planned as franchises.
They're both thrillers, but one has a detective and the other has a spy. Murder mysteries usually have a tense, brooding soundtrack. But I wanted to vet that, look at it in a different way. I wanted to include bits of thumri, ghazal, and certain elements from the old world. Actually, it's my tribute to the old-world whodunnit. Like the suspenseful songs we used to have in old Hindi movies, like “Kahin deep jale kahin dil, Zara dekh le aakar parvaane, teri kaun si hai manzil” (from Bees Saal Baad, 1962) or “Gumnaam hai koi, badnaam hai koi, kisko khabar kaun hai wo” (from Gumnaam, 1965).
On the other hand, Khufiya is a very intense and matured subject. It's espionage in a very real and authentic manner. So I wanted to bring in the music very authentically. There's a ghazal called Mat Aana, which reminds Tabu's character of an old love. Then there's the character of a godman. We usually depict godmen in a very boring way. So I created a godman with a band. He plays electric guitar, but he sings Kabir, Rahim, and Mira. Then there's Arijit Singh's Dil Dushman, where my references were No Time To Die (2021) and a little of James Bond.
I've always loved your songs with female voices, from Ek Wo Din (Chachi 420, 1998), Beedi (Omkara, 2006), Namak Ishq Ka (Omkara), U Me Aur Hum (2008), Darling (7 Khoon Maaf, 2011), to Balma (Pataakha, 2018). Do women-led titles like Charlie Chopra and Khufiya provide ample scope for creating music with female voices like Sunidhi Chauhan and Rekha Bhardwaj?
Yes. Khufiya is a feminist film in a way. And of course, Charlie Chopra is about a woman detective. Actually, Tabu has been the female voice in so many films I've composed music for, even the ones I haven't directed. You named one of them, Ek Wo Din. But right from Maachis (1996), Hu Tu Tu (1999), Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar (2000), Maqbool (2003), Haider (2014), Drishyam, Talvar (2015), to now Khufiya. Both Arijit and Sunidhi have sung a couple of the same songs in Khufiya, and everyone is loving Sunidhi's versions more.
You recently said that as a filmmaker, you feel very powerful since you're the sole creator. You're used to making dark, slow-burn dramas mostly. So how did you make sure you keep cracking the whip on your screenplay, since a thriller is conventionally designed to be pacey?
No, I remain very true to myself and my script. My films are slow burners, but they keep you hooked. I didn't want to be unnecessarily slow, and not unnecessarily fast either. The balance comes to me organically because as a filmmaker, you don't want to waste screentime.
Ending on a lighter note, we know that you and Naseeruddin Shah go way back to Maqbool and earlier. But how did you end up casting his entire family in Charlie Chopra?
(Laughs) We first cast Naseer bhai, then Vivaan, then Imaad also joined. It happened slowly, and not by design. It's not like I wanted to cast all five of them intentionally. Then I thought for the role of an old Parsi woman, I needed Ratna (Pathak Shah) ji to come and help me with. She gave great suggestions for the character so I asked her to join as well. After that, Naseer bhai called and told me, “Arey yaar, ab bas Heeba hi reh gayi hai (Only Heeba is left now).” So I created a short role for Heeba and ended up planning a family vacation for them (laughs).
Charlie Chopra & The Mystery of Solang Valley is streaming on SonyLIV and Khufiya will premiere on Netflix India on October 5.