How Hollywood and Bollywood Met for 'Susanna's Seven Husbands' (Berlin)

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Vishal Bhardwaj, 51, has blazed new trails with his innovative adaptations of Shakespeare plays into critically acclaimed and groundbreaking Hindi films (Maqbool, based on Macbeth, and Omkara based on  Othello ). Bhardwaj has also forged a creative connect with Hollywood writer Matthew Robbins (Sugarland Express) whose career has included collaborations with George LucasSteven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro. In this Q&A with THR India correspondent Nyay Bhushan, Bhardwaj shares how he cowrote the screenplay of his latest film 7 Khoon Maaf  (Susanna's Seven Husbands)  with Robbins, playing in the Panorama section of the Berlin Festival. 7 Khoon Maaf stars top actress Priyanka Chopra as a woman who murders her seven husbands, aging from a young wife to an old woman over the years.

The Hollywood Reporter: How did you connect with Matthew Robbins?

Vishal Bhardwaj: We first met at Mira Nair's screenwriters workshop Maisha in East Africa around 2004 where Matthew was a mentor. Our first collaboration was for my short film Blood Brothers (on HIV/AIDS awareness made for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) for which Matthew wrote the script. We then worked on a feature film Rangoon Express but that project couldn't materialize. Later when I came across the story of 7 Khoon Maaf (based on the short story Susanna's Seven Husbands by Indian author Ruskin Bond) I thought this would be ideal for Matthew and that's how we decided to cowrite the screenplay.

THR: Since you are an acclaimed screenwriter yourself, was there anything in particular you wanted from Matthew for this project?

Bhardwaj: Screenwriting is beyond language to start with so that can be a good ground for collaboration. Since I met Matthew I have learned so much from him – he is a great dramatic screenwriter and has a great sense of structure. This subject was very complicated to adapt for the screen. I didn't want this story to be episodic because there are seven husbands and hence seven stories. So I wanted someone experienced in story structure and Matthew is a master of structure. Given a chance, I would like to write all my films with him. Also, he is very open to other cultures and was so inquisitive to learn about the nuances of Indian culture. His connections with other cultures is seen in his contribution to the screenplay of French film Le Concert (2009), among others.

THR: How did Matthew acquaint himself with the cinematic style of Indian films given the diversity of the industry here?

Bhardwaj: He saw films by me and Mira Nair even though her films are not typical Indian films. He is not a fan of formulaic Bollywood films but he loves the fact that music and songs are an essential part of Indian films. He brings out the music and song situations on his own and he knows that I use songs as part of the narrative. He adapted beautifully to that.

THR: Since 7 Khoon Maaf is adapted from a short story, how did Matthew view the way you adapted Shakespare plays for your Hindi films (Maqbool, Omkara)?

Bhardwaj: He really loved them. In fact we both also discussed the possibility of adapting King Lear as a Hindi film. I mean more than just a collaborator, Matthew is really a close personal friend, philosopher and guide to me. I fondly call him “Chacha” (Hindi for "Uncle")!

THR: 7 Khoon Maaf seems to be based on a story that is universal and you probably can't pin it down as something typically Indian. Do you think this can make the film more universal in its appeal?

Bhardwaj: Well, the story of the film is a reverse take on famous French story The Seven Wives of Bluebird by Anatole France. So this film has a very interesting mix - its cinematic language and style is very international but there is a strong Indian ethos as well. And we have not shied away from the song and dance as that will always be part of our culture – we sing when we cry, we sing when we laugh.

The film has a mix of English and Hindi dialogue and I don't think language is a major barrier as subtitled films are well accepted, at least in Europe if not so much in the U.S. I personally feel that language should not compromise a film-maker in anyway. For me Gandhi speaking in English seemed like a big compromise but then that's because of the compulsion of the (Hollywood) studio to sell the film globally.

THR: Your evolution as a filmmaker seems to indicate that you are increasingly incorporating international sensibilities as was evident in your previous release Kaminay which seemed like a tribute to Guy Ritchie's gangland dramas. How do you see this influencing your future films?

Bhardwaj: After Maqbool, I became disoriented because I felt the film should have reached out more to the Western market, especially after the film got a standing ovation at Toronto and other major festivals. When I did Omkara it did reach out to the diaspora audience (in addition to the domestic Indian market) but by then it seemed international festivals were promoting typical formulaic Bollywood films. But then I realized that over the years my films have carved out their own domestic market. The Indian film industry is really a self-sufficient market. We don't need to look outside for any support unlike other countries like Iran which don't have a big domestic market and hence need outside support. So now I really make films for my market and as a result, I think I have started making better films. I mean we get good malt whiskey in our country also so I am happy!

THR: What kind of future projects are in the pipeline?

Bhardwaj: There is a possible collaboration with (Bollywood superstar) Shah Rukh Khan. We have discussed some ideas so lets see what happens. I have also extensively researched and written a story based on the hijacking of Indian Airlines flight IC 814 (which occurred in 1999 when the plane was taken to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan). I want to make it like a documentary because people don't know exactly what happened inside the plane when it was held hostage for over a week and how that incident is connected to 9/11 as well. And yes, people do keep asking me when I will do my next Shakespeare adaptation but I want to hold on to that for as long as possible.