'Judgementall Hai Kya' Director Prakash Kovelamudi On The Criticism, The Praise And Kangana Ranaut

The director on charges of the film using mental illness as a quirky device and how he extracted that brilliant performance from Kangana Ranaut.

Kangana Ranaut-Rajkummar Rao-starrer ‘Judgementall Hai Kya’ has opened to mixed reviews from critics. While the film has been universally praised for its compelling performances, the Ekta Kapoor-produced drama’s depiction of a serious mental health illness has been received with scepticism, with some suggesting that it stereotypes those grappling with neurological disorders.

Writing for HuffPost India, psychologist Scherezade Siobhan said, “I dislike harping on accuracy of depiction because clearly this is a film, not an academic paper, but some of the commingling seems like a really amateurish cocktail. This matters simply because mental illness is a scale or a spectrum and one can’t eschew the significance of choosing specificity when it is such an integral part of the storyline.”

HuffPost India caught up with the film’s director Prakash Kovelamudi to ask him how he’s processed the criticism and the praise, and if he’d have changed anything about the film. Spoilers below.

Many people have compared the broad idea of ‘Judgementall Hai Kya’ with the British play ‘Gaslight’.

I didn’t know of the play, or is it a movie, until the reviews came in. If at all anything, our reference points, in terms of approach, were Birdman and Black Swan.

Probably Kanika (Dhillon, the film’s writer) knew of it?

A lot of the things in the film came in organically and I feel that there’s a larger intelligence that was responsible for it. Our opening shot was never her being upside down looking at the world. It was a little girl looking at the world through a marble which looked upside down. The idea was to show a normal childhood, which slowly starts getting traumatic due to domestic violence.

In our edits, that portion went out. We opened with the abuse as opposed to showing the events preceding it and somehow, this happened to be the opening shot of the adult Bobby. Later on, you also see multiple reflections of her in mirrors. That way, we were aware of the symbolism so we didn’t have to adhere to spoon-feeding a thought. Some cases were just happy accidents.

At least in this film, many elements were defined by a larger intervention. From Kanika to Kangana to Ekta, we are all eclectic people that came together for this project. I especially want to thank my co-director, Suprotim Sengupta. The rough edges smoothed out and ultimately you will see everyone’s expression in this film. I’m happy that every department is spoken about and everyone is being appreciated.

In her past films, Kangana has been collaborative to the point that the director got sidelined. How did you negotiate that space with her?

We had differences but nothing that threatened the project, because all of us knew what we were making. And the creative conflicts weren’t only restricted to Kangana. There were conflicts between me and the writer, me and Pankaj Kumar (the film’s cinematographer), me and Kangana, Rajkummar Rao and even Ekta Kapoor. These are different creative players with very strong voices. But I always felt that the creative conflict came from a place of all of us having a certain vision for the film that we were trying to achieve. Ultimately everyone arrived to the same point but they arrived through their own route.

I come from a theatre background. I like engaging with actors. I like to see how they interpret a character and what they can do with it. If I’m only stuck to what I’m looking at, I’m not looking at the possibility of what it can be. That training I’ve got from theatre. I like to see other people express themselves and to see how much they can go and where they can go and then choreograph or steer the narrative to my broader vision.

“I always felt that the creative conflict came from a place of all of us having a certain vision for the film that we were trying to achieve. Ultimately everyone arrived to the same point but they arrived through their own route”

Can you tell me a specific instance of a creative conflict and as a filmmaker with an individualistic vision, how you resolved it to everyone’s satisfaction ?

So, when Pankaj and I had really elaborate discussions on how to film the climax. For me, the (literal) world of the stage had entered Bobby’s mind in the second half and was slowly spilling out into the real world. She first absorbs it and then it starts manifesting into her reality. Now how do we capture that manifestation? Should we do it in a realistic way or with an overdramatised, surreal aesthetic? We decided to go with the surreal. Some of the sequences appear bizarre to the audience but it’s an expression of her fragmented state of mind. It cannot be cohesive or contained in the norm you see.

I felt the film started off steady but towards the end, it kind of started going off the rails.

I don’t think it’s muddled, it’s quite simple in the way it’s told. What gets muddled is her expression of the state of mind and you’re not able to follow a narrative thread in that, which is a conscious choice. If you’re going to view this film with reference to an existing template, it will fall off expectations because it is far beyond. The plot is designed to keep you hinged but what you’re experiencing, through Bobby’s character, is a world from the perspective of a broken mind and her sense of reality and her struggle to find the truth of her own reality.

That was the primary reason to tell the story. The reality of a person with a mental disorder is very different. Nobody can deny them their reality or what their existence is. The first half of the film is told through her point of view and the second half is an objective point of view where you keep shifting between what she’s feeling and how that impacts the proceeding outside and how that further influences her mind.

To me, the film questions the way we look at things and it turns on its head and asks you to look at it differently. My critique is against a society that enables violence. It’s not so much the character as much as the society at large that we fail to see the disorder and point elsewhere. We persecute people with mental illnesses but obviously, they aren’t the ones with the problem. It’s the violence in society that causes this, that’s the root. The person is only a symptom of the disease that exists in our social spaces.

We got a psychologist to review the film and while she appreciated certain aspects, she was also of the opinion that the film uses Bobby’s illness as a prop, instead of looking at it with an investigative gaze.

We had sent the script to a couple of psychiatrists and their feedback was that while it’s not clinically accurate and that we’ve used symptoms from one or two other specific illnesses, at a broad level, to call it psychosis kind of covers everything. For instance, dissociative identity disorder is different from schizophrenia, although there are some overlaps.

The psychiatrists told us to not get into the technicalities of it because our film isn’t A Beautiful Mind or a Silver Linings Playbook where the patient is suffering from an illness and is on the road to recovery. That’s not our narrative. The movie is closer to Black Swan, where the illness propels the narrative without becoming exclusively about it.

Moreover, we have to communicate this in an entertaining manner so the conversation impacts a larger audience emotionally and makes them look inward about how we judge and straitjacket people easily.

When you watch a sports film, your protagonist may not display the technique in its most authentic form but the point is to get the emotion right. I think that to a large extent we were able to do that, thanks to Kangana’s brilliance.

An extension of the same criticism was how her condition was used as a quirk.

I disagree. If we had left with her being Rowdy Rani or Zara and other characters and how her reality spills into the real world and how that creates funny moments, you could call it a quirk and that’d be fair.

But we’ve gone way beyond that. We’ve shown where the trauma stems from, we’ve shown where it’s manifesting in her everyday life and how it disrupts the work that she does. Which makes her condition even more acute. Then there’s the cockroach which is a metaphor for an itch that you can vaguely locate but can’t scratch—that’s precisely what Bobby is going through.

So I don’t think it’s just a quirk. It takes you into the depths of Bobby’s mind, her helplessness and the manner in which it derails her.

When the action moves from Bombay to London, some felt that the film begins to get slightly implausible, especially with the Ramayana angle.

The second half is about Bobby finding herself. And yes, a lot of people had problems with Ramayana because they felt it didn’t justify itself well. For me, her identifying with Sita and finding her truth in that character by getting lost in this story was fascinating. Like finding your reality through fiction.

For her, it’s not about proving that she’s right to the cops or to the audience but to herself. I read a lot of mythology and like to recontextualise it. It’s a richer way of telling a story. Without Ramayana we could’ve done something else and kept the suspense. Some people say that the idea that she’s Sita and he’s Ravana is already a giveaway. I don’t agree because there’s many times that Ravana is only inside her head.

“We’ve shown where the trauma stems from, we’ve shown where it’s manifesting in her everyday life and how it disrupts the work that she does.”

But doesn’t he (Rajkummar Rao) encapsulate both, Ram and Ravana, projecting one, living another?

Yep. In fact we had a scene where he says that when she talks about herself being Sita she’s going to be looking for Ravana. He says you should be looking inside your head and that he’s going to protect his wife from her insanity. In this case he is projecting himself as Ram and is calling her Ravana.

Another criticism is on the number of coincidences in the film. She goes all the way to London and finds out that out of all people, her cousin is married to him?

Hmmm. Let me explain. If you look at Indian folklores, a lot of them are tied into the ideas of karma and destiny. There are no coincidences. Everything is designed by a larger force. A bigger energy. I’ll take Sita and Ravana’s analogy itself. In her previous life, Sita takes an oath saying she will come back and destroy Ravana. The Ramayana happens because of this oath, at least this is one of the many interpretations. Which is the beauty of our mythology. If you look at it from Ravana’s point of view, he’s the good guy, he’s the victim of the society we’ve created and is lashing out against that. The idea of him kidnapping her was predestined. In a lot of our mythologies, there’s a lot of coincidences and leaps of faith. Because of mythology, you suspend your beliefs and you don’t question these things because they exist to make a larger point.

That argument works if your film is a fantasy. ‘Judgementall Hai Kya’, to me, didn’t feel like one, although I bought into the universe of the film.

Who’s to say that? I’m telling a story, I’m using mythical elements and a mind that’s fragmented to say the story. It’s a storytelling device. If you’re going to look at it as a logical lapse, there are going to be many.

Once she becomes Sita, she’s no longer Bobby. The scepticism that you project on her is an indictment of how society doubts women. I also wanted to ask—what is Sita’s role in the modern day? She was a goddess in our mythology but it took an agnipariksha for her character to be validated. Which exists even today. We still don’t believe women. So I wanted to recreate and invert the idea of discovering the truth by having to walk through it.

It is important that she is Sita. We could’ve chosen Draupadi, or different women from Hindu mythology as pretty much all of them have been persecuted, but this was important because of the idea of agnipariksha. It ties into Bobby’s search for truth. For both herself and for people who are judging her. It ties into fire being a cleansing tool. It ties into what the antagonist feels. There was a reason we didn’t dive that deeply into the psyche of Rao’s character.

Why was that?

Because that would’ve been too much. I wanted the audience to make of what he could’ve been. With male violence, the reasons are irrelevant. You don’t need to know the different reasons but what you need is to recognise that it exists.

As far as the character development was concerned, where do you open him up? We made a choice that we wanted to open him up in the climax and not before to keep the ambiguity.

He gets off on hearing people scream in pain. For him it’s a power trip. He’s an arsonist who burns one identity down and creates another. In contrast, hers is a condition that is making her recognise that she has a condition and wants to overcome it. She wants to find harmony and balance without harming others. His is a condition that he doesn’t want to recognise and even if he recognises, he thrives on it.

“It is important that she is Sita. We could’ve chosen Draupadi, or different women from Hindu mythology as pretty much all of them have been persecuted, but this was important because of the idea of agnipariksha. It ties into Bobby’s search for truth.”

Yes, it can also be read as how men and women view violence. More often than not, women are the ones trying to escape it, while the men are the ones inflicting it if not actively seeking it as a way to reinforce their staid notions of masculinity.

Absolutely. From the feedback that I got, many women have viewed it with her being right and men have viewed it with her being the deranged one giving him the benefit of the doubt.

The best part about making this movie was how a lot of things started coming out in sharp focus towards the end. Some of it was by design, some appeared on their own. About the pervasiveness of abuse and violence and what it does to people. Ultimately the wounds that you have are the ones that can heal you. The first thing is recognise the wounds, then to embrace them and give them love.

Once Bobby transitions into Sita, she has to hunt Ravana down. He’s gaslighting her with the whistling in the corridor. When she starts chasing him with the axe, the background song that is going on is “Don’t cross the Laxman Rekha, it can destroy you, it can tear you apart” and what you’re seeing is her tipping over, she’s crossing it in her mind and going to the dark side and then the accident happens. When the accident happens, she runs away and when everyone tries to send her back to the asylum, the characters come alive in her head to help her. It’s very much like Sita after she got abducted by Ravana, Hanuman comes and gives her a ring. In the movie, Hanuman comes and tells her that Ramji has sent you a message. These characters help her discover her truth.

“Hers is a condition that is making her recognise that she has a condition and wants to overcome it. She wants to find harmony and balance without harming others. His is a condition that he doesn’t want to recognise and even if he recognises, he thrives on it.”

Were you prepared for a polarised response?

If more and more people resonate with it, great, but if not, that’s fine too.

What we consume affects us and it makes us who we are as people. It’s a part of larger human consciousness, a driving force.

I think that I would continue to want to tell stories that have an impact even if it’s a little difficult, even if 30% get it as opposed to 60%. Sure, there could’ve been better ways of telling the story and certain things could’ve been executed better. One choice was if we decided to open him up and say he’s the killer much sooner than what we do now.

Given the current trend of how the box-office draw of a film is looked at as a yardstick to judge its merit, how do you gauge the success of your film?

I don’t want to look at numbers because unfortunately what has happened to cinema is that numbers are dictating the quality of a story, it’s happening a lot in the south. The first thing people ask is not how good your film is, but what is the opening week? I feel the quality should never be determined by the box-office number. That’s a very silly, asking for quantifying art. Now we made a film that is profitable for the people who produced it and it has also made some kind of an impact on the audiences and contributed in some way, I think, in a positive direction to a larger human consciousness or awareness. That itself is a big success. That it didn’t do Rs100 crore is not a yardstick on which you should determine the quality of what this film is and not just this film, I am talking about many other films. For me, even Manmarziyaan was such a beautiful film and the numbers spoke about it not being successful which is a tragedy, because it’s such a well-made film, such a beautiful story, it is a successful film, it should be a successful film and like that there are so many other films.

Tell me a little about extracting that performance from Kangana Ranaut.

It’s Kangana. You don’t have to tell her anything, she understands. The only one thing I told her was that because of the character having this mental disability, your reactions cannot be predictable. Which she knows as an actress. The way she internalised it and the way she would give a comeback, how she would talk, walk etc was astonishing.

Even with Raj, he just needed to keep it real and play it on the edge. The only thing we told him was that he has to be on the edge. Just the half-smile he has and the look he gives, it nails it. It’s the talent that both of them, they feed off each other’s energy.

Kangana is especially gifted for this character as it requires a certain connection to your instincts. The first thing I noticed was that she might decide to pitch a scene differently but at the end of it she’ll give you the same thing you wanted and she’ll give it to you better than you expected because she trusts her own acting instincts and her spontaneity in the moment to deliver it. She might have prepared for it or it could have been spontaneous. We don’t know which one is what. It’s fascinating and sheer joy just to see her perform.