Dream Come True
My Birthday Song producer and leading man Sanjay Suri, director Samir Soni, and leading ladies Nora Fatehi and Zenia Starr, in conversation with Team Box Office India
Box Office India (BOI): Samir, this is your first feature film as a director. What was it like?
Samir Soni: It’s been the single-most exciting experience of my life. I couldn’t have asked for more. It is the most creatively satisfying thing I have ever done. As an actor, your participation tends to be limited to what you are doing or what you are told to do. But as a director, it is your vision, your journey; you take people along with you. Whether it’s the music, editing, costumes, lighting or locations, you have to be involved. It was such a fantastic time for me.
Also, as an actor, you get tired of the focus constantly being on you. There is a lot of emphasis on looking good, making sure your hair is okay and the make-up man keeps dabbing your face. Here, I was behind the camera and they (the actors) did the all the dirty work. I was just sitting there and saying ‘roll’ and ‘cut’. I loved it!
BOI: What prompted you to become a director?
Samir: My friends would often tell me that I would make a good director. I used to be offended; I thought it was an insult to my acting. I used to wonder why they kept saying this. Then I took the script to Karan (Johar) and he said, you should direct. Coming from a veteran like him, I realised I ought to take it seriously.
I felt, if I ever wanted to direct, it should be this movie because I knew the script inside-out. My fear was that once I was behind the camera, a part of me might yearn to be in front of it. But after two days of shooting with Sanjay and the DoP and the whole team, I realised this was better! I could see Sanjay’s eyes dilating, I could see him frowning, and I thought, this was really happening!
I empathised with all the actors when they had to shut up and do things they did not believe in. Being an actor is a tough job. Between shots, you spend hours waiting. A person like me wants to remain in a certain frame of mind and that can become exhausting. Being a director was liberating. It was like a vacation.
BOI: Nora and Zenia, how did you get on board? What was your reaction when you landed your roles?
Nora Fatehi (NF): I just went and auditioned. They did not know who I was and I did not know much about them. When I looked them up, I realised they were well-respected people in the industry, known for the content they put out. People love their work, whether in the field of acting or filmmaking. I was definitely hoping to get a callback because I wanted to work with them. As a new actor or artiste, one seeks to work with people who are very professional in what they do; that also helps an actor grow and we learn a lot from people who are genuine.
Zenia Starr (ZS): Mine was a similar experience. I was called in for an audition. I dropped by the office. As luck would have it, Samir had stepped in for a moment and said he would do the lines with me in the audition. The audition had a lot of swear words, lots of yelling and shaking of fists, but it was a lot of fun. And when I found out that I had been given the part, it was exciting and felt good. These guys are very honest and authentic, and that’s why they are where they are.
Samir: Just to set the record straight, I wasn’t the one yelling and shouting. I was just encouraging her to go higher and higher. And she was fab!
BOI: What is the significance of the title, My Birthday Song?
Samir: If I knew everyone was going to ask about the title, I swear to God I would have thought of something else. It’s just a simple story about Rajiv Kaul, played by Sanjay. He is celebrating his 40th birthday and the events that take place on his birthday change everything for him; his past, present and future.
I had watched a film called Requiem For A Dream and loved it. I loved the word ‘requiem’, which is a song sung or recited at a funeral. My film is dark and deals with death as well. That inspired me to use ‘song’ in the title. When some people were confused by the title and asked me when the song was coming, I wanted to change the title and call it just ‘Birthday’. But Sanjay told me he felt that ‘Birthday Song’ had a good ring to it. It was he who suggested making it My Birthday Song.
Sanjay: Also, it is a nice journey from My Brother Nikhil to My Birthday Song. (Laughs)
BOI: Sanjay, can you tell us what it was like playing Rajiv?
Sanjay: Rajiv could be any man around 40 who is well-educated, well-settled and self-made. The incidents happening to and around him make him react in a way that is at odds with his natural character. I would like to thank Samir for internalising the character. That was half the job done for me. I then just went along. The character of Rajiv is struggling with his own demons and trying to overcome situations as they happen. But otherwise, I would say that he is one of those sorted guys.
BOI: Without giving anything away, what is your favourite line from the film?
Sanjay: Jo dikhta hai woh hai nahin. That is absolutely my favourite, and let me tell you why. What it really means is that we all have dreams; but when one of them starts to come true, there’s no way of telling whether it’s luck, destiny or disaster. That’s the essence of what Rajiv is struggling with, and it’s all captured in that one line. It is a true psychological thriller that works at various levels and provokes certain thoughts and questions.
Samir: Sometimes, the dream you see feels very real. This is about the blurring of lines between what is real and what is not. It deals with various levels of perception and deception.
BOI: What prompted you to produce this film?
Sanjay: I think I would have been a fool to not produce a film like this. When Samir narrated the story, it took me five minutes or even less to say yes. The visuals prompted by the narration were so powerful that my first reaction after he finished was, ‘You need to direct this’. He didn’t reply and instead asked if I would act in it. I said I would love to. It ended there and we said let’s do it. We became producers for many reasons, one of them being the creative connect. I believe that if you analyse things too much, you end up paralysed; I am impulsive and so is he.
Samir: Our motto here was karna hai toh karna hai. We were unapologetic about the angrezi title, the colloquial language, the urban milieu of the film. I would add that there wasn’t any kind of strategy we applied. We just told each other, let’s do it.
BOI: What projects are you looking forward to next?
Samir: I have written another script, which I am very excited about. I know I will make it, but when and how, I have no idea. I didn’t plan on becoming a director. It was the script that told me I should be directing this movie. Let’s see where life takes us all.
Sanjay: I am actually developing five web series because we just love all the subjects. There is a lot of writing and that does take a lot of time. We then pitch the stories. So yeah, that’s keeping me busy and let’s sees where it goes.
NF: I am just looking forward to working in some cool web series, so right now my focus is there.
ZS: I have an Australian comedy coming up this year and we just finished shooting there. It’s a story about refugees and football. Another film I’ve done is Hotel Mumbai, based on the 26/11 attacks. I think it’s a beautiful story and Indians will connect with it, so please go watch the movie.
Samir: What’s interesting is that when Zenia speaks, she sounds foreign. And she speaks only in Hindi but her Hindi is better than that of most of the stars in the industry. And I am not pointing a finger at anyone in particular.
Sanjay: This Box Office India magazine is circulated around the industry. (Laughs)
BOI: With other thriller movies releasing alongside My Birthday Song, what are your expectations from the box office? Do you keep steady track of the numbers?
Sanjay: I think people who love thriller movies will definitely watch all of them, no matter what. Even if it means watching them back-to-back. It’s like a wine festival. You go and taste different wines. Samir: I am not as saintly as Sanjay and I stand only for our film. You better watch our film and I am confident you will like it the most. I am sorry and no offence to anyone.
Sanjay: Box office numbers are very important and we all know that. I personally haven’t got any numbers but I keep making films. We want to do well and eventually, if the audience likes a film they will watch it, and if they like it even more, they will pirate it. You know the highly pirated film is also a successful film; it’s just that the money doesn’t come to us. No government has done anything about it and that’s saddening.
Samir: I think numbers take away from the essence of content. Today, all because of the numbers game, we sacrifice creativity. With an eye on the numbers, we allocate budgets, and that’s the reason big-budget movies sometimes crash; because their focus was only on the numbers.