Bhavani Iyer: No Kainaaz, No Sarabjit Should Suffer For No Fault Of Theirs

Bhavani Iyer, the writer of web series Kaafir, talks about the real story that inspired the ZEE5 Original and working with Dia Mirza, Mohit Raina.

Bhavani Iyer with Dia Mirza

Bhavani Iyer is the screenwriter of critically and commercially acclaimed scripts like Black, Lootera, Raazi, amongst others. Her latest offering ZEE5 Original web drama Kaafir is no exception to the list. The web show starring Dia Mirza and Mohit Raina in their first digital venture has been making all the right noise. Inspired by the real-life story of a Pakistani woman who spent seven years in an Indian jail, the conflict between India and Pakistan is one of the main narratives of the plot. In an exclusive interview, Bhavani reveals in a tell-all conversation about how she first came across the story, her experience of working with the cast and what patriotism really stands for.

Read the excerpts of the conversation here:

Q. How did the story of Kaafir first come to you?

A. Kaafir has a very interesting history. I first learned about this woman whom Kainaaz is inspired from in 2006. Her name is Parveen Kausar. She called herself Shehnaaz. I read her story in a news clipping which was shared with me by a director Saurabh Narang, who was a very good friend of mine. I found her story fascinating and wanted to know what would have gone through her mind, what must have held her together all these years, what is the hope that you cling onto when everything seems hopeless. I wanted to know what drove her because when you are in prison for that long time, one year goes into another and time almost becomes a notion. When I met her, I was fascinated by utter lack of any bitterness, there was such a Zen-air about her, it was almost like she had found a higher peace.

A lot of Kaafir is, of course, is fictional. Parveen fell into the river. She didn’t jump into it, she didn’t have a bad marriage as is shown in the series. But the hard facts of the story – about her being pulled out of the river and being put into the jail, her being raped in prison by a custodian of law, her delivering a baby in jail, all of these really happened to Parveen. It is shocking that someone had gone through so much of horror, pain, and trauma for no fault of hers. She just fell into the river. In order to tell a dramatic story, I had to have a counterpoint to Kainaaz’s narrative. There was a lawyer who fought Shehnaaz’s case, but I fictionalized his character and told the story through his eyes as a counterpoint to what happened to her. I wrote this script 13 years ago, in 2006.

Q. Kaafir was initially supposed to be a film. It took 13 years to get the story on the screen. 

A. I believe in something called divine timing. Every writer has a bag of stories with them that they carry with them. But bringing the story to realization does not rest on the writer alone. A lot of people come together to tell a story on screen. One thing I was very sure about that I would never tell this (or any other) story with anybody who didn’t believe in it. Whoever came on board with Kaafir needed to love it as much as I love it. I would never sell it as a proposal, I don’t have this ability to sell my stories to anyone, I just cannot do that, I can’t push. I believed that it would happen when the right time is right. There have been many instances in this past decade when the story of Kaafir would have been relevant to our country’s political scenario but I think it is never as relevant as it is today. Today is always the best, that is my belief. I am just very happy the way it happened right now because earlier it wouldn’t have happened with Siddharth or Dia or Mohit. It is the divine timing, I think.

L to R: Bhavani Iyer, Dia Mirza, Siddharth P Malhotra, Sapna Malhotra and Sonam Nair
L to R: Bhavani Iyer, Dia Mirza, Siddharth P Malhotra, Sapna Malhotra, and Sonam Nair. (Source: Instagram)

Q. You are collaborating with Dia for the second time in Moghuls. How was your experience of working with her, Mohit and others on Kaafir?

A. Siddharth has always been one of my most earnest and affectionate champions. He is more than just a professional acquaintance, he is a very dear friend. Siddharth saw the potential of Kaafir before and above everybody else. I am very very grateful to him for that, for trusting Kaafir so much. He is actually the reason we have made this show. He was so relentless, because if it was left upto me I would have said, ‘theekey, chalo dekhte hai’ but he was so driven by it. My passion ends with writing, beyond that and after that, I don’t know what to do. I am just fortunate that he was there for me. Dia, I found a soulmate in her, unfortunately very late in my creative life. She has so much heart, she is such an incredible human being above being an actress and all of that lends to her incredible performances and her interpretations. She is so intelligent and that is something very very special in an actor. She questions things, understands nuances, she sees subtexts and all of that has lent so much to her performance that it’s not funny. She would ask me, why have you written in so many scenes that Kainaaz is seen through bars of the window or the gate, that Kainaaz sees the sky through the bars, these bars are important right? I was so happy she asked that because to me those bars are what represent Kainaaz, till she gets her freedom. She is constantly seen as a prisoner not just of the prison but of her mind, of her life. Only when Vedant shows her that look there is a different way of living, that’s when you see her free, that’s when you see her unshackled and without any bars reflecting on her face. So she saw all of these subtexts in the writing and that is really remarkable. She was really incredible to work with. I was traveling in Kashmir when they were shooting in Himachal, and every night she’d text me what happened that day and how she had shot something. She kept telling me I want to be in your head and I want you in my head while I am doing this. You hear of actors bonding with their directors all the time. But it is so rare for an actor to have that degree of unification with the writing and the writer.

Mohit is someone who doesn’t talk too much. He is a quiet person, very reserved and shy and a lot like me, actually. Because I understood that, I could see right through his reticence. I had this one meeting with him, a long one about the character, and he got it so bang on. What is also very special about Dia and Mohit’s performance is that they talk through their eyes. I have very rarely seen actors being so comfortable with not having words to speak and being able to communicate non-verbally. That only happens when you are so unified with your character, that you are not acting, you are just being in the moment, you are just experiencing that moment, that was incredible. Mohit was just a phenomenal revelation for me in Kaafir.

I was very happy when I learned that a female director was going to helm Kaafir. It’s a complex and layered narrative and has a strong female gaze. And I know that a lot of nuances that the character of Kainaaz goes through in the story as a woman would have to be articulated for a male director, not because they are not sensitive but because they wouldn’t understand instinctively. They wouldn’t know what it is to be a woman who has been raped or how it feels to be accused of being barren or what childbirth means. So when Siddharth told me that a woman is directing it, I was very happy. I met Sonam Nair and there is so much warmth to her. She is like a fireball of love. I knew that would help, even though she didn’t have much time with the material, but the love and warmth she has would help her in translating the words. I was very confident about that. I am very very proud of her for having done this and having pulled off considering the time she had.

Bhavani Iyer with Mohit Raina, Dia Mirza and Sonam Nair
L to R: Bhavani Iyer with Mohit Raina, Dia Mirza, and Sonam Nair. (Photo Credits: Benoy Roy)

Q. Kaafir has opened a dialogue, while people are loving it, an audience hasn’t liked the series. Do these interpretations and opinions bother you?

A. If people are talking about it, if it has opened up a conversation, I think that is a wonderful thing. You need to talk. I know that it is not possible for everyone to agree with you. Nobody can see your intentions beyond what is depicted, and they will have their own point of view. You are looking at something from your own coloured lens and it is going to appear in that colour to you. The point is that at least people are talking about the Kashmir issue. Because only through dialogue and conversation will we find some of the answers we are looking for in the problem that has been existing between our two countries since partition!

Q. What is your take on the Indo-Pak conflict?

A. Innocent people are suffering because of the ego of two big countries. No Kainaaz should suffer, no Sarabjit should suffer for something that is no fault of theirs. My very strong take on this, as I have said in the show, is that we as a country need to hold ourselves to a higher standard and it will come from the people, their thinking.

I understand countries, patriotism, I understand the need to love your country and hold it above all else, but it cannot be above humanity. The line is on the land, not in the sky so why is freedom a casualty?

Q. What is patriotism in your words?

A. When I’m writing, I am not conscious of lending any moral or nationalist or ant kind of message to my story or characters. It is impossible to write like that. My only interest is the story I’m telling. I have to be fair to the writing. If I have two characters in my story, one happens to be an Indian and one happens to be a Pakistani, I have to give them equal heft and nuance.

Patriotism is not just about the country that I live in, it is about what my country represents. It is about the values, the morals, the nobility of thought that we have known and grown up with and admired about our country, in the freedom struggle. We know that we were bigger people, we did not wrest our country from the British through force, we fought for it with non-violence as a principle, that has been our gift to the world. We fought with dignity and we won our freedom. So, that nobility and that nobility of being bigger than the people we are standing in front of, of choosing the higher ground is very very important to our fundamental identity, it has shaped who we are. We need to strive for our country to always represent that, to have so much pride in ourselves in what we believe and the humanity that our country represents. I’d be very proud to be an Indian if all of India represented this, being bigger than drawing lines between one another because of religion and caste if we could put aside all the differences, and start being humans first.

Bhavani Iyer with Sonam Nair and Dia Mirza
Bhavani Iyer with Sonam Nair and Dia Mirza. (Source: Instagram)

Do you think OTT has empowered storytelling?

A. Absolutely! I think the OTT platform has opened up so much for writers and creators. This is one platform which is about the voice of the writing and that is the absolutely right way to go about things. In cinema, sometimes, the stars and the actors drive a project, in television it is the TRPs but in OTT the first thing that is looked at is the story, the written material. That is the foundation that brings your directors, your actors, your platform and all else. I don’t know if it is designed to be like that, but the model seems so perfect and correct. I speak for a lot of my fellow writers here, when I say that it is wonderful to be empowered like this. This empowerment is only going to bring so much better storytelling. Maybe writers now won’t have to wait for nine years or thirteen years (like I had to, for Lootera and Kaafir) to have their stories told. There is an avenue, where their stories will be told without it being populist or ticking those commercial boxes.

I feel this is not a great time just because of the abilities for all of us to tell the story that we can, but it is also a great time because the audience is so much more sensitive and receptive today. There is this ability to absorb much more than what the previous audience was being fed. And that I think is why today is so precious, storytellers really need to cherish and nourish this period so that we don’t let our audience down and we live up to what they are looking out for. This acceptance is what we need to honour and revere.

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