Will the real Homi please stand up?


Being Cyrus made Homi Adajania an indie darling. Cocktail, his latest film, is tame, regressive and typically Bollywood. Maybe, but show me the money, he tells Nishita Jha

High on life Homi Adajania
High on life Homi Adajania

HOMI ADAJANIA leans out from the balcony of his mother’s home in Breach Candy, watching the sun set over the sea, and laughs uproariously at the suggestion that spending his childhood in a sea-facing flat might make him a privileged brat. Five days after the release of his second film, Cocktail, Adajania has reason to laugh as the box office figures climb spectacularly. Yesterday, he was out shopping for groceries when a car blaring music pulled over next to him and a group of well-dressed party boys got out to shake his hand and told him how much they loved his film. This morning, he met a girl who confessed she’d seen Cocktail thrice. “I told her, don’t watch it a fourth time; see a shrink instead,” he deadpans.

Leaning back on a sofa and draining his coffee, 41-year-old Adajania is tanned, tattooed, well-built and, as his Facebook shows, almost always dressed in shorts. He could be Gautam, Saif Ali Khan’s character inCocktail, who lounges about in his apartment “oozing charm”, but that would be unfair to Adajania, to the work he has done. His first film, Being Cyrus (2005), was a dark comedy in which Adajania used much the same cast as Cocktail (except for Deepika Padukone and Diana Penty) with way more panache. The film set a precedent for both experimental cinema in India and for mainstream actors, like Saif, looking for a creative release from the Bollywood norm.

By now, Adajania’s reasons for making Cocktail, a good-looking but vapid film, have become something of a favourite topic for the queue at the popcorn counter.Cyrus fans believe it to be a momentary lapse of reason, or alternately, a clever way to fund the pile of twisted scripts he has in his head somewhere. Others believe he’s sold out to commerce, washed his hands of real storytelling. His own justification, that he chose to make the film because the idea of making a typical Bollywood love story terrified him, seems inauthentic at first. What could possibly be challenging or exciting about recreating already tired tropes?

First, the figures: Being Cyrus, made on a budget of Rs 3.5 crore, earned twice that amount at the box office within two weeks. Cocktail, the story of a wild child (Veronica, played by Deepika Padukone), whose introverted best friend (Meera, played by Diana Penty) falls in love with her boyfriend, Gautam, was made on a budget of Rs 35 crore and has already made over Rs 66 crore on its second weekend. The theatres, incidentally, are still packed.

Being Cyrus fans believeCocktail to be Adajania’s momentary lapse of reason, or alternately, a clever way to fund the pile of twisted scripts he has in his head

Reviewers who adored Being Cyrus for its freshness have been rueing Cocktail’s predictability, its Bollywood suspension of logic, its regressive storyline. There is particular umbrage at what the love triangle implies: that if you are a girl who wears small clothes, likes to drink and enjoys a roll in the hay, you will end up alone. Adajania’s first film certainly implied that he liked strong female characters. But in his second, the gorgeous and headstrong Veronica has no qualms about her boyfriend introducing her best friend instead of her to his mother because the best friend seems more ‘Indian’. When Veronica realises she loves him despite his disregard, she begins to dress like the insipid Meera in order to woo him. Meera herself does little except gasp, weep, smile and pray through the film. Saif is at his contrived worst in Cocktail, playing the smooth-talking man-child we have seen in half a dozen earlier films. Cocktail has its moments: a refreshing sexual candour free of double entendres; a more nuanced female friendship than mainstream Indian cinema has explored so far; and on occasion, raw, believable emot ion. Adajania says wild Veronica is the hero, because she realises she can live without a boyfriend. It’s a message easily lost in translation.

There is some truth to each version of the story about why Adajania made Cocktail. There are twisted scripts in his head, which sound un-Bollywood but not necessarily low budget. There is Finding Fanny Fernandez, a Konkani-English story about five old friends who embark on a 20-minute roadtrip in search of love and end up lost for two days. There is also a script, which Adajania describes as “sex, drugs and rock’n’roll in 1847”, a tale of land pirates in a lawless India. There is also the book he was working on (when Kersi Khambatta came to him with the script for Being Cyrus), a story about the last five men in the world, who check themselves into a mental asylum to keep their sanity intact. Perhaps the most fortuitous fallout of Cocktail is the fact that producers have woken up to the fact that Adajania can make films that make money, not just cinema for the festival circuits. A few days ago, Yash Chopra sent him a message, congratulating him on a love story beautifully told. “I could have made another Being Cyrus, but where’s the high in doing something you already know you can do?”

Getting into the skin Adajania with Diana Penty on the sets of Cocktail
Getting into the skin Adajania with Diana Penty on the sets of Cocktail

Adajania’s life experiences have prepared him to take on the unknown rather than fear it. From being a college student who dabbled in making advertisements (he grew up playing rugby with admen Mahesh Mathai and Johnny Pinto, as well as UTV’s founder member Deven Khote), Adajania’s easygoing life was transformed when his father, a retired soldier and president of the Indian Boxing Federation, died. “Any love I have for storytelling came from my father. He travelled all over the world for work, and would return with stories that grew more colourful every time he retold them,” he says. While being a glorified gofer and occasional model was fun for Adajania, a salary of Rs 1,500 was no longer enough to pay for bar bills, let alone take care of his family.

He spent a year working at a petrol pump next to a red light district in Mumbai. While he counts this exposure to the underbelly as a valuable life experience (one night, local thugs chopped off his boss’ fingers over an argument), the drudgery convinced him that he could not take up a regular job. Adajania describes the years leading up to his 30s as time spent being an ‘official bum’: scuba diving, snow-boarding, mountain-climbing, saving up to buy one-way tickets to foreign lands and missing the boat back home, living in caves. He made only enough money to survive for a few weeks, before looking for the next odd-job. “I knew that if my back was against the wall, I could make enough to survive, and that freed me,” he says. It’s not a life that prepared him for making Hindi films. “Whenever I write a story that draws on my own experiences, producers feel it’s too risky to take a chance on,” he says.

‘Whenever I write a story that draws on my own experiences, producers begin to feel it is too risky to take a chance on,’ says Homi Adajania

There are shades of Adajania everywhere inCocktail (“Veronica is basically a female version of me,” he says), but the script is Imtiaz Ali’s and the film owes its fashion-forward edginess to his wife, the stylist and Vogue Editor Anaita Shroff Adajania. “I always knew I could tell a story,” Adajania says, “but Being Cyrus was the first time I was doing that with a visual medium. If that was like being paid to go to film school, Cocktail was a paid vacation.”

There are things he would do differently now — edit the disjointed beginning, find closure faster. But Adajania maintains that the story connects with the young people watching it, even if not with the “nitpicking, stereotype-hunters”. Adman Prahlad Kakkar, who worked with Adajania when he was just starting out, agrees, “While the story in Cocktail isn’t great, how he treats his characters really comes out in the film.” There were days when Adajania would go to bed emotionally exhausted because one of his characters was heartbroken. “Writing is a lonely job, but when you direct you carry everybody’s vulnerabilities within you,” he says. Naseeruddin Shah, who acted in Adajania’s first film, argues that while perhaps Adajania will have to “decide whether he wants to make song-and-dance rom-coms or dark, me a ningful films”, this is something he’ll slowly work out for himself.

If Adajania’s irreverence seems surprising in a sea of filmmakers who insist on being earnest even about tripe, it is explained through a story from Adajania’s now defunct blog. In 2007, an Italian art house was looking for a fakir who’d bury himself in the sand for three hours at a stretch, as part of a live art installation at the biennale in Venice. Having spent all the money the art house sent him, Adajania realised that real fakirs were not interested in funded trips to Venice. He found instead, an out-of work, alcoholic painter from Jogeshwari, who made a living burying himself in the sand for tourists at Juhu beach. The two went to Venice, where the now bearded painter buried himself in the sand for a week while Adajania explained transcendental meditation and “other weed-induced nonsense” to mesmerised crowds. Adajania made enough money to fund his next adventure and the painter managed to send his children to school. “I’m still figuring the moral out,” he says, ending the conversation with a “cool yoga move” he’s recently learnt. “You’d better save me if I fall,” he says, raising himself to a near-perfect handstand. He doesn’t need my help. Homi Adajania has perfected the art of landing on his feet.

with inputs from Gae Emilio Leanza

Nishita Jha is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka. 
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Gae Emilio Leanza is an intern with Tehelka.
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