Having carved a niche for herself as a screenwriter in Hindi cinema, Kanika Dhillon is determined to create strong and fearless women characters.

For the longest time we have primarily had male oriented films with cardboard female characters in Hindi cinema but all that has changed in the recent times with the emergence of a new breed of writers on the scene. Kanika Dhillon finds herself at the forefront of this remarkable turnaround, having carved a niche for herself as a screenwriter determined to create strong and fearless women characters: be it Sweety in Size Zero (2015), Rumi in Marmarziyaan (2018), Mukku in Kedarnath (2018), Bobby in Judgementall Hai Kya (2019) or Rani in Haseen Dillruba (2021), her latest offering. Other than her deep involvement as a screenwriter, Kanika also served as a creative producer on Manmarziyaan and as a co-producer on Haseen Dillruba.
In this interview, she talks about the global success of Haseen Dillruba, her personal stand on arranged marriages, her constant efforts to challenge the status quo as an artist, and her association with Taapsee Pannu.
Excerpts

Q. Recently Ted Sarandos, the co-CEO and Chief Content Officer of Netflix, revealed that Haseen Dillruba reached top 10 in 22 countries. What do you attribute the film’s global success to?
A. Firstly, I am totally delighted and very grateful and humbled that Netflix as a platform has been so happy with the way the film has performed. The fact that it’s been trending in 22 countries means that it has crossed borders, cultural and traditional boundaries, which kind of divide us. Also, I have been told that the film is being loved in the South as well which means that it has also managed to cross the North-South divide. As an Indian, I am delighted as usually the taste of stories that one likes in the North is very different from what one likes in the South.
I have been receiving messages from those parts of the world wherein they don’t speak English. Although I can’t understand many of these messages, I can understand the love behind it. I do see the emoticons and I understand it’s a loving message. So it is exhilarating in so many ways. I think the emotion behind Haseen Dillruba, it did travel far and wide. I feel the film engages and entertains the audience at a very basic level and I believe that is what has traveled. And, of course, the characters are very relatable. They all are flawed and they all make mistakes and if there is anything that binds a human being it is to err. I think the people world over know what it is to make a mistake and then to repent for it. So the basic themes of the film are very universal.
Q. You stories indeed have a universal appeal and the rise of OTT is actually allowing your films to travel all across the globe. Do you think that had your earlier films such as Manmarziyaan and Judgementall Hai Kya directly released on OTT they would have tasted greater success?
A. Well, perhaps, my films such as Marmarziyaan would have travelled far and wide with a Netflix release. I can’t second guess because I don’t really know as I haven’t been there. But, I must say that I found a voice as a writer through Manmarziyaan and so it’s an important milestone in my life. It kind of affected people in a very deep manner and so I am very happy with the way Manmarziyaan was received. But, yes, it could have had a broader and more global audience if it had also released simultaneously on Netlfix and other platforms.
Q. Other than the universal motifs, you have also presented a very interesting critique on the idea of arranged marriage in India in Haseen Dillruba. What is your personal stand on arranged marriages?
A. It’s actually very heartening that the film’s exploration of the culturally rooted themes such as arranged marriage too have been enjoyed by the audiences across the borders. Usually, we romanticize arranged marriages in India. As a writer, I am quite fascinated by the whole aspect of arranged marriage because I do feel that bringing too strangers together is a very transactional approach that has nothing to do with emotional compatibility or their sexual compatibility, which are the basic keystones required for a happy married life. But we don’t really measure the boy or the girl in those parameters.
The only things that are measured in arranged marriages are very transactional kind where it’s about the caste, color, physical appearance, pay package, etc. And yet on that basis we want the boy and the girl to have a happy married life. So, there is a lot of dichotomy and messiness in that. Of course, in real life there will be roadblocks in it because you can’t always get lucky. As a nation we are obsessed with marriages and arranged marriage is right smack at the centre of it. As a writer, I want to explore that obsession. Is it as romanticized as we see it in Hindi cinema and in popular culture? Perhaps not! Maybe in really it’s not all that hunky-dory. But I am somewhere in between. I want to romanticize it. I want to believe in a happily ever after. However, the realist in me also wants to explore the difficulties that will come because the system is flawed to begin with.
Q. Often the themes you choose to write about tend to unsettle people. Where do you derive the courage to constantly challenge the established norms and practices?
A. Well, some of my content makes you uncomfortable because it questions that status quo at a very basic level. In Manmarziyaan, it is about the sanctity of marriage. Kedarnath is about interfaith love. Judgementall Hai Kya is about how mental health issues are portrayed. The whole idea behind Judgementall is that one should talk about mental health issues. So, the kind of work that I do usually invites a lot of debate, discussion, discourse. And, I am very happy about it because I do feel that as an artist I do write about things that I deeply care about. If some people are not feeling uncomfortable then perhaps I am not doing my job correctly. I have graduated from St Stephen College, Delhi, St Xavier’s College, Mumbai and the London School of Economics and the education that I have had compels me to not be okay with the status quo and the not be okay with the things that I feel are not perhaps correct.
Q. There is something magical about your association with Taapsee Pannu. What is it that makes it tick?
A. I think Taapsee and I have unexplainably found this chemistry with each other. And we are always very eager to collaborate with each other (her as an artist and me as a writer / creator) because we also are kind of similar in that we are both outspoken and opinionated. We both believe in taking a stand when it needs to be taken. And then it transcends into our art as well because when I write characters that are quite risqué I know that it’s going to make my artist think twice as there is a risk factor involved. I just feel that when I kind of try and push the envelope a lot I instinctively feel that Taapse will get what I am saying and then she will take the risk. So the symphony happens.
Even while in Rumi’s case when I narrated the script to Taapsee for Manmarziyaan she was a little unsure about it at first. So that’s when I told her, “Taapsee, you have already done everything that you can as an actor. So it’s time for you to do something that you are not comfortable with. That’s when you want to convince yourself and the audiences and that’s the challenge.”
She burst into laughter. I think, as an actor, Taapsee has the courage to take the risk and try and do it as convincingly as she can. I believe the best way to bring out a performance from an actor is to take time out of their comfort zone. That’s when you see the magic.
Q. Tell us about Raksha Bandhan and your other upcoming projects?
A. There are a few interesting things in the pipeline but I can’t talk about them right now. Of course, Raksha Bandhan has already been announced and I am very excited about it.
I am co-writing it with Himanshu Sharma and Aanand L. Rai is directing it. Akshay Kumar and Bhumi Pednekar are playing the leads.

Murtaza Ali Khan is an award-winning Indian critic / journalist who has been covering entertainment for the last 10 years