Published: Verve Magazine, Feature, Verve Duo, September 2013
Photograph by Tina Dehal

He is the director of the award-winning Udaan and the lyrical Lootera. She is the Bollywood still photographer who captures candid frames with alacrity. Vikramaditya and Ishika Motwane indulge in light-hearted chatter on life and love


Before you see her, you can hear the peals of laughter. There is hardly a moment when Ishika Mohan Motwane isn’t smiling or giggling and 37-year-old Vikramaditya Motwane is still helplessly smitten. There are easy kisses, looks and caresses between them, none of which require prompting. Verve photographer for the day, Tina Dehal, is a childhood buddy of the Motwanes and it’s not long before we are regaled with stories about how Vikram had a huge crush on Ishika in school; Ishika claimed it was for her cheese sandwiches and how she balked when he wrote her a love letter that she read on the basketball court. Maybe it had something to do with her being a pilot’s daughter, and him being obsessed with aeroplanes. The courtship lasted awhile, there were looks exchanged through classroom windows…all on the hallowed grounds of Jamnabhai Narsee School, Juhu. And they have been together ever since, married for the last eight years.

“WE DRIFTED APART WHEN WE WERE AROUND 21. I was working on my first film, assisting Sanjay Leela Bhansali on Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999),” says Vikram. Ishika pipes in, “The long hours, barely seeing him – I was still in college, happy-go-lucky – we drifted apart in personalities as well.” In that one year, Vikram partied hard while Ishika took up a course in photography in Los Angeles (USA). She imagined combining her love for animals into a life at National Geographic. When they met again after a year, they knew they wanted to be together forever. It was like coming home to someone familiar, yet discovering someone new. Convincing her family that “the bad boy, who smokes and drinks”, had sobered was another battle. “I wasn’t very appreciated in her house. Until I gave her a ring I was banned.”

IT WAS SANJAY LEELA BHANSALI WHO GAVE THEM BOTH THEIR FIRST BREAK. Aware of their love story – Ishika once called up Bhansali while he was shooting for Hum Dil… in Budapest to say bye to Vikram before she left for LA – he was rue to keep them apart. Discovering her talent in still photography, he brought her on the set of Devdas (2002) and she has now got a solid repertoire of 12 films, leaving her whimsical dream of swimming with whales and dolphins far behind. On working with her on both his films, Vikram says, “She’s not my actor or cinematographer or a crew member that I may end up clashing with at some point of time. Our jobs are parallel. There is never a situation where I think she’s done something that I didn’t like. We don’t take work home, and even if I am short with her, she’s quick to forget or she just laughs.”

“I POKE MY NOSE IN EVERYTHING!” Vikram smiles indulgently at Ishika’s unabashed statement; the crew members on set are quite accustomed to it. “But there is a lot of absorption she does for me. If I mumble something, she hears it and she takes care of it. In Udaan (2010), we didn’t have a big team to manage continuity, so if I wondered what was wrong with the character’s hair, suddenly she would just fix it for me. It’s like having an extra AD on set – she knows what I want and she’ll make sure it’s done. Also, she tells me exactly what she feels – she is my biggest critic, like my mom. I may not like it, but it’s something you need.”

AND YET, SHE IS NON-INTRUSIVE, unlike the old-school still photographers. “She stealthily moves up to where I am sitting, waits for me to go ‘Khhh’ for ‘Cut’ and at that moment, her camera rapidly goes click-click-click-click. Or before ‘Action’. Sometimes she shoots in between the shot. There’s never a big production about it, she’s taken a photo without us even knowing it.” Ishika marks ruefully that most people don’t realise the importance of a still until much later – when they are using it in marketing or during distribution. “For Slumdog Millionaire (2008), when they were doing a brochure and sending it out to Cannes, it was sweet, I got a little note saying, ‘You helped sell our film.’”

“HE’S EXPERIMENTED MOST OF HIS FREE TIME WITH TAKING VIDEOS OF ME.” Vikram has hopes that she may agree to act one day. “As a director’s riyaaz, how do you practise? On 26 July 2005 it was flooded, we had just got married, sitting at home with no electricity…we were rolling a torch around and spontaneously decided to make a horror film. She’s a great actress. Shooting her first karva chauth is actually one of the best things I have done.”

THE JOURNEY’S BEEN LONG AND TOUGH. While his debut film Udaan hit instant success, sending shock reverberations through the industry, Vikram has faced many moments of frustration waiting over a decade for his moment in time, doing everything from shooting songs, sound design, editing, writing, cinematography…. “I was a gung-ho kind of guy. Anyone I knew who needed something, I would raise my hand saying, ‘I’ll do it.’ I wanted to direct very early, but you need to do the grunt work. When it was happening, I was really angry. I could see guys around me making films, making bad films and I am thinking, ‘Come on, give me a chance!’ But I have no regrets. I’m glad it’s taken this long.”

WHEN NO ONE WAS READY TO BANK MONEY ON VIKRAM’S UDAAN, his friend, Anurag Kashyap stepped in as producer. They’ve been an ego-free, solid writing team – Vikram finds it easier to think and write in English, Kashyap converts the screenplay into Hindi for him, making suggestions along the way. “I get someone of his talent and objectivity and it really works.”

“I DID FEEL PARANOID WHILE SHOOTING A BIGGER-BUDGET LOOTERA (2013). I’d watch a promo of another film on TV while eating dinner and I would think, ‘This is commercial cinema, and what the hell am I doing?’ I was quite miserable shooting this film. I didn’t want to make it.” Laughs. “Not really, but I kept second-guessing myself. I’m so glad I made it, because you need to dive into the deep end. I want to make a bigger film than I have made previously. It’s so easy to get stuck in this industry as ‘that director who makes 5-crore films’; I’ve seen it happen.” Is that the right motivation? “No, it’s not. But that’s not my motivation.”

“MY MOTIVATION IS SIMPLY TELLING STORIES. Challenging the audience, challenging yourself. Success is useful if it allows me to make the films I want to make in a larger budget. I don’t think I’ve changed as a person – and I don’t think I will, because I have people (looks fondly at Ishika) who keep me stable.”

“EMOTION IS WHAT WORKS. Whether it’s what I do, or what Sanjay (Bhansali) does or Rohit Shetty does. I do like that sense of high opera and high drama: approach even a small story as if you are telling a bigger story in the world. I liked Udaan, because the small story is mounted on a larger scale with the music and the heightened scenes. You wish it were you. And that is commercial cinema.”

“I’VE BEEN CALLED A COCONUT, hard on the outside, soft on the inside. She’ll cry 20 times a year, I’ll cry once in two years.” As Vikram pauses, Ishika steps in. “He is very emotional, very sensitive. Not touchy, but he observes and absorbs a lot. If I am upset and I’m trying not to show it, he can tell. It’s wonderful in a relationship. And I know when he’ll want to cry. Those points – the moments of struggle, when he really wanted to make it, and it finally reached that peak. He broke down – because he read the script of Ayan’s (Mukerji) movie I was working on, Wake Up Sid (2009), which he really liked. What I admire about him is that he’s had those long years of struggle and he’s not bitter at all. He was unhappy, angry, but never bitter.”

“THE BEST FILMS FOR ME ARE THE ONES THAT HAVE MORE THAN A LOVE STORY IN THEM; so a Pyaasa (1957) or a Bandini (1963) or a Guide (1965). We don’t make those now. I did try to put a girl in Udaan because producers suggested it. But I couldn’t make it work like that – it’s actually a love story between two boys (brothers).” Ishika says, “I grew up watching Gregory Peck and Jimmy Stewart stuff. I had to catch up a lot on movies…I would ask Vikram not to put something complicated on and he put on A Separation (2011). I was riveted…. I howled at the end and whacked him ten times. You totally buy into that kind of emotion. It’s so real.”

As are they. They may have a long way to go; they may have not travelled as much as they’d like to because they “have been broke for a long time.” But there’s something about their confidence in each other, their complete sense of togetherness that makes one believe.