Somewhere in a languid, scenic Kashmir, the director Aditya Datt takes a few days off before he goes back to work. He’s on a short, well-deserved break.
After a series of projects that received a mediocre response (Aashiq Banaya Aapna, Dil Diya Hai and Good Luck), Datt's latest directorial venture – Table No. 21 – has brought him welcome respite.
The well-produced, fast-paced thriller hit cinemas last Thursday and has gone down well with viewers and critics alike. Facebook and Twitter are abuzz with praise for the film and for Datt, who is finally in league with the big boys.
The release came hot on the heels of Dabangg 2, which made it somewhat of a risk to release a film so close to such a blockbuster.
"It was a calculated decision to release the film when we did," says Datt. "Table No. 21 is the complete opposite of Dabangg 2. I knew the audience would have already seen Dabangg 2 and would be keen for something different. The film would appeal to people who want something different. Not just different, but also relatable. The kind of response we got is amazing and is proof that if something is good, people will see it."
The film – produced by Vicky Rajani and Sunil Lulla and distributed by Eros International – stars the Bollywood veteran Paresh Rawal, the TV star Rajeev Khandelwal and the relative newbie Tena Desae.
The story starts with a working-class couple – Vivaan (Khandelwal) and Siya (Desae) – embarking on an all-expenses-paid trip to a resort in Fiji. There, they meet Mr Khan (Rawal), the owner of the resort, who makes them an offer they can’t refuse: the chance to participate in a “game show” and win an astronomical sum of money. The game seems pretty benign and straightforward at first – truthfully answer some questions and complete some tasks. However, it quickly devolves into a bizarre spine-chiller.
Datt was fascinated well before the casting stage.
“I don’t need to say anything about Paresh [Rawal],” Datt states. “He’s a great actor. Always has been. For ages, he was known as a negative actor and then he started doing comic roles. He emulated the comic persona so well that people forgot he used to do negative roles. When we were thinking of who would play Mr Khan, we needed someone who has that amazing, menacing power. He said yes to the film on just the storyline without even seeing the entire script.”
Khandelwal was approached next for the role of Vivaan.
“When I read the story and looked into the role, I saw that it was immensely challenging … maybe even out of my comfort zone,” admits Khandelwal, who is best known for his suave persona on the small screen. “It took me a full 24 hours of ‘should I, shouldn’t I’ to finally say yes. I just couldn’t resist, myself, because the subject was very topical and the story was so gripping.”
Desae came next.
“I wanted a newcomer to play the role of Siya,” says Datt. “Lots of things unfold and her character takes such a U-turn. There are so many shades to Siya that I didn’t want to cast somebody with a set image. I wanted the audience to go in blind.”
“My character in the film is very relatable,” says Desae. “When I looked at the role, I really liked that it was a strong character. Furthermore, the film had a great team – Paresh Rawal was in the cast, Aditya as director and Eros International distributing it – it was the perfect package.
“So what if it does not feature big-name stars like other films? A film does not necessarily have to be star-driven to be successful. There are so many stories to be told. Give the audience a good story-driven film and they will take it.”
"You must watch this film," insists Datt. "There are films that you watch and then forget, and there are films that you watch in the theatre and then take home with you; the kind you think about for days. Table No. 21 is the latter kind."