Entertainment

The accidental couple: The unconventional marriage of R Balki and Gauri Shinde

Gauri Shinde and R Balki are two of the most interesting directors in Bollywood today. They are also probably the busiest, which might explain why it took us a whole year to get them together for an interview. But Gauri reveals the real reason behind the delays: “I am not fond of ‘couple interviews’. I don’t want to be bracketed as his wife. We are two very different individuals and I prefer to be treated as that.” Adds Balki, breaking into laughter: “In fact, you can call us the ‘Accidental Couple’. See, I even gave you a headline there!”

We have actually spent a decade as a married couple and never felt the need to ‘unmarry’ -Gauri

Gauri may fear being overshadowed by her husband in a couple interview – women are somehow always relegated to the background – but it’s precisely their individualism as a pair that makes them perfect for an interaction of this sort. Because Gauri and Balki fly in the face of received wisdom: they thrive as a couple because of their individuality, not despite it.

Mrs and Mr

The accidental couple: The unconventional marriage of R Balki and Gauri Shinde

Fiercely independent Shinde and Balki are those free birds who have chosen to come back to the same nest every day for the past whole decade (Prabhat Shetty)

She is a Marathi mulgi from Pune who worked in the films department of Lowe Lintas (an ad agency) in Mumbai. He is a Tamilian who had just moved to Mumbai from Bengaluru in 2000 as the agency’s national creative director. They met in the office lift and fell in love. Or at least one half of them did.

“I was instantly attracted to her,” claims Balki. “But it was when we started working together that I got interested. From day one, she was someone I could talk to.”

Initially, I would do all things a married woman is supposed to. Then I realised my ‘me’ was getting lost in becoming an ‘us’! – Gauri

For Gauri, Balki was just the new creative director everybody was talking about. “I didn’t have any interest in bonding with him. In fact, before I met him at the office, I had seen him on a magazine cover where he was, for some strange reason, sitting on a basketball,” she laughs. “I remember smirking at that cover. To even think that I would eventually marry that guy still feels unreal!” she guffaws.

Balki on Gauri’s favoutires

  • Her favourite colour: White or light blue (Correct)
  • She loves to eat: Fish (Correct)
  • Her favourite song: It changes every week. If I like what she likes, she changes her like! (Correct)
  • Her favourite movie: The Hours, closely followed by Blue Valentine. (Correct)
  • The word she uses most often: Stupid, for others. She has a much stronger word for me! (Wrong! Gauri’s answer: ‘So dumb’ and ‘Fantastic’!)
  • Her favourite place to hang out in Mumbai: Olive Bar & Kitchen. (Correct)
  • She loves to wear: Anything loose and airy. (Correct)
  • The dish you cook that’s her favourite: She likes the pasta I make. (Correct)

Still, as time passed, they found themselves dating each other. “We had similar tastes, at least on a macro level, but it would not be totally honest if we said that movies brought us together,” says Balki. “On our first date, we watched Dushman (1998) and Zubeidaa (2001) back to back. Movies were just an excuse to spend more time together.”

“But we do love movie marathons. We went to the Venice Film Festival to do just that!” Gauri chips in.

In 2007, the same year Balki made his Bollywood debut with Cheeni Kum, he and Gauri got married. Not because they particularly wanted to, but because all their friends were marrying, and their parents pushed for it.

“You can call it a moment of weakness when we succumbed to societal pressure,” says Balki. “But just as there was no pressing need to marry, there wasn’t any to not marry either. We weren’t able to get away from each other. We’d take off, but eventually come back to each other. So I thought, why not?”

Gauri on Balki’s favourites

  • His favourite colour: Black (Correct)
  • And his favourite food: Pongal and most spicy vegetarian food. (Wrong! Balki’s answer: Andhra food)
  • Name his favourite movie: English Vinglish (Correct)
  • His most used word: Superb! (Wrong! According to Balki, it is: Rubbish)
  • In Mumbai, he loves to hang out here: His office room. (Correct)
  • His favourite clothing: Black T-shirt and a pair of jeans. (Correct)
  • The dish you cook that is his favourite: Sabudana khichri. (Wrong! Balki says: Anything she cooks, when that day comes, I will love!)

“Now, we have actually spent a decade as a married couple and never felt the need to ‘unmarry’!” laughs Gauri. “What’s kept me in this marriage is that I don’t feel married. If I felt that, I’d have felt suffocated and looked for a way out. When you are married, you burden each other with expectations, duties, responsibilities…I don’t have those pressures.”

Balki is less cynical about marriage as an institution. “Marriage in itself is never claustrophobic,” he says. “People in it tend to make it so by putting down rules for each other.”

Open spaces

Gauri and Balki cherish their individuality as much as they cherish each other’s. To Gauri, this verse by poet Kahlil Gibran sums up their relationship the best:

Let there be spaces in your togetherness
…stand together, yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.

The accidental couple: The unconventional marriage of R Balki and Gauri Shinde

Although they believe in being their own person, neither make any conscious effort to do so. “It is the way we both are. I actually don’t know how it works,” says Gauri (Prabhat Shetty)

“I respect her space and she respects mine,” says Balki. Gauri interjects, “But sometimes I do intrude! And he lets me!” Maybe their nine-year age gap works in their favour. “He is older, but I am wiser. He is an early bloomer and I am a late bloomer. So it works out fine for us,” says Gauri. This explains why Gauri has been slow with her movies. While the recently released Padman (2018) is Balki’s fifth film, Gauri has just done two so far. “I always wanted to make movies, but seeing him slog on his first, I got a bit nervous. It took a lot of pushing from him for me to eventually write a draft of English Vinglish (2012).”

I might travel the world on my own, but he is the person I always come back to… he is home! -Gauri

Even the films they make reflect their individuality. “Although we have similar sensibilities, the difference is in the approach,” says Balki. “While I tend to take up a big idea or an issue and try to simplify it into a small little film, Gauri takes up a small little idea, or a nuance of an emotion, and makes it into a big film. If I am asked to pick one movie that I love, I would choose her English Vinglish over my movies.”

I have no clue how we are surviving as a married couple; we are raising two cats together, and that’s all we have in common! – Balki

They often disagree as well. “Even when we are doing our own films, the other one is always involved in the process. When it comes to movies, it is not about his feelings or mine, it is about the movie,” says Gauri.

The accidental couple: The unconventional marriage of R Balki and Gauri Shinde

That these two are still madly in love with each other is evident even in their constant squabble and bickering. While Gauri enthusiastically cuts into Balki’s train of thoughts time and again, he patiently waits for his turn with a half-amused smile (Prabhat Shetty)

Who’s the hero?

If the couple sounds too good to be true, be aware that their marriage has evolved over time. “Initially, I would do all things a married woman is supposed to, my life became about his life. But slowly, I realised that my ‘me’ was getting lost in the attempt become an ‘us’. It took some time to come to this mental space where we both are happy being ourselves,” says Gauri.

Gauri’s Storyline

  • Gauri Shinde moved to Mumbai from Pune after working with director Siddharth Kak, and made over 100 ad films. Her short film, Oh Man! (2001), was selected for the Berlin International Film Festival. Gauri’s first feature film was English Vinglish (2012). It garnered many ‘best directorial debut’ awards that year. In 2016, Gauri released the self-assured Dear Zindagi, which dealt with the issue of mental health.

She points out that it is very important for every person, especially women, to find their own passion and calling. “You have to be the hero of your life. That makes a world of difference,” she says. Adds Balki, “It is when you are individually happy that you can be happy together.” Having said all that, it isn’t as though Gauri and Balki have made an effort to maintain their individuality; each just happens to be strong in her or his own right. “It is the way we both are,” smiles Gauri.

“We have no clue how we are surviving as a married couple. We defy all the rules that make any conventional couple. We watch films together, we are raising two cats together, and that’s all that we have in common!” adds Balki.

Balki before Bollywood

  • R Balki was at the top of the advertising industry before he quit (in 2016) to focus on filmmaking. He made his directorial debut in Bollywood with an unconventional love story: Cheeni Kum (2007). This was followed by the nuanced film Paa (2009). While his next two films, Shamitabh (2015) and Ki & Ka (2016) didn’t do very well, this year, his social drama, Padman, has put him back on top.

They both love movies, but while Balki can easily switch from an Iranian movie to a Rowdy Rathore, Gauri is a little more discerning in her choices. They both love to eat out, but Balki is a vegetarian and Gauri is a carnivore. They both love to travel, but she loves to wander around, and Balki needs specific things to do.

Gauri often does solo trips, but Balki rarely travels alone and even if he does, he misses her. “She loves it when she is on a holiday and I am missing her, and she also loves it when I am away and missing her,” laughs Balki. “I might travel the world on my own, but he is the person I always come back to. He is my best friend, and my entire family. He is home!” says Gauri.

“I don’t understand myself properly. But I really understand Gauri,” says Balki. “If I’m thinking about a person, it is usually her. To me, love is when you choose to invest time and emotions in a person. A house becomes a home when you invest your emotions in it.”

The accidental couple: The unconventional marriage of R Balki and Gauri Shinde

Childless by choice, Gauri Shinde and R Balki are happy co-parenting their films, and their two cats, Mao and Pao (Prabhat Shetty)

Baby questions

One thing both Gauri and Balki were certain about before marrying was that there’d be no offspring. “I really don’t understand why we need to have a child,” says Balki. “Why are we so hell-bent on seeing a smaller version of ourselves? Also, although I love kids, to become parents you need to be selfless.

And I think maybe intrinsically I am a selfish person…”

I don’t understand why we need to have a child. Why are we hell-bent of seeing a smaller version of ourselves? – Balki

“On the contrary, I think you are more selfless than most parents I know,” says Gauri. “You love your nieces and nephews so much…that is you being selfless!”

“Maybe, it is not about being selfish or selfless,” muses Balki. “It is just that I never had the urge to have my own kids. I am open to the idea of adopting. But the penny has to drop.”

Gauri also loves children and is immensely attached to the kids of her friends and her two brothers. Yet, she is averse to the idea of having her own biological child. She says, “I don’t have the courage to bring a baby into this world. Having a kid would be like having a part of my heart living outside my body. I am too paranoid for that. To see your child suffer even a tiny bit requires a crazy amount of strength. Hats off to those parents who do this well. I envy their courage.”

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From HT Brunch, March 25, 2018

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