No one-film wonders: Indie directors and the struggles of filmmaking

  • Ananya Ghosh, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Feb 07, 2016 15:33 IST
Their debut films not only put India back on the world cinema map, but also made money at the box office. Will they manage to meet the benchmarks they have set for themselves in their next ventures?

The first step is the hardest, they say. But it’s the second step that decides the course of the journey. In the last three years, independent cinema has seen some interesting debuts by first-time filmmakers. It started with The Lunchbox in 2013, last year we had Masaan, Titli, Killa and Court. The films wowed critics at top international festivals, and back home, they attracted both niche and mainstream viewers.

It’s now a moment of reckoning. Can these directors follow up with films that are as good, if not better? Or will they go down in the annals of cinema as one-off successes? The heat is on!

Kanu Behl

Kanu Behl; Debut: Titli (2015); Next film: Agra (Photo by Satish Bate/ Hindustan Times)

Titli, a disturbing tale of crime and violence in Delhi’s underbelly, premiered at Cannes’s Un Certain Regard, a section that encourages young talent, in 2014 and became the toast of the festival circuit last year. Back home, it made blockbuster-weary audiences return to more realistic cinema. Behl, who has just been awarded the Best First Foreign Film by the French Syndicate of Cinema Critics for Titli, has already started working on the draft of his second project, Agra. He insists that this time, it will be a gore-free affair.

Read: Titli review

What is Agra about?
It is about a crazy young man who works in a call centre, is madly in love with a girl, and is desperately trying to prove to his family that she actually exists. He wants to build a room on his terrace for her. It is essentially a film about space, both physical and mental. We are always struggling for space. Here, I am trying to see how this affects and shapes our lives.

Do you think you have found the formula to make a commercially-viable independent film?
I think what worked for Titli was its ethos. The idea was not to make an intellectual film, but to make something that was Indian, easy to understand and yet take you to places in your head where you haven’t been. For me, great films aren’t about stories but characters. Also, to find something truly entertaining and get yourself heard, you have to break through the noise. We have engaged the audience in the same fashion for quite a long time. It is time for new commercial cinema to come in.

Do you think the success of Titli will make getting funds easier for Agra?
Having a successful film in your kitty makes things both easier and tougher. Yes, it is easier to approach people for funds as you have proved your credentials. But your second film is always a bit scarier because now you want to push more boundaries. Also, I think the independent cinema bubble is actually bursting pretty quickly. For anyone trying to do something that doesn’t fit into the box, it is tough.

Would it be stylistically similar to Titli?
I don’t want to get stuck in any particular style. If I make 10 films I want to be adept in 10 different styles of filmmaking to do justice to each. I think the auteur theory is a bit outdated. A film is made because the film wants to talk to you. Not because the director wants to talk to you through it.

Don’t you think the audience would be expecting another dark story?
If they are expecting a certain kind of cinema, that is great. I would love to dash their expectations! Whatever little periods I had when I tried to subscribe to someone else’s approval, they were disastrous. The blood and gore in Titli was not for effect, it was required to tell the story.

What did you learn from Titli that you intend to use in Agra?
The biggest lesson was to keep digging into the story. I realised that the life of a film needs to exist beyond you. It requires time to evolve. You have to be open to changing the script, the cast and the story. First you need to find the core of the film, which is that point when you say, ‘Oh my God! I hadn’t thought about this in this way’. Then all you need to do is build the body.

Amit Masurkar

Amit Masurkar; Debut: Sulemani Keeda (2014); Next film: Newton (Photo by Vidya Subramanian/ Hindustan Times)

Masurkar’s debut film, Sulemani Keeda, is a 2014 slacker comedy dealing with two wannabe Bollywood scriptwriters and their escapades. It became the talking point of the festival circuit and went on to win over the audience when it was released by PVR Director’s Rare in several cities. Now Masurkar is about to begin shooting his second film, Newton.

What is Newton about?
It is about a man who is obsessed with finding order in chaos. He is an election official whose aim is to conduct a free and fair election in a Naxalite area. I stumbled upon a person with that name on Facebook and thought it would be interesting to have a protagonist called Newton. Slowly, the connection between the scientist and the character began to emerge.

Sulemani Keeda’s success must have opened new doors for Newton.
After Sulemani Keeda, all the producers who called me wanted me to make an urban, fun, buddy film, similar to Keeda, but with bigger stars. But at the same time, Shiladitya Bora, CEO of Drishyam Films, had seen my earlier film and decided to put money into this one. The success of my first film helped me grab their initial attention. Keeda was made on just Rs 8.5 lakh and what you saw on screen was full paisa vasool. That also gave people the confidence to put money into my next venture.

What lessons from your first film do you plan to use in the second?
I hadn’t directed actors for more than four minutes before. So for me, Keeda was like film school. That was where I made all my mistakes, experimented with new techniques and learnt from them.

Anup Singh

Anup Singh; Debut: Qissa (2013); Next film: The Song of Scorpions

Anup Singh’s debut release Qissa - The Tale of a Lonely Ghost, starring Irrfan Khan, Tillotama Shome and Tisca Chopra, was a surreal story set in a village in Punjab during Partition. It began with a girl being brought up as a boy. The Punjabi-language film won the Netpac Award for World or International Asian Film. Singh is presently shooting his next one in the deserts of Jaisalmer. Titled The Song of Scorpions, it is a Swiss-French production and the cast includes French-Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani and industry veteran Waheeda Rehman, along with Irrfan Khan.

What is the new film about? How did you come up with the story?
The Song of Scorpions is a tale about the monstrous path that the protagonist, played by Irrfan Khan, chooses to gain possession of Nooran, played by Golshifteh Farahani. Eventually, he leaves her, but her act of vengeance has to match his savagery. The tale opens several possibilities of revenge. The escalation of violence against minorities and women in India in the last few years horrified me. I had nightmares for months. And, then, one night, these nightmares took a different form and the whole film flashed before my eyes. This film is my dream in every sense of the word.

How difficult was it to zero in on your next project?
It took me 12 years to make Qissa. Along the way, I had also written a number of scripts. But as soon as The Song of Scorpions came to me, it overpowered me. It told me clearly that it had to be made now! If there is one thing that saddened me, it was that no Indian producer was ready to join us on this venture.

Has the success of Qissa helped in terms of roping in actors?
There is no doubt that Qissa had a very strong influence in allowing me to make The Song of Scorpions. Without Qissa behind me, I doubt I could have made a second film. Though my producers loved the script of The Song of Scorpions, I think watching Qissa gave them added confidence. The same, I think, applies to Golshifteh Farahani and Waheeda Rehman.

Has anything changed as far as getting funds are concerned?
I think producers are becoming aware that a new, exciting generation of filmmakers is emerging. But most are still reluctant to travel too far from the straight and narrow path.

Avinash Arun

Avinash Arun; Debut: Killa (2015); Next film: Boomerang. (Photo by Kunal Patil/ Hindustan Times)

Arun, who worked as the cinematographer in Masaan, also turned director last year with Killa, the coming-of-age story of an 11-year-old boy trying to come to terms with his father’s death. The Marathi film was selected for the 64th Berlin International Film Festival where it was awarded the Crystal Bear by the Children’s Jury. It was also named the Best Feature Film in Marathi at the 62nd National Film Awards. Arun has already started working on the script of his second film, Boomerang.

Tell us about Boomerang.
The story focuses on a child who helps his father get over his childhood guilt. The idea, like that of Killa, stemmed from an incident that had occurred in my childhood. Boomerang talks about modern-day parenting and how we are going away from nature and our roots. It also raises questions about the kind of childhood we are going to give to our next generation, living in a concrete jungle, under the web of technology. Like Killa, it is not a children’s film, but a film about children.

Do you think the experience of making Killa will help you now?
Films are like your children and the laws of parenting apply here as well. You can neither compare two nor have a preferential attitude. When you are with the first child, you are more unsure and cautious. But the second child comes with his/her own challenges as well. And just as you really can’t stick to a formula or plan while rearing your child, while making a film too you don’t really know how it is going to shape up and what kind of care it will need.

Will Boomerang be stylistically different from Killa?
Even if it is not deliberate, you will always see certain characteristics of the filmmaker in his films.

Are you feeling the pressure to replicate the success story of Killa?
There is pressure, I won’t deny that. The fearlessness with which you approach your first film is always difficult to replicate in the second one.

How different will the struggle to get funds for Boomerang be now that Killa is a success?
That is just an access pass. They will meet you and listen to your script. Then the script needs to talk to them. Nothing really guarantees success, let alone the success of your previous film.

Ritesh Batra

Ritesh Batra; Debut :The Lunchbox (2013); Next film: The Sense Of An Ending

Ritesh Batra’s debut feature-length film, the Irrfan Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Nimrat Kaur-starrer The Lunchbox, is today regarded as a game-changer for Indian independent movies. The film about an innocuous lunchbox becoming the medium of communication between two strangers won the Critics Week Viewers Choice Award at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. Back home it also got the cash registers ringing at the box office where the film collected Rs 1.25 crore on the opening day.

At present Batra is in London shooting his next film, an adaptation of Julian Barnes’s Booker Prize-winning 2011 novel The Sense of an Ending that looks at the friendships formed during childhood and how they affect a person later in life. The cast of the film includes Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling, Michelle Dockery, Emily Mortimer and Harriet Walter.

Why a literary adaptation?
I read The Sense of an Ending when it won the Booker Prize and have always gone back to it. Growing up, I used to share my room with my grandfather and saw his loneliness first-hand. So such coming-of-age stories for older people speak to me. The British producers offered me the project and I couldn’t say no. It is scripted by Nick Payne, a playwright I have always adored and the ensemble cast was quite an interesting one as well.

After Lunchbox, the expectations are high. How difficult was it to zero in on the next project?
I don’t think you choose your work. Your work chooses you. The stories are there in the universe, looking for the right medium to come into the world. If you respect your craft and try to become good at it, stories will choose you to be their medium. I just look at things that come my way and see if I can bring something to them personally. The rest is just up to the process really.

How different is the fight to make the second film from the first?
I have no idea really. I have always focused on trying to write quality stories. I believe good screenplays are so few that they invariably get financed. I’d spend two to three years writing something for it to be good enough to get funded.

Chaitanya Tamhane

Chaitanya Tamhane Debut: Court (2015); Next film: Untitled. (Photo by Satish Bate/ Hindustan Times)

Tamhane’s directorial debut, Court, premiered at the 71st Venice International Film Festival in 2014, where it won the Best Film in the Horizons category. Tamhane also picked up the Luigi De Laurentiis (Lion of the Future) award. And that was just the beginning. This slice-of-life Marathi film about India’s lower court lawyers went on to win the National Award in India, where it managed to charm the multiplex audience. It was also India’s official submission for the 88th Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Tamhane is back in Mumbai from Los Angeles and has just started with the script of his next film.

Do you have a plot in mind?
I have had something in mind for about a year now but I couldn’t work on it. Everything is in a very nascent stage and I need time to see how it shapes up. It will be entirely different from Court and a bit on the crazy side. Given the fact that I work very slowly and in a methodical way, I think it will take me another eight months to a year to come up with the script.

Will there be a conscious effort to move away from Court?
There won’t be. It all depends on what interests me and what phase I am in at that particular point—physically and spiritually. I don’t care much about people’s perceptions. This idea came to me while I was doing some patchwork for Court. And since then it has been germinating in my head.

Do you think the success of Court will give your second film the right push?
I won’t call Court a success, as it is a very loaded term. But it was definitely very well-received. And that has encouraged me to carry on with what I love doing. As for funds, yes, now that a lot of people have seen my work, they will be more confident in investing in my next. But I need to find a producer who understands and relates to the project and comes on board not based on the success of Court.

Do you think it will be stylistically different from Court?
There can be no fixed formula to make a film – each comes with its own grammar. Every film is a beast of its own. I have no intention to consciously pigeonhole my style. It is a reflection of your personality and your worldview. Even I am curious to know if I have my own signature style.

Do you think independent films will eventually become the ‘nouveau mainstream’?
We are in a phase of transition where revenue models are still being experimented with and a new kind of audience is being created. People want a break from the mainstream and very diverse tastes are evolving because of the exposure to international cinema. It will always be a struggle to get audiences to the theatres to watch these kinds of films. But there are a lot more avenues to exhibit your work now like Netflix, iTunes, YouTube and video-on demand.

Neeraj Ghaywan

Neeraj Ghaywan; Debut: Masaan (2015); Next film: Untitled

Neeraj Ghaywan, who had assisted Anurag Kashyap in Gangs of Wasseypur, made his directorial debut last year with Masaan, a poignant tale of love and betrayal set in modern-day Banaras. The Indo-French production, starring Richa Chadda, Vicky Kaushal and Shweta Tripathi, was screened at the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes Film Festival where it picked the FIPRESCI Prize (given by a panel comprising film critics and film journalists from across the globe) as well as the Promising Future prize. He is wrapping up his other assignments before he starts to develop the idea for his next film.

Read: Masaan review

What is your second project?
I have a vague idea, which I am not sure how to pursue right now.

After Masaan, the expectation levels are high. Are you feeling the pressure?
There will be pressure and expectations, but I just want to make a film that will excite me. It is not that I will consciously try to up the ante or go in a particular direction with my next film. I just want to be honest with it.

Have you found the right formula to cater to the masses and the classes?
There is a conscious effort to not make very art-house films. We choose, develop and tell stories to make sure that our films are not boring. Today, even the films you see at festivals are making an effort to reach out to a greater audience. This was the strategy we took while writing Masaan and also by releasing it in India just after it won at Cannes.

Most directors develop a signature style. Have you found yours?
I am not a technique or style person. I am more of a narrative guy. I don’t get excited about a new camera or new techniques. I want the narrative to dictate where I want to take the film.

Could the success of Masaan help you get funds for your next venture?
Of course, with a successful film behind you, people will want to fund your film. But also with your first film a success, the expectations people have for your second might become difficult to handle.

On a personal level, has anything changed for you after Masaan?
The greatest feeling I took from Masaan was this: After the pack up on the last day of shoot, we were riding back on a boat to our base location in the night. I realised that these characters of Devi, Deepak, Pathak, Shalu, Sadhya, Jhonta, Sikandar, they all ceased to exist as film characters. I started to believe that characters such as these must be living in the real world somewhere. I realised I have managed to live their lifetimes and that according to me is the greatest high this film has given me. It is a strange feeling and more dear to me than any of the awards this film has won.

The writer tweets @ananya1281.

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From HT Brunch, January 31, 2016

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