Monday 17 October 2011

Rewinding to DNIWER (Part II)

Once Ketan had given the go ahead, we went into the all important task of kick-starting the film. The thing about being from a film school is that you are never really short of technicians. I had to make a few calls and I was all good to go.

My good friend Sudhakar Yakkanti flew down from Hyderabad to shoot the film, Suvir Nath agreed to share the editing burden with Neeraj, Dara Singh agreed to do the sound while his wife Dahilya was gracious enough to do the styling and help the Art Director Amit Tankaria out with the production design. No money was discussed since I didn’t have any and I owe it to them for never short changing me on the quality inspite of a measly budget.

In film making, my view is that the Director is merely a nominal head. A film starts with the script. Post that, every little thing that somebody else does, adds to taking the film a notch higher or lower than the written word. Rewind, I feel, was a complicated film to make, but every team member added just that right amount of effort and creativity to try and take it beyond the basic material.

Listed below is the process :

The Location & the Production Design

Rewind is a film about three gamblers playing the Russian roulette to claim an undivided heist of diamonds. The trick is to be the last man standing in a game of death. Considering the nature of the plot, the location had to be necessarily isolated. We also considered an outdoor location surrounded by palm trees in Madh Island, but some things didn’t work out. Eventually, we zeroed in on an underconstruction building in Film city. We wanted the space of the film to be slightly weird but not illogical. Amit worked his heart out to create a wonderful set. When you watch the film, there are bizarre things like a chair hanging on a wall in the background which contributed to the overall quirkiness of the film.

The Camerawork
Sudhakar is an old friend. We go back to the first day of the interviews at FTII and have been thick since. Some other DoPs (Director of Photography), I have worked with, merely want to come on a set and start shooting, as if that is the most important thing to do in a film. There is no real understanding of what the scene demands and they are very reluctant to discuss camera movement and lighting at a more micro level. With Sudhakar, there is never any ego about who the director or DoP is. We have a wonderful rapport and most discussion happens over a drink. Between us, Sudhakar’s contribution is not merely limited to lighting and shooting a film. In whatever work we have done together, we have always tried to work on the camera at the script level, rather than just look at it as a tool to shoot a film. In Rewind, we agreed to keep the camera moving continuously to maintain the momentum of intrigue. The shot taking was deliberately long and without too many cuts. There are not more than 12 shots in the film. Incidentally, a lot of beer (over discussions, of course) was required to keep the shots to a minimum

The Shot Taking

Before we landed up on a set, there were some key questions I needed answers to. What happens when an entire narrative moves in reverse? How does one maintain the drama of the screenplay in the shot taking? How does one keep the grammar of the shot taking forward while the action in the film moves backwards? The essence of a reverse film is in its design. Essentially, the beginning becomes the climax of the film and vice versa.  Our biggest worry while shooting Rewind was that while watching the final film, one should not get the feeling that the film was merely shot straight and then just reversed in the editing room. That would defeat the very purpose of making a reverse film and tantamount to cheating the audience. It was imperative that after watching the final film, the audience should derive the same satisfaction as they would after watching any good film. The most important decision we took was to adhere to the grammar of Linear shot taking while shooting the film  ... but in reverse. I can’t take the sole credit for the shot taking or the shot division. I strongly feel that the DoP should necessarily be a very integral part of the Shot division process (which is rarely the case in the real world). The DoP, Sudhakar, was an integral part of the process and that, I believe, shows in every cut and frame of the film.

The Editing
We were always clear that it was a real time film ... that is to say that the amount of time spent by the characters on screen was the amount of time they would have actually spent in the room playing the Russian roulette. In such a case, action continuity was key. The bigger problem was that the action continuity had to match the reverse cut ... since what we were doing was shooting the film straight, reversing the shot on a machine and doing the match cut with the earlier shot. The only way to not screw up big time was to do an on location edit, so there we had Suvir Nath and Neeraj Grover matching every shot with  the earlier one before we moved on to the next. Inspite of all that, we did goof up twice ... once when Chiknya takes out the other gun from his shoe. What we had missed out in the earlier shot division was the action of him taking the gun out. It was strange to see none of that matching and it took us a good 15 minutes before we figured out where we had botched up. We added the movement of Chiknya’s hand moving down to the gun and removing it ... and voila ... there we had  ... the perfect match cut.

The Styling

The styling of the film had to match the characters. Chiknya was flamboyant and cool; Partho was rough while the Blind man was sober. The colour tones had to match their personality traits. Dahliya got the perfect clothes for the three. Whenever I watch the film, I am amazed by how different each of them looks. That is all Dahliya Kaur there. The old kettle in the film is also the invaluable touch of the art director in her.

The Sound design & Music

I have never had so many sleepless nights over sound design as with Rewind. The film was moving in reverse. The big question was whether to place the effects in reverse. We tried umpteen experiments. The effects in reverse were sounding real strange, so eventually we ended up placing them in linear.  Earlier, we tried to get a background score composed for the film. It didn’t work at all. It is to Dara’s credit that the entire film is actually full of effects and one hardly misses any background music. The lone song, beautifully composed by Bapi-Tutul and rendered by Sunayana Sarkar Dasgupta, appears on the titles at the end of the film.

The Cast

Then I had wanted Shiv Subramanyam to play the Blind guy, but Shiv had some personal problems and he couldn’t allocate the dates at the last moment. I have always loved Shiv’s deep baritone. He was kind enough to agree to be the Blind man’s voice. As for the actors, I needed them to look completely distinct from each other. Raj Singh Verma, Rajeev Mishra and Saleem Javed fit the bill perfectly

Rewind theatrical release with 'Be Kind Rewind'
Here I have to mention Nitin Sethi and Bhavin at Glamsham who supported the film throughout. Rewind would have never seen such extensive press coverage without their involvement

It took three months of post production to complete the film. Rewind opened at the Locarno International film festival in 2007, was invited to more than 50 International film festivals and won Grand Jury prizes at the Seattle and the Victoria Independent Film festival. It was then the only Indian short film to have an all India theatrical release (thanks to the team at PVR). It is amongst the only two Indian short films to be available for sale on Apple iTunes in the USA, UK, Canada and Germany. Last month, the DVD of Rewind was launched by Indieflix in the USA.

For a short film, it probably achieved more than what most feature films manage after spending a lot of money. It has been a wonderful closure for a film which started of due to fortuitous circumstances as a 100% loss proposition and was financed to fulfil the childhood dream of someday producing a film for my Producer Ketan Gohil.

With Producer Ketan Gohil (Left) at the Locarno Film Festival
More recently, I saw the 2005 Stanford Commencement Speech by Steve Jobs. Though the speech per se is filled with cliches that successful people are so eloquent about, one thing, however stayed with me. Jobs talks about how you can only connect the dots in hindsight.

In retrospect, I look back at the missed opportunity of directing the Marathi film far more gratefully. I am sure Rewind would have never happened if I had directed that film.

A couple of years later. Sunil, the writer of ‘Daddy’ met me again. He was now ready to make all the changes in the script, but that opportunity was long gone. Opportunity, I realised, is a big thing in life. When it comes your way, the head immediately reacts pleading with you to grab it with both hands ... but then sometimes ... it is not such a bad idea to stick with your heart ... it probably understands you better.

Thursday 13 October 2011

Rewinding to DNIWER (Part I)

It was 2006. I was offered my first feature film to direct in that year.

Pasha, a dear friend, was then a Creative Producer with the Rama Naidu/ Suresh Productions banner in Hyderabad. The legendary Rama Naidu had produced more than 125 films so far. Productions in four more languages and it was to be a Guinness record for the legend for having produced a film in every major Indian language. Marathi was one of the languages he still had to produce a film in.

Pasha asked me if I had a script to make a Marathi film. In my initial days, when I had just quit my job in a Bank and used to hang around Prithvi theatre, I had met a talented writer named Sunil. He had then written a Marathi play called ‘Daddy’. He had wanted the play to be translated in Hindi. I was young and enthusiastic and had done the translation as a favour. I had some issues with the writing but had generally loved the basic plot.

I was reminded of that play and narrated the basic concept to Pasha. It was a father-son story, of an obsessive father and his 36 year old son. We had, then, discussed a tentative cast comprising of Vikram Gokhale and Sachin Khedekar. The story was largely commercial and high in emotional content. Pasha liked the story and asked us to send him a synopsis. The synopsis was approved and Mr. Rama Naidu recommended that we should also narrate to Mr. Shyam Shroff (The Fame chain of theatres) since he would eventually distribute the film in Maharashtra. Mr. Shyam Shroff too liked the basic plot and we were all set to commence work on the screenplay.

It is here that the differences cropped up. Me and Pasha were convinced that a certain part of the story needed to change. Sunil, the writer, was adamant. He felt that the story was a part of his life and was not willing to cede an inch on the writing.

We tried to convince him but in vain. I was not keen on directing a film where I did not have the final say on the writing and we decided to back off from the project.

Here, I need to clarify that I had passed out of FTII in 2004 with training to be a Motion Picture Cameraman. Some other events in the Institute had forced me to opt for a specialisation that I was not really keen on and since I had not passed out as a Direction student, I didn’t make any films at FTII after the first year. I did graduate as a Motion picture Cameraman from FTII but was adamant enough to be a Director and never touched the camera ever after graduating in 2004.

By then, I had worked as a writer on ‘Johnny Gaddar’ and ‘Risk’. I had also directed a couple of commercials. However, thanks to having chosen Cinematography, I had no fiction showreel as a Director. The Suresh Productions project would have been a big boost but things hadn’t worked out.

The next couple of months were spent smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol, ruing the opportunity lost. Eventually the realisation that ‘Daddy’ was over sunk in. It was time to move on.

I realised that I did need a kickass showreel to begin with. I had to do something which hadn’t been done before, else it would be just another short film by another wannabe Director.

I must have scanned through a couple of hundred ideas before I remembered a film I had seen a year back ... Christopher Nolan’s ‘Memento’. The more recent 'Ghajini' was largely inspired from this film. A part of the entire screenplay of 'Memento' is in reverse, that is to say if there were 100 scenes in the film and if the screenplay was to be written in a linear way ... the actual chronology in the film was to show Scene 100 first, followed by Scene 99 and so on.

This, by itself, was not a ground breaking structure. The comedy series ‘Seinfeld’ had successfully experimented with the reverse sequencing of scenes in a certain ‘India Episode’ as early as 1996. Not many are aware that 'Memento' had merely borrowed the structure from 'Seinfeld'.

I felt that I needed to go beyond the reverse sequencing and probably tell a story completely in reverse. That would be a completely fresh take on the 'Seinfeld India Episode'.

Well ... so what I had here was a fresh form to experiment with but no story to tell.

Yet again, I went back to writing plots but not coming up with anything significant. Then I used something which Sriram Raghavan constantly talked about. Go back to films and scenes you love and adapt it into something completely original.

One of the most spellbinding scenes in Indian film history is the Russian roulette scene in ‘Sholay’. That formed the basis of the setting of ‘Rewind’. Here I decided to further push the form. In ‘Rewind’, visually every shot would move in reverse but the narrative voiceover by itself would move in a linear way and it is at the climax of the film that the reverse visual and the linear voiceover would meet.  

'Memento', 'Irreversible' and the 'Seinfeld India Episode' had taught me one thing. That there has to be a reason for a film to move in reverse. At the end of it, the audience has to be surprised and feel satisfied that there was a good enough reason for the Director to indulge in that form.

My view has been that a thriller is the best genre to adopt the reverse sequencing form but probably any story with a twisted end will do. Without a surprise, the reverse sequencing structure is generally unnecessary and does not do justice to the form.

That is probably the reason why the reverse scene structure form of ‘Irreversible’ does not work for me. ‘Irreversible’ by itself is a very decent film but, I feel, the reverse sequencing of scenes in the film is completely unnecessary and doesn’t really add anything to the film per se. It would be no different a film if it was linear. To me, the reversing of scenes in 'Irreversible' just seems like an afterthought (which, incidentally, it actually was)

The script written, I now needed to make the film, but I had no money. If at all, I owed money to a lot of friends. Thereon began the process of trying to find a Producer. It was a sizeable investment and no known returns. I was sure that no known Producer would put money in the film. I asked a few friends but they seemed reluctant and I didn’t want to force a non-commercial venture down their throats.

That is when I remembered Ketan Gohil. Ketan was a batchmate while doing my MBA at Jamnalal Bajaj. He had, since then, gone on to become a stocks trader. He had the film making worm wriggling in his you know where. He had regularly asked me to pitch to him if I ever had a small project in mind.

I met Ketan and put the cards on the table. I had no idea of what the returns from a 10 minute film were. There would probably be a 100% loss but well ... here was the script.

What followed later was a dream. It was hardly a couple of pages. Ketan read the draft and uttered the magic words, “This is superb. Let’s do it”.

To be continued : Rewinding to DNIWER (Part II)

Sunday 9 October 2011


I passed out of FTII in 2004. By that time, I had 4 bound scripts and was extremely proud of them. It was a healthy mix of a suspense thriller, an action thriller, an arty film on coal mines and a experimental form film on Bar dancers. As I walked out of the gates of my film school, I felt ready to dazzle the Indian film industry with my irrefutable talent

Somewhere along the way in October 2004, I met Sriram Raghavan. Sriram is the guy who had directed ‘Ek Hasina Thi’ and a wonderful diploma film at FTII (The Eight Column Affair). Later he made ‘Johnny Gaddar’ and is now shooting ‘Agent Vinod’. I worked on his scripts for a year and wrote some minuscule parts in ‘Johnny Gaddar’ like Vinay Pathak’s opening card sequence where he catches the cheaters.

That one year with Sriram was probably the most creative part of my existence so far. More importantly, it opened my eyes to how much I suck at how and what I write. Then I had that style where I wrote for hours, generally finished writing a 25 page treatment within a couple of days and felt smug in my achievement. Nothing wrong with it except that most times, it is actually just starting material to relook at and to consider it as some kind of gospel is plain buffoonery.

Writing with Sriram was sheer torture. You suddenly found your writing being compared to writing in films by Scorsese, Kubrick, Sergio Leone and Vijay Anand. Suddenly I found my talent extremely inadequate and most of what I was writing or had written seemed drivel.

The wonderful thing about Sriram was that he could explain almost everything he needed from a writer with an example. Like he would quote a great line to describe a greedy opportunistic woman from Kubrick’s 'The Killing', “You have a dollar sign for a heart” to make a writer understand what great lines are all about.

Or he would narrate a whole scene from ‘Infernal Affairs or from ‘Once upon a Time in the West’. Like when Clint Eastwood arrives in town by train. Three of the villain’s henchmen are there to kill him. They pull a gun on him and pointing to the three horses around, say “Sorry but we didn’t bring a horse for you”. Clint Eastwood in his now famous drawl retorts, “Looks like you brought two too many”, then draws faster than the three and shoots them down.

That one year helped me understand economy of writing, scale, graphing of scenes and the importance of drama in commercial writing ... or rather any form of writing actually.

I have always believed that in cinema, everything is on screen for one to learn from.  The practical aspects of filmmaking, one can learn in a film school or hands on ... the only difference being that in a film school, there is no external commercial pressure and one is more free to discover one's cinema. 

Personally, for me, a Guru, in cinema or in life, is merely a nomenclature. Sriram is the closest I came to having a Guru. It was a wonderful time when all that one believed fell by the wayside and one felt liberated enough to learn more.

In that one year, I was paid a pittance but always felt lucky that Sriram was not charging me for all those inputs. He helped me understand the importance of good writing as genuine basic material towards making a good film. More importantly, to never let your guard down since it was so easy to go wrong in the writing ... and once you went wrong with the written word, you could possibly make a box office success riding on the back of a big star but will never make a good film.

Sriram was probably the only Director I worked with where the money was irrelevant. It was almost like going back to school and being berated for bad spellings. The biggest takeaway was how falling in love with what you write or shoot is the biggest trap of all and where criticism on a script is probably the best thing that anybody can offer as advice.

Probably that is the reason that I always find it a bit silly when I read about films written within a week. Oops ... that probably was just starting material that somebody ended up making into a full fledged film ... no wonder most of our cinema sucks ... Jai Sriram!!!




Saturday 8 October 2011


I spent my childhood and most of my adolescent years in a lower class area in suburban Mumbai. The area was called Yashodhan Nagar and the town was neighbouring Thane. Ganpati and Navratri were celebrated with a lot of gusto and fanfare here. Noise levels were at their peak and Hindi film songs were belted out on loudspeakers all through the day

Today I stay in a more affluent part of Mumbai and witness a more muted Ganpati and Navratri. I guess it has something to do with class. As you become relatively richer, the simple things around you (and probably which you grew up on) disturb you a little more than earlier. You seem more prone to pollution, feel the heat a wee bit stronger, the noise bothers you a bit more and you imagine yourself to be more susceptible to water borne diseases than when you had no money to buy bottled aqua pura. The relatively poorer have no such issues since having an issue always has financial implications. If you have the money, you can afford the resolution. Mineral water over tap water is one such resolution but it does cost money to buy packaged H2O and I am a classic example of the class transition.

Even today, there is something about the lower class areas during festivals and otherwise. The energy is always different. There is more vibrancy and a certain buzz in the air, which one misses in the more affluent areas. This, probably, has to do with a more community feeling, largely due to common basic issues faced on a daily basis by the residents. This is largely a world of limited drinking water, unhygienic public toilets and corrupt ration shops, which people like me do not face on an everyday basis any longer.

Last week I visited the Durga pandal in Yashodhan Nagar after almost a decade. Even mid afternoon, there were around a dozen people attending to the needs of the Gods. In stark contrast, the pandal in an upper class area in Mulund was more or less empty, a one off devotee was hanging around in the background and the building watchman was sitting disinterestedly near the idol.

Point being, in the early 80’s and in the absence of cable television, internet and the likes, festivals were a major means of entertainment. There were sports organised by the various mandals, community gatherings and films screened on the big screen at night.

A solitary projector beamed some Hindi blockbuster with a big white screen put up in the middle of the road. People sat on both sides of the road and the number of people on both sides could easily stretch upto half a kilometre. The single projector played one jumbo reel at a time and stopped to change a new reel every 20 minutes but none of that seemed to bother the devout audience. The other side of the screen showed a mirror image of the visual and yet there were around a thousand people sitting on the other side, taking in every visual of their favourite hero with bated breath. The opening credits were in their mirror image form but who the F reads opening credits anyway?

Open screening at the Locarno Film Festival
Those were some of the best memories of film watching that I have had. Today, the only place where you get a similar experience is at the Piazza Grande at the Locarno Film festival in Switzerland.

I had been to Locarno with my film ‘Rewind’ in 2007. My most ardent memory was of watching ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ sitting in the middle of the road, in front of a big white screen with 10,000 people. That was so much like the Yashodhan Nagar of the 80s.

It was Ganpati 1983, I guess. The film to be screened was Manmohan Desai’s ‘Amar Akbar Anthony’. It had a huge star cast consisting of the reigning superstars Amitabh Bachchan and Vinod Khanna ably supported by Rishi Kapoor, Neetu Singh and the sultry Parveen Babi, their names written in bold letters in white chalk on the black board under my building.  The film was to start immediately after the Ganpati aarti (prayers). Not surprisingly, there was always a healthier turnout at the prayers whenever a film was to be shown.

A film on the road was always a big event and people thronged the venue from Kilometres around. One had to book a place if one wanted a ringside view of the screen. At a conservative count, there wouldn’t be less than three thousand people to watch even the worst of films.

The Ganpati aarti over, we awaited the arrival of the paraphernalia. Soon, the projector, the white screen and the 35 mm film reels arrived in a hired jeep. One part of the diligent team went about putting up the big screen, while the other began setting up the 35 mm film projector.

I was around 11 years old; old enough to know that ‘Amar Akbar Anthony’ was a big film and it was going to be a full house. I pulled up a mattress from the house and plonked myself on the ground just 5 metres away from the screen.

Soon after, the lights dimmed, the projector whirred and ‘Amar Akbar Anthony’ started to play on the big screen.

Here I need to go into a more graphic representation of where I was sitting with respect to the screen. As I have mentioned earlier, I was sitting around 5 metres away from the screen. What I didn’t mention was, that I was at an approximate angle of vision of 60 degrees to the screen ... meaning I was sitting down looking up at the screen.

The film started to the usual wolf whistles, claps and roars. Every entry by the hero was applauded. Every agony inflicted by the villain frowned upon. The fist fight between superstars Amitabh Bachchan and Vinod Khanna was a special treat.

Coming to the point, the plot has Amitabh aka Anthony vying for Parveen Babi’s attention. Over the course of the film, Parveen Babi has no choice but to fall for the uneducated, illiterate but good hearted Anthony. The only thorn in the side is the bulky Zebisko (played by Yusuf Khan). Zebisko wants to marry the sultry Parveen (who wouldn’t?) but unfortunately for him, it is almost the pre-climax of the film and by now, Parveen is madly in love with the drunkard Anthony. Parveen is desperate to fly into her Anthony’s arms, but Zebisko is unwilling to relent. Not willing to take No for an answer, Zebisko pulls Parveen and pushes her into a room. She goes flying off on her back and falls down ...  skirt torn ... legs apart ... the camera lens ... looking directly into her undergarments.

Now what possible influence can this have on an 11 year old boy sitting at a 60 degree upward looking angle, 5 metres away from the screen? That was my wet dream for years to come. For a long time and largely due to the viewing angle I had the privilege of watching Parveen’s panties from, for years I believed that I saw more of Parveen Babi than the rest of the audience. The fact that it was a 2D image struck me much later in life and that it had the same viewing satisfaction for everyone who ever saw the film, was a bit of a dampener.

But that first sexual cinematic memory remains etched on my subconscious. Today it is easy to just click on Youporn and there is probably more sexual activity than one can imagine. But one still misses those days of innocence when the mind played more tricks on you than the camera lens. One realises that one has become more worldly wise than one wished to be and those nights of watching a 2D image with a less demanding audience are never to return.

In a couple of years, times changed and the big screen was replaced by the Video tape and the Video recorder. Hiring a projector and a screen to watch a single film seemed far more expensive than hiring a colour TV, a Video Player and 6 pirated video tapes to be watched back to back in one Ganpati or Navratri night.

The big 35 mm public screening died its natural death and gave birth to the phenomenon of the Video Cassette Player. There were probably some sexual video memories here too ... but that is another story. 

Friday 7 October 2011


The first time I wrote for somebody else, I wrote for almost a year and got paid 25K. The second time, I wrote 6 drafts of a script, I was promised 150K but was eventually paid only 60. In both films, nobody was interested in signing contracts. I left both the films after writing continuously for almost a year. Fortunately, the directors of both films were fair enough to acknowledge and give me writing credit. The first film was ‘Johnny Gaddar’ (Additional Dialogues) and the second was ‘Risk’ (Screenplay).

That was circa 2006. More than 5 years have passed and I have refused around half a dozen film writing assignments since. Part of it was disillusionment with the whole process. Most film writing begins with a measly advance. This is followed by nights and nights of dvd watching and reams and reams of generally inane writing, necessarily in that order. It is, however, generally not followed by another cheque. 

So one silently watches the Fashion Designer charge a couple of lakhs for that two piece cleavage hanging swimming costume and observes the actor, who charges 50 million, and yet asks Production to pay for the two bananas he has ordered to fill up on his quota of carbohydrates. All this, while the writer has to buy his own pen and paper and in more recent times, a Laptop and a Printer.

Film writers are also offered the most creative excuses. In my earlier days, I was to be hired to write the screenplay of a film. I was grateful for the offer made but managed to ask, what my credit and fees would be. The answer still surprises me. ‘Your credit and money will depend on how much of what you write is in the final film”. I still remember replying that by the time the film gets ready, the money kept for writing (Money for writing? What was I thinking?) will be spent into buying film stock. That is exactly what happened. The film shut down after shooting 70%. There was no money left ... either for writing or for buying stock.

Strangely, I am sure, the same Director never told an actor, “Well buddy, I have an INR 20 Million budget for actors, so what we will pay you will depend on how much of screen time you have in the final edit. The money will be divided pro rata amongst all the actors. Please contact Production once the final film is edited to know how much is due to you”

The fun part, however, is that almost every Director or Producer I have met, talks about the importance of good writing in films. One is bombarded with words like ‘Foundation’ and ‘Basis’. Eventually it just turns out to be mere semantics. As we understand cinema in India, everything (and I mean everything) is subservient to actor dates.

Probably, that is why I like the Salman phenomenon. The star is supreme in such films. As a Producer, Director or a Writer, one is, at least, aware of where one stands and there is little to complain since the entire onus of a commercial hit or a flop is borne by the star. At least, nobody is negotiating to pay based on how much of what you wrote is in the final film. Most of the writing is already on some South Indian DVD. The only skill required is to know how to read subtitles.