How did Masaan come about?
First of all, when we started the film, we had no idea that it would come this far. In a lot of interviews, I have said that I wish I had dreamt of this day — because I have never dreamt of this day. I only wanted to make a film. I had no reaction in place, because just getting into Un Certain Regard section itself was a big thing. I have been following the festival for years and to suddenly see my name was weird and overwhelming.
And, you won two awards. What was that like?
What had happened was, after the screening we were partying regularly, because Pathé Films has this rigourous schedule of partying. So, after our last day, everyone left to holiday in Paris or Rome. I stayed back to watch a few other films. Then, one of my producers, MelitaToscan du Plantier of Macassar Productions, told me that we had been invited for one of the ceremonies. And, she was like, ‘Maybe, there is an award.’ On the way to the ceremony, she told me that we had won something. That is when I won the FIPRESCI Prize. It was so difficult for me to compose myself to say anything onstage. You are also representing your country, and I said that this award is for India, because we had last won an award at Cannes 26 years ago and this was long overdue. Then, during the cocktail party, Melita told me we had been invited for the main event as well. That didn’t come as a surprise, because they invite all the directors in Un Certain Regard section. At the main ceremony, they announced the next award for promising future.
How did everyone react?
It was tough to take in so much happiness. During the first ceremony, the crew was screaming and dancing at the airport and during the second one, they celebrated on the top of the Eiffel Tower. But, I felt proud for my country, even though I might sound overly humble when I say that.
What has been going wrong in the last 26 years? India used to be a Cannes regular.
I think we got lost in translation, because earlier there was no pressure to make films commercially viable. Marathi cinema is government funded. When you have that, you don’t have the pressure to fit to a sellable formula. The freedom to go all out is a luxury. And, there has been a change in the outlook towards festivals. Earlier, art films were purely aesthetic but now, even festivals appreciate films that are more accessible, because even they need the market to sustain itself. And, what has happened is that for a lot of film-makers who send their films to festivals, art has become for art’s sake. It had become formulaic. In India, many film-makers make films particularly for festivals in a format they believe is appreciated by foreign festivals. That is what we call festival bait. You shoot on real locations with non-actors, use no music and so on. So, while you are close to reality, you lack the emotional quality and connection. Europeans are understated, but we wear our emotions on our sleeve. Then why force our cinema to be something else? So, when we sat down to plan the film, we decided to not be bound by any rules. Are we catering to the west? Are we trying to find a middle ground? I said, ‘Let the script dictate.’ I also have to remember that the people who are putting their money into my film, I am accountable to them.
If you had to disconnect from Masaan and watch it as an audience member, how commercially viable is the film?
I had this doubt myself. I showed the film to quite a few film-maker friends and colleagues, who I look up to. I also did a focus group with our office staff, the drivers, peons and cooks. I told them that at any point, if they got bored, they were free to walk out. They saw the film and came out screaming about how much they loved it. I am confident that people are going to love it. I saw similar reactions from my French producers, and I am hopeful because different people from different backgrounds are appreciating it. I even met one of our distributors, who had this notion that this was going to be one of those “festival waala arty-farty” films, but he kept shaking my hand and saying how moved he was and how much he loved the film.
Do you feel this is the right time for a film such as Masaan? If you had made this five years ago, you wouldn’t have received the same response.
True. This film would not have been made then. In the last two years, most of the blockbusters have not done well. Script-driven films are faring better that star-driven ones. People could be bored of seeing the same urban Mumbai scenario and want to see smaller towns, maybe.
What is your view on casting a star?
For this film, I was sure of not having a star, because of my limited capacity as a debutant. Also, with stars, it is difficult to get them to immerse themselves in the character as much as I would like them to. I am a stickler for cultural and linguistic nuances. They won’t put in that much time and effort. That is when you start compromising.
What procedure did you follow to direct your actors?
The only way I got to make this film is because I surrendered myself to Varanasi. There is no word other than magic to describe this place. That is something I told Vicky [Kaushal, the male lead], too. Once you surrender to the city, it gives you returns. That struck a chord with him, and from the next day he completely let go of his inhibitions. He started staying at the cremation ghats and started observing the way the crematorium workers talk and behave. I got him to befriend some of them. I told him to stop hanging out with me and the rest of the crew, too. Over the course of the film, Vicky became so much of his character that I started deriving my direction notes from him.
You are describing a Stanislavsky-Chekovian acting preparation method.
That is true to some extent. But, I did not get into this film with any strategy. Both Richa [Chadda] and Sanjay Mishra had their own methods, which were derived from the way they function as actors. Neither did Vicky decide to go the method acting way. It just happened to work out as a system. Also, I don’t want to take too much credit, because picking the right team is also half the job done.
As a debutant film-maker, what was your strategy to connect with the cast and crew?
Firstly, I never tell my actors how they are supposed to act. I only tell them the character and the situation’s background. I will tell them the history, cook up stories, discuss the social context. Something I have learned from Anurag [Kashyap] when I was assisting him on Gangs of Wasseypur was how he empowers a team. I tried to maintain that light, homely atmosphere, and we created everything together.
How is your approach to different from Anurag’s?
There are a bunch of things I have had to unlearn. Anurag functions differently. He can be random. On set, he would sometimes come up with new stuff that would suddenly make a lot of sense. I know my capacity, I can’t do that. And, because of my corporate and academic background, I have to do my research and homework. So, I went in with extreme preparation and planning. Also, in a serious scene, he brings in a quirky element at times which might veer the character off from his path, but still make sense in the larger picture. But, I wanted to stick to a more traditional form of narrative, in which the character decides where she or he wants to go, rather than me manipulating it. My manipulation is to tell a story.