Amit Masurkar’s debut film, Sulemani Keeda, was a crackling one — intelligently written and confidently indie in its approach towards spoofing the Hindi film industry and its occupants. It was about two struggling writers, and it tried to understand the the lives of the city’s numerous writers who try to balance creativity and saleability. While the performances might have been a tad wobbly, Masurkar’s writing and visualisation stood out.
He seems to understand that art cannot survive without commerce and, as he mentions in my conversation with him, “a good comedic piece bares our deepest insecurities, exposes our prejudices and reveals truths about human condition — of course, at the price of a few good laughs.” He is clear about what he wants to achieve with the medium at hand, and therefore even Newton, his second film, is a fine study of one of India’s most troubling contemporary realities and candid human nature. The auteurs he looks up to — from Noah Baumbach to Tina Fey — are the flag bearers of dark pop humour, their writing heavily based on sarcasm and wit. Like them, Masurkar’s writing and characters seem to depend more on the humour of their words than physical comedy.
Newton is currently being lauded in Europe and will, hopefully, travel to many countries and festivals. It’s also proof of producer Manish Mundra’s continued effort in supporting the country’s finest indie film makers. It stars Rajkummar Rao, an actor who has silently been bagging meaty roles and knocking them out of the park. This year is a double whammy for Rao, because, along with Newton, Vikramaditya Motwane’s Trapped is due to release. Much like Radhika Apte, Rao has the ability to look like and embody someone from any region of this country, making him a casting director’s darling. Masurkar has some interesting insights on him too.
Congratulations on the buzz about Newton and the International Federation of Art Cinemas (CICAE) award at the 67th Berlin Film Festival. How does it feel?
It feels good that a diverse, international audience could understand the finer nuances of a film as rooted as Newton. The award too was totally unexpected and all of us had left Berlin by then.
Tell us what Newton is about. What drew you to the subject?
Newton is the story of an idealist — a rookie clerk working in Chhattisgarh — who is on election duty in the Maoist—controlled jungle. Like his namesake, Isaac Newton, he is interested in finding order in chaos. I was drawn to the subject because I wanted to tell a story which explored the gap between democratic ideals and the machinery of democracy.
What was the scripting and ideating process like?
I wrote the first draft of Newton in 2013. Once Manish Mundra signed me on to direct the film, we got Mayank Tewari on board as co-writer. With Mayank, I travelled to Chhattisgarh and did some primary research, which led to subsequent drafts. We would sit and write every morning from 7 AM to noon. We took the help of several experts, both on and off set. There were many people who helped in researching for the film. It was an intense and enjoyable process.
Sulemani Keeda was quite a rollicking ride. What is your approach and attitude towards comedy as a genre?
Comedy is the best way to tell a serious story. It is the most difficult format to write and execute, but the easiest to consume. That’s what makes it most challenging to work on as a writer and director. My approach on set is always to downplay the comedy and focus on the honesty in the situation.
What is the objective any comedic piece should achieve?
A good comedic piece bares our deepest insecurities, exposes our prejudices and reveals truths about the human condition. This, of course, should come at the price of a few good laughs.
Globally, who are the best comic writers and actors, according to you?
I admire Louis CK for his writing and acting on his show, Louie. Woody Allen made comedy writing look so easy, especially in the ‘80s. I like Noah Baumbach’s screenplay writing, which isn’t exactly comedy but very slice-of-life. I’m also a huge fan of Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. Then there are geniuses like the ensemble of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Jacques Tati and Buster Keaton, who are timeless.
How do you react to the current condition of the Indian indie cinema space?
It’s very positive. With multiplexes and the internet, there are more avenues for distribution. Indian filmmakers can now get bolder and more fearless with their stories.
What are three qualities that Rajkummar Rao has which other actors don’t?
Raj is athletic and very fit, but not buffed up. He’s got a quirky sense of humour that’s unique to him. He grasps the essence of the character very quickly.
What is the last Hindi film you saw and loved? And what’s the last one you hated?
I liked Kapoor and Sons — and I avoid watching films I know I won’t like.
What are you reading these days?
I’m reading Nandini Sundar’s new book, The Burning Forest: India’s War in Bastar.
Which TV shows do you follow?
Once in a while, I bingewatch a TV show. The last two I watched were The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Joe Swanberg’s Easy.