It all started at a family wedding a few months back.
I was meeting some of my relatives after ages. And they were all very curious to know what I’ve been up to.
“I’m still with my advertising job but I want to make movies.”
They were all very pleased to hear that – the part of India I come from, Kolkata, is a land of Bengalis. And the Bengalis are all about the ‘Art and Culture’.
They lost all their money in their old-worldly pursuit of art and culture (while the rest of the world intelligently pursued money), but drop a hint of Art in any conversation with the Bengalis and their eyes light up; the Bengalis are unrelenting.
“What a noble thought… We are all very proud of you. We will have the next Satyajit Ray in our family!”
Of all the people who had made it for the wedding, there was this very-eminent-businessman brother AC. He has always been very fond of me since I was a kid.
His wife, my sister-in-law, MC also held my creative capabilities in high regard. Just that we hadn’t met in ten years. So there was no chance of having this conversation earlier.
“Wonderful! We are all very happy with the fact that you want to make movies… Have you made any…?”
“Not to my liking.”
“Why don’t you make a short film? I have some stories… You could hear them out?”
A week later I was at dinner in their place. Post which MC started narrating her short stories. I heard a few and realized that I wouldn’t be able to tell those stories. And then I heard another one, which had a twist in the end.
I hate twist-in-the-end stories. Unless it’s of the caliber of Usual Suspects or Fight Club, please avoid the urge to ‘drop the penny’. I find them too wannabe.
I quietly gulped my dessert and slipped out.
Soon enough all the stories slipped out of my mind, but one – a story set in a massage parlour about the relationship between a lady and her masseuse.
A story about two women from very different social strata bonding over the concept of perfect love and elusive happiness.
It’s a nice subject to shoot; perhaps I could make something out of it?
Maybe I could take the basic structure of the story and do a different kind of screenplay – movies based on books aren’t always as per the book?
The story that was narrated to me was like an emotional thriller, maybe I could actually look at it like a love story.
I love love. I think it’s stronger than all the other emotions put together.
I want to make films that are about love.
So why not this one?
I quickly sat down to write the screenplay. And it felt like love.
My cinema cannot be all about a surprise; my cinema has to be about love. The oxygen that flows through the blood that flows through the veins has to be love. The characters can be flawed, but you still must love them as your own.
I made it a love story between two women and before you get any ideas, let me clarify – it’s the kind of love all human beings are supposed have for all other human beings.
The kind of love MC had for screenplay.
The excited wife turned to the creative-friendly businessman husband for a nod of production approval.
“Take a look at this short film”, he said, and showed me something made under a thousand dollars.
It was … well, I wouldn’t want to make a film like that and give people the wrong idea that cheap is good.
Besides, I knew this film couldn’t be produced out of a garage. A massage parlour could be aesthetically demanding – locations, art, props etc.
It would require at least 24 hours of setting up, lighting and shooting time.
It would require top of the line actors with stunning faces to hold the film (there’s nothing in it other than them) and my lead model would also need to be in perfect shape because a large part of the film would be on a massage table.
I knew I’d need to do extensive recce and casting sessions.
I knew I couldn’t shoot this in a real massage parlour because they have really small rooms and I wouldn’t be able to put lights and the camera and the monitor and the crew in that space.
“I don’t want to get into the production. You line it up for me and I’ll direct.”
That he did. That’s how I met my Executive Producer MCT.
We met, discussed, worked out a production plan and I asked MCT to share the budget with AC.
Then I got a frantic phone call – “%$*$#* … for a fucking short film … are you out of your mind???”
With that, for the next few days, a triangle of hope and despair formed between AC, his wife MC and me.
“Make it happen!”
“I don’t understand…”
“When are we shooting?”
Finally I realized that I’d also have to step in to plan the production.
And work backwards from a budget that was like a 20-inch belt for a 32-inch waist.
Now if you are a filmmaker yourself, you could be wondering what’s the big deal, we all start with miniscule budgets. And people are ready to work pro-bono.
Not in India. Not the people I wanted to work with. Not for the kind of film I wanted to make.
I’ve tried to orchestrate pro bono projects in India and it doesn’t work. Not because people are not interested in contributing towards good work, but they just can’t afford to. Taking substantial amount of time and energy out from their otherwise paying projects means not taking up some paying projects. And most technicians and talent can’t afford that.
Even if they say yes, sooner or later they’ll have to de-prioritize the pro-bono work because of some paid-for stress.
And it’s irresponsible to mount a production under the constant fear of someone backing out at the last minute.
The only way pro-bono works is when you’re already a part of the industry working with a big banner or a big director and either your big producer or big director gives you the ammunition to go out and make a short film.
Say you’re the first Assistant Director of a multi-million dollar Bollywood fare and people see potential in you – you could figure out a way to get the equipment and the talent for your personal project. Of course after you’ve obtained the necessary ‘blessings’ from a heavyweight.
I had none.
So I believed in the sanctity of money. People are only going to be seriously accountable when they get paid. You can push people (and I’m a very difficult guy to please) only after you’ve given them something more than a promise of good work.
Otherwise, and I’ve faced it in the past, it comes down to, “Fuck off, I can’t give you more than this… anyway I’m doing you a favour!”
Yes there are some who can afford to be the exception, but for most people it’s not easy.
I knew I could probably request people to charge less, but I knew I’m not going to approach any of these guys to work pro-bono:
- Casting Director for three rounds of casting sessions with a high-end Talent agency in Mumbai
- Call backs
- Actors fees
- Two days of studio time – one day for set up and pre-light and one day for the shoot
- Art director’s fees and three different set-ups for the Massage Parlour and one other sequence; we actually designed and set up a massage parlour.
- A good cinematographer. Plus camera crew
- A good camera plus technology
- Lights. Lots of lights
- Make up
- Music director’s fees
- A good editor and offline studio time
- Grading (the final colours and the final look) at one of the best post houses in Mumbai with seasoned technicians.
- Two days at a good recording studio with a fantastic sound engineer for dubs and music and the final mixes
- Online and titling and sub-titling
- Final output encoding
All 16 heads had to be top-of-the-line, the best in Mumbai; the word I wanted to hear post viewing is “Super!”
And not “nice.”
The plan in my head was simple – to get one process done and get great deals on the next process basis the merits of the first process. It’s great if you can give a feel of the end product before your colleagues begin working on it.
(Homework. Pre-production. Homework. You should be able to mount the film even before you shoot an inch of film.)
Thanks to so many talented people who saw the merit in this project, we managed to have the best on board.
Everything eventually fell in place. And some became signs that this was shaping up well.
Like my lead actor ST.
When after a month of auditions I couldn’t find an actor with a great face and body, willing to bare her back for the massage table sequences, a friend I bumped into after four years suggested that I look up this actress ST.
She looked good for the part. She auditioned. And then I wanted to meet her in person just to get an idea of how well she’ll be able to portray a rather difficult role.
“You know, I could relate with this woman who I’m supposed to play… I myself have gone through some sort of a personal tragedy like …”
My prompt reaction – “Oh how lovely!”
Of course I quickly backtracked… but she wasn’t offended. She realized that I was so into the creative process that I probably lost out on social skills.
A few days later when we met up again, ST told me that she was advised by her doctor not to wear lenses. So she will see everything hazy during the shoot.
“Perfect”, I told her, “You’ll not be conscious about baring your back in front of so many strangers.”
Both of us believe that her blurred vision added to the performance.
The other lead actor, the masseuse – the girl who played that part is a well-known face from the soaps. And because the soap-opera schedules are really demanding she could only meet me for half an hour before the shoot.
Much to my excitement, she, just as she was, embodied the role of the masseuse. I just had to control the projections.
There’s this boy I had cast for the role of a delivery boy, thinking this would be my good-Samaritan act. He is the son of my cleaning lady. I thought this would be an opportunity for him to make some money and his school fees could be taken care of.
He didn’t turn up for the shoot.
Instead I got a better fit for the role in another boy who was working with the pantry –a gawky teenager, dispassionate enough to deliver the most important lines in the film; the lines I strongly believed needed to be delivered absolutely dispassionately.
My Director of Photography, TB, who is the most obsessive creative person you’ll ever meet. He gives you the feeling that he is not even aware that there actually is a world where things other than films, happen.
He wasn’t really making much money out of this assignment but he stopped taking any other assignment till this one was done. He wanted to get wired and put all his energies into this.
He stopped going to the gym because he didn’t want to take a chance with injury.
I think he also stopped rain on the day of the shoot because this was during the peak of monsoons in Mumbai and the days before and after the shoot were heavy on the downpour.
Our Art Director/Production Designer, MC, also a close friend of mine put together a wonderful set and production design job in miniscule budgets within four days when our original Art Director had to bow out because of clashing dates.
My assistant KP who I literally picked up from the corridors of my (then) office (I’ve quit my big ad-agency job) because I heard she is a drummer.
“But I have zero experience in films?”
“You’re a girl drummer. You’ll be good as an Assistant Director. Wanna?”
There were many others who put themselves out for the sake of art. But the one story that is the most heartwarming for me is the story of our music director, SDG.
That to me is truly a story about the triumph of art, cinema, music and love in the times of violence, depression and serial bankruptcy.