Vikramaditya Motwane’s office in Mumbai has a table stacked with Marvel comics. When the trailer of his latest film Bhavesh Joshi Superhero came out a few weeks ago, there were talks about the masked hero’s resemblance to Hollywood’s Marvel superheroes. But, when the film released on June 1, Motwane’s vigilante protagonist turned out to be far different—a superhero without any real superpowers; the creation of two ordinary guys to fight the corruption in the political system.
Stories of people fighting for justice have always fascinated Motwane. “We have become very cynical these days. We believe that things are bad and do not ever try to change it,” says Motwane. “But, when you go out, you see people who are doing the right thing, who have taken responsibility to bring changes.”
Priyanshu Painyuli plays the title role in the film. And, Harshvardhan Kapoor plays the role of his friend Sikander Khanna, a tech-geek who creates special gadgets to carry on the vigilantism Bhavesh has started. The basic idea of this plot came to Motwane almost a decade ago. That was around the time of his first film, Udaan (2010). Since its inception, the film was subjected to many changes and new ideas, though the theme remained the same. Anurag Kashyap, co-writer of Udaan and co-owner of Motwane’s production company, Phantom, had assisted him with the story. And, by 2011, the first draft of Bhavesh… was ready. The film was set to take-off with Imran Khan in the lead. It was a period when Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement was in the headlines, and the mood was perfect. But, that did not happen then, and Motwane moved to Lootera (2013), which was critically acclaimed.
For Bhavesh…, actor Siddharth Malhotra had come onboard by then. The film was ready to take on issues of land-grabbing and corruption in construction. But, by the time the film was taking shape in 2014, Lok Sabha elections happened and a new government took charge at the Centre. Corruption was no longer a hot topic of discourse. “It [the idea] suddenly felt very old and irrelevant,” says Motwane. “I had to put a stop to the film, and go back [to the start]. In 2016, we rewrote the film with a theme about water-shortage and water-tank mafia.” On the suggestion of producers, the final form was made for a wider audience. “While the core stayed intact, presentation became bigger,” says Motwane.
He affirms that Bhavesh... is an authentic take on superheroes. The film does not portray the hero as someone born with a special gift, but as one who trains hard and uses intellect to be a superhero. “If there is any larger influence, it is Batman,” says Motwane. He adds that even the Salim Khan-Javed Akhtar films of the 1970s like Zanjeer and Deewar, movies that portrayed the Indian vigilante, have influenced the making of Bhavesh....
Motwane seems to be a purist when it comes to casting. Kapoor was not the first choice for the role of Sikander. But, eventually, he became the lead as Motwane found in him some traits suited for the role. “Harsh had that quality of being that lost guy who eventually finds his way. I liked that,” says Motwane. The director had auditioned him in 2012. But, then, Motwane felt he was not ready yet. So, Kapoor had to prepare himself and come back.
Considering his first two films—Udaan and Lootera were shot on film—he seemed to be a purist in the use of technology, too. Motwane was not happy with his initial digital camera experiments with Alexa. But, his third film, Trapped (2016), was low-budget and he needed a cheap and small camera. Digital camera manufacturer Red’s Scarlet and Epic did not satisfy him. However, Red’s Dragon came handy, and he changed his opinion. He shot Bhavesh… and his new Netflix series, Sacred Games, also on digital cameras—Red’s Weapon and Helium. But, the director pronounces that even though most digital cameras give a lovely look, it does not suit every movie.
When he began his career assisting Sanjay Leela Bhansali in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999), Motwane was in his early twenties. In his career as a director, there are just four feature films, each one different from the other. Udaan was about a young boy’s aspiration to come out of the clutches of his controlling father; Lootera was a masterful adaptation of O. Henry’s short story, The Last Leaf; Trapped was a survival story, and, his next project ready for release after Bhavesh..., Sacred Games, is an adaptation of Vikram Chandra’s namesake novel.
“I do not have a takiya kalam [a repeating pattern],” he laughs. However, Motwane agrees that certain things stay the same in his films. Like, his love for reluctant heroes, and the poetic, subdued and silent scenes. And, then, there is a strong theme driving on hope, which continues with Bhavesh…, too.
An intentional exploration of different frontiers excites him. “Many people can go back to the same genre over and over again,” he says. “I just do not know if I can. Maybe because I do not have a filmmaking life which is as long as a lot of the other filmmakers. I just do what excites me at the moment.” Motwane adds that he also wants to challenge his audience to think, and question practices and systems.
But, he does not think that films would change the world. “They will not. What they do is create awareness,” he says. “If a film can make one think of life in a certain sort of way and determine actions, then it has done the right thing.” After watching Udaan, some parents came to him and said that they changed their relationship equation with their kids after watching the film.
“For me, that is the greatest victory,” he says. “It can, maybe, change your outlook about certain things. But, beyond that, films will not change the world. They will rather give you three hours worth of popcorn and entertainment. They will give you lots of memes and many songs to dance to.”