Rebirth through reel

  • Dream debut
    Dream debut: Neeraj Ghaywan | AFP
  • Yes, it Cannes
    Yes, it Cannes: Still from Masaan, which won two awards at this year's Cannes film festival.
  • Yes, it Cannes
    Yes, it Cannes: Still from Masaan, which won two awards at this year's Cannes film festival.

Director Neeraj Ghaywan says Masaan helped him find an escape in his life

  • The setting of Masaan, Ghaywan thought, was too rooted and would perhaps not connect with the Cannes audience. The response, however, left him in tears.

Anurag Kashyap may not have won critical acclaim for the last film he directed (Bombay Velvet), but he sure has an eye for good talent. Had Kashyap not shown confidence in director Neeraj Ghaywan, Masaan would have remained a figment of someone's imagination. Thanks to Ghaywan, an Indian film won two awards at Cannes after 26 years. Also, Phantom Films, Kashyap's production company, added another feather in its already crowded cap.

Polite and down-to-earth, Ghaywan, 35, says making this film was a journey that he wants to cherish. An engineer and an MBA degree, Ghaywan had a high-paying job and a comfortable corporate life, which he left to pursue cinema. The switch, of course, wasn't easy. His parents took time to come around and, to make things worse, Ghaywan wanted to make his directorial debut on his own terms.

“I have seen a lot of independent filmmakers who usually source money from friends to kickstart the project and then finish the film with whatever resources they have just because they are passionate about films and they are ready with the script. However, I personally believe that you ought to give the film the dignity it deserves,” he says. And, he struggled for a year and a half to find funding for Masaan.

“I didn't want to jump into the mad rat race. I had always put the film above me so I waited diligently to arrive at the right script. Then I waited diligently for the right producers. I wanted to make the film in a way that people were treated with kindness and were paid well. We wanted to get a proper release. So, in that sense, yes, I differed and waited. And that's also the reason why we managed to crack the whole thing, I guess. Like, for instance, we went to the [Cannes] festival and used the buzz for the film's release in India.”

In 2013, The Lunchbox, directed by Ritesh Batra and starring Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, had received an overwhelming response at Cannes. This year, Masaan, starring Richa Chadda, Sanjay Mishra, Shweta Tripathi and Vicky Kaushal, got a standing ovation from 2,000 viewers. It also won two awards—the Promising Future prize and the International Federation of Film Critics (Fipresci) trophy.

The film, set in Varanasi, follows two stories—One of Devi (Chadda), whose life changes after a sexual encounter ends in a tragedy, and her hapless father, Vidyadhar (Mishra). The other revolves around Deepak (Vicky Kaushal), a low-caste boy who falls in love with Shaalu (Shweta Tripathi), an upper-caste girl. The setting, Ghaywan thought, was too rooted and would perhaps not connect with the Cannes audience. The response, however, was overwhelming and left him in tears.

“I think the reason why I broke down was that, just like the characters in the film find an escape, I did that in my personal life,” he says. “I quit my job and I almost had a rebirth with films. So, when the credits were about to roll in the end, it hit me that maybe it's too rooted a film. But, once the standing ovation began, I sort of blanked out. It was like a closure with the film because the whole process of making Masaan, which took two to three years, was so gruelling. You know, I was so involved that at night I would dream only about the film. I didn't dream of anything else. That was all I could see. So the standing ovation gave me closure. At that point, I knew the film was no more mine or ours that we were so carefully safeguarding it. It was out in the open.”

But what was it about Masaan that made Ghaywan work so long and hard? “I don't know. The story kept haunting me, and at a subconscious level, and it pushed me to quit my corporate job. And then I just had to make this film,” he says. “Also, I had this very magical connection with Banaras. You have this kind of attachment to people or your childhood places. But I was attached to a place where I didn't know anybody. And I felt very good this one time when I missed my flight back to Bombay. I think it's all very strangely connected."

The success of Masaan is not an isolated incident. Over the past few years, more and more Indian films have been screened at international film festivals and some have even bagged awards. So, what is the reason behind the acceptance of independent cinema? “The audience has matured a lot,” says Ghaywan. “They are so connected to social media that they know what's happening and they are much more aware of world cinema. People are realising that, at some point, the whole south remake trend had to fizzle out. This year, especially, films with good content have done well at the box office, too.”

Isn't validation from the west another reason why people have been noticing independent films? “I don't think so. But I do think international festivals help films. For starters, there is Marché du Film, which is a big market where your film gets sold. So, we sold it to a lot of celebrities, we sold it to Italy, Spain and the Middle East. That wouldn't have happened if we wouldn't have gone to the festival. Also, the buzz created was so immense that we were able to use it as a marketing tool. If we had not gone to Cannes, I would have had to invest four times the budget of the entire film to get this sort of buzz, which doesn't make sense economy wise.”

But, wouldn't casting a well-known star have created more buzz? “In the one film that I have made, I have seen that, for an actor, it's very essential to get the cultural and linguistic nuances, and socio-political ethos correct,” he says. “The realism and narrative power come together when they are deeply integrated. Now, let's say a big star was willing to give his time and devotion to become the character. I wouldn't have said no. But what happens with stars is that, when you shoot in a real location, you have some 3,000 people who gather to see the star. So, you end up cancelling the shoot. You go back and shoot at some other place. And, that's how you lose the realism.”

Ghaywan, now a free man, wants to keep a low profile and clear his head before he jumps into his next project. But, has he achieved what he wanted to as a filmmaker with his first film? “That's a tough one. You know there are always some ifs and buts for filmmakers when they watch their own film. There is always scope for improvement. There are flaws that you see all the time but I am quite content with the film because of the response. I have been a critic myself and I have also seen people reacting to films. But I never thought that people would watch the film and talk about instances that they could relate to. People came out with a more philosophical experience and that's something I had not expected.”

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