It's not every day that one gets a chance to be on the front lines of filmmaking. Indie films seem to be buzzwords these days with many low-budget-yet-large-hearted films coming out in the last few years and winning acclaim. Whether there's an indie movement or a wave happening, is for the future to decide. What is indisputable is that filmmakers across the country are picking up their cameras and making their films the way they want, unhindered by monetary considerations.
So when I was offered an opportunity to work alongside Devashish Makhija(Agli Baar,Taandav,El'ayichi,Abs nt,Rahim Murge Pe Mat Ro) on his upcoming film, I jumped on it. Here's a chance to see first-hand the mechanics of indie filmmaking in action. I have been embedded with the team, assisting Makhija while also sharing my observations with you. The film is now in post-production and you can read all the earlier postshere.
Makhija and Bhattacharjee - The director and the DOP working in tandem
What does one mean by "developing one's voice?" It's not an easy concept to define in a few words but you know what it means when you see it. An Almodóvar film is its own beast as is a film by Wong Kar-wai. You know a Tarantino or an Ozu or a Lynch film when you see one. The hundreds of small decisions filmmakers make about the film leave an indelible mark on it which the rest of us see as their style or voice.
Every cut is political. When and where you cut says something beyond what the shot conveys.
A commercial filmmaker caters to a certain target audience and works backward from what is known to work with them. There's a formula in their films. Anyone who circumvents that approach and seeks to say something beyond the tried and tested becomes, inadvertently, an indie filmmaker and ends up attracting a different audience. "Every indie filmmaker necessarily has to have a voice of his/ her own. Else why would audiences deem it worthy to watch your work, if not to see something new or different, something that is unique to your work?" says Makhija.
But how does one do it, i.e. develop a voice? Whether you work at it consciously or not, by the time you end up making a film (or two) there's already a voice there. Every small decision that you make—and trust me you will make thousands in every film— shapes the film in subtle, indiscernible ways till it eventually becomes its own beast, unlike anything anyone else but you could have made.
The most important decisions that a filmmaker keeps making on a recurring basis and that are critical to this voice are:
- Where he/ she places the camera, and
- Where he/ she cuts a shot
Of course one can argue that there are other things to consider as well, like say the subject-matter. But one doesn't necessarily need to pick a socially relevant subject to make a political comment. Every cut is political. When and where you cut says something beyond what the shot conveys. And where one places the camera is as revealing—sometime more revealing—of a director's sympathies as any piece of dialogue could ever be.
Where you place the camera defines you as a filmmaker
Many filmmakers have said the same and I've read this as well, but the true import of these assertions grew on me gradually in the last few months as I saw Makhija wade through the film. These are the two creative questions he's had to struggle with the most in that entire duration.
Making an indie film is hard enough but sticking to your convictions is harder still. And that conviction is tested not only during the making, but even after the film is made.
Pre-production involved long discussions on blocking and framing that culminated in a detailed shot breakdown that Makhija used selectively throughout the shoot as and when he saw fit, or when circumstances allowed him to. The 23 days of editing saw Makhija and Chandra go back and forth on every shot, debating the relative merits of ending a shot few frames before or later. In a 100-minute-long film there are hundreds of such cuts which involve thousands of such decision points for the director and editor to fuss over.
What choices one makes in response to these questions is what eventually ends up giving the filmmaker her voice. Making an indie film is hard enough but sticking to your convictions is harder still. And that conviction is tested not only during the making, but even after the film is made. For there are producers, sales agents, festival programmers and other such well-meaning characters who have an opinion, a POV on the film that might not necessarily mesh with yours.
Pooja, our associate director, doubling up as a part-time editor
Why don't you remove that scene, it doesn't really add to the film? Can't you cut that scene down, what's the point of it?
I see Makhija tackling these and many such suggestions on a regular basis. It's quite remarkable how chameleon-like he is when it comes to re-evaluating his own positions.
"It's your film and nobody knows the material better than you. And precisely for that reason you are obliged to take the feedback and see if it can help the film. There's no point being arrogant about it," he says.
Luckily for Makhija the producers on the film, Yoodlee Films (a division of Saregama India), have provided him with complete creative control on the film which I am given to understand is very unusual in Mumbai.
I guess one cannot really let "having a voice" get in the way of making the film better. Of course put that way it seems the two are at loggerheads, which is really not true. But there will be times when not everyone will agree with your cut. How you deal with that feedback is as integral to developing your voice as any of the thousand other decisions you might have taken till then. I could say it won't be easy' but I am sure you already know that by now.