It's not every day that one gets a chance to be on the frontlines of filmmaking. Indie films and filmmaking seem to be buzzwords these days with so many of these low-budget-yet-large-hearted films coming out of the woodwork 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, Absent, Rahim Murge Pe Mat Ro) on his yet-to-be-named upcoming film, I jumped on it. Here's a chance to see first-hand the mechanics of indie filmmaking in action. Makhija's film has been in pre-production for a couple of months already and is just about a week away from shoot now. I have been embedded with the team for a month now, assisting Makhija while also sharing my observations once every week with you. You can read the earlier posts here, here, here and here. Obviously, there's a limit to what can be shared and I won't be able to talk about the story or the cast. The idea is to give a clear-eyed picture of indie filmmaking, divorced from all the romanticization that surrounds it.
I am reeling with the amount of information coming my way. We've been cooped up inside a big room, working with the actors, going through their scenes one by one, to nail their performances as well as block the shots. Given that we are on a tight schedule, Makhija wants to lock everything before we go on the floors.
"You will be responsible for creating the shot-division docket, our bible for the shoot," he told me when I first came on board.
The first few days of these discussions between Makhija and Bhattacharjee (our director of photography or DOP) around the shot breakdown were extremely fun. Passionate arguments back and forth on how a scene should be shot went late into the evenings with a final agreement on the philosophy and the grammar of the shot-taking locked down.
I slept excited by the vision of the director, mumbling (I am told) some filmmaking jargon in my sleep, assured that we were creating cinematic history.
Cut to a few days later, post a recce to the location and the same scene is under discussion. It seems we don't have the space to execute the shot-taking that Makhija and the team were so excited about. All of us sulk. Not so Makhija.
A film isn't just one person's vision. That's a myth. Especially when it comes to indie films, it's the team that makes it. Devashish Makhija
"You know what we can do..." starts Makhija as we see him come up with another way to shoot the same scene.
"But that goes against what you said the last time," I protest.
"But this makes more sense," he says and explains why. A little begrudgingly, we have to admit it does make more sense. I, however, feel a little betrayed.
Was all that excitement, all that passion for the idea that day, that philosophy of shot-taking, false? The flexibility that Makhija shows around questions that in my opinion are too central to be changed puzzles me. His openness and responsiveness to suggestions from actors and the crew, to the uninitiated, might seem like indecisiveness.
Having worshipped at the altar of Kubrick and Hitchcock, filmmakers who crossed every "t" and dotted every "I" in their films, I wonder, "Isn't a director supposed to know it all and be this omnipotent being with all the answers?"
Makhija doesn't think so.
"A film isn't just one person's vision. That's a myth. Especially when it comes to indie films, it's the team that makes it. I don't want to impose my thoughts on everyone. I want to keep finding good ideas to make my film better. It's not just my film, it's 'our' film. That's the only way one can make an indie film."
Humans naturally desire control, but when everything around you is in a constant state of flux, like it is on an indie film, there's no point hankering for "control." You let go. Makhija is still trying to figure out a way to handle this situation. His approach involves "giving in" and being agile in responding to whatever is thrown at him, while also empowering his team to take decisions.
Getting ready for the look test
This is quite similar to what indie filmmakers like Robert Altman did or Michael Winterbottom is known to do. They repeat their crew, even gaffers, such that there are 8-10 people working on the film, who are in complete sync with the director's vision and style. Decisions get made quickly, turnarounds are faster and chances of miscommunication, lower.
The energy during the workshops is palpable. The actors improvise their lines and action, Makhija locks it in consultation with them, before he and Bhattacharjee block their shots. Everyone is engaged in the process, this is collaborative filmmaking at work. Three days before the shoot begins, our small crew is gearing up for the final test.
It promises to be gruelling, knocking off 90 pages script ages in 20 days of shoot in the chaos of Mumbai is going to be tough. But then, who said indie filmmaking was gonna be easy?