Behind The Scenes Of An Indie Film Shoot: Part 1 — Cost Is King

It isn't every day that one gets a chance to be on the front lines of filmmaking. Indie films seem to be en vogue these days, with so many of these low-budget-yet-large-hearted films coming out of the clockwork in the last few years & 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 to, 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 as-yet-unnamed 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 a month away from shoot. I will be embedded with the team, assisting Makhija while also sharing my observations once every week with you. Obviously, there's a limit to what can be shared & 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 romanticism that surrounds it.

Director Devashish Makhija, on the shoot of 'Agli Baar'.
Director Devashish Makhija, on the shoot of 'Agli Baar'.

It's already been a couple of weeks since I started & I expected it to be crazy & frenetic. Surprisingly, it's not. Work is on full swing — the cast & crew for the film was locked last week — but a certain calmness prevails. Yes, tempers do get frayed occasionally; arguments and negotiations between what the director wants and what the crew can continue endlessly into the night... but these tend to end in sensible compromises. Makhija is firm on what he needs, but also flexible enough to mould his requirements in the face of reality.

And reality is filled with constraints. Of time & money. Two variables that every indie filmmaker — in fact every filmmaker — operates within. "No thank you, I have enough money," said no filmmaker ever. But it's up to a filmmaker how he/she chooses to respond to this pressure on resources. For some it can be debilitating while others thrive on it. Having made 4 short films last year alone, Makhija now seems to revel in adversity.

'Jugaad', that much abused word, is what it's all about. You want to spend on that camera you feel you HAVE to shoot on? But there's no money to spare. What do you do? Maybe cut the script a little, chop off a few characters, do away with scenes that need costly locations or move those scenes somewhere cheaper. As painful as that sounds, maybe it will end up helping your script. That's what Makhija's working on, paring his script down to the bare essentials, to fit into the budget he has. A 100+ page script that would've needed 25 days of shoot is being cut to 75 pages to fit a shooting schedule of 15 days.

I don't know how Makhija will manage this, but I guess he has no choice. "This will end up making the script tighter and more focused," he feels. "Anything that helps me get the film made the way I want it."

The search for locations typifies this approach. Yes, the locations aren't locked yet. Isn't it too late, with just a month to go for the shoot? If there's one thing that bothers the team, it is this. It's a film set in slums and there's no dearth of those in Mumbai. But what Makhija wants is control over his locations and that comes at a cost.

That dreaded word again.

"Even if it's a low budget film, it shouldn't look like one," he says. "Every film has a few 'money shots', even big commercial films. Shots that show scale. One might not have the money, but no one stops you from being inventive. I need those shots to make my film feel big."

How does one do that? Jugaad! Cheat interiors and exteriors, shooting all the outdoor shots in locations that satisfy the demands of the script & enhance it visually & shoot indoors in places that allow more control. Another decision that impacts the script. Which impacts everything else!

A team meeting in progress.
A team meeting in progress.

Time is money and the crew is working on saving as much of it as possible. Makhija is intent on rehearsing extensively with the cast, the cinematographer, and the rest of the crew before the shoot starts so every scene is blocked & everybody comes prepared to the shoot. Here's where I get to contribute. My job on the film (why waste a resource?) is to create a docket on shot division and a complete floor plan that everyone references on the shoot, so there's no confusion & things move smoothly. I haven't done this before but there's always a first time. I'm quite excited to see how that turns out.

Small budgets force their way into every aspect of the film. Who you cast, where you shoot, how you shoot, what cameras you can hire. It's a constant struggle to see the film through with small compromises on every turn that eventually shape the film, often in positive ways. It's your film and you've got to take ownership. That's what I've learnt in these two weeks with the film.

The steady stream of WhatsApp messages on my phone reminds me that I have tasks to complete. The team depends on everyone else doing their job properly and on time. I've got to rush for now but am sure by the time we meet next week, there will be plenty more to share.

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