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 alongsideDevashish 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. I have been embedded with the team for over two months now, assisting him while also sharing my observations once every week with you. The shoot finished last week and is now in post. You can read all the earlier posts here. Obviously, there's a limit to what can be shared and I won't be able to talk about the story at length. The idea is to give a clear-eyed picture of indie filmmaking, divorced from all the romanticisation that surrounds it.
I need to get something off my chest. The shoot finished last week and I would be lying if I said I enjoyed it. As much as I enjoyed the pre-production process, the shoot had me running around like a headless chicken. Or a fish out of water. Pick whichever metaphor you want, the fact is that I was completely out of my zone and I am quite relieved that it's ended.
While many indie filmmakers get stuck on famous actors, in a way it's a blessing to not have established stars to work with.
Of course I learnt a lot, had the privilege of watching some exceptionally talented artists in action and be part of a truly worthy film. And I learnt a lot about myself. Like any high-pressure situation, an indie film set is a great place to do that, learn about people. The way they respond to pressure, the way they step up (or don't) to the occasion, the way they get work done, all reveal character. It's not a place for the weak-hearted.
That is not to say that it was a complete whitewash for me. I had my moments. Most of them involved watching our actors create magic as the camera rolled. The enforced stillness between "action" and "cut" became the canvas on which the actors made their characters and emotions come alive. In those moments, when everything—the light, the camera movement, the background sound, the faded colour of the walls, the emotions on the actors faces and in their voices—came together, we sat with bated breath, each person fully aware that this was the moment we'd all been preparing for, that this was the moment that will live on in history, this is our "message in a bottle" set afloat.
And none of this romanticising would've been possible without the actors we had on our film. While many indie filmmakers get stuck on famous actors, in a way it's a blessing to not have established stars to work with. They bring their own baggage and if the filmmaker is willing to cast his/her net wide, then there are gems waiting to be discovered. Like Makhija did on this film.
The eclectic cast included a veteran Marathi theatre activist/actor, a couple of highly experienced Hindi film and TV character actors, actors from Marathi cinema and a few talented actors who've worked mostly on the web so far. Makhija also cast a few actors who've worked with him earlier in his short films. Films, TV, theatre and web—actors from all sorts of backgrounds populated the film.
Getting known names might help market the film better, but you will probably lose out on making the movie you could've made.
Makhija cast actors purely on merit. Of course the budgets played a role but he almost always went with actors who bought into his vision of the film and their characters. Given the demands that the script placed on the actors, I doubt if it could've been done in any other way. Everyone walked into the film knowing full well how difficult the shoot was going to be. That just made the film their film and shooting with them a delightful experience, devoid of any of the starry tantrums that one hears so much about. Nowhere was this truer than in the case of our lead actress, Sushama Deshpande, a much respected name in Marathi theatre, who's spent almost 30 years writing and acting in plays with feminist overtones.
Makhija and Sushama Deshpande, deep in discussion
Her body of work includes a play on Savitribai Phule, the 19th century Dalit and women's rights activist (which she's been performing for 27 years), another based on the life of a tamasha performer, a play on the lives of sex workers and another based on the memoirs of Urmila Pawar, an acclaimed Maharashtrian writer who wrote on Dalit and gender issues.
Casting Deshpande was an inspired decision to say the least. Once she jumped on board, her commitment to the film was complete. It was inspiring for all of us on set to see a veteran actor of her age put up with the physical and emotional challenges of the shoot. And there was no dearth of those. From walking through the night up and down the slums of Powai in Mumbai to changing saris in the middle of the street at night on guerrilla shoots to chopping meat (yes, it was gruesome), she did it all. If ever she had any doubts about what she was being made to do, not once did she let them show.
The shoot was physically and emotionally challenging for everyone involved
This was equally true of the other actors in the film. I guess that's what you need as an independent filmmaker—collaborators who trust you and are willing to go the distance with you. Getting known names might help market the film better, but you will probably lose out on making the movie you could've made. It's a difficult question that every indie filmmaker has to face up to.
Makhija got lucky with the actors. But he had to work hard on it. It's not over yet. Not by far. A film is made thrice they say—once when it's been written, then once while it's been shot and then finally on the edit. Some take it a step ahead; they say shooting is just gathering the material, editing is where the film is actually structured, given shape. Whatever the case, I'll find out in the next few months as we edit the film. After the din and dust of shooting, we retreat into dark air-conditioned rooms before Makhija finally emerges with the film he's toiled hard for. It will be fun to witness and bring this part of the journey to you. Keep watching this space...