From Acting In A Play To Making A Film – After The Third Bell
“If the final cut of a film looks exactly the same as it’s written in a script, there is something wrong,” says independent filmmaker Ajay Govind, who learnt this while executing his first feature film project, After the third bell. With no formal training in Direction, Ajay Govind first thought of embarking on the journey of putting his first feature film together while staging a play called ‘A Perfect Relationship’ in New Delhi. But executing the plan is never as easy as getting an idea.
Yet, overcoming all the hurdles and challenges, the filmmaker did his best to finish his film but like the case has been for any independent filmmaker, finance has been a major constraint for him too because of which the progress on the film has been slow (but steady).
While Ajay Govind is looking for a collaborator or a distributor for his film, he chats with Pandolin on reliving the journey he began with After the third bell.
You have no formal training in film making or in media production yet you are running your own small production house. How did it all start?
I have always been passionate about writing poetry and stories, but I had never thought that it would develop into an interest in writing scripts or screenplays for films. After my graduation, I did a part-time certificate course in media studies which developed my interest in film appreciation. My background in studying literature helped me with the more analytical approach towards viewing movies that film theory demanded. It was then that I started imagining my short stories as short films and eventually worked with a few friends in executing these ideas.
I was not very aware of the medium but it became obvious soon enough that there was a lot to learn and explore. It was all very new but it inspired me to create fresh stories for this medium.
And eventually, this interest led me to make my first feature length documentary in Malayalam.
What was your first documentary about?
I am born and brought up in Delhi but my roots lie in Kerala. In 2005, I decided to go back and familiarize myself with the place, the language etc. So during my travel in Calicut, where I was taking workshops in schools, I came across the story of Naranathu Bhranthan (the madman of Naranathu), which really fascinated me. What captured my interest was its connection with the philosophy espoused in Albert Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus which I related to. I developed a concept that brought these two elements together and wrote the screenplay.
The next task was to look for story tellers which happened within my immediate family and friends, hired a local camera person and travelled to the various locations where I shot the film. But then because it was my first time, I was unaware of many technical things, for example, I used the audio of the camera rather than an external device. I did not have proper mike for the film. But somehow I managed to fix the audio with the help of a good editor in Cochin. The film was called The Madman’s Audience and it was a 42-minute film. I managed a few screenings of the film also.
That was my first independent documentary feature and after that, I have primarily been doing advocacy and program films that are commissioned by various organisations that work in the area of education and reproductive health.
Between these documentaries and my first feature fiction After the third bell, there were a few short docu-fiction films that I shot, like Where boys do cry which was an abstract petition against ragging.
How come you thought of making a fiction film?
Fiction has always been my first preference and I would have always wanted to do fiction, if I had the options or enough resources. Documentaries happened to me quite by chance and it was never a planned first step. In fact, After the third bell is my third screenplay. Six years back, I started writing the screenplay of a psychological thriller, which is still incomplete and after that started to write a romantic comedy, another incomplete screenplay. Then in 2011, because of the play A Perfect Relationship where I played one of the leads, this film happened. The script was born out of the people that were involved in the play and I started writing the screenplay of After the third bell.
What’s the reason that your third screenplay ‘After the third bell’ became your first film?
Because it was doable for me. In the film, I play the dead body and other characters who were in the play are the suspects. I only needed two additional actors to play cops. Moreover, I visualised most of the film in a remand room. The film is divided into three parts; one is the rehearsal footage, the footage of the actual play where the actor dies and then the interrogations that were shot in an indoor location. So the whole film was more or less doable, which is why After the third bell happened to be my first film. Otherwise, my first screenplay called would have probably made the cut.
What’s the connection between the title of the film and the story?
Generally, when a play begins in a theatre, a bell is rung three times. These bells are used to indicate to the audience that the play is about to start. The first bell to let people in, the second for actors to be ready in their positions and the third bell means the beginning of the play. Since the murder happens after the third bell, I chose that as the title.
People, who have some inclination towards theatre, will immediately realize the connection between the theatre and the film. I also think that title has an intriguing feel to it.
How did the film evolve?
When we were staging the play in Delhi, I had already started thinking of doing this film. I knew that the first thing I need is the footage of the play itself because that would obviously form the key part of the case. Then, I spoke with the director of the play and I shared this idea. We usually do capture the video footage of our play but this time, we made it a little more elaborate and placed three cameras set up instead of one, to ensure enough video shots of the play.
Simultaneously, I was also writing the screenplay. I discussed the basic storyline with my other fellow actors and based on their feedback, I was able to add some more elements to my film. Before I met them, I thought that my screenplay, which was about 70-80 pages long, to be complete, but later, I added another 50 to 60 pages to it.
My DOP, Tanweer Ahmed, also brought in the perspective that having an entire film or majority of the film shot in one location might seem monotonous to the audience. Hence, we added one character who is a college professor, her interrogation scene was shot in a college. We shot other couple of interrogation scenes in people’s houses. However, the remand room is critical since a lot of scenes were conceptualized there. Even the rehearsal portions of the film were created.
What research was involved into making the film?
It was after I wrote the screenplay that I wanted to do research, to verify some technical aspects of my story, making sure ‘creative licenses’ weren’t taken to illogical extents. For example, I needed to know the time it takes to get the post-mortem report or the importance of the cops wearing uniforms etc.
Apparently, I also learnt that there is nothing called remand room in our police stations. I went to a cop and asked ‘can I see your remand room?’ he answered, ‘we don’t have any remand room’. I was a bit confused initially and then later saw a storage room which was converted into a remand room. I discovered interrogations generally take place in the main space of the police station. In some serious cases, whenever any private interrogation is required, unused corner of the station is used. Also, logistically speaking, I couldn’t have created the entire set of police station. I had just enough resources to shoot in a police station only for a day.
But the biggest discovery of the research was what I call ‘temporary sach’ in the film.
What is this ‘temporary sach’?
Temporary sach is a concept that fascinated me. I found out that a police officer is under a lot of pressure to produce a charge sheet, irrespective of whether he has found the suspect or not. For example, if a murder happens, media or people expect him to find out a suspect. But if he is unable to find anything, a police officer can’t just come out and say ‘I am sorry I can’t crack the case’ because then the system would be deemed useless. In order to avoid this situation, he files a charge sheet of a criminal with some past records whether he has committed that particular crime or not. So until he finds an actual person suspected of crime, he has to deal with this temporary reality.
In the film, ‘temporary sach’ is the core of the character BC Banerjee, the cop, as he lives his temporary reality while solving the case he has been assigned. He hates homosexuals, theatre artists and modern women. That temporary reality of his overshadows the murder case itself. He is more interested in going after suspected homosexuals or falling in a verbal banter with a very intelligent woman or poking fun at actors rather than finding the murderer.
What were your inspiration for the film’s characters?
All my actors basically accused me of exaggerating their own real selves in their characters. And that’s not too far from the truth – my inspiration for characters was actors themselves. Having worked with these actors on stage for two years, I knew them quite well. So, I used some basic traits that I knew of and exaggerated possibilities. But what catches the attention of most people who have seen the film is how distinct each character is.
For Balbirr’s character, I was inspired by RGV films. I have always had fascination for this character who is always in the frame but doesn’t speak a single word in the film. Although, the character was later developed with having more dialogues during the process of the making.
From where did you get the finance to produce this film?
The film’s budget stands at around Rs. 30 lakhs. And it was all my money which I managed to generate from earnings, savings, a loan and to some extent borrowing funds from people (on the condition that I would return their money).
Why you did not try to find the producer for your film?
I am completely new to this entire domain of feature films. I have very skewed perception of things. I thought that with the script like this, which is so unconventional, dialogue-oriented and characters driven with no masala, it would be too difficult to go to Bombay or convince the producers. However, my DOP also suggested that the sensible thing is to find a producer first and then take the film forward. But then, I was also very determined to take this project through.
Somewhere, I also did not want to fall into any of those compromises, even if I managed to get the producer. Despite that, I think everything worked out well because at the end of the day I have a good product. For me it was largely because of that perception that it would take long or I would have to do lot of work chasing producers. I knew that if I got into that, I would just lose interest and energy – not to mention time doing.
How much time did it take you to complete the film?
It took me about 7 to 8 months to finish the screenplay. The shoot took about 18 days. It’s an independent film and we had limited budget so we had no other option but to do it in a very limited time frame. It challenged the entire crew—particularly the lead actor who, like a majority of the crew, is a debutant.
In which camera and format did you shoot the film?
We used Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera and the film was shot in 16:9 formats. Sound was done on location although for some patchwork and voiceover we did dub in the studio.
How do you plan to release the film?
That’s the biggest challenge. At this point of time only the sound re-mastering and colour correction of the film is left to be done. I went to the Film Bazaar in Goa recently with a purpose of finding a collaborator to cap finances but I discovered that the biggest hurdle is going to be a theatrical release.
Although, I am still hopeful and convinced that a limited theatrical release along with good word of mouth publicity, can really help the film to reach people.
But whether I would be able to convince the distributors yet, I don’t know. I am planning on pitching to PVR director’s cut and Big Cinemas for the release.
If the theatrical release doesn’t work out, I do have a Plan B. I will hold as much screening of the film as possible in film festivals. I will spend three to four good months to publicize the film in social media or have a pan India release of the film i.e free screenings.
What has been your biggest learning during making your first feature film?
When I started off this film, I thought if I have a location and actors; I could easily make it. My first cut was 1 hour 52 minutes long and I showed it to filmmaker Onir and actor producer Sanjay Suri for their feedback. They gave me extensive feedback on it which made a lot of sense to me. When you make a film, there are chances that you overlook certain things because you are too closely involved to be able to see certain gaps. This was when I realised that how you thought the film will be when you write it and how it turns out in the end may totally differ and in fact they can’t be the same. This has been one of the biggest learnings.
In other words, I am going to be more careful about expecting myself to have everything on paper because it can limit you.
Are you creatively satisfied now?
Yes, I am satisfied with how the film looks now. As a writer-director I did initially feel reluctant towards changing too many things but after making changes based on two closed-group screenings I feel that I have a better product than what I started out with.
I am certainly satisfied because the film has evolved during this entire process and am looking forward to seeing how people react to it.
[box_info] SYNOPSIS (After The Third Bell)
When the third bell went off, none of the actors or the audience had a clue about what they were going to be witness to. During the live performance of the comedy play ‘A Perfect Relationship’ an actor dies on stage.
ACP B.C Banerjee is forced to cut his vacation short and come back to the capital. To complicate the situation further this case brings together two things that Banerjee is disdainful of: theatre and homosexuals. And during the course of the investigation his prejudices get the better of him.
The investigation is a game for BC, each suspect his opponent. And with each subsequent stage of this game he finds himself getting closer to finding out what happened…
after the third bell. [/box_info]