Varun Tandon is on a high having won a National award for his short film Syaahi. But the young filmmaker feels that there is still a long way to go. We spoke with the director who loves to work with non-actors and talked at length about the process he followed for the film, challenges he faced and his future plans.

Varun Tandon receiving the National award

Varun Tandon receiving the National award

At the National awards, Syaahi was introduced as a conglomeration of sense and sensibilities depicted through the innocence of a young mind. Could you elaborate on the premise and how did it take birth?

I had written a short story, which was a coming of age story of a young boy about a small incident. The story started growing in my mind and it slowly became a film, which did not want to leave me. I continued thinking about it. I figured out that there are incidents in life which are small but leave a larger impact on your life. Looking back in my own life I thought of stories that I had heard from people.

I worked a lot on the script and once the story was done I sat on the screenplay. I was pretty disciplined and had attended the NFDC Screenwriters’ Lab with my previous script. I learned that if you are very disciplined with the script, it helps a lot. I approached it like writing a feature film script. I went back to my hometown and wrote the script in twenty days flat. But it took a couple of months writing the re-drafts. The challenge was that I did not write the location in the script. Other than that everything was pretty detailed.

If you are very disciplined with the script, it helps a lot

You shot in a remote location in Uttarakhand. How did you handle the production and manage crowd control?

We shot the film in Sonapani, Almora and Bhimtal. We got help from the local people who would come and help out of goodwill. Fortunately, we did not face a problem of crowd control because it was so remote that there was hardly any crowd to control. Also, it was the smaller pit-stops that we made that helped. We would just shoot and get out of the place as quickly as possible. The only major challenge were the static frames with the tripod. In such frames, hiding the camera wasn’t possible.

Your last short Gulcharrrey was made on a shoestring budget of rupees six thousand. Were there budget constraints with Syaahi too? And what challenges did that lead to?

We shot the film on a very tight budget. The challenge was that it was the first time that I wasn’t shooting in Mumbai. The whole process of taking a crew to Uttarakhand was a huge challenge. Due to budget constraints we did not have much time to shoot. It was almost like a race from start to finish. We kept on shooting for as long as we could in a day. The light in the hills would also go very fast. There wasn’t any electricity and we couldn’t use the generator because it was a sync-sound. We were working with children and non-actors so the things became even more challenging. We would have liked to shoot for 12 days but we could only afford a six day schedule. So, the challenges were many but the experience was very satisfying.


Making of Syaahi

Making of Syaahi

How was your experience with crowdsourcing for this film?

We had some budget this time compared to the last film. Crowdsourcing was really helpful for us. We found people who believed in the film and were generous. We did not ask for a large sum from a single producer. We would show people the rough cut of the film or have them read the script and they would come up with a quotation of their contribution. They contributed whatever was feasible for them. It was also a validation for us that if the rough cut is working then probably we are on the correct path. The best part about crowdsourcing was the creative freedom that came with it. We could plan and execute things according to our free will with no interference from the producers.


Himanshu Bhandari, the ten-year-old local boy who plays the lead in the film is a non-actor. There were a lot of non-actors in Gulcharrey as well. Talk about your process of casting and working with non-actors.

My casting process begins with the look. For me the look of the person should match what has been written in the script. Once that’s achieved, half of the job is done. Things become more believable. But again that’s a very tricky zone to be in. While shooting you never know where the tide will turn. When you meet some people physically, they come out as interesting and outspoken. But as soon as the camera starts to roll they go into a shell. So, with every actor it’s a different process. One has to talk to them and understand their personalities. One has to also give them space because directing them too much often confuses them. You show them the way but at the end of the day you must ask them to just be in the moment. Over-intellectualizing the process confuses them and all of that shows on camera.

So, my process is meeting a person, talking to him, making him comfortable about the story and the basics about the filmmaking process. With Himanshu things were pretty smooth as he would learn his lines really fast and all I had to do was wait for the correct moment to capture him. But the other child, who was playing his friend, I had to work a lot with him. It was worth investing time on him as he had a very raw feeling. Taking retakes was the most challenging part. We had to push our boundaries each time.

Over-intellectualizing the process confuses actors and all of that shows on camera

Overall, what were the obstacles faced during the making of the film and how did you overcome them?

Working with children is satisfying as well as gruelling. Then there was the shrunk timeline with lots to do in that stipulated time. Plus working with people who were facing the camera for the first time. The challenges were many. But thankfully, to counter that we had longer edit sessions. We had multiple options to play with. There were two big learnings for me from this shoot. One – the more time you spend with the actors the better it is for the film. Two – as a filmmaker you should be open to ideas from around you. You have to be open to collaboration – to me, some of the best things in the film are a result of the entire team coming together.


Team of Syaahi

Team of Syaahi

The film is traveling in premium festivals. What are your future plans for the film? Do you wish to make it available online as was the case with Gulcharrey?

Honestly, once we made the film we were also discovering the potential of it. This is also because it’s a very personal film. While making the film we did not focus on what the audience of the film is going to be. We focused on making a good film. But the film made it to festivals and got a very good response till now. And then the National awards happened. Presently we are traveling with the film and exploring and considering our options for an online release. Ultimately, we want to make the film reach its audience wherever they are.

Your feature script Anjaan Gali Gumnaam Nagar was in the NFDC Script Lab mentored by Ritesh Batra. How was that experience?

That was a life changing experience for me. I was just 22 when I was selected and had no screenwriting experience. Writing a feature is very different from writing shorts. I wrote the script and I thought I had a perfect script in hand (laughs). But when I went to the Lab we started from scratch. I learned a lot about character development and screenwriting in a formal and structured manner. I decided to apply the learnings in my coming projects. After the lab was over I knew it was very difficult for me to make a feature immediately. Whatever I learned at the lab I executed in Syaahi. I could incorporate a lot of it in Syaahi because it was a completely new script. I could also be more objective. So, to sum it up it was (NFDC Lab) a film school for me.


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Varun Tandon
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