Gurgaon explores something hidden deep down within us: Shanker Raman
For most parts of our lives, we look for sources of inspiration around us, in the exterior world. When more often than not, the real answers lie deep within. Shanker Raman’s Gurgaon explores this deep sense of personal inquiry, questioning the prevalent way of life and thus nudging us to look deep within ourselves. The Delhi born, National award-winning cinematographer who makes his directorial debut, has brilliantly used ‘Gurgaon’ as a state of mind, a metaphor for the chaos of modern urban life.
In a freewheeling chat, Shanker makes us a part of his filmmaking journey as he delves into the numerous aspects of Gurgaon, from its casting to its visual treatment, culminating in a simple message as to why everyone should watch this film.
You were born and brought up in Delhi, you must’ve literally seen Gurgaon grow from nothing to this crazy hub. How has the city influenced you?
It (The city) is always present in your subconscious. You sense this growth happening all around you, where a whole township or a city is coming up. It was all around me when I was growing up. I was much younger then, and there’s only that much I knew. But over the days that I’ve been talking about the film, I’ve realized that in hindsight, the story, the theme, politics etc., it all essentially comes from a place where you are asking questions like – how do we alter the way we live? Gurgaon specially comes from a place of deep inquiry.
I understand that we are resigned about things, bitter, even cynical, but we also seem to be in acceptance of the things going on around us. It mostly has to do with the quality of your life. As much as we are responsible for generating it, it’s also a function of our circumstances, our environment, our families, cultural background etc., all of which is largely out of our control. Having said that, we still contribute to building a society, and a world around us. And if I’m resigned about everything saying “Ab toh kuch hone wala nahi hai,” this is how its going to be; things will not change. So if I were to think on those lines, the question for me (the basis of this film) was – where does the resignation come / stem from? There has to be some foundation, some source.
Over the years, there’s been a sense of personal inquiry, not only into my own nature but the nature of life itself around me. Ultimately, when we began to talk about the story, about making a piece which could be a thriller, could have this potential plot, etc., I was fixated upon exploring something hidden deep down within us; something that we hide away because we don’t want to deal with it. There could be a moment or a sensation of an experience that I don’t want to deal with because it’s scary and your afraid to know what will happen.
I was thinking about the metaphor of the city, a city that has come up in recent years and a city that I’m fascinated with, because it occurs in a particular way to people. When I say Gurgaon, you get it, I don’t have to explain it to you. If you haven’t heard about it at all, then it’s a different matter. But most people, especially in India, have heard about Gurgaon and they get a sense of the place. They get a sense that there is more than what meets the eye; that you need to be prepared; you need to break for impact. And that intrigued me even more.
I can understand if it were a 5000-year-old city, where the ideas and opinions and a sense of how things are is deep rooted and strong. But for Gurgaon, its been just 20-30 years. It got me thinking that this was a metaphor of a place, which had a certain impression on people, and I saw it as a place that was unworkable, a place that isn’t working as well as it was expected to or it didn’t deliver the promise that it was meant to. And it got me thinking – as a society, as a unit of people living together on this planet, do we really come from a sense of promise to each other? That was one of my inquiries.
It was exploring a mindset, a space, it’s a lot like a Western, where people make their own rules and they go as far as they can to summon the power to defend it. I’m a Tamilian born and brought up in Delhi, I’m pretty much a Delhiite. I grew up witnessing all that I’ve just spoken about – a sense of ownership, entitlement, especially male entitlement, which took me a while to assimilate. As children, my mom would tell me to accompany my older sister to the market. I was just a 10-12 year old, and I never understood it for the longest time. But when I did, I felt that I had to do something about it. And I didn’t know what to do, except talk about it, bring it into conversations. Gurgaon was essentially born out of that – to alter prevalent conversation about how we live, where we live and to take on that resignation inside us, to allow us to confront the things that we have put away. Because if we can, then we can be free. And if we can be free, we can be kinder, more loving perhaps.
I saw the characters of Gurgaon from a place of hiding within themselves; it was important to look at them and really go down and see what it is that their hiding, what is it born of and do they really need to hide it? What is the source of their suffering? Then perhaps, I could see it in the context of their behavior, a kind of behavior that doesn’t work for others.
Did you always think of treating it as a thriller?
I didn’t set out to write a thriller or a drama per say, I set out to first find out what is the story I can tell. I started with the family, there is a history to this family and it has a past that is connected to the birth of Gurgaon. That was my starting point.
How I personally define a thriller is really not necessarily to do with guns and actions; a thriller is like a sense of fear of losing your identity, losing your grip on your sense of reality – that is a thriller to me. That is what we are afraid of. The fear of death, the fear of life altering in a way that you cannot go back. You can see a thriller aspect in everyday life. For me the idea of a thriller was everyday life breakdowns. And these every day life breakdowns don’t happen in isolation. They come from somewhere; they are born out of something. I was interested in exploring that – what happened to this family that they are in this position.
I would say go watch Gurgaon because you might just want to get up and do something about something
There’s a very interesting ensemble of actors that you’ve got on board. Did you visualize any of them while writing the characters?
I didn’t have any actor in mind when I wrote the story. I just wrote it as a story, developed the plot as I went along and essentially focused on developing characters. It was also very difficult for me at that stage to put a face to any of these characters, as I wasn’t familiar with that many actors and I didn’t want to put a face to them and get restricted.
I had thought of Aamir (Bashir) to play Bhupi’s character, when I was on my second or third draft, because it was clear to me that he would play that character to perfection.
When the time for casting came, Ajay Rai (Producer, Gurgaon) suggested that Pankaj (Tripathi) should play the father. I’d seen Pankaj’s work in Gangs of Wasseypur. He was the first actor I met for casting. Pankaj is a bit old-school, in the sense that he first talks to the director and then reads the script. And I enjoyed that. He’s very well-spoken, a thorough gentleman and very generous with his time. He has a great hold on human condition, so when I spoke to him about the world of the story, he instantly got it. And he agreed to play the part. I was very enthused by that; it’s great to hear an actor of his caliber and stature say yes without having to chase him. I was very happy.
Once I had Pankaj and Aamir for these two roles, I also gained a lot more confidence, personally, to approach other actors. Mukesh (Chhabra) was casting for us and he suggested Ragini. When I saw her audition, I knew that she fit the part perfectly; she even looked the part. When I met her, she said she loved the screenplay, which is a plus, because when an actor likes the story and is hungry to do it, it becomes that much more easier and fun to work with them.
I was then looking for someone to play the brother and Ragini mentioned Akshay’s name. When Akshay came to the office, I just saw him and said, “Yes, you’re the boy.” He’s probably the only one who I never auditioned. Because he is so strikingly handsome and that’s what his character had to be – he had to be this extremely desirable human being who is extremely conflicted.
Each actor brought in their life experiences to the role, that’s where we really connected. I too shared my life experiences with them and together we were able to construct a narrative and bring a certain realism to it. And yet, there was a mystery to it as well. It was a deeply collaborative process.
Being a cinematographer yourself, did you have a clear visual of the look and feel? Were you also sure that you wouldn’t do the cinematography yourself?
Absolutely, I was very clear that I won’t do it and very clear that Vivek (Shah, Cinematographer) will do it.
Honestly, I never paid attention to the look and feel while I was writing the film. With this particular screenplay, I was more focused on the world of the story, from the characters’ point of view. Are the characters believable, do they make sense, do they feel like they belong to this world? Does it feel like there is a real conflict? I knew that once I had these things sorted, even the look and feel would fall into place. Though yes, there were certain kind of shots clearly mentioned in the screenplay, as it normally happens.
Vivek & I spoke largely about the characters – how they are related to each other, what are they hiding, what do they not want to reveal; mainly what was really the subtext of what they are saying. For us, lighting and composing was really about highlighting this subtext rather than the text. What the characters are ‘not’ saying was more important for us to communicate (via the look and feel).
There has been a shift with greater acknowledgment for alternate work, there is a greater allowance for us
The look is dark, with barely any colors, was that a consciously done to keep the focus on the characters?
For sure. The reason why the look is such (dark and grungy), is because you’re trying to film a world which is very murky and hazy. The mystery is in that – what are they hiding? That is the greatest potential of telling a story because you can create a sense of experience cinematically. So the colors and the whole milieu, setting, costumes etc., were designed and tailored to generate that sense of mystery. The mystery is not about who killed who, the mystery is about why aren’t we having the conversations that we want to have.
How have your learnings as a cinematographer influenced your process as a director?
As a cinematographer, I’ve worked with some great directors and I continue to do so. Watching them work and learning from them has been brilliant. I come from a strong independent film background rather than a commercial background and all the films that I was part of, in whatever capacity, my name is on the board because of the charity of others (smiles). It’s been the generosity of these great creative minds that I’ve met and engaged with during my lifetime. Today when I face a challenging situation at work, I know how to resolve it. That has really been my learning over the years. Each film is unique, each challenge is unique, even if the subject matter is similar, the challenges won’t be the same.
I’ve seen my directors deal with some incredible challenges. From production break downs to ego issues etc., because if those aren’t sorted, how will you tell your story. As a cinematographer, the education that I got through these people has been priceless, not just technically but also in terms of how to manage for a desired result.
Gurgaon was essentially born out of that – to alter prevalent conversation about how we live, where we live and to take on that resignation inside us
When we talk about thrillers, as a genre, there is an evolution that we can see in Hindi cinema. What do you think has led to this change as an industry and as audience?
I don’t know in terms of what the trend has been. But what I can say is that there has been a shift in the kind of stories and the way we are telling these stories, especially because of the independent movement, which has been largely under acknowledged. People often say that independent cinema hasn’t got its due, I wouldn’t say that; they do get their due, but it doesn’t come up in the news.
A lot of films have been made and been watched by people but it’s not part of our larger consciousness. So, to say that there has been a change in viewing wouldn’t be possible in a holistic way. But I can say that there has been a shift with greater acknowledgment for alternate work, there is a greater allowance for us. And it’s also coming up in regular conversation. Primarily because, like you said, the audience is also shifting, they are also making demands. And they are showing that by declining their participation in certain kind of films. That shift is coming and it in encouraging because it says that ‘we want content’. That is the sign of a good society.
For us, lighting and composing was really about highlighting this subtext rather than the text
Lastly, what message would you like to put out for the potential audience of the film?
If you are a film buff, if you like watching films, and even if you don’t, I would say go watch Gurgaon because you might just want to get up and do something about something. I used to watch films and be moved by them, inspired by them, and I wanted to do something. I’m not saying you have to do something specifically, but sometimes you want to go ahead and make a difference to your life for the better.