Filmmaking is the only place where you get to play God: Navjot Gulati
A class 12 drop out, he dabbled with a number of jobs, from being a salesman in a mobile phone showroom to working in a call centre, managing sales for an insurance company to running a recruitment consultancy for call centres; but there was nothing that could keep Navjot Gulati away from his desire of making films. The filmmaker received a lot of adulation for his last short film, Jai Mata Di, which was a quirky tribute to Mother’s Day.
The writer – director is back with yet another interesting short titled Ghumakkad. In a conversation with Pandolin, Navjot discusses his recent release, opens up about his life influences and what actually went wrong with his feature RunningShaadi.com, which was quite special to him.
What gave birth to the script of Ghumakkad?
Last year during MAMI (Mumbai Film Festival), I was on a break from work for about a week. So, I saw a lot of movies at MAMI. Also, I had not directed anything for a while, the last project being Local Girlfriend, post which I did a few ads. After that I was just waiting for things to happen. By the time MAMI ended, I almost started thinking if I could direct something or not. I was in one of those phases.
I happened to attend MAMI with a friend, Diksha Juneja, who has played the lead in Ghumakkad. I was fascinated with her real life character, her issues and how she is as a person. I wanted to make something with her and she became my muse for this particular film.
There was another friend of mine who would always talk about how he wanted to take a break for three months, do nothing and travel endlessly. And I used to make fun of him. But he always said that he would do it. I was then having a conversation with this friend who used to host a lot of travel shows. And I happened to tell her “Tu bahut ghumakkad hai”. That ‘ghumakkad‘ word stayed with me. It is a word that all of us have heard a number of times but no one has ever made anything with that title.
So is the film based on the story of these three people and their issues?
Not necessarily. I haven’t taken everything from their real lives. The issues that are shown in the film are so generic that every second person would have faced them – parents fighting with each other or a boyfriend who is very keen on marrying you. Even the lesbian angle in the film draws from the fact that one is trying to understand one’s orientation. The film was inspired from a lot of places but isn’t just one person’s story – other than the basic idea which was by my friend Sumit Arora.
I came up with this film on the basis of a word then I turned it into a script, cast exactly the people I wanted to, finally made it and now I’ve released it
What was the journey of Ghumakkad like – from the making to casting and bringing the talent together?
Before MAMI ended, I had the first draft of Ghumakkad with me. I gave it to a couple of people and received positive reactions from them. But to make anything you need money. Once I wrote the script, I got the money through a friend’s friend who wanted to invest in a short film. With the money and script in place, we shot in January 2017. I had a great time working with everyone – be it Gajraj Rao, Suhail Nayyar, Namita Dubey etc. This film will always be very important to me as I have made a lot of friends during the process. Sometimes, the moment your work is over, your relationship with people also gets over. But with this film it was different.
That means you shot Jai Mata Di post Ghumakkad.
I was waiting on Ghumakkad for a couple of things. In fact, the opening montage that you see was never written in the script. That was an afterthought that resulted from the videos Diksha had shot when she had gone abroad. I was still trying to find a right buyer for the film and Jai Mata Di happened to me subsequently. Terribly Tiny Tales approached me to make a film on Mother’s Day. So I told them that I would love to do it but I didn’t want to do something repetitive where you show sentimental things about mothers. I wanted to do something quirky.
What do you think worked for this quirky take on Mother’s Day?
To be honest, a lot of credit for how Jai Mata Di turned out goes to Ghumakkad. During the making of Ghumakkad, I realized a lot about the process of how a short film should be made. I put in all that experience in Jai Mata Di and ironically, that film came out first.
Ghumakkad is a very personal film. Not that I went on a personal trip or so, but the underlying theme of the film for me is what she says in the end, “It is all in the mind”. Which means that the demons and issues created by this generation are all in the head. That is why it will always be a very personal film.
Jai Mata Di was made for a purpose, obviously a larger theme came out of it. People connected with the thought that Ma toh ma hoti hai, jhoothi moothi kya hoti hai. That is a very relatable thought, of a mother doing anything for her children. Mothers are superpowers on this earth.
I didn’t want to do something repetitive where you show sentimental things about mothers
Though it’s been just two days since the release of Ghumakkad, what are the reactions like?
I have seen varied reactions to a lot of my work that has come out in the last few years. The best reaction that I’ve received for anything till date was for Jai Mata Di. The response has been outright positive and people have suddenly noticed that I exist. I’ve had calls from different places. That is the kind of reaction I aspire for every work I do.
Some people did have issues with the narrative (of Ghumakkad). They felt that the issues highlighted in the film are not big enough but that is exactly my point, the issues which she is going through are actually not big enough! The people who connected to this thought have loved it. The ones who are more mentally evolved might have not liked it in the way that others have.
Also, technically, it was more of an experiment for me. I wanted to move beyond a certain style of filmmaking. So I’ve intentionally done a lot of long takes, black screens and no close-ups. I am a commercial filmmaker and through Ghumakkad I was trying to make a festival film. The funny part is that I’m not a believer in film festivals and I won’t even send the film to any festival! But I just wanted to do something which is a festival kind of film. Even in that, I have added my humour and people’s take on life. The greatest victory is that I came up with this on the basis of a word then I turned it into a script, cast exactly the people I wanted to, finally made it and now I’ve released it.
Are there any comparisons to Jai Mata Di, which gained an exceptional response?
My work is to give my 100 percent in what I do, I can’t really do anything about the comparisons. How people react is their responsibility and not mine. Like I said, for every person who has loved Jai Mata Di, there are people who have loved Ghumakkad as much, if not more. Obviously the kind of response Jai Mata Di got was different because it came around Mother’s Day – a day which always has a nice vibe attached to it.
Also, Ghumakkad has been released by an upcoming channel called Playground Digital Media, who are still trying to get their act together in terms of promotion. Whereas Terribly Tiny Tales has a very big subscriber base. The bottom line is that I’m very happy with Ghumakkad. The idea of making a short film is that you go out there and make whatever you want to make. Nobody is going to say anything to you. Ghumakkad will always be more special to me than Jai Mata Di because it lead to Jai Mata Di. What changes and evolves you is more important than the evolution.
People like us, who create fiction, are seekers of conflict. And conflict always gets a story out of it
To know a filmmaker, it is important to know his influences. What kind of films and filmmakers do you follow?
I’m very clear about the fact that I do not want to be slotted in making just a particular kind of movies. Till now, I haven’t made any feature film but now I intend to make one feature film every year. Trust me when I say this, but the genre will be different every single time. Most of the stories will come from my own experiences but I would also one day get up and decide to make an action film. Basically, you need motivation to make any particular type of film and whenever that motivation comes, I will go ahead and make those kind of films. I do have a tendency to base stories on me or people around me in most cases.
Coming to films and filmmakers, to be honest, whenever I make something, any film that falls in the genre I’m working on becomes my favorite. Currently, I’m making a feature film, which will be announced by next month. It is in a Monsoon Wedding kind of space. So you’ll see a lot of influences of Mira Nair in my film. If I have to name a few, I’m a big fan of Imtiaz Ali, Dibakar Banerjee, Anurag Basu, Anurag Kashyap, Shoojit Sircar etc. These are the people one looks up to. Internationally also there are a few filmmakers such as Damien Chazelle who directed La La Land. And then there are people like Quentin Tarantino. I don’t think I will ever be able to make the kind of films he does. But one day, I would want to make that kind of a film.
How did films actually happen to you?
I always knew that I wanted to be in films. I was someone who knew about films from the day I stepped into a cinema hall and saw my first film. I had always been reading about and following films. Before coming to Mumbai, I was part of a reality show called Bollywood Ka Boss, which was a film quiz hosted by Boman Irani. Theoretically, I always knew about the madness of films. But the practicality of it was very different and difficult.
Now that I am part of the film world, I make films because I’m passionate about them. I’m not making films to make money. I might make a lot more money in other ways than filmmaking. But the only reason I want to make movies is because I want to tell stories that excite me. The excitement will keep changing as per my state of mind. The other reason I always wanted to make films was because I get bored very easily – with people, things and places.
Filmmaking is the only place where you get to play God and do whatever you want to do. I have a strength of being a writer-director. So, I will never run out of stories. I would never be the one making a remake. If I do, I will make sure that it is an adaptation and not a remake, where I really want to tell that story.
Recently, a friend of mine suggested that I should write for TV or direct something which will let me own a 4BHK in Bandra. I told him that even I want to make a bungalow of my own in Bandra, and I will have that when I have that one film which will change everything. That one Friday which will change everything.
Seeing your name on the big screen will always be the highest form of high
As you’re driven by passion and not economics, what about those moments when passion takes a backseat and you loose your zeal. What keeps you going?
Motivation comes in different forms all the time. Sometimes it can be a family issue, at times your desire to do something materialistic, sometimes it can be falling in love with someone and wanting to do something for them. So every time, it is different. People like us, who create fiction, are seekers of conflict. And conflict always gets a story out of it. And the desire to tell that story becomes inherent because you have it written it as something very close to you. About the money part, I have been lucky to have always found people who are ready to pay me for my work.
You have also been fortunate to dabble into different mediums such as web series, feature films and now short films. How has life as a filmmaker changed?
Craft wise, I hope I’m evolving and getting better. I started out as a writer so I didn’t think much about the visuals in terms of how they would will look and how I would shoot them. But today, I think about lighting as much as I think about the visual parts. To evoke a reaction where the story works for everyone at every level, it needs to be well shot, directed, written and enacted.
The other difference that has happened is that people have become more accepting. They make sure that they call back or revert to your text. Five years ago, I used to tell my mother and brother that work only happens when someone calls you themselves. And the only way you can make that happen is by creating an aura and energy with your body of work, which makes people call you all the time for work. That is something which is always in your hands and requires hard work cum patience. Of course, there are days when I’m down and just want to give up everything.
The idea of making a short film is that you go out there and make whatever you want to make
Which also brings to me an important question, what actually went wrong with the last feature you wrote, RunningShaadi.com?
The Producer. It was a throwaway release. Imagine if I had made Ghumakkad in January 2017 and it was released in January 2019, what would you say? That answers everything. As a writer, it is not my job to release the film, it is the producer’s job. You can put this on record as I want Shoojit Sircar to know that he is an amazing filmmaker but not a great producer. He is one of the filmmakers that I look up to but as a producer he was terrible. He did the same thing with Pink by taking it over and saying that “I’m the coach and the Creative Director of the film”. He is taking credit for the film and the director is nowhere to be seen. You don’t do that when you are a producer. You have to trust your director and let it be.
In the case of RunningShaadi, they were just not interested in the film, because they had so many other things going on, which for them were bigger. RunningShaadi was a big film for me, the director and the actors. But the producer moved on and had some internal issues. I’m not saying that it is a great film and would have changed cinema but the point is that no matter what kind of a film you make, it deserves a fair release. And this was after we were repeatedly told that we are not releasing the film because we are waiting for the best release date. The film is then ultimately released on a day when nine other films released. Can you beat that! Having said that, whosoever has seen the film, the reaction was 70-30% – 70% have liked the film and 30% have not. Which is fair enough.
It is said that you’ve written 25 scripts till now. What kind of scripts are they? Tell us about their journey.
(Laughs) We would need to do a separate interview for those. Let me just tell you that all of them would be made at some point or the other. I don’t give up on things I love.
And you are also a big Imtiaz Ali fan. Is it the kind of cinema you want to make?
You will find traces of Imtiaz Ali in all my work, in fact Ghumakkad is a tribute to his personality too since he is the most passionate traveler I know.
The only reason I want to make movies is because I want to tell stories that excite me
I frankly don’t know. I want to keep doing what I love and let the world decide what it wants me to be known as.
You’ve always emphasized on the fact that it is the best time to be a screenwriter as the digital medium is blooming day by day. Even production houses and corporates have shifted focus to web. But deep down, most aspirants dream of seeing their name on the 70mm screen. How do they settle for a digital platform in that case?
Films will stay forever and digital will also make its space. It is improving day by day. We need to create two spaces in our heart now. Also, the validation from digital content is easier to gauge as compared to films, so it is a good thing. As writers, we thrive on validation but yes, seeing your name on the big screen will always be the highest form of high.
I want to make a bungalow of my own in Bandra, and I will have that when I have that one film which will change everything. That one Friday which will change everything
There is no dearth of advice given to youngsters who want to shift to Mumbai for making a career in films. But we’d like you to tell aspiring talent from smaller cities about the kind of place that Mumbai is.
Mumbai is very accepting. It will accept you with open arms if you have talent. If you are not talented, nothing can help you. A lot of times ADs and writers come to me saying that they want to work with me and learn. My only answer to them is that I’m not a film school. You should come to me with the attitude that you are the best at what you do and only then will I work with you. People should be informed about the world they are getting into and should definitely not take validation from people who are their yes-men or women. You should always take validation from your critics. Once you are in Mumbai, it is a jungle, you have to find your way.
If you haven’t seen Ghumakkad yet, watch it right here: