The Kerala International Film Festival is one of the most prestigious film festivals in India and to be selected for the festival is an honour for any director. The movie has to be exceptional and that is what Director Nikhil Allug’s venture ‘Shehjar’ is.

Nikhil Allug is a writer, director, music composer and cinematographer. He has assisted renowned directors like Rajkumar Hirani. Moreover, his short films have won awards and travelled various film festivals. His documentary ‘The One Winged Butterfly’ received appreciation. His short-film ‘Nothingness’ was screened at the Cannes Film Festival and his other short-movies include ‘Dead Inside’, ‘The Waiting Room’, ‘Asharfi’, and ‘Sawaalon Ki Duniya’ (A World of Questions). In 2016, his short-film ‘Mud Mud Ke Na Dehk’ (Don’t Look Back) was officially selected to compete at the Crimson Screen Horror Festival (South Carolina, USA). This movie was also acquired for a Halloween release by TVF.

His latest movie ‘Shehjar’ is a social drama and traces the journey of a family travelling from Kashmir to Mumbai under a mysterious mission. This psychological thriller is written and directed by Nikhil Allug and stars Sunil Kumar Palwal, Ira Dubey, Burhan Shafi Itoo, Kaliprasad Mukerjee and others. The movie has received rave reviews for its story, performance, cinematography and much more. We caught up with the director to get more insight on the film, which he generously shared. He spoke about Shehjar’s starting point, the casting process, plans of taking the film to different festivals, his upcoming release ‘The Maya Tape’ starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui, and projects he is working on among other topics.

Nikhil Allug

Nikhil Allug

What was the starting point for Shehjar, how was the story conceived? 

My mind was fishing around for ideas on auto-fish mode and I was thinking if I could make it in a truly independent way. This particular idea struck hard enough that it got me going on it. Rest is history in the making for Shehjar and it couldn’t have been better than the way things are shaping up.

What is the significance of the title ‘Shehjar’, was this the only name for the film or did you have various options?

I had initially thought of Shikara as the film’s title, but it is registered by a major producer. Then I started looking out for possible alternate titles and I liked ‘Shehjar’ the most as it was fresh and much more relevant to our film, more than Shikara.

We all as humans are made of shades of grey with good and bad within us which differs based on where we are born, how we are bought up and our actions. I wanted to make a film which does not take sides, rather shows how every human in any part of the world is innately merely seeking the shade of shelter, love and acceptance. Shehjar means shade in Kashmiri.

A still from Shehjar

A still from Shehjar

Coming to the cast of the movie, what was the process of casting, was there something specific that you were looking for?

I had met Sunil Kumar Palwal once over a casual meeting a long time back. He is an FTII acting graduate and was doing theatre and TV at that point in time and I had just finished shooting the first schedule of The Maya Tape. Two years later, the first actor that came to mind for Shehjar was Sunil. I called him up, told him briefly what I had in mind and he was equally excited to hear the brief synopsis of the film.

Post this, I had a month-long difficult phase of casting for Kashmiri kids to play Khalid and Jasim. We did not want to go the non-Kashmiri child actor route as it would kill the authenticity of the characters and neither were we able to find the right casting in Mumbai or around. We even ended up going to the Kashmiri camp slum dwelling in Bandra East, yet we did not find anyone who felt right. Then Mayank Adhlakha, the Chief Assistant Director of Shehjar came across Burhan and Zahid in a short film. Though they were very young in the short film, I realized a spark in them immediately and decided to get in touch with the kids who live in different parts of Kashmir. They were very co-operative and excited to do the film. They came down and we started doing workshops with them.

I had worked with Kali Sir before and he and I are friends first and director and actor later. He has always stood by me and his sense of content is very acute. After playing Ibrahim Khan, the main villain of Neeraj Pandey’s A Wednesday, he was going to play a Muslim man once again. He said yes to play Zaffar. Meanwhile, we were yet to find the perfect Mariyam. I happen to connect with Ira and told her about the film, my plans and the date of the shoot which would not change which was just two weeks away. She asked me to mail the script and said she would get back to me the same night. We had a late-night chat once she was done with the reading, she was so much in love with the character and the story that she said then and there. As Sunil always rightly says…The script chooses the actors, the actors do not choose scripts. He is right as I have experienced this before in ‘The Maya Tape’ as well. When I had made a call to Nawaz bhai and told him about this particular character I wanted him to play and asked if he would sign-up for this horror film. Luckily, he was in his vanity van and he said he had time to kill and that if I could mail it to him so he could read it right away and let me know. I still remember getting his call back within two hours and his first sentence was, “Nikhil, Jazab hai yeh…meh karr raha hoon!” (This is amazing…I am doing it!).

The city of Mumbai has been explored in various movies, so from a cinematographic point of view how have you tried exploring the city differently?

In most of the city shots, you will see my four main characters watching the city with their backs turned to the audience. So, it forms a type of POV (Point of View Framing) of the audience through the perspective of the four protagonists and also works to the effect of an OTS (Over the Shoulder Shot). The audience sees through the eyes of Nasif, Mariyam, Khalid & Jasim, yet always views it from behind them. Its observational and that has a lot to do with the mystery and suspense of the plot of Shehjar. I did not want to merely show landmarks with montages without my characters as it might take away this effect I was trying to achieve. That would break the thread of the continued journey from Kashmir to Mumbai that these characters continue to make in the film even after they have arrived in the city. Also, there are a lot of wide shots where you see the four together travelling varied terrains. The film starts with wide shots and slowly edges closer to the characters allowing the viewers to observe them from a distance. The shots start becoming mid and then eventually closeups. That’s when I take my audience’s really close to them. I designed it to have a specific effect and the way it’s come out keeping in mind the audience reaction in Kerala screenings, I think I managed to achieve that effect.

A still from Shehjar

A still from Shehjar

Talking about the location, how was Kashmir shot, have you tried showing a contrast between Kashmir and Mumbai?

Kashmir shoot was tense and almost on the verge of cancellation. Our schedule was right in the midst of the ongoing curfew tensions due to Burhan Wani’s killing by the Army. So, after much nail-biting, we decided to take the risk of shooting there. Ira Dubey was the only female with us and she is super brave and very lively, that really helped us going ahead. We avoided roadways as there was a lot of news of overnight looting & assaults from the Katra-Kashmir route. We flew down to Kashmir and all I can say about the place is that it’s a poet’s dream. I was so fatigued and tired from the month-long shoot and was disgruntled though in paradise I was unable to savour it. I took deep breaths of fresh air but that still did not make me feel at that moment of this natural splendour around me. Then I decided to dip my hand in the cold Dal lake and I am glad I did that, that sensation will be etched in my brain forever. I fell in love with the place and I can’t wait to go back there.

There is a natural contrast yet a stark innate similarity between Mumbai and Kashmir. It can be felt in the film too and there are dialogues which lead the audience towards the same. It’s difficult to explain in words but though both visually seem so different, there is so much that binds the two most important states in India for different reasons.

The film has received appreciation and great reviews at the prestigious 22nd International Film Festival of Kerala (IIFK), which other film festivals are you planning to take the film?

There are quite a few A-list and other small yet impactful festivals that we are in consideration for. We are hoping to be part of the line-up in all of them hopefully and get an opportunity to get Shehjar seen by varied world audiences.

Are there plans of releasing the film in theatres. And do you think that there is a difference between the festival audience and the commercial audience?

Yes, we are definitely want to have a limited theatrical release and we at Moment Of Revival Films is actively looking at partnership opportunities for the same. I think there is a difference between the festival and commercial audiences based on how they perceive content vis a vis its consumption value based on subjective preferences. But what is similar for both is a good story. Both types of audience wants to be entertained for the time they decide to give to a film.

Your short films have received recognition, so was your transition from the short film format to feature film smooth? Does the length of the film affect the craft of directing?

Yes, I personally find short films much easier as a format on all fronts. Feature length’s biggest challenge is to be able to hold on to the thread of interest for 60 minutes and above. It’s like making 6-10 shorts films to equal a feature film at the least. There have been numerous cases where really good short filmmakers are unable to hold the weight of a feature film well. It’s more complex in writing, sound, actor performance, scheduling, shoot, locations everything and not only for direction. My transition was smooth as writing is my forte and that is the point where most short filmmakers stumble hard. It’s the same for ad films versus feature films. They are worlds apart not only in format but also in the craft needed. In my case, I credit 50% of my learning to watching films and the rest to making short films.

Nikhil Allug

Nikhil Allug

From a cinematographer to a musician to a writer-director, you have donned various hats. How does each aspect help you become a better filmmaker?

I write since a very young age, that is because my father was a reader and I took to reading which strokes my passion for writing. Then came music. Then, I progressed ahead to visual storytelling which requires exactly what I had done before…writing, sound and Music. I learnt cinematography a few years back as I realized how handicapped a filmmaker is without having thorough knowledge about the device that actually captures his vision. How much of the cameraman’s learning and camera style adulterates the filmmakers vision for good or bad. I was surprised on meeting Hindi films top most filmmakers and realizing that they are almost clueless about lenses, camera’s, lighting and other equipment used to create camera movements. They give vague instructions on set to communicate what they need. A new filmmaker ends up looking like a pretentious fool while to communicate a shot or desired creative output to the technical team who usually don’t submit to the unknown Director’s vision. I am a deep believer in Auteurism and I disagree that it counters teamwork in any way. Shehjar (Shade) was an exercise to prove myself more than anyone else that learning all major fronts of filmmaking drastically reduces the loss of narrative intention and maintains control over the intended vision. I think any filmmaker who is not a Jack if not a master of writing, direction, camerawork and sounds is merely a manager on set who was able to gather funds for the film’s production which doesn’t necessarily require creative talent.

Can you tell us a bit about your upcoming movie ‘The Maya Tape’, what can we look forward to in that?

TV reporter Devika (Vishakha Singh) and Cameraman Saurabh (Nawazuddin Siddhiqui) are on the trail of Maya Chudail (Witch) locked up in a desolate mental hospital on an island in North East India and due to ominous circumstances get caught up in the deadly web of black magic, occult, possessions and terror. What you can look forward to is a clean, no-nonsense relentless and fast paced horror film with real spooks, North Eastern terrain and regional black-magic practices which have been unexplored yet on celluloid in India. Also, the performances of the actors, especially Nawazuddin Siddhiqui, Vishakha Singh, Kaliprasad Mukherjee and Satyakam Anand playing their respective characters. The film has been shot in Hindi and Bengali with a few actors common in both and will have a simultaneous release for a wider reach. We have privately screened the film to Hindi film industries top names and their response has been super positive which helped us to know that we are on the right track when it comes to a film for mass audience consumption made in a rarely made genre.

Lastly, are there other projects in the pipeline, what are the genres that you are keen on exploring?

I am currently pitching a suspense/thriller film with a very interesting cast pitch in mind to producers who are interested and capable of doing justice to it. The script has come out really well and I am sure if it finds interest in the right stable it will be a breakthrough for the genre. It’s such a shame how people have labelled any genre except romance and comedy as unprofitable due to the low-quality writing or remake trend we see in the thriller/suspense films here. Also, I am want to tap on to the horror genre in a non-sleazy, non-cliched manner and a couple of big names of the industry are keen on the genre too, so my talks with them on the same is currently ongoing too.

I am very interested in the social message and youth comedy space as well. I have a dream script of mine which I have been writing since 2006 and I am actively pitching to production houses which I feel will give me the right platform and space to direct it to the best of my abilities. I am also actively working as a co-producer, writer and director for another super twisted dark humour suspense thriller script and will join hands with some industry friends for funding it and taking it on the floor this year itself.