The Universe Came Together to Make Killa
Director and Cinematographer, Avinash Arun could not be happier. His directorial debut, Killa was awarded the Best Feature Film in Marathi at the 62nd National Film Awards. It also received a Special Mention and the Crystal Bear for the Best Film in the Generation KPlus category at the Berlin Film Festival. Killa that hits theaters on June 26 is a charming, coming of age tale set against the vibrant glory of nature in a small coastal paradise in the Konkan region.
In an intimate interview with Pandolin, Avinash talks about Killa’s inception, his constant fights with the weather and how making a feature film is not such a big deal after all.
Walk us through the journey of your directorial debut. How did Killa’s inception happen?
For the last 7-8 years, I have been toying with the idea of making Killa. While shooting Kai Po Che, I met Ajay Rai (Producer) who expressed an interest in producing regional content and asked me whether I knew someone from FTII with an idea. I took the opportunity and pitched my own story to him. He didn’t say anything, just called Alan McAlex (Producer) and I was made to narrate my story again to both of them. I had no idea whether they liked it or not; their faces gave away absolutely nothing. Two days later, Ajay called me up and said, “Haan isko karte hain,” and called me to his office to take it forward. I couldn’t believe he was actually serious. And that’s how it all began. I called up Tushar Paranjape (Writer), my junior at FTII, to get started on the story. I had always wanted to make a film. I just never thought it would happen so soon.
What were the challenges you faced during the shoot?
Killa is a very visual film and I had a specific setting and light that I wanted to shoot it in. In every film of mine, I try to understand and maintain the relationship between the five elements (of nature) and keeping that approach in mind, I proceeded with Killa’s shoot. Unfortunately, nature cannot be manipulated so we were in a constant fight with the weather. Often when we needed the rain, we wouldn’t have it and the opposite would happen when we had to shoot without it. The scenes shot at the beach and on the sea were very crucial because we did not have too many safety measures. Time was a constant constrain too – it is always less for these kind of films. Also, since we were working with kids, we had to be extra cautious. But fortunately, all of them were very mature and did not always have to be told what to do and what not.
Did you have to organize trainings for the young actors?
A small workshop was conducted before the film went on the floor. On the basis of that, we selected a few children and concluded the casting. Everyone had to immediately land for the shoot because we did not have enough time for anything else. There were a lot of other things that I could not plan and I had to go ahead with my gut feeling.
Your transition from a Cinematographer to a Director has been seamless in Killa. How has the experience been and how did you constantly manage to transit between the two roles?
A lot of people asked me to not shoot my own film because it is said that cinematographers do not make good directors. A lot of my batchmates also questioned my decision to direct right after graduation. And even if I did want to direct a film, they asked me to not shoot it myself. All I told them is that I don’t know if cinematographers can or cannot make good films but my gut feeling says that I should shoot the movie, so I will. It is my own story and no one can narrate it better than me. In a confident moment, I even told them that even if I do put up a bad movie, at least I will know how bad it is.
Somehow my vision as a Cinematographer was what came to my rescue when I faced any problem. We would only shoot for 8-10 hours a day because almost the whole movie is shot in available light and I had a lot of footage to work with. Every Cinematographer has a different relationship with his camera and I was not constantly worried about the light and its continuity. I was led by the rhythm and the edit of the film that was constantly playing in my head. I was most concerned about the performances. I feel that anyone who is acquainted with the craft of filmmaking and has a story to tell, no matter what individual department they belong to, should just go ahead and do so. Anyone can make a film.
So do you feel your background as a Cinematographer played to your advantage while directing?
See, it is not like any filmmaker knows what his film is finally going to look like. Some sort of confusion is always needed, otherwise there is no fun. Filmmaking can be equated to raising a child. There is just so much to explore every day and there is never a specific plan regarding the next step. You have to latch on to a particular feeling and keep unraveling it. It is not exactly something tangible and in fact, is often an internal process. All the energies just have to come together and the universe and your people come to support you. It not a single person’s effort. All I believe is that the universe came together to make this film happen and it did.
The breathtaking shots and imagery demand a role of their own onscreen. Please talk about your visual approach and camera work.
Konkan is very dear to me as most of my childhood memories were made there. I love the sea and the rain and we shot in some very beautiful locations. I wanted to show the kind of impact these geographical conditions can have on the human mind and life, especially at such a small, tender age. Children are very curious about everything, from new food to friends to nature, every little detail attracts them. But as children, we do not have the means to express these feelings. We cannot write poetry or take beautiful pictures. All we can do is gather all this energy within us. I just wanted to see the world through the eyes of a curious child who has just shifted to a new place.
I understand all the technicalities and know all about the latest cameras. But what matters the most, for me, is what is in front of the camera. So Killa’s visual design was very instinctive, just like I am as a person. I feel the shot design of a film comes from its rhythm and the rhythm is born out of the individual’s personality. For instance, Christopher Nolan’s controlling personality is very evident through his work. Just by glancing at Kamal Swaroop’s films, you can tell they are made by him. That is how I feel it should be too. Killa has been a very personal journey for me. My subconscious is filled with the images of the people and places that I love and Killa has been produced in the rhythm of all these images.
You talk about the autobiographical elements in the movie. Do you feel you have done justice to these memories?
Yes, I do feel so. When I look back at it, I definitely feel like I have created something good. The moment of validation was when so many people were able to relate to the movie. Be it in India or abroad, I have been told by many that Killa is their story. It was very moving and just feels really good.
How did you deal with the ‘handle with care’ tag that comes along with making any coming of age film?
Our coming of age experiences are the ones that make us into who we are today and it is always great to be transported back to those memories. As you may have realized by now, my approach to cinema is very musical. I feel that the rhythm, beats and notes of the film have to work in sync for the film to work. It was the setting that made all the difference. This includes the location, lights, production and costume design. The characters rise from the setting. The geography of the setting gives birth to the characters’ emotions, feelings and reasons for behaviour. Lastly, their living conditions and society moulds their problems, drama and situations, which is all man-made and comes much later. After the genesis of the right idea, the setting and the actors are the most important.
It is very important for every filmmaker to ask himself why he is making the film. I made Killa because I wanted to use the medium of a feature to showcase the scenes of my own life, which is why probably there was not much of an issue dealing with the delicacy of the ‘coming of age’ tag.
Killa was a part of the Generation KPlus section at the Berlinale and has been perceived as a children’s film by many, when it is evidently so much more. Do you feel the film’s festival viewership suffered because of that?
I did not intend for it to be a children’s film and I don’t think the viewership suffered because of the tag, the response I got at MAMI, TIFF and other festivals abroad is proof of that. Yes, it is a film about children because they are the protagonists but otherwise I have got a variety of reactions to the film. There is a very interesting story to this. At the Berlin Film Festival, Pushpendra Singh, a dear friend, was travelling by taxi at night when the driver started talking to him about Killa. It feels great to know that the film has reached so many people and so many have been able to relate to it. Even the children at the Berlin Film Festival, they were not older than twelve years in age but asked me such mature and beautiful questions.
Was winning the National Award the defining moment of your journey?
In a way, yes it was. It made my parents very happy. With the kind of background I come from, my mother did not really understand what I did and what filmmaking and cinematography is. I made this film for her to watch and she liked it. Winning the National Award was a proof of what I do, a report card of my work.
What are your expectations from the impending release of the movie in India?
I hope there is a good buzz about the film and lots of people go to watch it. I am specially glad that it is a monsoon release as it sets the right tone for the film. There was no performance pressure on me while making the film. It was a story I wanted to tell and I did. I love doing what I do and when you’re doing something you love, it should be done with joy, not under pressure. After all the feedback I’ve received from the foreign audience, I am really looking forward to the response from the audience of the same culture.
Another feather has been added to your hat with Masaan winning the Critics Award at the Cannes Film Festival this year. Tell us about your experience shooting it.
Even though we faced a lot of problems shooting Masaan in Banaras, our faith was always intact. Masaan is a very different kind of a film and it made me develop a very deep bond with Banaras and its people. Every place has its own energy and if you respond, perceive and harness the energy in the right and honest way, then everything just works itself out. Neeraj and I are good friends and it was a delight to work with him. I am just very excited for the kind of reviews it got at the Cannes Film Festival.
How do you feel about the current filmmaking scenario in India?
We all see so many stories worth telling in front of us, but they have not always been brought across to the audience through the medium of films. Though recently the trend has picked up and now we are witnessing an increasing number of stories being sent to festivals by younger people, who have very different films to show. I was in complete awe of Kanu Behl’s Titli, Chaintanya Tamhane’s Court and Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s Labour of Love. They are all beautiful films.
So you think indie films have finally found their footing in our culture?
I don’t think they have completely found their footing yet. It is a tough fight and anyway there is no fun in getting anything easily. I feel it is the audience that needs to evolve and become more accepting. But if I could make a film, coming from practically nowhere, and receive such a warm response, it is definitely a good sign. It is a sign of hope.
Tell us about your future projects. Is Marathi going to be the preferred language?
Currently I am working on a couple of projects and Marathi isn’t necessarily going to be my choice of language in the future. I got to work on a lot of different projects – Drishyam, Masaan and Killa – that are all very different from each other and I am happy being a Cinematographer. I am just waiting for all the energies to come together to make something happen. Until I don’t get that feeling of the correct time to start a project, I will not.