My film is a socio political satire – Janaki Vishwanathan
Having lived and worked in Chennai most of her life, ex journalist Janaki Vishwanathan insists using the name of Shah Rukh for the goat, the central character of her film Yeh Hai Bakrapur (YHB) was purely incidental.
Where did you grow up and describe your life before movies?
I was born in Chennai and have lived here throughout except for a brief stint in Delhi. I did my Masters in Journalism and Mass Communication from University of Madras. Then I started freelancing for Indian Express. That’s how my journalistic career began. I used to write for a paper called Madras Plus which basically was the predecessor of Chennai Times supplement. Then I worked with India Today and ANI and was a Senior Correspondent with TV18 thereafter. Post that we moved to Delhi for a couple of years where I dabbled in documentary film production. I made docus on Tussar silk reelers in Bhagalpur, temple streets in Chidambaram. Before I quit TV18, one of my last stories that I did for them was an interview with cinematographer, Santosh Sivan. During a casual chat he mentioned filmmaking would be something I could be interested in. He had planted a seed in my thoughts which kept growing. When we moved back to Chennai, I wrote a couple of scripts. One day I was a narrating a story to a famous Tamil novelist Shiv Shankari. Around then, she had written a novel called Kutti (which mean ‘little one’ in Tamil). It was about a child who travels from a remote village in Tamil Nadu to state capital in Chennai and she comes to work as a domestic help and what happens to her then on is the story. I loved it instantly and that became the basis of my debut film. It won the National Award.
Then in 2004, I made a film partly based on the Devadasi tradition. YHB is my third film.
What is Yeh Hai Bakrapur about?
YHB is based on a newspaper report that I read 3-4 years ago. It’s the journey of a goat from Rajasthan to New Delhi and how it’s kept in Juma Masjid and people are queuing up to see it. I found that intriguing and it was reflective of so many things in our country.
Having been a journalist, the tendency is to veer towards logic and realism. Even if you are writing a scene you are trying to picturise in a real life context to see if it makes sense if it’s not too contrived.
What kind of look and feel did you have in mind while making the film?
I had already identified a place where I had placed the film. We had realistic approach towards the look and feel of the film. We went with a natural take in mind. We wanted our characters to blend in with the village crowd so we even bought clothes for the cast from the villagers.
Naming a goat Shah Rukh – has become the talking point about your film. Is it annoying or interesting?
It is a bit annoying because although that is just one part of the film it seems to have taken precedence over everything. I just want to clear that it wasn’t part of an attention grabbing strategy. When I wrote the script originally the goat was called Abu. In the process of researching for the film we found was that in rural India there is a trend of calling these household pets after Bollywood superstars. During Bakri Id, if go to buy any goat, they are called SRK, Salman, Aamir. I am told there was a goat called Saifeena that got sold for Rs 5 lakhs. So naming a goat after a star is not a manufactured or constructed reality. You go to any market you will see it. Considering that my film is a socio political satire, it made a lot of sense for me to reflect on trends that exist in our society.
The goat is a central character in my film and everyone wants to have a piece of him metaphorically. When you look at any Bollywood superstars, everyone wants to associate with them and bask in their reflected glory. But the poor villagers do it out of wanting to express their love for their favourite stars.
How did you cast Shah Rukh? What was the process to audition a goat? Did you have a brief in mind of what you wanted the goat to look like? Is it easy to shoot with an animal?
We auditioned 400 goats before we found this one. It so happened that this goat we selected was called Shah Rukh and he had been known by that name for over a year. That was the name he was responding to.
We were travelling around the country with a camera. We shot their faces and called them out to see how they respond. I wanted a goat who looked intelligent, looked wise, was smart and had a personality. As he is a central character, he had to have an arresting personality. I didn’t have to train him. If you wanted him to look in a particular direction, you just had to call him out. We had 30 days of absolute fun days shooting with the goat. By the time we wrapped everyone fell in love with the goat. He wasn’t averse to giving a kick as well if someone annoyed him. We brought him to Mumbai for the audio launch and he was happily preening in front to the cameras and giving his best profile when the photographers called him.
What kind of a kid were you looking for?
We wanted a child who had no exposure to Bollywood or the camera because we wanted him to be raw and have an innocent face. The child whom we cast was the nephew of one of the actors who played his father in the film. Their bonding was natural.
Where all did you shoot?
We were shooting in a remote village called Kilargi in Bidar district in Karnataka. It felt like one was stepping back in time. There was no power, no restrooms, the place quite challenging in that way because for good or bad it had no trappings of modern day convenience.
At one point, villagers gathered to ask Asif Batra for solutions to their problems because he was playing a Pir Baba in the film. People mistook him for a real saint.
Where do you draw inspiration for work?
I draw inspiration from real life around me, events I read or know about. I am yet to construct a story constructed from complete fantasy.
Have you ever considered moving to Mumbai given that you are doing Hindi films?
It pretty much depends on a project am working on. Even if you live in Mumbai doesn’t mean you shoot all your films here. You go to real locations for work. So far it’s not been an issue but am pretty flexible with straddling two worlds.
– By Priyanka Jain