Three mysterious looking lights over a hillock in Mumbai have sparked off rumors and caused chaos in the city

When filmmaker Omar Iyer trekked up Gilbert Hill, little did he expect to discover the rich history backing this huge rock. On first glance, it is just a monolith occupying ‘valuable’ space in an over crowded city like Mumbai. But as Iyer learnt, this structure is a rare geological phenomenon which needs to be conserved. And if we aren’t able to protect it, it might just be taken away from us.

It is this idea that led to the genesis of Iyer’s quirky short Gilbert which takes an interesting sci-fi approach to convey a deeper message in a way that is relatable. The film was officially selected in the Dimensions category at the 2014 Mumbai Film Festival. In a freewheeling chat with Pandolin, the young filmmaker talks about the making of Gilbert, his decision behind the sci-fi approach, the freedom of the short format and more.

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Omar Iyer (Right) with Harshvir Oberai

How and when was the idea of Gilbert born?

Many different things sparked off the idea. The first one being that we really wanted to make a film. Secondly MAMI was around the corner and that is always a motivation to do something. Most importantly, Harshvir (Oberai), who is a friend and the film’s cinematographer, and I had trekked up Gilbert Hill. We had been seeing this structure over the last 20 odd years, almost on an every day basis and we were very fascinated by it. Back in the day, there were no buildings or any construction around the hill. So, one day, randomly after many years, Harshvir and I decided to go up the hill and figure what was there. When we reached the top, we discovered that there are two temples and one dirty flex banner that states some bare minimum facts about the hill. But reading those facts made us realize that this hill does have some value. That, and our inclination to do something in the sci-fi genre triggered the idea of the film.

Why did you choose the sci-fi approach over any other genre?

When we decided that we wanted to make something around Gilbert Hill, we were very clear that we didn’t want a straight up fact-oriented documentary. Because that gets very boring and there would be nothing much to show barring shots of the hill. The seed of the idea was that we wanted to tell people about this hill. And we thought that this sci-fi approach would make the process of getting to know about the hill more fun. It starts off as sci-fi or comedy, but there is a proper message that we wanted to convey and the film ends on that note. We have kept it open ended because we wanted to allude to the message but not say it out loud, because that makes it more fun.

It starts off as sci-fi or comedy, but there is a proper message that we wanted to convey and the film ends on that note

The film also has an element of humor in it. How important was that in the overall treatment?

It was a conscious decision, the credit of which goes to my co-writer Karunesh Talwar who is a stand-up comedian. The decision to make it funny and have jokes, while we are still trying to make a point, happened because of Karunesh. We wanted to tell the story through two friends. My idea was to have these two people talking with the hill visible in their background. But I had these serious conversations in mind for the two friends, but when Karunesh came in and we started writing together, everything became funny and stoner-comedyish. It was a conscious call as the film is inspired from the stoner-comedy genre.

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Poster of Gilbert

Though the ending is open to interpretation, what was the objective you wanted to achieve through the film?

We mainly wanted to convey that we as humans, in our modern world, might not see value in a structure like Gilbert Hill. For us, it might just become space that this hill is occupying, where something else can be built, which is the case, especially in a city like Mumbai where you don’t have space. Our whole intention was to get across the fact that there could be some other more intelligent, advanced forms of life or entities, from other parts of the universe, that see more value in something like Gilbert Hill. A structure which has been around for so long, seen so much history, evolution and has so much value. And rather than seeing humans destroy it, they decide to take it away from us.

How was the approach to the entire making process, from writing to casting, was it more meticulous or spontaneous?

We wrote the film in a short amount of time and the writing was pretty simple because we knew what we wanted to do. I started thinking about the concept, and then Harshvir, Karunesh and I would jam about the varied possibilities around it.

The casting process was very interesting because other than the two main characters, the two guys, no one else in the film is an actor. We were really lucky in terms of getting the two actors. I knew Karan Pandit through a friend and had also seen some of his work. I originally approached him for the role that Kashyap (Kapoor) plays. I asked him if he knew anyone else who would fit the other character. Karan was very helpful and he suggested Kashyap and also put me in touch with him. I’ve been a fan of Kashyap’s work and his comedy since a long time because he was on Bring on the Night, which is my favorite Indian show. In one sense, the show was an inspiration for us because we wanted to make something that felt real. I think it’s the only relatable Indian show about people who are our age. So when Kashyap agreed to come on board, I was ecstatic.

We found a line between what people would want to watch and share, yet was unconventional

Were there any challenges faced while shooting the film, in terms of permissions to shoot on or around the hill?

We didn’t actually shoot on the hill. We have shot the hill from different places using telephoto lenses. So we didn’t have any problem. But when I had initially gone for a recce, there was a construction site around the hill. I was walking around and taking images from my DSLR, when a security guard came and made me delete the photos. I deleted a couple but managed to keep a few. And I’m glad I got the recce images because one of them has been used in the film.

Also, sci-fi films are post heavy. Did you’ll have the liberty to experiment with Post considering the short format?

We got lucky when VFX Director & Supervisor Vijesh (Rajan) from Plexus came on board. Harshvir had worked with Vijesh and he said that if I could convince Vijesh about the idea and he likes it, he would do it. And that’s what happened. We told Vijesh the two-liner of the film and he thought it was interesting. We didn’t do much prep for the VFX and went with the flow.

The conversation between the two main characters is shot at Vijesh’s house, which was good, because that helped us in getting the final shot. Vijesh was there to check the chroma lighting, if the shot was taken properly etc. Also, when Vijesh came on board is when the look of the film was decided. So we worked backwards in a sense. We shot what we wanted and then when we started post production, Vijesh and I together set the look of the film.

Vijesh set the entire look of how these lights or entities would appear. We decided that we didn’t want to give them any shape that would give away the fact that they are aliens. We had a big debate about what should be the visual depiction of these beings. Finally, we decided on these balls of lights, because across the world also, a lot of UFO sightings that have happened, often talk about people experiencing pulsating forms of light. So, rather than giving them humanoid shapes, we wanted it to be something more abstract.

There were certain things that we figured on the edit table. Since the story takes place from the point of view that the incident had happened a year ago, Vijesh had a great idea for the scene where we’re showing the lights appearing for the first time. We decided to shoot some new plates in the metro train area. Vijesh proposed that it would look really dramatic if we could make the metro train stop midway, when we’re showing the electricity getting sucked out of the area as the three lights appear. So we actually went and shot new plates while we were in the middle of the edit.

We didn’t want to play safe, we wanted to experiment and see what people would like

What are your views on the evolution of the short format of storytelling? Also, why do you think is Sci-Fi such a barely explored genre in our country?

I am a complete product of the digital age; the chances of me being in the film industry would have been significantly lesser if I was born 30-40 years ago. At that time, there was a given set of people who were the industry and there was no other inroad. But digital has given people the opportunity to experiment.

The short format works amazingly, as it gives us the ability to tell a story in lesser resources, time etc. It works as a great practice ground to make bigger films. All my favorite directors, the big guys, started off with short content, be it Wes Anderson or Christopher Nolan. And that also gets you recognition because when someone can tell a story in a short amount of time, people do recognize it and are confident about giving you a longer format.

When it comes to sci-fi in India, people may not agree with me, but the larger commercial Indian industry, is very consumed with keeping it safe and what they think is ‘massy’. Hence people are afraid to experiment. But with so much exposure to world cinema and the Internet, the trends of what content people are consuming have changed. I actually feel that how ever small it may be, there is an audience for all types of films in India.

Even when we were writing Gilbert, people told us that the end was inconclusive; they asked us why we didn’t just tell what was going to happen. In India, we have this mentality of spoon-feeding the audience but we didn’t want to do that. We didn’t want to play safe, we wanted to experiment and see what people would like. And we found a line between what people would want to watch and share, yet was unconventional.

If you haven’t seen Gilbert yet, here it is –