A Gandhian freedom fighter from Odisha had to struggle for more than 30 years just to get a certificate recognizing his work – isn’t this fact enough to move you? When National Award-winning filmmaker, actor, screenplay writer Ananth Mahadevan read about Gour Hari Das’s journey and struggle, he knew that the tale needs to be shown on the 70 mm screen. The trailer of the film has already impressed many including various people from the industry. Mahadevan gets into a conversation to share all about this important film – Gour Hari Dastaan: The Freedom File.

Ananth Mahadevan

Ananth Mahadevan

What led you to make a film on freedom fighter Gour Hari Das?

There was a report which I read in a newspaper in 2011 that said that this man was treated like a fraud and it took him 32 years to establish an identity and gain recognition as a freedom fighter. That was a mirror as to what we have brought down in our country and was very ironical. Das represented the entire tribe of people who actually made the foundation stone for the country. I think he was the metaphor for what all was happening in the Indian society. Das stands for a lot of things – Das the individual, Das the system, Das the country. Here is a country that has not been able to appreciate the freedom that it has gained and for which we paid a huge price. Is this the country and government that we fought for to be free and the system that we wanted for ourselves – is the million dollar question that Das asks. And it is a frightening question. Somewhere we all do not want to be ruled by a foreign government and at the same time we are incapable of governing ourselves. His story was a perfect cinematic material for a film like this. At the same time the man isn’t larger than life. He is very rooted, down to earth yet a giant cinematic character. Very rarely one finds such a blend. That’s why I was inspired to make a film on him and his struggle of three decades to get his freedom certificate.

What kind of a personal journey was it to show someone’s struggle of three decades? 

It worked in two levels – me as person and as a film director. Everything from the detailing of 1940s till 2007 – be it styles, fashion, attitude and the tolerance level changed. Even the governments and systems kept changing. One had to be absolutely glued into these changes. Also as a person it was a life changing experience for me because Das is a man who was not full of drama. You’ll feel that he won’t last even a day against brutality or bureaucracy. And for such a man to have lasted 30 years without raising his voice or without resorting to lathi charge in a ram leela maidan, I think there is a lesson for each one of us to learn. Also there is hardly anybody who has not had this experience of trying to push a file over a government table and getting things done without losing our patience. Is it really possible in today’s India to get what you want at the cost of 30 years of your life without sacrificing the Gandhian principles that you lived on before independence? Here is an exemplary man who was Gandhian, fought alongside Gandhi ji, who collected funds for him and at the same time did not lose out on what he learnt with Gandhi ji. And that too in modern day India which can drive you to despair. For us it was a super human effort but for him it was a normal course of life. And as a filmmaker it was a growing experience.

Was the film made with a deliberate intention of getting Das his much deserved recognition?

I don’t think the poor man wanted anything other than an identity; something that would stamp his past, which was the truth for him. He did not want his past to die in the hands of the present. As long as he achieved that I don’t think he would have wanted someone to make a film on him. His first question to me was why did I want to make a film on him. But the greedy filmmaker in me saw cinema in his life. Getting Das the recognition that he deserved would have anyway happened by default. Media has done it already and highlighted it. Thanks to the media that I came to know about him. When you see the film you’ll understand if Das getting recognition is fortunate or unfortunate – whether it is the triumph or the tragedy.

The screenplay of the film is written by journalist and poet C P Surendran. How did he come to be associated with the project?

I’m very disillusioned with the kind of people who are writing for cinema today. Barring very few, others are not even qualified to write and be a scriptwriter. They don’t even know what they are doing. But I was very clear that the film will be written in a global cinema style and the entire screenplay will be structured in way that will look as if it has come out from one of the international film labs. So I was looking for someone who can do justice to it. CP Surendran is a well-known poet, novelist and journalist. His father has also been a writer. He was quite informative about the politics of the country and everything that should be part of the story. Of course he wasn’t into screenwriting. So what we did was that we worked together on his material, dialogues, sarcasm along with my experience as a screenplay writer. Put together, we pull this off in a way that will be totally unorthodox and different from what Indian screenplays are. CP Surendran is a very well read and educated man. I’m glad we had him on board.

Ananth Mahadevan (R) with Gour Hari Das

Ananth Mahadevan with Gour Hari Das

To recreate a living personality, that too, an unsung hero like Das, what were the hurdles and challenges that came your way?

When I was making the Marathi film Mee Sindhutai Sapkal on the social worker Sindhutai Sapkal, we were clear that we have to be faithful to the subject and not compromise. A lot of people told us that we’ll end up making a documentary. That was the challenge that I faced. And I kept saying throughout the writing process that the fact that truth is stranger than fiction is so true. There is more drama in these people’s life than what you can cook up in fiction. There is more logic in these lives that they actually give you fodder for some great emotional and dramatic moments and great human journey. If you see that correctly and transport that on the screen, you have it there without even distorting facts. All that you have to do is – be very clever, very careful and very faithful.

What were your reference points? Since it is a historical kind of project, what kind of research and referencing did you do? 

It was very strange because when I went to Das and told him (about the film) he agreed to it but was very scattered about his memories. He was trying to connect all that happened in his life. What he finally did was go inside his room and get a box that contained hundreds of letters that he wrote to the government and what the government replied to him. He said, “This is my story, see if you can spin a screenplay out of it”. So CP and I sat down reading those letters and somewhere the story started forming in our minds. We put it together and went back to him and he then filled in the blanks and joined the dots. He was the basic reference point for us. We used all his thoughts, memories and letters.

When you make such films, are there some kinds of cinematic liberties that one ends up taking?

My drama is silences and pauses. Had I hurried Das’s life of over 30 years like a Hitchcock film, I would have done injustice to him. His life moved slowly but the drama was latent yet potent. When you replay something you can do it in five hours but we didn’t have that much time. So what do you do to compress it into one hour fifty minutes and still not miss on the important details? We just did that without taking too many liberties.

Tell us more about the casting? From Vinay Pathak playing Das’s character to Konkana Sen Sharma playing his wife and the other actors such as Tannishtha Chatterjee, Ranvir Shorey etc. Were these actors the initial choices for their respective roles?

Absolutely! Das as a person inspires you to cast the obvious faces. All of them are great actors but all these actors also have a great persona on screen. Now Das’s conflict is very internal. The persona comes out to be very vulnerable but the strength comes from within. So I needed someone who has that kind of charisma on screen. I always considered Vinay as an intelligent and well read actor and for me the education is very important for the awareness of the character. Initially a lot of eyebrows were raised when we cast Vinay for Das’s role. But after some premiers there were lot of people who called up Das and said that he was very good in the film without realizing that it was Vinay. And Konkana is very selective about her scripts, she knew she was the conscious keeper to the film and had to play the balance between Das and his son, who was disbelieving in the father. She had little to speak but a lot to say without opening her mouth as it was all between the lines. When she saw the film in London at a film festival she was blown by what has happened. Ranvir is always waiting to put his hands on a script that would give him something substantial. Here was an actor who was hungry. He plays the parallel lead in the film who is a rebel, while Das is a quieter man and they both complimented each other. I think Ranvir’s performance is the tough one. Ranvir and Tannishtha play the catalysts in the film. Plus we have actors like Saurabh Shukla, Vipin Sharma, Rajat Kapoor, Vikram Gokhle, Sidharth Yadav; everyone pitching in for cameos because they wanted to be part of the project. It was very touching.

Vinay Pathak

Vinay Pathak

How do you prepare the actors?

We did a workshop with all the actors. We were clear that no one needed to act in the film and turn into very credible performances. I wanted the audience to get touched. If you see the film, it is a whole array of real understated performances. A lot of people have been blown away by the pitching of the film which is so different from the Indian cinema. That was the brief that all the actors initially got. Every little look, gaze, blink was worked out in a way that it all came instinctively. Also we used to visit Das’s family regularly along with the cast. Konkana used to be with Das’s wife in the kitchen and pick her mannerism and style. We spoke to the neighbors and the gentleman, Rajiv Singhal, who actually motivated Das when he was about to lose at one point in his life. Rajiv (played by Ranvir) was just the opposite of Das. He was the rebel and stood by Das. All these people contributed their data. And Das’ wife told us how he (Das) would literally turn the house into a junkyard to make tables and chairs and furniture by his own.

Gour Hari Dastaan has been to 14 festivals so far. For subjects like these, does this rule of travelling to the film festivals, making some noise there and then aiming a release work quite well?

Somewhere yes! Because right from IFFI in Goa, where it was the only Hindi film in the entire panorama selection, to Kerala where audiences have applauded every line they thought should be, it was so heartening. And in Chennai something incredible happened. They were whistling and clapping throughout and someone said it seems like they are watching a Rajnikant film. It was a subtitled print. Somewhere we have struck the right balance that people are paying for the screening and coming. The cross over might just be happening with this film because the kind of reviews that we have got – right from UK to India, have all praised the film sky-high. Unfortunately Indian audiences always want to wait for acknowledgement abroad to find it worthy enough to spend money on it. It happened with Mee Sindhutai Sapkal also. When it went to the London Film Festival and was written in Indian papers, it suddenly went beyond the Marathi films. It became a universal film that all wanted to watch.

Now when it is all set to hit theaters, how are you planning to promote it?

We are not going tom-tom with the whole idea of paid news. For the first time in my 30 year cinema experience, I have found sensible people who understand the film and will take it to corners. When I got a call from David Dhawan saying that he loved the trailer as well as Anurag Kashyap saying that he wants to see the film, I realised that we have struck the right balance.

A still from the film

A still from the film

What was Das’s reaction after seeing the film?

He kept quiet and wanted to see what others say. When his entire family and distant relatives were moved and came to him crying, he realized that the impact the film had is much bigger than what he had imagined. Earlier he was quiet to see what others would say and then he was totally overwhelmed that this film would really move people.

How did funding happen? Was it easy or tough?

Every good film needs a good producer. Sachin Khanolkar and Bindiya Khanolkar, both were my previous producers of Mee Sindhutai Sapkal. They and I were wondering what to do next as we wanted to make a film on a subject as strong as the previous one. When I read about Das and took the subject to them they asked me why I hadn’t told them about this before. They immediately agreed to make it as their first Hindi film. Sachin funded the film totally from his pocket because films are his passion though he is actually an architect. Independent cinema needs people like this who can support such films.

One of your upcoming films Rough Book has already created enough excitement at the festival circuit and the Film Bazaar recently held at Goa. Tell us more about it?

Rough Book is probably the first film that addresses what exactly Indian education is. It is a true story but not in the way Das is. It is based on collective experiences of teachers, parents and students. We put it all together in the form of Tannistha Chatterjee who plays the teacher in the film. She actually realises that failure is not the end of anything but a biggest lesson to change the system. It is learning and not just study that consists of right kind of education. This films has been shown to several principles and they are making it mandatory for their school children and teachers to watch it.

Your last Bollywood film The Xpose jinxed at the box office but your Marathi film Mee Sindhutai Sapkal won you a national award. And now this biopic is gaining popularity. There is a variety in the subjects and nature of the films you direct. But what is it that you love the most?​

I’m trying my own modest little way to graduate to a level. When you interact with someone like Mohsen Makhmal (Iranian film director, editor, writer) you realize how backward our cinema is. We have not even reached the ABC of cinema when they are writing essays and novels. That’s the difference and disparity between us. I want my cinema to reach to an international level where a jury cannot say that Indians don’t know how to make films. We have had the best of cinema behind us. We don’t have the kind of films that Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Ritwick Ghatak and Adoor Gopalakrishnan made. Even Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihlani or Shaji N. Karun, whom I rate as the best living Indian filmmaker, are not doing much these days. This greed is suddenly stopped or isn’t visible anymore. They really put India on the world map. Where is that international cinema gone, of which we used to be so proud of? I want to bring Indian cinema back on that world map. If I can do it in a small humble way, I’ll be happy.

 – Navleen Kaur Lakhi