I am expecting Masaan to do really well in India
After a standing ovation and two prestigious awards at Cannes, Neeraj Ghaywan is gearing up for the release of his first feature-length film, Masaan, on home turf. In an exclusive chat, the first-time filmmaker talks about the unexpected response at the international film festival and expectations from the Indian audience.
While Masaan releases in India on July 24, what is happening internationally?
Masaan is released in France on June 24. The people from Cannes, as a part of the program, select some winning films and few other ones and show them around. They did one screening in Paris, and will now hold screenings in Rome and Milan (in Italy), most likely followed by one in Switzerland too.
What were the exact emotions you experienced when the film received a standing ovation and won two prestigious awards at Cannes?
When we started the film Varun Grover and I were just concentrating on creating a script and film that we would like to make and watch. That was the only clear intent and we thought that whatever else came our way, it would be great. Firstly, the selection was a big one for us. It has really helped the film. It got selected for Un Certain Regard, which is excellent because they really champion new filmmakers like me. And it was a moment of pride because five years ago Udaan was screened at Cannes in May for the same category. So it was kind of full circle for my producer, Vikramaditya (Motwane).
Secondly, I made a film which is extremely rooted – being a stickler for linguistic and cultural authenticity – and made with a documentary approach. So, I was hoping that people would understand the nuances, conflicts and emotions of the place it is set in. At the screening when the credits started rolling, I got scared. But when I heard loud claps that became a roar in the 1200-seater auditorium, I hadn’t imagined such a response in my wildest dreams. I felt weird that everyone’s eyes were on me. Then I looked at my team who was also looking at me, and that’s when I broke down. You know, I feel weird about people crying on stage and there I was doing the same thing. I wanted to stop myself but I couldn’t. I started hugging my team. That moment was very special for me.
After the screening the cast left as no one was expecting that we would win any awards. We were so thrilled simply to have come so far. However, I stayed back as I wanted to watch some other films and my producers had to officially stay until the end of the festival. One day, I got a call from the Cannes team that I had to attend a ceremony. I didn’t know what it meant. It was the FIPRESCI award ceremony (by International Federation of Film Critics for promotion and development of film culture and for the safeguarding of professional interests). When they announced our film for the award, I was shocked. It was a huge award for me because I have actually been a film critic, though not professionally. And it was a long overdue moment for India too. After the ceremony I went to the cocktail party for the awardees when I got a call telling me that I had to go for another ceremony, which was the official ceremony for Un Certain Regard, and I thought every director had to be there. When they announced the film with Promising Future, I was elated and started thanking everybody. Honestly speaking, and it may sound overtly modest to you, but I genuinely felt happy for India more than myself or the film. It was a moment of pride.
Masaan is all set to release in India. What are your box-office expectations?
To be honest, I am expecting this film to do very well. There will be a certain section who will think that festival gaayee hai toh arty film hain, but it’s not. And that’s why people have appreciated it so much, because it has universal emotions. I actually held a preview for my office staff comprising drivers, cooks, etc. from UP and Bihar. Before the screening I told them that if at any point they didn’t like the film they should walk out without any fear, and they should come up to my face and tell me if they got bored watching it. But, when they came out of the screening they said they really liked the film and wanted me to make part two. That feedback made me really positive. It may sound a little weird, but I never came across anybody who actually disliked the film.
Since you have made a few short films (Shor and Epiphany), there must be a plethora of story ideas in your head. Was the story of Masaan the first choice for a feature film? What inspired you to work on this story?
Originally I wanted to make a short film around the Dom community who work at cremation ghats. I started writing to make a short, but it turned into a 25-minute script. Then I wrote a very bad draft, so I asked Varun Grover to work on it. And that’s when it turned into a feature-length film script.
Back in my corporate days, my friend told me about the cremation ghats in Banaras (Varanasi); what fascinated me is that these guys have no empathy towards the dead. So, I was wondering, what must a person go through to become like this? How would they appreciate life? What was the meaning of life or death for them? These questions triggered the film, and of course, my love for Banaras. The other drive for Varun and me was that whenever films are about small towns it is from an outsider’s point of view, and either they are mocked or looked down upon. We wanted a human drama or an interpersonal story as opposed to a story about Banaras. While this film couldn’t be set anywhere else it is a story about a father and daughter, two lovers, etc.
We also wanted to challenge ourselves when it comes to showcasing festivals in films. When we show festivals we peddle a lot of exotica, especially for the west, so we decided not to use any of the stock images of temples, ganja-smoking sadhus, etc. Even the ghat we have shown in the film we tried to make it incidental to the core narrative, which is about the people.
How long did Varun Grover and you take to finish writing the script of Masaan?
It actually took us about a year or a year and half probably because we kept honing it. Once Varun wrote the basic screenplay we took it to (screenwriting) labs and kept fine-tuning and adding feedback, because that’s the schooling we received from Anurag Kashyap and Vikram. They have always taught us to be self-deprecating and critical about ourselves, so there is never a point where we will gloat that we have written a good script.
Can you tell us about the recce conducted for the film? Did you get the locations you wanted for the film?
Yes, we shot it at the locations we wanted. The entire film is shot in Banaras. We actually wanted two ghats because there are two ghats prominent in the film. Now, we didn’t shoot at the real cremation ghats, Manikarnika and Harishchandra, because of two reasons. One, it is unethical as real people are grieving for their loved ones and we didn’t want to do disturb them. Two, logistically it would have been a nightmare. So we recreated the ghats we wanted on two virgin ghats. Also, our intention was always to keep everything real. We didn’t want to reinvent any space. I believe that however much you try, you cannot match reality; even with the production design etc., you cannot match the feel of a real location. So we went into real locations and just added certain bits. For instance, the house that the cremation people lived in was a 100-year-old house; through our research we found out that the Dom community originated from huntsmen tribe, so we painted murals of huntsmen in their house. And of course, the contrast between the Dom community and Brahmin community houses, which is like clean, things are proper yet poor. So I was sure to nab real locations for the film. I finalized locations over several trips to Banaras.
How did you go about casting actors for the principal characters in the film?
As I am a stickler about getting the correct linguistic and cultural nuances I only wanted to cast people who are north Indian and get the body language for the respective characters right. So, Richa (Chadda) was the first choice for her complex role as we had known her since the Gangs Of Wasseypur days. Shweta (Tripathi), I had seen her around because she was working with Mukesh (Chabbra) during the making of Wasseypur. I didn’t know her. She has the embodiment of the perfect small-town beauty. Often in life the most sought after girl isn’t the model type with the perfect figure, but a girl who has an angelic face and who boys would like to marry and take home. Shweta had that quality in her which I needed for my film.
Originally, Vicky (Kaushal)’s role was first to be played by Rajkummar Rao, but our dates couldn’t be worked out. Vicky was an assistant director with me on Wasseypur and we are good friends. When Rajkummar dropped out of the film everyone said I should audition Vicky, but I was unsure because he is Bombay-bred, tall and Punjabi. Also, I didn’t want to take him because he was a friend. But when I saw his auditions it blew me away. The hard work Vicky has done to get to that part is amazing. I am being a little pompous about my own film, but trust me when I say that he is amazing in the film. I took Vicky with me for the recce as I wanted him to familiarize himself with his character. He plays one of the Dom characters and had to transform a lot more than what Richa or Shweta had to for their respective characters. One night at Banaras, we were both sitting by the ghat and reminiscing about our Wasseypur days. And that’s when I told him that the only way I got around here with the script is that I surrendered to this place, and he should do something similar for this role. He understood and shed all his inhibitions. Vicky became friends with some locals just to pick up the language. He started staying at the cremation ghats to understand how the Dom workers speak, what they do, and observe their body language and gait. He became so close to the character that I don’t think I could have directed him so well.
Sanjay Mishra’s role was to be played by Manoj Bajpai, but again dates didn’t work out. Varun had seen Ankhon Dekhi even before everyone had seen it, so he recommended Sanjayji for the role. We met him and instant love happened.
Given that Masaan is a performance-oriented film, did you conduct a lot of workshops and readings for actors?
Yes, there were a lot of workshops. I am a first-time director so I didn’t want to be like main set pe ja ke karonga because I don’t have that kind of talent. Also, I come from an academic and corporate background so I have that penchant for research and to get into details and plan it out as well as one can. That led to a lot of workshops with the actors. And I think we arrived on the characters at the workshops. The characters are co-creation. It’s the way the actors performed it; Avinash (Arun Dhaware) did the camera lensing, the way Varun wrote the characters, and eventually the way Nitin (Baid) edited it. I feel that it is more organic when a film is co-created as opposed to a director saying ‘this is it’ and following them to a T.
As a director do you like to stick to the script or incorporate creativity that happens on the set?
For me the script is the foremost and most important thing. I would always go with the script as I am super confident about it. We kept honing the script until we thought it was perfect and knew that there were no arcs missing or not closing. At edit stage a film gets rewritten and on shoot day some scenes you think worked on paper may not work while shooting it, so that kind of freewheeling does happen. But I don’t have that kind of clarity like Anurag who can think, write and shoot a scene on the day of the shoot. I must have the whole script ready before I shoot. It also helps the team have clarity about the film they are making.
In terms of visual treatment, what brief did you give your cinematographer, production designer, editor etc.?
The biggest thing – not the brief – I did was ensuring that the team was made up completely of first-timers. It is Varun’s first script as a screenplay writer, Avinash’s first Hindi film as a DOP, Nitin’s first film as an editor, and production designer Ranjit Singh’s first film. There was a deliberate attempt to do that because I believe that if you are a first-timer you have extreme passion for the film, like I had. So, I wanted everyone to have the same passion. In the first meeting itself I told them there was no hierarchy, something I learnt from Anurag Kashyap. There was no sir or ma’am. Anyone could walk up to anyone and say what they feel. So, we all were like friends passionately trying to figure out a film together.
Meanwhile, visually, we all believed that we didn’t want anything fancy. Avinash and I have the same ideologies that we don’t want jibs or flashy, and want to show life as it is. So, there were no fancy movements at all. It was a purely organic story and we wanted to treat it as such. Another thing that helped us is that we are very critical of each other’s work. We would have our team meets and only discuss what was going wrong and we would all correct each other. That was the best part of it.
In one of your interviews you said that a lot of people liked Masaan’s script but didn’t want to fund it. What do you think was the reason the other filmmakers hesitated to back it?
Well, Phantom films has been championing the film for over a year before it went into production. Anurag Kashyap, Vikramaditya Motwane, Madhu Mantena, Vikas Bahl and Dipa Motwane were helping me from the scripting stage. In fact, they even helped me make a pitch promo to financiers. Together, we started pitching to financiers (but not filmmakers). It is a film without the conventional Bollywood song and dance and most financiers don’t want to take the risk with indies. Nobody realized back then that this film was going to be this life-affirming and such a moving experience. I am glad Manish Mundra put in his faith and money on this film with Phantom films executing it. Macassar Productions (Melita Toscan Du Plantier, Marie Jeanne Pascal), Arte Films, Pathe Films with the help of Guneet Monga and Shaan Vyas of Sikhya Entertainment were instrumental in getting the Indo-French co-production.
Can you tell us about your association with: Manish Mundra, Anurag Kashyap and Varun Grover?
Manish Mundra has instilled his faith in this film on instinct. Rarely do you come across such producers who can back good cinema without any interference. I hope he takes indie cinema to the next level.
Of all the things that are being written about Anurag Kashyap, I think Masaan is his real victory. For so many years he has championed indie films unconditionally without an ulterior motive. I am standing here because of his tutelage and for what an inspiration he has been. Like me, he has fostered a lot of careers and a lot of dreams.
And Varun is like my half-soul brother. We are both engineers from middle-class families and share the same world view. Most importantly, our value system is similar, which is why he is a perfect collaborator for me. The screenplay of Masaan couldn’t have been better written if it was not for him. His clarity in thought, awareness, incisive writing and penchant for realism are his true assets.
Tell us a fond memory from Cannes, apart from the appreciation and awards for Masaan?
The fondest memory of Cannes is of course the standing ovation we received at the screening, but also other personal moments like meeting the Dardenne brothers (Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne) and Walter Salles (Brazilian filmmaker). They have inspired me so much over the years and during the making of Masaan.
What’s after the release of Masaan; any ideas or scripts in waiting?
Nothing yet. We’re waiting to get done with Masaan’s release and will then move on to the next film. Frankly, the five years in this industry that I have spent have been a whirlwind of sorts. I haven’t stopped for a single day.