I got threat calls & hate mails for my first documentary film
When you get into a conversation with young lad Bishal Paul, his mature side and the projects he has worked on so far, don’t really convince you about his age. Most youngsters in their early 20s are often hit by a dilemma bug, but this 21-year-old filmmaker, author, blogger and social media marketer, has done enough to amaze anyone. There was definitely some spark in his work that convinced people like Naseerudin Shah, Dia Mirza and producer Manish Mundra to extend a helping hand towards him. When Paul introduces you to his work, he leaves you inspired.
You are just 21 and your Twitter profile introduces you as – Creative Director, Founder of Little Monk Productions, Author, Filmmaker, digital marketer at Red Chillies and much more. Would it be correct to term you as the ‘Jack of all trades’?
The fact that I have laid my hands on different things, it wouldn’t be wrong in saying that. As a school student in Guwahati, I did my first internship with Times of India where I used to write for the supplements. After passing from school, I wrote my debut novel. Even while I was doing BMM from KC College, Mumbai, I had been into various things. Since my specialization was in journalism I’ve worked with media organizations such as Hindustan Times, DNA, NDTV, CNN IBN and Filmfare. But be it writing a book or working as a journalist, both things were a lone journey. Whereas I realized that filmmaking is a collective way of doing something – from writing to getting the team together, travelling etc.
When did you form Little Monks Productions?
I started working on my first documentary called The Gujarat Promise, which was about the socio-economic condition in the Indian state of Gujarat, in 2014. Shot in Gujarat, the documentary presented facts such as lack of health care, the persecution of Sikh farmers settled in Gujarat, water issues, minority issues etc. Through the documentary we were trying to explore whether the real picture of Gujarat matches the claims that the government has made. It was made on a budget of 3.5 lakh that was the savings of a team of eight people. The raw version of the documentary was supposed to be screened at Globus Multiplex, Mumbai, for a select gathering but a day before the screening they refused, despite we having paid the full fees. But I still booked a hall nearby and screened it. The documentary was opposed to such an extent that someone approached me saying that they are from the Election Commission department and took away the film. Later I got to know that they weren’t from Election Commission and when they returned the hard disc all the files were corrupted. There was a time when I even got hate mails, threat calls and all sorts of crazy stuff happened. It was only before the screening of this documentary that we felt the need to launch Little Monks Productions under whose banner we would screen it.
What projects has Little Monks Production done so far?
Formed in February 2014, Little Monks Production has a team of 10 people including designers, editors, social media promoters, production managers, photographers etc. Apart from our day jobs, we take up other assignments such as photo shoots, events, marriages etc. Anything to do with audio and visual photography that helps in raising money for the kind of work we want to do is done by our venture. It is through such work that we generated money for our second documentary Nirbhoy.
Tell us more about Nirbhoy?
We wanted to make a film on AFSPA’s – Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act – atrocities and its huge impact on two places – Jammu & Kashmir and Manipur. Because I’m from North East, I kind of related to it. But you need to get permission from the Home Ministry and a lot of stuff is involved. Initially I was able to get through it but later it was rejected as the new government came in. Unfortunately for some reason or the other we couldn’t make it. Closer to home, while researching, we stumbled on the ecological misbalance that was happening in Sundarbans that falls in West Bengal. There was man-animal conflict, ecological misbalance, climate change etc. It was a very serious issue and we didn’t find a lot of coverage on it. We started researching and got interested in it. Initially the funds came in from our own side. It was a very expensive film because every day we had to hire a boat and once you hire a boat around three to four thousand goes there. Kolkata was our base for a long time and we used to often travel to Sundarbans. After 4.5 lakh was already spent on the film, we went broke and didn’t have money to continue the shoot. By then half of the film was already shot.
How did you manage to generate the remaining funds?
Interestingly by the time we went bankrupt we released the first poster of the film online. Producer Manish Mundra who was my Facebook friend saw the first poster and connected over Facebook, last year, just to compliment me on the poster. I also met him during MIFF as he donated money to the festival. Over there, we started talking about the film. He suddenly asked what the status of the film is and I told him that we are trying to raise money. He told me to send him something that I’ve already shot. We sent him a teaser and he replied saying that he liked it but thought that we have the capacity of doing better. So he asked us to work on it and he would fund it.
Was Manish Mundra creatively involved in any way?
He was more of a saint who helped us in the financial problem. He didn’t ask me too many questions. He is an amazing person to work with and I think most of the people who have worked with him will share similar opinion. So he and his wife Pramila came on board as producers and helped me with another three lakhs to go ahead. A lot of color correction is left and we are running short of another lakh for which we are trying to raise money on our own. Manish is a very interesting producer to work with. He gives his suggestions very subtly and then he’ll let you do your thing. He helps you monetarily and then he gives full freedom to do your film in your own way. After seeing the teaser he gave me some suggestions such as other places where we can shoot in Sundarbans etc.
How easy or difficult was it to get a producer like Manish who happens to be every indie filmmaker’s dream in today’s time?
It is difficult to get producers for new filmmakers. But in my case it wasn’t very difficult because he kind of liked the teaser and then volunteered to help. And that is the best part about him; once he likes something then he is all set to help.
What inspired you to make a film on the man-animal conflict and ecological misbalance in Sundarbans?
Since I come from Assam, I’ve seen lot of floods happening because of the climate change and misbalance. I had a friend whose distant relatives happened to be working at Sundarbans and tigers killed three of their family members. That story stayed with me for a long time and when we came up with this topic I knew it is interesting and has the potential of getting global exposure, which it’s not currently managing to get. There are various angles to it – climate change, man-animal conflict, mangrove issues etc. Various issues were clubbed down together and once we started researching we got more involved in it. Nirbhoy is basically about Sundarbans and how different species of Sundarbans are living in collaboration with each other. It is a holistic overall picture of Sundarbans.
What kind of obstacles did you face while shooting for this documentary?
It is very difficult to get in to the Sundarbans. One has to be on a big boat always. Shooting from the boat is a difficult task. Also keeping the team motivated throughout is another task. And shooting inside Sundarbans always requires permissions. We had very limited access in terms of shooting. We shot with multiple cameras. The fact that the film’s DOP Suneel Borkar owns Black Magic Cine camera and we also had 5D Mark III & Go Pro made it a bit easier for us.
Various people from the industry – Nasseruddin Shah to Dia Mirza, Sakshi Tanwar to Purab Kohli and others are supporting the film. Tell us more about their role?
After we were done with the shooting part, we started doing a campaign called ‘Save the Sundarbans’ where we were shooting with prominent personalities from different fields to support the cause. When we shared the ideas with them, most of them were immediately on board. Naseeruddin Sir is the presenter of the film. He is opening and closing the film and National Award- winning Director Anant Mahadevan has given the voice over. Dia Mirza is someone who has always supported us. She is like a mentor and has helped us in whatever way she could.
Various documentary films such as The World Before her and Gulabi Gang were lucky to hit theatres? Do you hope the same for Nirbhoy?
It is too early to comment on that. We have made this film with a lot of passion and hard work. We have been fortunate enough to have industry support. Gulabi Gang and The World Before Her came into theatres because they had strong storylines, good production value and support of the industry. So far we have all the three things. Now it completely depends on how things shape up.
Are you planning to send it to film festivals?
We’ve currently not started working on the strategy. Once it is done then we’ll speak to the stakeholders and would mutually decide where all it should be sent.
At the age of 18, you wrote your first book titled Footprints of Life, which was a romantic thriller written against the backdrop of a real life murder mystery in India. While researching for the book you filed RTIs and bribed government officials to get information. Is there any other book coming up backed with similar conviction and facts?
Footprints of Life is about an extremely famous murder mystery which one gets to figure out while reading the book. I was 17 when I filed all the RTIs. Yes there is another upcoming book called the Godmother that is about this girl who was born in India but never lived here. She has lived in Prague and later comes down to Kolkata to trace her ancestral family legacy. Even in this book, a lot of incidents are based on real life stories.
Besides The Godmother, is there anything else lined up?
There is another film that Little Monks Productions will be starting which is on the silver weavers of Banaras called Weaves of Banaras. It’ll be about the issues and crisis of silk weavers.
Another thing that we are seriously working on is a short film called Final Epiphany for which we are in talks with Vidya Balan and Naseeruddin Shah. There are four lead characters out which we are aiming for two lead characters to be played by Vidya Balan and Naseerudin Shah. They have really liked the film, are in the process of reading the screenplay and will let us know. The third character is a new guy and the fourth character is Aahana Kumra who has been doing theatre from eight to ten years. The film is about a famous 60-year-old actor who leaves theatre mid way as he gets a film offer. When he becomes old, he wants to go back to the play that he left, as it will bring back his fading fame.
You’ve previously directed documentaries. What major difference do you think you will experience while making a short film?
I would quote a famous line that says, “For a fiction film the director is the god and for a documentary God is the director.”
– Navleen Kaur Lakhi