His first release as writer may have been Hasee Toh Phasee but the very first feature film script that Harshavardhan Kulkarni conceptualized & wrote is the recently released Hunterrr. The writer and now debutant director cum producer talks about the journey of this film, which though touted as a sex comedy, is actually a coming of age story.

Harshavardhan Kulkarni

Harshavardhan Kulkarni

Hunterrr took a while to take off. What caused the delay?

Writing Hunterrr took a really long time because it was my first feature film script. I started thinking about this concept and character in around 2000 and wanted to write about it. But the kind of concept that it was, I wondered, ‘am I writing a B-grade film?’. I took some time to make up my mind because I was scared that I will be judged. But finally after a lot of coaxing from my family and friends I ended up writing it because it was an exciting concept. That itself took 3-4 years.

I registered the script in 2006. For that time it was a little too edgy and bold. I always thought of it as an independent low budget film, because that’s the way the script was. I never thought of it as a sex comedy. That is the perception only in the trailer and promos. It is when people see it that they understand that it is a sweet, coming of age film. But overall it required so much time as it’s difficult to make films like these.

And now that it’s done, are you happy with the way things turned out?

I am overwhelmed by the response of the audiences. Initially I was a little taken aback by some critics. When the film was made, we had shown it to several people and the response was really good. We knew for a fact that it’s going to be reviewed really well. But some of the reviews were a little shocking. However once I started going to the theatres and saw the response and the stuff on social media, it was very heartening and satisfying. It is one of those films that people should go and watch again. There are so many things that unravel. So I’m really satisfied and the word of mouth is super strong so I hope that more and more people watch it.

How did the concept of Hunterrr come to you back then?

When I finished film school in ’99, I was toying with the idea of making a film. These characters, ‘Vaasus’, who smell women needs, are a typical bunch. They are not Casanovas or Playboys. And this (Vaasu) is not a term I have come up with. It’s actually a very popular term in Maharashtra. A Vaasu is constantly seeking for these carnal pleasures and I’ve grown up with such characters. I was in an all boy’s school and so we were these under confident kids who could not muster up the courage to even talk to a girl. And this is in the late 80s, early 90s. During that time there were these really cool guys, good looking ones who had bikes and it was simpler for them. But that wasn’t the case for someone who is average looking, middle class, like most of us. And among that, if an average guy would talk to a girl, it was fascinating; he was like a hero. And we all wanted to know was how did he manage to do it.

These characters were a rare breed and were very secretive about how they went about doing all this. I was fascinated by it and would look up to them. But once out of FTII, I realized that people move on in life, get married and so on. However when I met these characters, they were still stuck, getting same pleasures like they did as a 14-year-old. And that was a picking point where I started thinking, ‘What interesting characters’. They had still not moved on in life. So it’s a typical coming of age film where at some point at least there will be a changeover or maybe, no changeover. That’s when I said, let me make a character study of a Vaasu, who is so typical and unique.

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So did you write the film keeping these actors (Gulshan Devaiah, Radhika Apte etc.) in mind?

I don’t think about actors while writing. The characters were based on a lot of real people and experiences and I had a character sketch in mind. I had a few people in my head but nothing specific. If it were up to me and Amol Palekar was really young, I would cast him because he is the perfect match. Like Amitabh Bachchan was the angry young man, Amol Palekar was this average, ordinary young man; he played it so beautifully. I was actually on the hunt for somebody who would fit in all those things. Great lookers or stars were never part of the scheme of things because it defeats the purpose of the story.

I had seen Gulshan’s (Devaiah) performances earlier and he wasn’t playing the typical hero kinds of roles. And his diversity was quite apparent because of his previous films. When I met him, I saw that he is very smart and good looking and I began wondering if I should even give him the script (laughs). But I did give it to him. He read it and the first thing he said was that I’m going to approach this role like Amol Palekar, with that kind of performance. And I was so thrilled because he got the film bang on. Gulshan was very involved even in terms of costumes etc. He would be the one who would say let’s go for a tackier thing, something very ordinary, not color coordinated so that he becomes less of a dude, more of an average guy without making it geeky.

I’d seen Radhika in Shor In The City and she just looked the part. So when I met her, things just fell in place. Almost everyone has organically entered the film.

But even though the film is not a sex comedy, was anybody initially apprehensive to be part of the cast?

Nobody perceived it like that (sex comedy) when the script was ready. People are perceiving it in that way on the basis of the trailer, which is just two and a half minutes of the film. We can’t give away the whole story in a trailer. So we’re just saying that this is the story of a guy who is obsessed with sex. And instantly people think that it is a sex comedy or an in-your-face double meaning story. But now when people have watched it, they realize that it’s not the case.

If you think about it, the film is not corny or sleazy and nowhere in the film do you see skin. It was a very conscious decision even though we have some sensual moments. If we wanted to sell it on that (sleaze) we would have put skin show and sold it. When I was casting, everybody got the concept because they were reading the script. And these are all really talented actors who wouldn’t want to be part of something that is crap. The film’s script itself was coming of age but yes; the uniqueness is that it’s about a guy who is obsessed with sex. We are talking about sex and the psyche of the guy; he is objectifying women but the film is not.

When it came to preparations and rehearsals, were you more spontaneous with the actors or was there a planned methodical approach?

The way I write is very detailed with intense character sketches, their back-stories and everything. I don’t obviously share it all with the actors because that’s like overfeeding them with too much information, which might confuse them. But I am sure of what I want. Plus I’ve been with the script for so long that at no point did I feel at a loss of anything. The actors didn’t need any convincing; they understood it all from the script as it was very detailed. There were no intense workshops as these are all characters that people have seen or they know of. So they were just drawing inspiration from real life and playing it. The only thing was that I was looking at it from a very real perspective and the actors got it. So it was quite simple.

At the music launch

At the music launch

Even the look and feel is very simple and real. How did you convey your vision to DOP John Jacob Payyapalli? Why did you specifically approach him for the film?

Cinematographer John Jacob Payyapalli (JJ) hadn’t done any full-length features. He was very apprehensive about entering the feature film scene unless he is sure about the script. Once I sent him the script, he read it and immediately came back saying that he’s on board. We shared some thoughts about the script and tried to recreate that space, the milieu, that flavor as is mentioned in the script. In terms of shooting, we did some planning because it is going through several time frames. There is a present day, we show past and so on. We adopted a classical approach for the childhood portions that is reminiscent of those days. So the texture, the shot taking, it’s all very classical and beautiful. In the present day portions it’s more edgy, handheld, a little grainy and so on. A lot of discussion did happen but we were on the same page. It was as organic and as real as possible so that nobody notices a shot and goes away from the beauty of the film.

This is a very funny film, the humor is very subtle but at the same time a guy with a sense of humor will get it. That’s one of the reasons that anyone who is a part of this film had to understand the story deeply and understand the sense of humor. It then becomes a team effort and everyone is chipping in to make it equally funny. Or else it would have been a task for me to make them understand the humor. I’d done an ad film with JJ who is from London Film School, an ace and a fabulous craftsman. During that shoot we instantly connected and his sense of humor is great. So I thought he’d be the best choice and would also be chipping in, not just as a cinematographer but also a storyteller, looking at everything in a holistic manner.

Were there any challenges that your directorial debut posed for you?

The apparent ones were there – how am I going to be interacting with the actors, because that was one of the new things to me. I’ve done ads but not too many of them. Apart from that I’ve done corporate documentaries and industrial films where there are no actors. But I think the actors were really large-hearted, they took everything in their stride and made me feel comfortable. Even though you are a first timer, you need to be confident to guide them (actors) and take them along. But if on the first day they are under confident about you and start calling the shots, then it’s a mess. That was my only fear but because all of us instantly connected and they were okay with the vision that I had, it was very encouraging. Though it was a first time director experience, I’ve spent around 15 years in the industry. I’ve written films and been a part of them. So even I didn’t look at myself as a first timer.

How did Phantom Films come on board? Was there any creative involvement from their end?

We had a really tough time making the film. Earlier we had an investor who backed out around 10 days before the shoot. It had taken some time to get him on board and everything had been done. With him gone, we had to call it off but weren’t ready for that. All the actors and crew were so charged up that we decided to give it a shot and at least try and shoot it. But there was a cost attached to it, so frantic calls started happening and we were assembling money through family and friends. During that time I’d gone to Phantom as I was writing Hasee Toh Phasee and I shared the situation with them. They knew about the film, had seen the script and wanted to be a part of it. But since they had just started Phantom they wanted to wait for a year or so before making it. And I wasn’t ready to wait. So when I told them about the situation, Vikas (Bahl) told me not to take money from my family, as it is a long process. He asked me to wait. And finally we decided to call it off. That’s when Rohit Chugani came into our lives. He loved the story and invested in it. Within 10 days we started shooting. When we were editing the first cut I showed it to the Phantom team again. Around a year had passed by then. They loved it and came on board. So they have been involved in the creative process of finalizing the film and creative decisions taken on the edit table. They have been very supportive throughout.

What next lies in store as writer and director?

I was with Hunterrr for too long and didn’t want to let go till it released. But in another 10 days I shall move on. The first thing I need to do is write for Vinil (Mathew) who has been patiently waiting for long now. We haven’t finalized the concept but have some ideas. My own directorial venture will happen after that.

 Photo Courtesy: Tailormade films & Phantom Films.