You can do it, if you have a good team! – Unni Vijayan
“You can do it, if you have a good team” were the signing off words by the debutante director Unni Vijayan at his National Award winning film ‘Lessons In Forgetting’s first official press conference in New Delhi, wherein UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) announced its support to this independent fiction project. Till now, the film has many awards to its credit including 60th National Award in Best English Film category, the lead actor Adil Hussain won Best Actor award at New Jersey Independent South Asian Cine Festival, the director Unni Vijayan won Outstanding Achievement In International Feature Filmmaking at Williamsburg International Film Festival last year and many others. When ‘Lessons In Forgetting’, based on author Anita Nair’s book of the same name, has released on April 19 through PVR Director’s rare initiative, it is indeed a feat for a small budget independent film to get the acknowledgement it deserves. After editing a few independent films in his career, the director Unni Vijayan talks about his first tryst with the direction in his debut ‘Lessons In Forgetting’ on a candid chat with Pandolin.
What hopes do you have from your first directorial project?
When I started working on this film, I had a feeling of ownership that it was my film. I wanted to be known as a director as the project was something which would showcase my talent to the world. Each one of us in the team had this feeling of ownership to their respective roles. Over the period of time, the whole issue and the subject this film talks about overtook all our feelings. Now we have come to the point, where we talk about the issue because we feel that’s the most important topic. All other things took a backseat. The film won National Award and we know it’s for the issue it deals with. Today, when people come and see the movie, they actually want to talk about the issue. At first they say, ‘Oh! That’s a good film’ and then they immediately shift on to discuss the issue. So at the end, all of us became facilitators for the film.
Our initial aim of reaching out to people, to showcase our talent, has changed to bring the issue on a larger front to be discussed by the urban audience.
What’s the storyline of the film?
The film is essentially about a father who wants to know what happens to his daughter in a small town in Tamil Nadu. It’s his journey as he starts unraveling and deciphering the whole maze that his daughter had. He meets her friends and acquaintances. Each of them tells him different stories about her. Then, he finally reaches a town, where he discovers the truth.
‘Lessons In Forgetting’ deals with all the gender issues that come across in the film but in an emotional way. For a father trying to know what happens to his daughter, the whole kill is the fact that he feels that some where he is responsible for his daughter’s condition. It’s a very relevant question that every father would want to ask such as ‘if I have a teenage daughter, what kind of learning do I impart to her? Do I tell her to go out and stand up for her rights? or ask her to stay inside and be safe?
Since the film is adapted from Anita Nair’s novel ‘Lessons In Forgetting’, how much of the book have you adapted in the film?
We were very clear from the beginning what we wanted. We wanted that one subplot from the book to be the main talk of the film. We picked it up and worked around. Things are changed as the plot or topics not relevant in the book became relevant in the film.
For example, foeticide is not a big issue in the book.
The film has various forms of gender violence in it done by several people with a purpose. At the end, the father seems lost as he doesn’t know whom to fight against for this cause. In reality also, you are actually left with a question about an issue without solving or resolving it. People will open up, come out and talk about it, but with no solution or resolution to it.
Was Adil Hussain the first choice to play the role of a father? How was the experience working with him?
Adil was the first and the only choice. We didn’t look beyond at all. When we saw his clips and finalised on him, we didn’t know who he worked for. Later we got know about his background.
It was a delight to work with somebody like Adil Hussain, who has a 360 degree view on what a film should be. He is a really intense actor in the coming years.
Besides him, other casts also gave a lot of their time to the film. They were very intense about their roles.
We both are friends as we studied together. He stayed with me even before the film was planned. So he was involved in the project from the very beginning. We had a lot of discussion and decided to keep a very narrow colour palette, which we followed for rest of the film elements such as sets and costumes. He also wanted to shoot the movie in 35mm film, which we did.
I wanted the film to not be very colourful. We decided to have a de-saturated look be it the costume colours, events to the mood boards. In the second half of the film, when we shot in Tamil Nadu, to differentiate we used yellow as a motif on all the frames because on those frames, you will see Tamils here and there, whom we consciously planted. We also had very intricate shots and took long takes. We especially designed rooms for that. For example, we had a take inside the room and the camera was dollying in from outside of the room. We planned and chose locations, where we could better do these kinds of shots.
What were the filming locations?
We shot in Bengaluru to show urban side of the film and Pondicherry for the rural part. For two or three days, we also shot a church scene in Coonoor.
Which camera was used?
We shot the film in ARRI Alexa in 35mm cinemascope format.
What was your own creative approach towards the shoot?
Once we had the script, we started breaking down the scenes, went to locations, understood the kind of shots we wanted and then chose the locations accordingly. Being an editor first, my whole thought process and shot breakdown was in terms of cuts. This time, I took a conscious effort to let the editor in me take a back seat and brought down the shots, having their own unique designs. So, finally the shots and sequences had their own movements, which did not require cuts.
Also, I was very particular about the shots I wanted in this film. I always knew what to finish and so we didn’t have to keep coming back. My shot design was clear in my mind.
[box_light]It was really intimidating in the beginning, but gradually I learnt that ‘you can do it, if you have a good team’ and you can’t do it all alone.[/box_light]
How long was the filming process?
The shoot took around 45 days. While the post production took an year as I was doing it one by one. First the edit was done, then music, followed by sound design and DI, so it all went phase by phase. Nothing was happening simultaneously.
We started in the months of April or May in 2011 and completed the film in 2012.
What relationship you share with the film’s producer Prince Thampi?
Prince Thampi is also my cousin. He is the visionary. He was the only person who said, “this is the kind of film I want to make.” That’s his vision towards the script.
What were the major challenges you faced while filming?
The film cost us three times higher than a normal Hindi film’s budget. Union rules are like if it’s an English film, the people charge three times more than they charge for a Hindi film.
People think that if it’s an English film, then it must be a Hollywood project.
Other main challenge was to handle the scale of this film, which I have never done before. This is the first time I am directing a feature length movie. It was really intimidating in the beginning, but gradually I learnt that ‘you can do it, if you have a good team’ and you can’t do it all alone.
Why did you choose English as the medium of language?
We did not think about commercial aspect of the film. We just wanted to stick to what we were doing. The second half is shot in Tamil Nadu, where we have people talking in Tamil. When you have an urban crowd, English becomes a natural choice. It can’t have an urban crowd talking in Kannada or in Hindi in Tamil Nadu. English was the only common language.
Why not much marketing was done for the film’s promotions?
Because we put all the money in the filmmaking! Later, we realised that marketing is another game altogether. When we became slightly known, then people started seeing our movie and various organizations started asking us to hold a screening of the film in their town. I know its difficult to reach to people without promotions. But we don’t have money to invest. We are relying on the word of mouth.
Lesson In Forgetting – Synopsis
An adaptation of Anita Nair’s book, by the same name: Lessons in Forgetting, is a gripping and heart warming story of redemption, forgiveness and second chances.
At the heart of the story is a single father, J.A. Krishnamurthy or JAK, as he is fondly called, played effectively by Adil Hussain; the story is woven around how JAK relentlessly follows a trail left by delicate clues to find out how his teenage daughter, Smriti (played by debutante, Maya Tideman) ended up in hospital, completely broken. Helping JAK in his chase is a single mother Meera (played by Roshni Achreja), who is unable to make sense of her husband’s callousness; he walks out on their marriage, out of the blue, leaving her to bring up their two growing children and care for her aging mother and grandmother, all on her own. Fate brings two searching souls in JAK and Meera together.
It is JAK’s desperate attempt for closure on a gruesome incident affecting his daughter and his need for redemption that takes both Meera and him through a rocky trail that turns his life upside down. In the event, gives a peek into his daughter’s unfamiliar world. The subplot subtly touches the subject of female foeticide and how fiercely guarded the issue is.
The film tells the story of an ordinary human being in an ordinary fashion. No super heroes, just life playing its game.