Prakash Jha’s contribution to the climax of the film was immense – Ritesh Menon
Director Ritesh Menon talks about his debut film Crazy Cukkad Family — an entertaining comedy revolving around a wacky family replete with interesting characters. Produced by Prakash Jha, the film has an eclectic mix of actors that includes lyricist Swanand Kirkire, Shilpa Shukla and Ninad Kamat.
What drew you to the field of film-making? Please tell us about your background.
I loved listening to stories since childhood and knew quite early on that I wanted to make films. Sometime after completing class 12, I accompanied my father to one of the villages where he was working on a program. I had a Handycam and although didn’t know much, I shot a documentary on rural development and edited it with some help. It turned useful for the program and the government of Maharashtra also used it in many villages. I then opted for a filmmaking course, made many short films and eventually went to London to further study filmmaking. After coming back, I started working as an Assistant Director and my first film was Khalid Mohammad’s Silsilay where I was an intern.
I met Santosh Sivan – my mentor – on the sets of Silsilay. I worked with him for 8–9 years and did a few documentaries in the middle. Recently I directed the first ‘CinePlay’ — an interesting concept introduced by Nandita Das and her husband Subodh Maskara. It blends live theatre experience with cinema. You shoot a play — with a good concept — in a film studio like how you would shoot a film but the performances and setting is still like theatre. Nandita got in touch with me and I directed her play Between the Lines and Mahesh Dattani’s Dance Like A Man.
Tell us about your relationship with your mentor Santosh Sivan?
Whatever I know about film-making is because of Santosh Sivan. I worked with him as an AD on his first Hollywood film Before The Rains and later on other films. I have been his assistant cameraperson, written a few films for him — some that have not been made yet — and so on. Santosh is the one who encouraged me to write and without realizing, he started making my portfolio. At times, he trained me the hard way but that has helped me face the real world. I was fortunate to work with him and owe everything to him.
How did you land this film and why did you choose this for your directorial debut?
Honestly I did not choose this film; it just fell into place. I was working on another script with writer Suhas Shetty and he casually mentioned this other idea, which was easier to make logistically. He narrated the idea of Crazy Cukkad Family and I liked it but couldn’t see myself making it. Five to six months went by and we continued working on the first idea. One day, Suhas mentioned that he had written a 15-pager on Crazy Cukkad Family and wanted me to read it. The moment I started reading it, I realized the potential the script had and what Suhas was trying to convey. I found the characters interesting. I hadn’t read such layered characters in a long time. It stood out as a challenge for me. That is how we teamed up and met Kushal Punjabi. And then Suhas and I developed a script.
As a director how easy or difficult is it to take someone’s idea forward and give it your direction?
I used to think that I could never do that (work on someone’s idea) because I thought that I wouldn’t be able to deliver what the writer was imagining. But eventually it is an idea and once you develop it into a film, then it doesn’t belong to just one person. Even when someone else has written a script, it is the director who envisions how he/she will translate it on to screen and accordingly makes changes to that draft. So working on someone else’s idea is not as big a problem as it sounds. Suhas and I share a trustworthy relationship and he was open to my suggestions, even though it was his idea. When we finished the draft, Prakashji (Jha) came on board and he had certain ideas. The actors had ideas about their characters as well and we incorporated all of it. So at the end it becomes everyone’s story.
The film has an interesting cast, a mix of personalities. Were you involved in the casting? How did you go about getting lyricist Swanand Kirkire on board?
Yes I was involved in the casting as well. Sharanya Rajgopal, a good friend and someone who dons many hats, came on board as a casting director. After reading the script, she wanted us to meet Swanand (Kirkire), as she related the character of Pawan Beri to him. Although I loved Swanand as a musician, I couldn’t make this connection for the movie. Towards the final session of casting, we were yet to lock some of the main characters. That is when Sharanya mentioned Swanand again. His physical form was similar to that of Pawan’s character. Finally Suhas and I met him and I was convinced that he could pull it off. Interestingly, at the same time Swanand was wondering why we were offering him such a big role and was also apprehensive about Prakash Jha’s take on it. But Prakashji was equally excited about him being on board. It took just one narration from our end to convince Swanand.
How would you define your relationship with the actors of the film? What was your rehearsal method like?
Because it is a comedy film, it is heavy on performances. And I was sure that my focus was going to be on the performances. The actors first individually read the script, made points and discussed it with me on a one-to-one basis. Then we had a few collective discussions where everyone sat together and read the script from the beginning to end, each one reading their own lines. As that was happening, someone would do a gesture, an action or something and I would say — ‘This really works, keep this’. Since we were 10–12 people, the ideas kept flowing and I was open to improvisation. Swanand and Ninad (Kamat) are very spontaneous. When you give everyone freedom, they want to do more for the film and that worked well.
As a director, how would you describe your style?
I’d love to say I am methodical but I am actually spontaneous and that drives my assistants nuts at times. There are things that I will discuss the previous night but completely change them while shooting the next day. I definitely wish I could be more methodical to plan enough so that even if I change things at the last minute, there is no problem. I believe that having as much planning as possible is always a good thing on a film set.
How did Prakash Jha come on board as Producer considering he is largely associated with socio-political dramas? Any particular aspect where his contribution proved invaluable?
I never thought that I would approach Prakash Jha. A common friend, Alankrita Shrivastava, who is a filmmaker, had read an older draft of our script. She told us that Prakashji wanted to produce smaller films with new ideas and that we should send our film. Although hesitant, I e-mailed the script and the next day we got a call to meet him. In a matter of 30 minutes he was on board. He apparently the script so much that once he started reading it, he couldn’t put it down till he finished. Prakashji has been supportive. He never interfered and when he would give his notes, he would always say that I should incorporate the suggestions only if I agreed with them.
I think his contribution to the climax was immense. We wrote 5–6 endings to the film and were confused how to end a story like this. Prakashji gave us a lot of clarity by telling us to focus on the purpose of this film. While making the film, we realized that it is not only an indie film but also something that can appeal to a lot of people and that helped us realize the kind of climax the film required. That logic and experience could only come from Prakashji.
How important is music to the story and what role does it play?
We don’t have any lip sync songs but there are 5 songs in the album that have been used to take scenes forward. There is a soulful number called ‘Chand yeh’ that Swanand has sung. There is a jazz-blues kind of number called ‘Yeh dil jaane na’, an experimental song called ‘Party ka hero’ that has some Kannada lyrics, break beats and so on, the title song, which is a peppy number, and a fun take on an item song called ‘Sexy wala pakoda’.
Any challenges that you faced as a debutant director and how did you tackle them?
To be honest, every day on the shoot is a challenge because things don’t always go as planned. For instance, a recce of the locations is done almost 1–2 months in advance and when you actually go to shoot, the location might not look exactly the same, especially if it is a hilly area. We were going to shoot in Mahabaleshwar that is known for green hills. But when I went there to finally shoot, the greenery had vanished; it looked dry. But you take such things and make them part of your story. It worked for me because I wanted to show an abandoned house that no one is really looking after.
Also the climax sequence was planned with an action director. We intended to shoot everything through the grass that had a golden tinge as it had dried up. But barely two weeks before shooting we were informed that they had burnt the entire area and everything had turned black. Shooting on black would have been a logistical nightmare. Luckily the production team and localities helped us to plant more grass and so we ended up shooting there.
What are your expectations from the film? One reason why people should watch Crazy Cukkad Family?
I am hoping that the film does well, and that the people who come to the theatre, go back saying it is a fantastic film. Those are anyone’s expectations when they are making a film. It is a simple story but some of the characters shown have never been seen in Indian cinema. There are some secrets and surprises that we have kept tightly under wraps. So you need to go and watch it to know what they are. Every scene has several layers of witty humor. And after test screenings, people have said that they felt happy and warm after watching the film. I think that is a great incentive to watch a film in this day and age.