The look and feel of Kush is very organic – Shubhashish Bhutiani
[dropcap]”T[/dropcap]he casting process was more like a bunch of little coincidences that came together and fell in place,” says Shubhashish Bhutiani about the making of his debut film, Kush. The short film is India’s lone entry at the prestigious 70th Venice International Film Festival and will be screened in the Orizzonti segment of the festival which encourages new trendsetters in world cinema. It was also awarded as the ‘Outstanding film’ at the 2013 Dusty Film & Animation Festival and Awards held by the School of Visual Arts, New York.
In a tete-a-tete, the 22-year-old filmmaker speaks to Pandolin about the genesis of Kush and the journey involved in creating this extraordinary film.
Tell us a little about yourself and your rendezvous with filmmaking. As a kid did you dream of becoming a filmmaker? Have you formally trained in the art?
I’ve studied in a boarding school called Woodstock in Mussoorie since class 5. When I was in class 10, one of our teachers told us about this one incident that she experienced which I thought was an interesting story. While in school I was doing a lot of acting, directing plays etc. Post that I went to New York to learn filmmaking for four years. I wanted to make something about India and this film is really unique and truly spoke of some interesting things for me and that is how it all started.
I was always obsessed with movies. Even when I was a kid my dad would bring home a DVD almost every night. Then in boarding school, I took a portable DVD player along. We weren’t allowed to have one so I would watch movies under the sheets at night. So films have always been a part of me. But I didn’t think until later that I’d actually like to make films.
Your film, Kush, is inspired by a true story that you heard while you were in school. How has the idea stayed with you over the years and transformed into a film?
I was 16 when I first heard the story and somehow it always stayed with me. Mainly I think the imagery of the entire field trip, the kids and so on is something that you don’t really see in films a lot. I found that very interesting and that coupled with the political kind of context was even more fascinating. It also gave me a chance to work with children which I had earlier done while directing a play and I really enjoyed the energy of the kids. Also I felt like this film was something that others would watch as well.
[pullquote_left]I was very clear from the beginning that I don’t want to make a film that is teaching you what the moral of the story is, it’s majorly presenting a scenario for you and you are watching something play out and following alongwith it.[/pullquote_left]
Tell us a little about the film and your treatment towards it? How have you approached the film in terms of look and feel?
When in film school, we were supposed to make a film for our graduation project but I never treated this film in that way. The kind of effort and time that has gone into Kush is much more than that, as good as any feature film. I always treated it as the first film that I’m going to showcase to the world.
From my perspective this is a film about India and how all of us, the people, are so different and yet we co-exist and I think the best example of that is a classroom. In a classroom, there are no political views, religion doesn’t really exist; we are too young to understand these things. Kids are into sports or tests or friends etc., it’s a more level playing field. I think the movie is a lot about that, how we live together and then someone is questioning the identity at the same time. It’s for the first time that the child is made aware that he is a Sikh, until that time he is just one of the classmates. He doesn’t feel like he is different. The film is not really about politics or religion, they are a part of the film but it’s about something much simpler than all of that, more about us living together as a country.
The look and feel of the film is very organic. I would tell my cinematographer that the camera should be like one of the kids on the bus. It’s constantly moving which gives it a documentary feel. It is like you are a part of it, in the bus, you may be feeling hot, feeling claustrophobic at times, you’re listening to the teacher talk to you and so on. It’s not a detached view.
Even the music is subtle and quite but at the same time it’s there and it feels organic. Also it never tried to be a preachy film. I was very clear from the beginning that I don’t want to make a film that is teaching you what the moral of the story is, it’s majorly presenting a scenario for you and you are watching something play out and following alongwith it. With this kind of a story it is very easy to get preachy and dramatic but I refrained from doing that. And yes, I’ve treated it with some humor too because at the end of the day, you are working with children and they don’t always understand the gravity of the situation. In that way there are many aspects to ‘Kush’ and I’ve tried to make it as authentic as possible.
What is the kind of research that has gone into the making of this film?
I spent about 6 months researching it. The reason I say it is inspired by a true story is because only the basic premise of the film and the setting is taken from the story. The level of detailing didn’t necessarily happen on the field trip but happened to other people in the stories that I read. A majority of my research was through testimonials, books etc. about people that experienced the situation at that time. I also interviewed a lot of my friends and family who were living in Delhi, who were Sikh and what they experienced. It was more about understanding that time period, the logistics of how things happened and what different people went through. Another reason I liked the idea of this film was because it was set in a bus, as part of a field trip in the middle of nowhere. So I didn’t have to worry about creating a set up and making it look like the 1980’s since I didn’t have too many resources. It became more present because women then too wore salwar kameezes or saris, school kids wore uniforms, so it was more about dealing with people rather than with smaller details which I couldn’t afford to do.
[pullquote_right]We did go through the script a few times but I didn’t want to have too many rehearsals as we were really pushing on the organic feel.For this film I was a big believer in letting things happen and creating the right environment for the actors.[/pullquote_right]
Where did you shoot the film and what camera have you used?
We shot outside Mumbai, near Lonavala on the ghats and Borivali National Park. We used the Sony FS 100.
What was the casting process of the film like? Was it difficult to get the actors you wanted? Did you have a particular rehearsal method for them?
It was tremendously hard to get people because we were paying them but it wasn’t some big amount, like their professional daily charges. We had 17 children as we had to fill up the bus or else it wouldn’t have looked real. A lot of the kids who ended up acting were from my mother’s church where she teaches and so we took 5-6 kids from there and they became very important for the film. And then there were some kids whom my dad knew and so on.
Also, I didn’t have the teacher till about a week before my shoot. That is when my dad suggested a lady whom we knew, he mentioned Sonika Chopra and she went on to play the teacher. I wasn’t very sure about her initially but when I saw her act, she was spot on with the entire maternal tough love of a teacher/mother. So the casting process was more like a bunch of little coincidences that came together and fell in place. It was about trying to see how we could pull things together to make it feel real. We also have two butchers in the movie and we got real butchers to play the part. We did have a few professional child actors because it’s not easy for all kids to say dialogs etc.
We did go through the script a few times but I didn’t want to have too many rehearsals as we were really pushing on the organic feel. We were also changing the script a lot as we shot because there were many things that added a lot more interest than what I’d initially written. Additionally it’s hard to do rehearsals on a film like this because it’s on a bus and a bus full of children, to emulate that kind of an environment was close to impossible in my opinion.
The only way you can put pressure on an actor to control a bunch of children is to put her in that situation. We would tell the kids to keep quite when they had to but in takes where the teacher has to separate the kids, ask them to be quite etc, we would just put Sonika in the situation. I would tell her that you become the director and manage that situation and then she would do it. For this film I was a big believer in letting things happen and creating the right environment for the actors.
They say working with child actors is the toughest job. How was the experience of working with them in your debut film? How did you go about choosing your protagonist who plays Kush?
I’ve worked with kids on a school play but this was a completely different experience. I personally loved it because they have contagious energy and it rubs off on the rest of the crew as well. They don’t understand things like we have to get done on time; if they are talking it’s almost impossible to keep them quite and so on. But I love that energy. A lot of my directing was more about trying to bring that out and make it feel as natural as possible and letting them be kids. I personally feel like we have captured moments that are quite incredible because I have hardly ever seen children the way we shot them, where you feel like they are not acting. Because they aren’t. For instance if they are playing a game or fighting on the bus they are doing those things in reality. So I felt it was easy because I didn’t try to direct them that much.
When I auditioned Shayaan Sameer, the kid who plays Kush, there was something about his face that just hit me and I knew he was perfect for the part.
[pullquote_left]I personally feel like we have captured moments that are quite incredible because I have hardly ever seen children the way we shot them, where you feel like they are not acting. Because they aren’t.[/pullquote_left]
Tell us about your collaboration with the cinematographer Mike McSweeny. How was the working relationship with him? What was your essential brief to him?
Mike is a very good friend whom I met at film school. I used to see his stuff all the time and I really loved working with him. He’s a documentarian mostly and a free spirit, very adventurous. I knew that to get someone from USA here and that too with no budgets; it had to a person who would be willing to handle the struggle, someone who doesn’t consider technical things more important than the images that we are trying to create. He was the right person for the film completely.
For example, in one shot, we were following the bus and we tied Mike to my car with a rope and my dad was driving behind the bus at 40-50 kms/hr. I was looking at the shot on the monitor and was nervous and kept asking him if he was okay but Mike was absolutely relaxed about it. At that moment I knew that I could not have asked for any one better to make this movie.
Mike’s contribution was everything. We talked a lot about the movie, saw reference films, discussed things we like and don’t like. Visually, he was the director of photography and I told him that I want you to direct the photography. I told him that I will be crazily involved with the actors and children but I had complete trust in him managing the look of the film. We became like one mind by the end of it, where he was shooting things and I didn’t feel the need to supervise it as such.
Dharam & Sandeep have given the background score for your film. What role does music play in your film and how did you convey the same to them?
Sandeep is a childhood friend so I just asked him to do the music and he agreed. I never wanted the music to be loud, overbearing or dramatic and I never wanted to push the emotion. You almost don’t hear the music but it adds to the shot. So it was more about creating a mood than to manipulate the audience. For instance when they first find out that the riots have started, we have 3 shots of the bus traveling through a landscape, so we put music on to that so it feels like a thriller, you add a little mood to it. Music definitely adds a lot but I was more into creating the mood.
You have also written the film and edited it as well. Do you think this gives you a better control of things? Which was the toughest role for you – writer/director/editor?
I’m not a very controlling person but yes it does give you the space to be there. I co-edited the film with a friend of mine in the US so though he didn’t understand the language he had his own unique perspective on it. Writing and directing was something only I could do as the film was my baby. So it does give you a little control but I let people be free when I work. I literally try to give them a sense of direction rather than telling them what to do. Every role has its challenges. Also being a student you are doing it all on your own, it is not like you have a giant team, so each process has its challenges. Producing it is hard in some ways.
[pullquote_right]I never wanted the music to be loud, overbearing or dramatic and I never wanted to push the emotion. You almost don’t hear the music but it adds to the shot.[/pullquote_right]
Can you throw some light about the funding for this film? Was it easy to get funds?
We had three grants that we could apply for at film school for this project. There was a pre-production grant that you get on the basis of your script, a post production grant that you win basis the first edit of your film and there was one alumni award, which only 1 student gets and I won all 3 of them. So it was a mix of those grants and some private funding as well. For instance my cinematographer said he could do the movie if I bought his ticket but at that time I didn’t have the money. Luckily I won the grant and bought him the ticket and the next day my grant was gone. So yes the grants did ease the pressure to a large extent or it would have been even tougher.
Kush was made as part of your graduation project. Did you plan for it to travel to film festivals as well? Did you envision your film getting such a fantastic response?
In my instinct I knew that people would connect to it because I connected to it instantly. Idea wise I always knew that it would work; people would say that it’s a great idea. It was not my idea, I heard it and thought it was great and so I wanted to share it with everybody. But yes the entire cast and crew were surprised with the response. We definitely didn’t think that it would happen at such a level like the Venice Film Festival.
How did the journey to the Venice International Film Festival happen? Which are the other festivals that Kush has travelled to or will be traveling to?
They had a limit of 20 minutes at the film fest and my film was 28 minutes at that time. So my dad asked me to cut the 8 minutes and I said that it would be really difficult as everything was important. But at the end I cut it to 20 minutes and I submitted it and the rest they say is history. I was very clear that I wanted to try and be ambitious with where this film can go. Because the people that were watching the film as we went along were really responding well to it and appreciating it. And at my school I won best director, best editor and best film which gave us more confidence that we should really try and be ambitious with it. If we fail, we fail but there was no reason not to try. I can’t talk about the other festivals just yet but we do have some things lined up and are trying for others as well.
Can you tell us about your future plans?
I have a couple of stories that I am working on. I’ve just finished working on the script of a film called Langur (grey monkey). It’s essentially a love story so let’s see how it shapes up.[box_info]
Inspired by a true story: In 1984, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards, causing anti-Sikh riots to erupt throughout the country. A teacher traveling back from a field trip with her class of 10-year-old students struggles to protect Kush, the only Sikh student in the class, from the growing violence around him.[/box_info]