Screenwriter Apurva Asrani and fimmakers Anjali Menon and Nikkhil Advani were in conversation with Saugata Mukherjee discussing different aspects of filmmaking, particularly writing and directing, as part of a panel discussion at the Times Litfest Bengaluru, presented by ACT Fibernet.
Advani, who was accused by Mukherjee of always being politically incorrect, began the discussion by answering a question on the differences between what’s in the script and what plays out in front of the camera. He said that while a script may say, for example, that Hrithik Roshan is supposed to come out of a Ferrari now, the production team may only be able to find a cycle, and somehow, as a director, your job is to constantly compromise and make it all work together. Anjali Menon said that she’d be worried if the action didn’t take off from the script, and that she uses the script more as a spring board for the action.
The panel spoke at length about the kind of work that needs to be done, and Asrani and Advani spoke about movies like Asrani’s Aligarh, which was about a professor who was sacked because of his sexuality. They concluded that the movies that really need to be made are the ones that you think no production house would want to touch. They also noted a trend in Bollywood towards such movies, with alternative plot lines based on issues that led away from the conventional song-and-dance routine, which Advani admitted to being a committed fan of.
Anjali Menon also spoke about her education in film, and how working in cinema has made her both unlearn and learn many things, as the two areas call for very different skills. She said that film students are taught to deify a certain kind of film, but having made one movie for the heart (Manjadikuru) and one movie for her head (Bangalore Days), she’s realised that whatever genre or kind of movie you make, it’s your craft and craftsmanship that’s important. When asked which book she’d like to make into a movie, she replied, “The one book that the author will never sell: The God of Small Things“.
We spoke to Anjali Menon about her experiences as a director, her favorite actors and whether she actually enjoys screenplay writing. Edited excerpts from the conversation:
How did you decide to do Manjadikuru?
Like all film students, the dream was to make a big feature film, and I always thought to myself that if I ever made a feature film, I’d like to make it in my own language. And I remember growing up and watching Malayalam films in the 80s and 90s, and they were fantastic films, so I had plenty of inspiration. When I started to write I realised that my experiences of Kerala were all from my vacations in my hometown. It had to be something within that frame, so that’s how that story came up. I dipped into memory and used things I have observed.
And how did your second film, Bangalore Days come about?
I wrote for a friend of mine, during the post-production of Manjadikuru. I thought it would be cool to do something like this, a story about three cousins who end up in the city at the same time, for different reasons but at the same time. Everyone I started talking to about the idea liked it. Then one day, I was speaking to Anwar Rashid, who directed Ustad Hotel, and when I told him this idea he went quiet. Then he asked me, “You’re going to give this idea to somebody else?” He looked at me and said, “Nobody else is going to do it like you would do it. You direct it, I’ll produce it, that’s it.”
What do you particularly like about making films?
There are so many great moments while making a film: Working with technicians, with actors, the whole process is really rewarding, and because it’s a collaborative thing I’m often surprised by what happens on set. It’s not just me working on it; it’s everybody else contributing their own and then, of course, I love when the audience watches the film! I will never forget my first day first show, any of my first days first shows; they’re all really special. Even now, when I see a random post on Facebook, or on the street, someone comes up to me, someone speaking about my film as though it was their film, I think that’s really nice.
And what have been your low points?
There are flip sides and bad parts too, but you take it in your stride. There are always people who sometimes get difficult to work with, it could be because of your personality, it could be because of your gender, even now. There are often very difficult moments where people, because you’re making your first film, they expect you to be a pushover and just fall in line with whatever they say.
My very first film, Manjadikuru, it took a very long time for me to be able to bring that film out to the audience because right in the middle of the film, we had to part ways with my producers there. We were making that film with the National Film Development Corporation and unfortunately we really didn’t agree with where the film was being taken, and so at that point we bought the film back from the government. Those aren’t things that are done usually, but I believe that when you have faith in your film you should back it up completely. So I actually bought that film back from the government, completed it and then released it. There was a situation when I had many members of the industry going against me, a controversy over some awards I had been given. They were objecting on technical grounds, but what was really funny was that when other people on my film had won awards in other departments, they didn’t have problems with any of those, they only had problems with the awards I was winning. If it was a technical issue with the film then why was it that only I was being singled out?
Have you had to deal with sexism, as one of the very few female directors out there?
[laughs] Ooh, the elephant in the room! I have to say this, I’m going to be candid about this, when I first started out, people would ask me this question, and my answer would be a straight no, I haven’t faced any sexism. But much later I realised that I just hadn’t recognised it. The way I’d grown up, my world view, is not one where sexism plays a big role, but when a lot of times things which are happening to nobody else but you, you start to think what is it that’s different about me. I used to think it was because I was a first time filmmaker but then I reviewed these things and I realise this doesn’t happen to all first time filmmakers. People literally standing in your way, people who were not going to acknowledge your effort or allow you access. But I think it’s my work that I should focus on, and my work that should reflect: I don’t want my own work to be ageist, or sexist, or any of those things.
Which makes me think, it’s not just about sexism, a lot of people don’t talk about ageism as well. If I had a lot more grey hair when I started off, and maybe a pot belly and a beard. [laughs] I remember going to a location which I wanted to hire for my film, and the location owner wasn’t even sure he wanted to show me the location for the film. He looks me up and down and says, ‘you’re going to make the film, what makes you think you’re qualified?’ I had to convince him to even show me the location. I mean of course I wasn’t going to even think to use that location for my film after all that, but these are the things that happen.
And the number of personal questions people ask me! Every interview would ask me about struggling about being a mother and wife, all of that. People would keep asking me how do you maintain a balance, and my only answer is, I don’t!
Which do you enjoy more, directing or writing?
Oh directing is definitely more my thing. I struggle to write! I am not a writer, I struggle with it, its painful, its torture! I’m too much of a social being to be stuck writing at a desk, its really painful for me. I need people, I need oxygen! Directing is playtime. Working as a screenwriter gave me a constant sense of dread. Every time you’re writing it’s a natural process, I would never mix the two. I would direct only once I had completely finished writing. You have to think differently when you’re a writer and director.
Of all the people you’ve worked it, which actor is your favorite?
Everybody’s going to kill me for saying this, but there was a little girl, Aarti, she played Manikutty in Manjadikuru. She was a gorgeous thing and I just fell in love with her. I used to struggle to call cut from behind the camera with her because she was just so good and acted so naturally.