Last year’s Hollywood blockbuster, The Help looked at Mississippi white women and their black maids. Now closer to home, Indian attitudes towards their help are being challenged by director Prashant Nair in “Delhi in a Day.”
“The film is a satirical look at the lifestyles of the nouveau-riche in Delhi and how they interact and lord it over their home help,” said 34-year-old Nair who has an engineering degree from Purdue University.
Nair, co-founded Avedya, a successful social media consultancy firm in 2000, but turned to movie making nine years later after taking a filmmaking intensive and editing classes at New York University.
The well shot film is a masterly portrayal of Delhi’s baba-log, examining how the haves and the have-nots coexist in Indian homes. It looks at what happens in the palatial Bhatia family mansion in South Delhi run by a semi-alcoholic cook, an over-excitable butler, two Tamil drivers, a maid and a major domo after a British house-guest suffers a theft.
Nair talked to Firstpost about his first feature film on the sidelines of the New York Indian Film Festival (NYIFF). Nair and the film’s lead Anjali Patil were nominated for best director and best actress at the NYIFF. The film has had a successful festival run in the US and Europe.
“Delhi in a Day” which is in Hindi and English with smatterings of Tamil and Punjabi will open in theaters in India on 24 August. It is anchored by a lively cast that includes veteran Victor Banerjee, Lillete Dubey, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Anjali Patil and Welsh actor and former Calvin Klein model Lee Williams. Here are excerpts:
Does “Delhi in a Day” explore the warts and all relationship between India’s pampered rich and those who pick up after them?
Yes, in fact the film is a satirical look at the lifestyles of the nouveau-riche in Delhi and how they interact with their staff.
I wanted to explore the often troubling ways in which the ultra-rich co-exist with those who work for them in their homes. In many cases, even young people in their twenties and teens behave obnoxiously with their help. There’s very little space for dignity and I wanted to portray this in hope that it will give people a chance to reflect on all this. It’s worrying to see, in so many cases, such a basic lack of courtesy, values and crude class differences.
Is “Delhi in a Day” a modestly budgeted film about a subject that hardly fits the Bollywood mould?
“Delhi In A Day” was made on an extremely tight budget and while it’s not a typical Bollywood film, it is still accessible to a wide audience because it is light and comedic in nature and does deal with a subject that is familiar to us but often taken for granted. We hope it will appeal to multiplex audiences. It will release theatrically in India on 24 August with PVR Pictures.
What compelled you to tell this story?
I’ve always found the disparity in these upper and upper middle-class households as well as the lack of regulation disturbing. Oftentimes, it borders on abusive. I don’t think it’s a question of good or bad, it’s just the status quo and people don’t really stop to question their behaviour. I’m hoping this film will generate some debate around this issue and encourage people to give a little thought to this whole notion of “servants” and their treatment even if it is something that is so ingrained in Indian society.
Did you use humour to keep the movie frothy and entertaining while landing a strong message deftly?
Personally I enjoy it when humour or satire is used to bring attention to serious issues. I find it can have a longer lasting effect in many cases than shock value. While “Delhi in a Day” deals with a serious subject and does have its darker moments, a majority of the film is humorous.
The turning point where things get a little nasty is when Jasper’s money goes missing and the staff is given 24 hours to replace it or face the consequences. Then we start to see the ill effects of the relationship that exists between what is referred to as the servants and the people who live in the house.
There is a presumption that the servants have stolen the money?
Exactly. Without giving away too much of the plot, let’s just say it was assumed from the get-go that the “staff” was responsible.
This happens quite often. After the screening a woman came up to me and said she had seen the same thing happen.
Can you talk about Jasper who is a catalyst in the film?
Lee William’s character Jasper did come about because I wanted a foreign perspective on what is perhaps taken for granted in India. He comes naively to India looking for spirituality instead he is confronted with this very materialistic, over-the-top South Delhi environment. He does have a voyage but it’s just not the one he imagined.
The action in the film all takes place in one day. He ends up doing something very generous within that day. I don’t want to give it away but he connects with the staff. I do feel he comes away having had a voyage.
Can we call “Delhi in a Day” an Indian version of “The Help?”
There are certainly similarities but they are obviously very different in terms of style, tone, treatment and so on. One key difference is that “Delhi in a Day” is set in the present and deals very directly with an issue that is prevalent in today’s society.
Watch the trailer
What are you working on now?
I’m currently working on my second feature film — a comedy set in the early 80s about immigration to the US from rural India. It’s sort of a satirical look at the “myth” of America. It’s called “Umrika“.
What prompted a trained engineer from Purdue University to start making movies and do you have any formal training in filmmaking?
It’s always been a passion and as Avedya matured into a functioning company with a talented management team it was possible to step away and finally focus on it. I took a filmmaking intensive at NYU and a few editing classes but really learned by making a short film and then, of course, “Delhi in a Day“. My latest script “Umrika” was part of the Mumbai Mantra/Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab 2012 which was also an incredible learning experience in terms of story development and screenwriting
Does being the co-founder of Avedya, which helps companies build relationships with their customers through social networking, leave you with enough time to follow your passion as a filmmaker?
My role at Avedya is no longer operational so I am able to focus on film making almost full-time.
Did you write the screenplay for “Delhi in a Day” and are you from that breed of writer-directors that enjoy the ability to turn their script into the exact film they envision?
Yes. I enjoy the writing part enormously. Films never turn out exactly the way you envision — they say you make them three times: when you write, when you shoot and when you edit. But it is true that there is enormous satisfaction in being deeply involved in all phases: from the blank page to the finished reel.
Would you say that no matter how well the script plays in your head, when the writer steps behind the camera as director, inevitable changes to the screenplay are reluctantly made?
Absolutely. You do the best you can with your screenplay and then be prepared that things can change on the set.