Rohit Mittal, the director of the film Autohead, which was released on Netflix on New Year’s Eve and has been gathering good reviews, talks about his inspiration, class and poverty ridden conflicts in India, and why he felt he needed to mock the camera itself.
How and when did the idea for the film come to you? Was it inspired by an incident or a film? Also, and perhaps it is worth considering, why an autowallah and not maybe a Mumbai taxi driver?
Well, I wanted to do a character study of a criminal but something personal in that sense. A criminal who is more angst driven, so that it also becomes self-reflective. And I also wanted to question the so-called social realist filmmakers, media, imagery in everyday life and things like that. I wanted to question the camera. I believe the camera is a dangerous weapon. And yes, of course, there were these film influences like Close Up, Taxi Driver, films of Shinya Tsukamoto, and other genre stuff etc. I mean these films are not just references, they are part of my DNA now. So maybe even when I make a film about an Indian housewife these films would be reflected in it. And I grew up in the suburbs in Bombay. And for the most part, there were no taxis in the suburbs. Now of course we have Uber, Ola etc. But yes, I travelled all my life in auto rickshaws and they were the only people I could relate to. So many times I have had random conversations, gotten drunk with them, entered into fights etc. And I always felt the were lonely and f**ked up like me and I could tell them anything I wanted to. Also if you notice drivers anywhere in the world have a different psyche because being on the road inside the machine at all times really affects them in ways we can’t imagine. These were the primary reasons I wanted to make this film.
How did you go about selecting Deepak for the role? What are the characteristics that you were looking for in him?
It was my casting director Randeep Jha who recommended Deepak to me. I liked him in the first meeting. I auditioned him on the spot and loved his reactions. He was amazing with a random scene I gave him. Actually, I wasn’t looking for anything specific. It was more instinctive in that sense. Only thing maybe was that he should look convincing as an auto driver. But yes there was this immediate connection when I met him. And while we were preparing, he kind of got all my intentions right and what I was trying to create.
Since most of the film is staged, it still has to be approached as if it is realistic, as if it is a documentary. What are a filmmaker’s greatest challenges in this case? Is it the mis-en-scene, getting natural lighting right, the movements on the street etc? What did you struggle with most?
Honestly, I never wanted the film to look extremely real. I always thought that it is very self aware in that sense. Maybe you can say that it is hyper-real. All the scenes had to be designed in a way that they look convincing, but at the same time mock the way people cover scenes in documentaries and also in normal films, of course with characters breaking the fourth wall all the time. So it’s fiction, and docu and also other cinematic visual references to capture time and space. Because then you wouldn't know for most part if its serious or funny. So for example the end according to me is very funny. Maybe for some people it's intense. And since the story is about a documentary crew making a docu about an auto driver, it had to be shot documentary style. But then again for me it was just an excuse to tell my story. The biggest challenges were to get the performances and the camera movements right and consistent so that it always feels like I am in control of the form. But the biggest-of-all challenge actually was to edit the film. Because it’s a kind of a story that can’t start or end anywhere. Shooting the film was not that difficult honestly because that's the fun aspect of making a film. And it ends too soon. And the kind of training I have had, I always shot all my short films guerrilla style, with natural lights.
A significantly recurring theme of the film is the people’s view of class and poverty; the contradiction-al nature of those who aren’t better off. Were you trying to reflect reality as you see it? When there is the argument that crime is mostly perpetrated by the poor, where does your opinion stand?
Actually it’s the crew’s point of view of Narayan in the beginning of the film that they wanted to capture. But the real film is about an individual who is out of his mind, maybe. For me it can be anybody and not necessarily only the poor. That is precisely what I wanted to show. You see because anybody can be angst driven, sexually frustrated, broke, heartbroken etc. Yes, he belongs to the working class but then as the film moves forward he becomes something else. And that is the whole film. A crew thinks they are filming a humble poor working class man but he is not just that, there is more to his personality. And the problems that I am showing are actually the problems the young of the country face. After a point it really becomes about something else and not just your economic status. Then a lot of other existential, psychological and political questions come into play.
Another fairly vital point in the film, at least politically, is its take on racist and regional issues like workers from Bihar face in Mumbai. Were you always aware you would incorporate it? Or did the scene evolve in itself?
It was in the script. 80 percent of the film is scripted. And I guess it's not just the workers from Bihar who face these problems. It’s almost everybody in any part of the country. Because you know, all we have been doing for many centuries now is fighting with each other. And this territorial difference is one of the biggest reasons. We are actually the most racist kind of people. So it is that. Even I have faced such incidents. I am not an auto driver nor am I from Bihar. It is a very Indian thing. But in the script it was a changing point because after that we can see the other side of Narayan.
Do you agree with the label ‘mockumentary’ that the film is being labelled as?
Yes. It is a mockumentary. But again it’s a format. And a very open one I must say. The possibilities are endless. Precisely, why I like it so much. But you can trace the history of it right from the time we have been making films. A lot of it started with documentaries. But they were presented as fiction. So I believe the line between docu and fiction is blurred from the very beginning. And this particular format is more about questioning the camera or cinema itself. Why just documentary.
Deepak’s character is often dallying between sex and aggression, unable at times to perhaps separate or control both. Is that also the condition of Indian masculinity, given what is happening around us, not limited to an Autowallah?
Absolutely. Thank you for asking me this question. One of the biggest questions I think the film raises is about masculinity. What is machismo? And why just Indian? Masculinity in general. And by the end of making the film I found out that the definition of masculinity of the human race is perhaps scary.