Monsoon Shootout director Amit Kumar on working with Nawazuddin, FTII stint and more
Monsoon Shootout director Amit Kumar says Nawazuddin Siddiqui can pull off evil and sensitivity with his eyes, at the same time.
Writer-director Amit Kumar recalls an incident from when he was a student at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) almost two decades ago. There was a general consensus then, he says, that you were a failure if you had not made a feature film within 10 years of graduating.
It has taken 20 years for Kumar to make his feature film debut. Monsoon Shootout, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013, releases this Friday on 15 December. Starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Vijay Varma, Geetanjali Thapa and Neeraj Kabi, Monsoon Shootout is the story of a rookie cop’s first day at work and his dilemma when he has a gangster in his line of fire. Kumar uses the device of time expansion at the moment of hesitation to go into the story.
He has previously assisted international filmmakers such as Asif Kapadia (The Warrior) and Florian Gallenberger (Colony). He began his directing career with a short film Bypass, starring Siddiqui and Irrfan Khan. Excerpts from an interview with Kumar:
A lot has been said already about the structure of Monsoon Shootout and the idea of exploring expansion of a moment in time. Can you explain further?
When I was at the Institute, we watched this short film called Incident at Owl Creek which showed me the potential of playing with time. That's what excited me about the medium of cinema — that it gives you a chance to play around with things. The idea is that if he had shot someone at 12 O’clock, would he be drinking coffee or not. Or what if he had missed the bus, would someone have fallen then? Playing with time was a very important part of the structure. The idea began with a notion of what goes into the split second decision making process when a cop is pointing a gun and trying to decide whether to shoot or not. What is the thing you battle with in your conscience when you know you can take a human life? I wanted to show that. Then the idea of expanding time and the structure came naturally from what the film was really about.
The monsoon is also a character in the film. Did you shoot in Mumbai rains?
No. It’s all artificial rain. Rain was integral to the idea and I did want to shoot in the monsoon but Rajeev Ravi, the cinematographer, who is also my batchmate from FTII, said it would not be feasible because of continuity problems, lighting problems etc. So we shot after the monsoons with rain machines. The rain was so important that sometimes I would spend a long time on setting the rain before the actors came out. I wanted the rain to be perfect. I also knew what the rain needed to look like — it had to look the way it looks in the glow of sodium vapour lamps, with an orange-ish glow. It quite a pain and made the schedule a bit longer, but I think it was worth it. Then it was also important that it should sound like real rain. When you hear it in the theatre, it’s wow.
How did you choose your cast?
For me its always about the eyes. With Nawaz he can pull off evil and sensitivity at the same time. When I first met Vijay Varma, I saw something in his eyes too, but it took between 50-60 auditions before I got what I needed. My gut told me its him, but I needed to see it on screen. I knew I wanted to work with Neeraj Kabi the moment I observed him reading for another film. I knew Tannishtha Chatterjee from before and we found Chhotu, the child actor, through casting directors and auditions.
After such a prestigious premiere, it is surprising that it has taken four years for your film to release.
My overall approach to life is that I am a witness. I watch what is happening, so it has not bothered me that it has taken so long. I made my first short in 2003 — seven years after FTII. Even that is a long time. I was waiting and watching till my film releases and honestly, I will only believe it when someone tells me they actually watched it in a theatre! I was prepared, however, that it may or may not release and that I might go on to make 10 more films and years later, someone will say this guy also made a film called Monsoon Shootout. Let us watch that. My plan was just to keep moving forward. Looking back, had I been desperate, I might have made compromises and said let's cast this guy and take money from that guy and shoot in 20 days. And I would have made a hash of the film. Same would apply to the release.
There have been several false starts. Why?
Our the four years, we have shown the film to many people. Some stopped the screening in the middle and said we love it and distributed sweets. And then nothing. Everybody who saw it said this is a great film but no one knew how to sell it. They said things like we do not know if an Indian audience is ready for this. But what is the difference between audiences around the world? Also, the business of films runs on principals of what else has worked and how the film can be sold when it does not have songs or stars? Now the climate is very different and people can see that you can make films work without big stars but with strong content. That change in thinking has helped us. Plus we also got lucky in finding the right partner with the right vision. Now with Nawaz’s fan base, Vijay’s familiarity after Pink, Neeraj with Talvar etc, I think it has all come together. It’s best to be patient.
What have you been working on in the meanwhile?
Once the film releases it might make certain doors open more easily. Luckily I am already deep into something. My wife and I are writing a web series for Amazon (Prime Video India).
I am also trying to develop another idea, which Asif will probably produce. It's a time travel love story. I also want to make a World War 2 based film for the theatre. I feel the huge screen and sitting with hundreds of people has a power but the film should be worthy of a theatre experience.
What advice would you give to other hopeful filmmakers who might find themselves in the position you were in — of waiting for their film to find its way out?
1. Follow your gut without over rationalising. It’s better to go with whatever bubbles out.
2. Wear muddy glasses so you don't look too far into the future. Concentrate on the present. I liken the filmmaking process to making a wall. Once you have the design of the wall, build it one brick at a time.
3. It’s better to approach life as a witness, just watching. I know what I want to do, but I don’t let things beyond my control affect me. It will happen when it has to.
4. When the film finally does see the light of day, be careful not to let it go to your head.
5. Lastly, be patient, persistent and available to talk about your film.
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