I'm overwhelmed, says 'Masaan' director Neeraj Ghaywan on his Cannes experience

Mihir Fadnavis

Jun,01 2015 17:21:33 IST

Despite the tyrannical assault of mainstream Bollywood and its flowing gowns, a little movie called Masaan took a trip to Cannes Film Festival and for the first time in Hindi cinema’s history, it won two prizes and received a standing ovation. The reception Masaan got at the festival isn’t just a triumph for director Neeraj Ghaywan and Indian indie cinema, but also a much-needed shot of hope for adventurous filmmakers to make the films they dream about.

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Neeraj Ghaywan.

In Masaan, four lives intersect along the Ganges in Varanasi – a lower-caste boy in hopeless love, a daughter ridden with guilt of a sexual encounter ending in a tragedy, a father with a fading morality, and a spirited child yearning for a family. All of them long to escape the moralistic small-town in which they’re confined. The film stars Richa Chadda, newcomer Vicky Kaushal, Sanjay Mishra and is written by Gangs of Wasseypur lyricist Varun Grover.

Ghaywan, fresh off the plane from Cannes, spoke to Mihir Fadnavis about the origins of Masaan, the Cannes experience and the state of Indian indie cinema.

MF: How did Masaan come about?

NG: In the year 2010, my friend told me about the burning ghaats of Varanasi where dead bodies are burnt as per Hindu culture. I was intrigued about how a man, spending his entire life burning dead bodies, would appreciate the meaning of life. That was the genesis of a short film idea that I later pursued into a script when I quit corporate life. I wrote an awful draft and moved on to working as the assistant director on Gangs of Wasseypur. The two and a half years I spent on the film was my film school.

Though I had stayed for three months in Varanasi during the shoot for Gangs of Wasseypur, I wasn’t sure if I understood the place well to write a film based in it. I am very particular about milieu and cultural constructs as I follow a more documentarian style of filmmaking. So I asked my friend Varun Grover to come on board as a writer. Together, we set off to Varanasi for research. Holed up in a small hostel room for 15 days, swathed in anecdotes, dictaphones and character studies, we re-wrote the entire story. Varun then wrote the screenplay and dialogues for the film.

MF: How did you get producers like Pathé, Manish Mundra and Anurag Kashyap on board?

NG: We took the script to Mahindra Sundance and collected feedback from a lot of our friends and people from industry. With mentoring from Anurag Kahsyap, Vikramaditya Motwane, Vikas Bahl, Madhu Mantena and Dipa De Motwane (I call her the mother of the film), I started pitching the film for funding. Everyone we met would love the script, but would turn their backs when asked to fund the film. Varun narrated the story to Manish Mundra who came on board. It was amazing how he put in his faith in the film by instinct.

Guneet Monga and Anurag were friends with Melita Toscan Du Plantier and Marie Jeanne Pascal. So Guneet pitched the script to Melita and Marie Jeanne back in 2014. They instantly fell in love and took this up as their first film for production. They then took it Arte and Pathé films. That is how the film has now come to be this Indo-French co production with Dhrishyam Films (Manish Mundra), Macassar films (Melita Toscan Du Plantier & Marie Jeanne Pascal), Phantom Films (Vikas Bahl, Vikramaditya Motwane, Anurag Kashyap) and Sikhya Entertainment (Guneet Monga and Shaan Vyas). Phew!

MF: Did you always plan on making films, or did it happen by accident?

NG: I have been drawn towards cinema in a more serious way following my MBA. We had a film class and from then on I started observing films from a critique’s eye. I started writing for the now defunct Passionforcinema.com. I wrote few, but elaborate and academic pieces on films that had moved me. It was also to understand cinema more than critiquing (although I now find those pieces a bit pretentious). That interest grew into passion and with a push from Anurag Kashyap, I made cinema my career and my life. So I don’t think it was an accident, but I have been drawn towards filmmaking all my life with my conscious self never being fully aware of it.

MF: What kind of films did you watch when you grew up? Are you inspired by those films or the World Cinema you saw later?

NG: As a child I grew up on a lot of the Doordarshan films. Many of them were called “parallel cinema” and I was exposed to them because of my family members; not because I was keen on watching them. But somewhere it set my orientation towards realistic cinema. That was the start and when I became serious about cinema, I started revisiting them along with other cinema greats from around the world.

Films by Satyajit Ray, Guru Dutt, Shekhar Kapur, Kieslowski, Bergman, Bela Tarr, Fellini and Sidney Lumet have had a great impact on me. In my filmmaking, I draw influences from Michael Haneke, Walter Salles, the Dardenne brothers among others because of their themes: be it the moral crisis in the working class or the astute observation of human life and behaviour. Of course, Anurag and Vikramaditya have been the greatest mentors. They set me off.

MF: What is the single biggest challenge of making your first film?

NG: For any filmmaker, I think the biggest task is to find the right team. Be it the production, crew or cast. Once you have a team that is passionate about the film, half the work is done. In fact, I believe that the director gets too much credit. A film is more a team effort.

MF: What was the most amazing thing you saw/did in Cannes? And are you happy with the reviews?

NG: I am overwhelmed by the response at Cannes. The standing ovation, the double win, the glowing reviews all around, the film couldn’t have asked for more.

My high points in Cannes were meeting the Dardenne brothers, Walter Salles, Irene Jacob, Mads Mikkelsen, Harvey Keitel and of course, receiving the award from Isabella Rossellini.

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A Still from the film Masaan.

There was this British actor who met Vicky Kaushal after the screening. He was overwhelmed by the film. Later, Vicky and Shweta Tripathi met the same man at a party. He instantly recognized and called all his friends to meet them. He started telling his friends about the film and how much he had loved it. While talking about the film, he apparently broke down and had to be consoled by his friends for a long time. I wasn’t part of this, but I was moved by such a reaction. I wish I could have met him.

MF: Masaan is a performance based film. Is there any particular technique with which you direct actors? Would you describe it as collaborative?

NG: Before the shoot began, I had done lot of workshops with the actors. We worked extensively to arrive at a character. I would give them as much history about the character that I could: the feelings, motives, drives, the choices, their complexes. Then I would leave the actors by themselves. It is definitely a collaborative process. Sometimes the actors had become the characters better than how I would have directed them to be. I think the credit for that also goes to a fantastic script by Varun.

MF: Would you say the future is bright for indie cinema in India?

NG: Well, I really think we have come a long way. A decade back, we had a handful of indie films in a year and now we have countdowns for top ten indie films of the year. It sure is a healthy sign.

However, I think indie doesn’t mean that you get away because you don’t have a big budget, resources or helping hands. A film is a film is a film. Every filmmaker goes through the hardships and just because a film is low budget, it doesn’t make it obvious that it is a good film. I feel this mindset should change and indie filmmakers should strive towards technical finesse, script and a strong narrative, the lack of resources notwithstanding.

Masaan is scheduled to release in India on July 24

Updated Date: Jun 01, 2015 17:21 PM