In Rasika Dugal, Mukul Chadda's Banana Bread, how a real-life couple became co-creators of a social distancing satire
Rasika Dugal and Mukul Chadda, a real-life couple, play neighbours whose wavelengths do not match until they crave for each other's company during lockdown.
It is ironical, but also very human, of us to crave for company in times of social distancing. Ever since the coronavirus outbreak has confined us to our homes, our personal space, which we were hitherto extremely protective of, has been screaming to get encroached upon.
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This was also true of actors Rasika Dugal and Mukul Chadda, married for 10 years, yet in search for company in the three months they were locked inside their Bandra flat. So they took to writing, and translated the void into a script for short film Banana Bread, that recently premiered on the YouTube channel of Terribly Tiny Tales.
The film revolves around two neighbours who live on the same floor of their apartment. They are two individuals who would not have chosen to even look at each other before the lockdown, but get drawn towards each other's company by the virtue of physical proximity.
"That was the most fun part of the writing process for me," says Dugal. "We thought of Shruti as someone who'd think herself to be 'too cool' to hang out with him, and he, on the other hand, too unsure of himself to hang out with her. So the ideas flowed from there."
The differences between the two neighbours ranged from their hobbies to their ranking on the 'woke' meter. "We incorporated minor details that indicated how different they were. His comment on her house ("nice place") suggests he lives differently from her (even though that is just next door). There are other things that suggest he might be a stickler for rules whereas she more open to bending them," adds Dugal.
She also wanted to incorporate the political differences into their conversation since those have become the deal-breaker in so many relations today. "The extreme political polarisation in our country in the past few years has been disturbing to me — that people on two different sides of a political argument aren't willing to engage with each other anymore. Sometimes, I've been guilty of this myself."
The alienation, however, is not only dictated by the political standpoint but also the way the other person appears to be on the surface. That is why there is an underlying hesitation in the desperation of the two people in the film. The hesitation stems from the coronavirus scare but also from the superficial differences that have caused the communication gap between them so far.
"They live on the same floor so the economic gap between them may not be too wide. Yet, within that bracket, there can be so many differences between two people, some of which have gotten even more polarised in recent times," says Chadda. Dugal echoes the observation by citing her personal experiences. "I moved into this building two years ago yet I've gotten to know my neighbours well only in the last three months (you know why). The building I used to stay in previously, I used to meet my neighbour in the elevator almost every day but I still don't know his name!"
She adds that this inbuilt 'social distancing' is particularly true of a fast-paced city like Mumbai. "I grew up in a small town (Jamshedpur), and this anonymity of city-life never ceases to amaze me." The gap may have gotten bridged now, at least temporarily. "Then comes the lockdown, which forcibly reverses that trend, and that neighbour may become your closest friend again," adds Chadda.
Banana Bread is arguably the first social-distancing satire, and the best film that has come out of the deluge of COVID content. It not only comments on how privileged people are dealing with the coronavirus crisis but also uses a number of motifs that have become an inseparable part of our lockdown lives. These include sanitizers, masks, binge-watching, fake news, and the titular banana bread.
"I think banana bread symbolises the times we live in. So many people have begun baking during the lockdown. We wanted a title that captured the zeitgeist of this period, while not giving away what the story was about," says Chadda. One realises that the point of contention in the film is the lemon tonic Shruti offers to her guest, and not the banana cake. But Chadda insists banana bread was a perfect symbol of their varying perspectives on life. "There's a moment in the film when he says, 'Nice cake', and she corrects him, 'Banana bread'."
More essential elements of the current popular culture include masks and sanitizers. Chadda feels these will have a long life on screen ahead, given the uncertainty over the pandemic staving off. "They're also effective cinematic devices because their presence immediately places the scene in a pandemic. And it also captures a character's frame of mind beautifully from the way they use these objects," he says, referring to how Shruti wipes her hands with the sanitizer almost every minute.
Chadda and Dugal, otherwise occupied with domesticity, chose to write this film to rescue them from "the grind and the gloom". But once they finished, they realised they needed a third eye to direct them. "I've never been a fan of actors directing themselves. It's hard to be objective, and changes the equation the co-stars have with one another. While writing, we presumed we'd have to direct the film ourselves until Sharanya at TTT suggested the possibility of remote direction," says Chadda.
Dugal adds that every script needs a visual language to be translated into a film. So they needed a director who makes everything take place as per his vision. Enter: Srinivas Sunderrajan. "Thank god, Vaas (Sunderrajan) came on board. He made storyboards which we followed. The frame was his idea. For example, he designed the frame in a way that Shruti is seen sitting on the left edge of the frame, and her neighbour is on the right edge. In the end, when they come closer, they're in the same frame so the distance feels a lot less," adds Dugal.
It is interesting that a husband and a wife, married for 10 years and in each other's singular company for the past three months, played two people who had never spoken to each other, and were thus vary of getting too close throughout the film. Dugal adds, laughing, that the lockdown has changed their equation a lot. "Lockdown has brought out the most productive side of Mukul. Pre-lockdown, we'd both agree I was the more focused one, the fitter one, and the better cook. Lockdown has changed all of that. Mukul has become a super achiever in all of that while I've watched slothfully," says Dugal, laughing.
While the couple has collaborated in the past on improv specials, two commercials, and one feature film that is currently under post-production, Banana Bread marks the first time the two created something together from scratch. "We've had some differences on managing housework together but on the script, we were always on the same page. I'd express (often haphazardly) my ideas, and Mukul would find a way to structure them," says Dugal.
Chadda, as Dugal points out, is on the same page, as they sign off. "We often joke that our minds work very differently, and maybe that's what's needed to put a script together. I hope we can replicate this."
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