'It was a difficult experience to shoot for Vaikunth, not just physically but also mentally': Nagraj Manjule
'We were shooting around fire and dust, so physically it was a little tough, but we were also shooting around the corpses, so it was a depressing atmosphere as well. It was an intense experience overall,' says Nagraj Manjule.
The reticent, mutely gifted Nagraj Manjule stunned us with his Marathi film Fandry in 2013. He then directed Sairath in 2015 which brought him into pan-India renown. He is now back with the brilliant short film Vaikunth which is part of Amazon Prime’s Unpaused: Naya Safar a haunting anthology on Covid consequences. Excerpts:
The Vaikunth segment of Unpaused: Naya Safar is by far the best of the anthology. It's so brilliant I felt it should have been an independent feature film. Do you agree?
I am really glad and thankful that you like the film. Of course, it could have been anything, it could have been an independent feature film, it could also have been a novel. It's a story that needs to be told and it could have been done in any format.
After the Marathi masterpiece Sairath, you have been missing in action. We have been waiting for your post-Sairath film Jhund with Bachchan Saab in the lead. What is the status report on that project?
We are ready with Jhund. We will release the film once the Covid situation improves and theaters re-open with 100% capacity. We want to release the film in theaters and we will wait for the right time.
In Vaikunth you have recreated the stark brutal reality of a cremation ground during the pandemic. Did you shoot on actual locations with real corpses? How harrowing was that experience for you?
We shot at a real crematorium, but we only used a premise of it. We built our own set at an actual cremation ground. It was a difficult experience to shoot for this movie, not just physically but also mentally. We were shooting around fire and dust, so physically it was a little tough, but we were also shooting around the corpses, so it was a depressing atmosphere as well. It was an intense experience overall.
You don't only direct this miniature masterpiece, you also play the lead of the cremator, burning bodies round the clock and trying to look after your little son. It's a tough role. How deeply did it impact you as an actor and a human being?
I don't know how it impacted me as an actor, but it did impact me as a human being. As a person when you're acting, directing, or seeing things happening around you, it leaves an impact on you. Working on a cremation ground is not easy. I could understand what they must be going through, especially during Covid times.
Yours is a bleak brutal dark film and yet you end on a note of hope. Why?
Because even two years later, we are still facing the same situation. We are now facing the third wave and still wondering if this will ever get over if there will be light after the end of the tunnel. When situations are tough, it's only hope that gets us going. Hence, we wanted to end this story with hope. Even if people are struggling, they are still holding on to hope. That's the message behind the film.
What are your plans as a filmmaker, actor, and citizen of India?
As an actor, after Vaikunth, I am working on two more Marathi films. As a filmmaker, Jhund is ready. I have written some scripts during the lockdown and now I have to start the work on them as well.
Do you think Sairath is a hard act to follow?
Why do we have to follow that hard act, though? Keeping Sairat as a benchmark would mean binding yourself or pressuring yourself to recreate something of that level. There's always scope for improvement. We may be able to create something even better.
The kind of global acceptance Sairath got was rare during those pre-OTT days?
When I made Sairat, I didn't plan it to be such a huge success. I am glad that it happened. If it happens again, I will be happy, and if it doesn't, I won't be disappointed.
Subhash K Jha is a Patna-based film critic who has been writing about Bollywood for long enough to know the industry inside out. He tweets at @SubhashK_Jha.
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