Jio MAMI 19th Mumbai Film Festival: Shlok Sharma talks about shooting Zoo on an iPhone
Shlok Sharma's film Zoo was screened at MAMI. In this conversation, he talks about collaborating with Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane, as well as directing two rappers from Dharavi
After the screening of his film Zoo at the MAMI film festival, director Shlok Sharma finds himself surrounded by fans and budding filmmakers who want advice in equal measure. His feature film Haraamkhor starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Shweta Tripathi, earned critical acclaim in India and abroad. But not many know that it took four years for the film to hit screens, and that he made Zoo in that interim period using an iPhone. Fresh off the screening of this film in Mumbai ans Busan, he talks to Firstpost about making this short film.
Zoo brings together three different plotlines, of a rapper duo struggling to produce art whilst dealing whilst balancing school and dealing with their parents' disapproval; of a young man heavily into the business of peddling drugs, who quits the business but finds that his young friend who he lives with has taken up the job; of a young woman with a drug addiction and crippling sense of guilt stemming from something she did to her best friend.
Sharma says that he didn't intend to make a film about rap. "I just happened to come across these two, and was fascinated by their music and lives. I actually made this film because I was frustrated with having to sit with one finished film [Haraamkhor] for four and a half years. I wanted to get out of this rut, and I realised that I would have to pull myself out of it," he explains.
Finding a fancy camera or big actors were simply not criteria he considered when he began making this film. For him, actors who can perform are the main requirement, and he considers it his own downfall if his actors fail. He says that he wanted to tell a good story with a limited budget. "I've never attended film school; everything I learnt was on the sets, and while making this film too, I felt as though I was a student. This was a micro-budget film, smaller than Haraamkhor. One of the challenges was to ensure that it doesn't look like a film with small funding," he says. When he watched Tangerine, a film shot solely using an iPhone, he decided to adopt the same technique.
One of the attendees pointed out that although well-written and etched out, none of the characters in Zoo are distinctly likeable. When asked if he likes anti-heroes and characters with shades of grey, Sharma says, "I find it interesting to see and understand characters with shades of grey. In reality, no one is perfect; everyone has their faults. So the film only reflects this."
The characters are also realistic when it comes to their portrayal and their responses to situations. Sharma credits this to the fact that he bases a lot of his characters on people he meets and stories he encounters. "I always try to take from the life around me rather than borrowing from other films," he says, adding that the non-actors in the film, especially, had distinct personalities which they lent to the narrative.
When it comes to working with actors and non-actors, his approach does not differ. But he does recount that he had to be more understanding of the unseasoned ones, especially the rap artists, because they were not used to being on set. "They're not used to giving multiple takes, like say Shweta, so they would run away from the set when they got bored. I had to sit them down and tell them they can't do that!" he recounts.
During the process of making this film, Sharma spent a lot of time with these rappers from Dharavi, even living in their homes. "You'll understand their context only when you speak with them. They may have smiled and laughed on stage, but the truth is that their reality is very dark. When it comes to the scene where that rapper drinks phenyl, urban audiences who are well-to-do will feel shocked, because for us, suicide is a very serious problem that is motivated by serious negative factors, such as depression. But people from the community that these rappers belong to may consider suicide as a last resort if they get beaten up at home, or if they have a fall-out with a parent. We may not think of these are legitimate reasons," he says, talking about how it is not easy to live their lives.
Despite only being teenagers, these rappers Yoku and Prince Daniel, have a well-informed worldview and a deep understanding of politics and society. Prince spoke about how they began wrapping because they were influenced by the English songs they would hear being played by DJs in the neighbourhood. "The purpose of rap is to ask questions that no one else is, to knock on the doors where the nawabs sit," said Prince, when asked why they practice this art form.
Undoubtedly, music was one of the top priorities when Sharma was making this film. He explained that much attention was given to the sound design and production, so that the mood of each scene could be different and distinct from the next. There were also the challenges of maintaining the lighting and exposure, as the iPhone is not as sensitive as a film camera.
Though this film may be considered 'small' in the conventional sense of filmmaking, it does have the backing of Phantom Film's Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane, both of whom are producers for it. Still, it has been funded entirely by Sharma using the money he earned by making short films and ad films. He also says that Kashyap and Motwane gave him creative autonomy. "I have worked under Anurag. I always ask him if I can add his name to my films, and he is always supportive. Vikram is one call away. Whenever I am stuck, I ask him to help," he explains.
You can tell that the film is effective, because the meaning of the title becomes evident once the stories have been revealed completely. All the characters seem to be trapped by the consequences of their actions, as well as the situations they find themselves in. "The title is a reference to the fact that we live in big buildings with grilled windows. We talk about living independently, but we are still caged," concludes Sharma.