Shardul Bhardwaj on picking characters that celebrate human dignity, from Eeb Allay Ooo! to Unpaused

In two films one year apart (Eeb Allay Ooo! to Chand Mubarak in Amazon anthology Unpaused), 28-year-old Shardul Bhardwaj has given a face to the Indian migrant crisis.

Poulomi Das December 23, 2020 14:21:52 IST
Shardul Bhardwaj on picking characters that celebrate human dignity, from Eeb Allay Ooo! to Unpaused

Shardul Bhardwaj in Unpaused's Chaand Mubarak | YouTube

In two films, one year apart, 28-year-old Shardul Bhardwaj has given a face to the Indian migrant crisis. In National Award-winning director Prateek Vats’ sensational Eeb Allay Ooo!, Bhardwaj is Anjani Prasad, a young Bihari migrant who has just moved to Delhi, squatting in a cramped one-room settlement with his sister and brother-in-law deep in the outskirts of the city. His search for a better life turns out to be improbable: Hired as a monkey repeller – entrusted with the task of scaring away the simian population lurking outside the seats of power in Delhi – Anjani is ill-equipped to take on the power imbalances of a system designed to reduce migrant labour into animals in captivity.

Meanwhile, the actor plays Rafique, a young migrant Muslim auto-rickshaw driver whose existence is under perpetual scrutiny, one that becomes all the more heightened during the lockdown in Chand Mubarak, Nitya Mehra’s meditative short in Unpaused, Amazon’s latest anthology of shorts. In a poetic coincidence for Bhardwaj, both Eeb Allay Ooo! and Unpaused released last Friday, the former in theatres and the latter on a global streaming platform.

Shardul Bhardwaj on picking characters that celebrate human dignity from Eeb Allay Ooo to Unpaused

A still from Eeb Allay Ooo!

Shot by Jay Oza (Gully Boy), Chand Mubarak has an evocative quality about it, one that simmers in its tension gently until the gentleness becomes a bruise. Even when the film treads predictable territory in charting an unlikely friendship between two people who are meant to be at a remove from each other’s lives, it still remains inquisitive and empathetic in its portrayal of loneliness, belonging, and paranoia. “The film stands on its two feet even without the pandemic. It is not like it wouldn’t make sense if you take the intricacies of the lockdown out of it,” Bhardwaj told me over a video-call, discussing the merits of his sophomore outing. It’s not untrue. At its core, Chand Mubarak is a story of migrants, middle-aged isolation, and the mere inconvenience of society, a narrative that isn’t dependent on the aftermath of a pandemic but simply informed by it. 

In that sense, although these two films are dissimilar in their scope and filmmaking, their storytelling hinges on a common ask: dignity of human life. If Eeb Allay Ooo! offers a razor-sharp indictment of the continued deprivation of migrant labour, then Chand Mubarak is a prod to the conscience about the distance we willingly create between us and people who are just like us. They’re also held together by a magnetic central performance by Bhardwaj, a Film and Television Institute graduate, who seems to boast a peculiar ability of turning in disarming performances that earn a viewer’s empathy instead of explicitly demanding it.

In Eeb Allay Ooo! which premiered at Pingyao International Film Festival last year, won top honours at the Mumbai International Film Festival, and was an official selection of the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year, Bhardwaj’s physically alert turn is imbued with a feral energy whose wounds are impossible to look away from. His performance in Chand Mubarak, also starring the inimitable Ratna Pathak Shah, exists on the opposite spectrum: it is reined in, deliberately minimalist, and acutely perceptive. Yet both films have a touch of Bhardwaj’s emphasis on employing body language (droopy face, bent gait) to drive action. They’re also marked by moments where the actor’s impish, wide-eyed smile – an image bound to be seared into your memory – becomes a language of its own. It’s almost impossible to not feel like both these characters could easily be a continuation of sorts: Who is to say that Rafique isn’t a sobered down Anjani from 10 years into the future?

Edited excerpts from a conversation with the actor:

What attracted you to Chand Mubarak?

I had been at home in Delhi for almost six months when I got a call from Raj and Darshit, who were casting the film and they told me about this project that Amazon is backing and Nitya Mehra is directing. Just on the basis of both these names attached to the project, I felt that the script is not going to be a complete shit show. At that point in July, I wanted to come to Bombay and more importantly, I was getting work, which back then was a huge deal. Nitya didn’t ask me to audition which for a young actor like me means a lot – the idea that a director trusts you enough. Then when I got the script and Nitya and I started having conversations about the film, I realised that human dignity was an important, underlying theme.

Were there any specific ways you prepared for the role?

For any film that I do, it is very important for me to spend some time in the field: when I get tasks, it just helps me as an actor. In this case, I came to Bombay in the first week of August, a month before the shoot started, to learn how to drive an auto-rickshaw. Rafique bhai, the gentleman who was teaching me has been an auto-rickshaw driver in the city for the last 30 years so made sure that I spent time with him. For instance, it was raining during that month and there were times when it was too risky for me to drive the auto-rickshaw because the roads were too wet. So I would spend that time drinking tea with him and learning about Bombay through his perspective. It sounds like an irrational process but I think the more time you spend doing a task with a person, it just does something valuable to your performance.

When you’re playing a role like Rafique or Anjani, essentially people who are trained to shrink themselves in society or live in the fringes, how do you ensure that you convey the complete picture of their existence?

Well, first and foremost, the idea is to look at the guy as a human being and not to look down upon them because you have to play that person. There’s really no rocket science to it – you just need to spend time with that person. Luckily for me, I have been able to do that because in the projects that I have done, there is always a task to do. In Eeb Allay Ooo!, the task at hand was to learn how to shoo away monkeys; here it is learning how to drive an auto-rickshaw. While learning these tasks in the field, you begin to see things in a manner that you might not have been able to see before. For example, how do you sit on the driver’s seat while driving an auto-rickshaw. Sometimes, these might be small things that no one notices but it just makes the world a little believable for me. The idea is always to find ways to make the world more believable for me so that I can locate the version of me that can do justice to the role.

Chand Mubarak is explicitly concerned with themes of class and religion prejudice and their ever-widening hold over a society. What do you make of the message that the film is trying to convey?

I don’t think I necessarily needed to make sense of it because these are things that are in our faces and around us. How I understand it is that we’re unpacking a little of these prejudices with the idea that people are people and they come from places. They don’t exist in isolation or in a vacuum and are instead, the socio-political economic products of their times. Ofcourse, there is a psychological catharsis to acting, but I see it more as a physical, doable job, one that needs to be executed right there and then. 

Is there anything in particular that an actor takes away from a short film that might not be possible while doing a full-length feature film?

You get free in three days.

Let me rephrase: Are there any advantages of the format of a short film for an actor?

I remember when I was in FTII, Kundan Shah had come to teach us and he showed his short films from his Institute days. Those films had a language that was very different from the language of a feature film, both in terms of visual aesthetics, storytelling methods, and performances. He really tried to hammer those points of departures. But what we do right now is that we condense a feature film into a short film. In no way does that respond to the possibilities of the format. So I don’t think we are at a point where the qualities of the short film format has been explored to an extent where one can start having a discussion about it.

For someone whose feature film debut was a festival film that earned a theatrical release over a year after its premiere and whose follow-up is an anthology that will be on a streaming platform without any expiry date, are your decisions affected by how a project will eventually be seen?

We’re in a country where exhibition is a real problem. You do your films but at the end of the day if people aren’t watching it, it makes your heart sad. As someone who is starting out, being seen is half the hurdle. Signing an Amazon or a Netflix film really excites you in that sense because of the reach – atleast as of now. So it does definitely inform any decision I take, I can’t lie about it.

Eeb Allay Ooo! has finally been released in theatres after a year of doing the rounds of film festivals. How do you look back at the journey of the film?

I like to think of Eeb Allay Ooo! as a product of public institutions. All of us in the crew belong to public institutions whether it is Delhi University, Aligarh Muslim University, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Jamia Milia Islamia, or Film and Television Institute of India. We come from a strong tradition of free and critical thinking. That learning has driven us all to come together to make a film like this. So it's very important that when we appreciate films like Eeb Allay Ooo!, we also value those very institutions which are under attack today. 

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