To filmmaker Devashish Makhija, short films matter. As one of the most celebrated makers of shorts, Makhija's love of the format entirely speaks for itself with a filmography which comprises of multiple award-winning films including Manoj Bajpayee-starrer Taandav. His sixth short Happy will premiere at this year's Bengaluru International Short Film Festival.
Makhija, who's also served on the shorts jury at festivals such as the Mumbai Film Festival, has always been vocal about how dejected he is with the average calibre of shorts being made in India today. He says there appears to be a fundamental misunderstanding of the format and the freedom it allows you. He believes that in the current landscape, the benchmark for shorts is set extremely low as a result of them having become commoditised under the wider umbrella of 'content' with many seeing it as merely a starting point to their filmmaking career. 'A short film is not a steppingstone to anything, it is a destination unto itself. If you have a chance to make something…It's a privilege to get that opportunity. Make it the best thing it can be.'
His latest adventure with shorts comes in the form of his film club Aabobo which not only screens films but also aims to develop a community of independent filmmakers and artists and have them come together to support each other's work.
At a time when there are more shorts and filmmakers than ever before, we asked what advice he'd have for short filmmakers.
A lot of filmmakers send shorts to me saying, 'Watch this film, it's a zero-budget short film.' And I'm like, 'It's so bad, you deserve zero views.' Just because you made it with no budget is no reason to celebrate it. Other things they wear as badges of honour are: 'We made a film with a social message'. It doesn't matter. How good is the craft? Some people probably have better resources, but that should not be a benchmark at all. The only benchmark is how good it is. That comes from a lot of honest soul-searching. A lot of filmmakers don't do that. They just jump at the chance to make something, and it ends there.
Too many films rely on voiceovers and exposition. Those are better written on paper and spoken out on a spoken-word platform. What the fuck are they doing being turned into films when you're not really milking the cinematic medium – the audio, the video, the visual metaphors? Work on taking this story or this idea to a place of cinematic potential. Try and find ways of telling your story without just directly saying the words. This is the first syndrome of really bad filmmaking, where you're just having people spout dialogues instead of taking the trouble of externalising cinematically.
Spend time finding the right person, but also recalibrate your intent sometimes. A friend of mine made a short film. Great intent, kickass story. But because he couldn't access trained actors, he shot with untrained ones and the performances were terrible. When I pointed that out, he said 'what could I do, I couldn't access trained actors'. You cannot put the onus of a good performance on the people in your film, because you chose them. That responsibility lies with you. I told him he should've gone back to his script and reconfigured the film to maybe feel like docu-fiction. Then I wouldn't have minded performances that didn't look like performances. So it's up to you to figure it out. Whether it's going out there to look for actors or working with non-actors or casting yourself in the film. That solution is up to you, it's about getting it made the right way. There are a lot of actors in Anurag Kashyap's earlier films who are not good performers; he just rewrote the scene on the spot to make the person say less or say it differently. He made them look like good performers.
Editing is a very experiential thing – you have to keep doing it until you start feeling like you've got a command over your material. My film Taandav is an 11-minute-long film. I took 2 months to prep and 2.5 months to cut it. It was difficult to make it feel that tight without a single frame wasted. That doesn't happen overnight or because of talent, it happens because of sheer hard work in the edit. Entire sequences were left out of that film. I forget who said this but I've always remembered it: 'The most editing you need to do is when you're writing the script. And the most writing you need to do is when you're editing the film.' Editing is really about rewriting your film. You have to find a different film because you can't control your shoot beyond a point. While writing, you need to edit so you don't waste resources while shooting. If you've edited enough while you're on shoot, you can take calls and not shoot scenes because your mind has already got into edit mode. Editing is a constant process – from inception to final cut.
Audio has to be written into the script. If a film is relying on sound to communicate things, it has to be in the script. The same way you write dialogue, you have to write in sound cues. Then when you're shooting, you'll tend not to overemphasize and overcommunicate through the image. Audio also allows you to save money. You don't need to shoot stuff. You can create stuff out of nothing at all. We are working in an audio-visual medium that's 50 50 it's not 70/30.