TIFF Debut: Jayant Somalkar, with Marathi Film ‘Sthal’

Sthal is the only Indian film to be selected in the film festival’s Discovery Programme, which spotlights emerging filmmakers from around the world.
TIFF Debut: Jayant Somalkar, with Marathi Film ‘Sthal’

An engineer by training, when writer-director Jayant Digambar Somalkar, decided to make that career swerve and shift from Chandrapur to Mumbai in 2007, he knew only one thing — that he wanted to be in “the creative field”, among creative people.

He did not know what that meant or what it even looked like. Crashing with his engineering friends — “mein padhe rehta tha (I used to lie around)”, he tells Film Companion over a phone call — he spent years cutting his teeth, writing dialogues for the television show Comedy Circus and working on animation. 

When he attended the MAMI Mumbai Film Festival for the first time, cramming his day with cinema — as many as five films in one day sometimes — the slowly dissolving collage of images, Indian and international, pushed him from television writing to film writing. “It was like a film institute for me,” he said.

Somalkar made a short film, Iyatta (2016), and made his debut on streaming with Guilty Minds (2022) on Amazon Prime Video, one of the most subtle, provocative, and intelligent shows on Indian streaming, with Shefali Bhushan, his producer, co-director co-writer, and wife. 

Finally, 15 years after moving to Mumbai, Somalkar is making his feature film debut with the Marathi film Sthal (A Match) which will have its world premiere at the 48th Toronto International Film Festival 2023 (September 7th-17th). “Aate aate bohut paapad belne pade (I’ve had to do a lot to get here),” he said, laughing. 

Sthal is the only Indian film to be selected in the Discovery Programme, which spotlights emerging filmmakers from around the world. Shot in Somalkar’s home village Dongargaon, the film follows the protagonist Savita (Nandini Chikte) as she prepares for her exams and appears to be interrogated by the clans of prospective grooms. The comedic set-up, with the bumbling characters, strange rituals, and heartbreaking rejections, slowly morphs into a more horrifying portrait of what marriage does to a family — financially and psychologically.

The interview below is translated from Hindi and edited for clarity and length. 

Film Companion: Where do you go for your stories? 

Jayant Somalkar: I had written Sthal before Guilty Minds. As a creative person, as a filmmaker I want to tell stories about social and political issues. This is what I am interested in. There are so many unexplored stories that can connect with grassroot people. I want to express those. 

So the idea comes before the story or character? 

Yes. The idea, the situation comes first. For example, with Sthal, the idea came from when I was part of the entourage for my cousin’s matchmaking, around 2014. I saw this situation, where we were all seated, and in the centre was the girl — all men around her asking questions. I thought about what must be going inside the girl’s head. It was like ragging in college, like how seniors would surround you and ask you to introduce yourself.

She was like a product. The patriarchy was visible. Though I have seen this happen before, because I have two elder sisters, I was too young then, so I was not seeing it critically. After this incident, I came back and wrote the film in one draft, directly. I just start writing the screenplay, first to last, organically. I believe that if you think in terms of technicality, plot points, its honesty goes away. 

What was the experience of shooting in your own village Dongargaon, with your relatives, friends, and cousins?  

We shot for 22 days, in a single schedule, with one holiday in between. It was quite challenging because of the casting. Everyone was non-actors from that very village, because I wanted an authentic look and texture — even the accent there is a little different and distinct.

The people had never faced a camera. They were fine with wide shots. But when the camera comes close, they became conscious, wondering where to look, what to say. They also did not know how time intensive filming is, a 9am-9pm or 7am-7pm shift; taking one scene from different angles; shooting many takes, etc. They would get tired. Or they would have to water their buffalo. Or go to their farm because no one is there. The job of one of my ADs was to make sure no actor disappears from the set. (laughs)

The other challenge was sync sound. We needed to silence people. But someone is always washing clothes, some cooker is whistling, some bullock cart is going, some child is crying. There was a train that would go every five to seven minutes, so we had to stop the shot every time the train came. At 7pm, they had loudspeaker bhajans, so we had to request them to postpone the bhajans by an hour. But because it was my village and they knew me, they supported me. I truly dedicate this film to them. 

From my  brother, cousins, mother, even my late father — whose photo is there in the background in many frames — everyone is in the film. Savita’s house, in fact, is the same house I was born in — in the room next to the kitchen. Now we don’t live there, but we requested the person staying there to leave for a bit, and they did. 

Any local resistance to the film because it is not the most flattering portrait?

They don’t know the full story of the film. (Laughs) They were just having fun seeing a film shoot take place. Only the main characters knew the full story. I also haven’t villainized anyone. They are just following traditions. They are not applying their mind to what they are doing and why they are doing it. 

Did they improvise? 

I would tell them that you are the character, you do not have to act, but be. They were a little hesitant to improvise, and ended up following the lines that were given. The accent is all theirs, though. 

What was interesting is I have a habit of not saying “cut”, because I am constantly searching for a “magic moment”. For example, take that scene in the kitchen when they are all eating, and the phone comes that Savita is rejected. Savita is there, standing. I didn’t say cut. The scene was technically over. But the camera was rolling, so she picked the plate of chawal. Went to the father to offer the rice; he said no. Then goes to the brother who also says no. Then she comes back. This moment of the two of them saying no was not in the script. Because I didn’t say cut, they kept doing things. 

Tell me about the orchestral violins that play over the visuals in slow motion, when Savita makes eye contact with her professor? It is very In The Mood For Love (2000). But it is not a sound that is local. It yanks the film beyond its setting.  

Yes, In The Mood For Love was an inspiration. I wanted it to look and feel like Savita’s aspirational world. It is bigger than her life. So that is why I stylised it, which is different from the rest of the film, which is very realistic. 

We balanced this with traditional songs, like the Haldi song, the song that plays in the wedding. So it is a blend of traditional folk and Western music. 

Something you do really well is infuse comedy into pathos. The same scene that initially seems funny — the woman moving the table to make space to touch the feet of the men, for example — but seeing it a third time is horrifying. 

Yes, the third time you can just hear the table being shifted. 

Is this a balance you consciously attempt? Between comedy and horror? 

Basically, I like and write satire. It comes naturally to me. Not in terms of punchlines, but observational humour that says something. However dark the subject is, I would like to put some humour in it. 

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