Abhishek Chaubey's film in the new Netflix anthology, Ankahi Kahaniya, can perhaps be called an unconventional love story—or not a love story at all. It's about a boy and a girl—he works in a theatre, she goes to watch films in the same theatre—working class lovers in 80s Bombay whose lives are much less colourful than the commercial films that play there. This duality of movies versus real life is at the heart of Chaubey's film, adapted from the Kannada short story "Madhyantar" by Jayant Kaikini. In the director's hands, it becomes a thing of image and sound, of small reactions on the faces of the fresh-faced protagonists (that Avinash Arun's camera captures with an intimacy) and the minutiae of the single screen experience.
Where a lot of Indian filmmakers don't seem to know what to do with the short film form, Chaubey seems surefooted—the delightful Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa from Ray, based on one of Satyajit Ray short stories, was a masterclass in how to make something verbose on paper "cinematic" on screen. There is the economy in storytelling, as is the twist in the end that makes the film more than the sum of its parts. If there is an art to the short format film, Chaubey, the director of such films as Ishqiya, Udta Punjab and Sonchiriya, seems to know it. Over a Zoom call, he spoke about his new film, the charms of old Bombay, why short films are great news for filmmakers, and how art changes the world.
It's based on a Kannada short story, "Madhyantar". What in it appealed to you?
Various things. One was that it's a quintessentially Bombay story. The author Jayant Kaikini has a really accurate eye about the city and the time and place it is set in. Another thing is, I really like what the story is trying to say. We say that movies are escapist in nature and the film is literally about escape. I really like that twist. I really like taking that idea and expressing it in a short story. I really like the way it ends and what it says in the end. That's why I was attracted to it.
The story is also set in the disappearing world of single screen theatre. So it's also a little bit of a love letter to that single screen culture as well. Was getting the chance to capture this disappearing world an added motivation to make the film?
Definitely. One of the charms of making this film was to explore that. This film is set in the 1980s. The great thing about Bombay is that when you walk down the streets of certain areas, you experience places and buildings and characters that are almost frozen in time. It's almost as if someone has walked through a portal and you see a 1980s Parsi aunty, or some gentleman with a walking stick. Bombay does that. Then there are these buildings and movie theatres.
I shot in the Edward theatre in Dhobi Talao. But there are many others in the Lalbaug area which were movie theatres that were built exclusively for mill workers back in the 40s and 50s. Although there have been structural changes and paint jobs over the decades, they still retain that period. Even though I came here in the late 90s, I have a certain weakness and nostalgia for that time in Bombay, so I really wanted to talk about that.
After I wrote the film and I read it, Rinku came to my mind, simply because this is almost like a counter-point to Sairat. But both films are talking about very different things. It is a counterpoint but at the same time there's a lot of respect and admiration for that.
When I started recceing with my DP Avinash Arun, we actually found places that are in an advanced state of decay. We didn't have to do that much to the location. My art director Ashok Lokare did have to tweak a few things here and there. But the movie theatre you see in the film is exactly the way it is—those powder blue walls and those intricate patterns on them are all there. That's how we did it even with very limited amount of money.
Indian cities get worse and worse and worse, but they change very quickly. There are very few places that don't change. Like the Benaras ka ghat has been there for hundreds of years, and that's what we are shown when we go there. Any other part of Benaras is an urban mess, typical of Indian cities. But in South Bombay, you can do that. And I couldn't let go of that opportunity. We finished it just before the pandemic. The day I wrapped was the day the first Covid case happened in India. So we were lucky in that sense. We could shoot with crowds.
The theatre is not just a physical backdrop in the film. It has a bearing on what the characters do. One thinks of Sairat, for example, maybe because of the casting, or the direction the story heads.
I was very sure about casting Rinku [Rajguru] in that role. Sairat is a film that I admire a lot. I really enjoyed watching it. After I wrote the film and read it, Rinku came to my mind, simply because this is almost like a counter-point to Sairat. But both films are talking about very different things. It is a counterpoint but at the same time there's a lot of respect and admiration for that.
As far as cinema theatre and movies are concerned, one of the lateral things to take from this film is that we always say art doesn't change the world. And I don't believe in that. Which is not to say that cinema changes the world or doesn't change the world. I think everything, every art changes the world. Because all you need is to change the individual. The Birth of a Nation created the second KKK. What do you mean cinema doesn't change the world? Unabashed, commercial mainstream song and dance pictures—those are the kind of movies I saw in my childhood and in my early youth. I didn't see French films.
None of us saw. We come from a certain heritage. We have no access… Forget that, the only English film I saw was Rambo. And couldn't understand a word of it. I could only enjoy the action. I grew up in the darkest era of Hindi cinema, which is the 80s. But it made me want to be a filmmaker. So those films are inspiring somebody like me, who is from a small town, to come and make movies. This film talks about that. That stupid film that's playing in the theatre is actually a reflection of their life and their decision making is happening because of what they are watching. There could be a fantasy end to this film. This is a realistic end. But it is inspired by a fantasy, which is the film playing on screen.
Is that archival footage that you use in the beginning of the film?
Yes. And that was an afterthought. While we were prepping for the film I was looking for a way to start the film and grab the audience right from… I remember my experience from my youth, when tickets were not computer printed. Today when you're at the box office, what you hear typically is the sound of the ticket printer. But back in the day, you heard stamping of the tickets. I thought that was a great way to introduce the rhythm of the film right from the go.
When that idea came, I just thought it'll be just nice to use archival footage of the city and the movie theatre in that rhythm. I didn't have tons and tons of money to take wide shots of South Bombay in 1980s with cars coming and going. It was more a mood thing than an information thing. In fact, some of the footage you see is not even the 1980s, it's from earlier on. We looked and looked till we managed to get it from Kinolibrary and some other place I can't remember.
What about the casting?
It's a smart alecky thing to say that it's a counter-point to Sairat and therefore Rinku was the choice, but apart from that, Rinku was a great choice because she is a terrific actor. I knew this part is Marathi speaking. She is a formidable talent and quite a star. I thought she would be a great choice. And I needed someone very, very young. She was 19 when I shot the film.
The casting guys came up with Delzad [Hiwale]'s name. I have seen him as a child actor in Chittagong and I think I had seen Hindi Medium as well. I decided to meet him and what really got me was slightly different from my conception of the character. In my head, he looked different. But when I met Delzad, something clicked because of what he was bringing with his persona. His eyes are very expressive, very deep. It brings a sense of vulnerability and his persona is quite unique. So I thought it'll be quite interesting to get him on board.
When Hussain Haidry and I wrote the film, we knew for a fact that this is not going to be a "talkie picture". It was very difficult to adapt this short story, because typically, in literature, you can talk about what's happening within you and what's happening in front of you easily. We couldn't do that. So this had to work as a montage film. You intercut parallel lives, but the montage intercutting cannot be just horizontal, it has to be vertical where one thing builds on the other. Narrative has to propel forward through these isolated images of these two characters. So a lot had to be done quietly. So the talent in question had to be really good at what they do. I couldn't have compromised… I could've compromised on how they look and all that, but I had to have the right kind of actors in the role. With Rinku, I knew it instantly. With Delzad, I discovered it.
I workshopped with them, I planned 5 days, but I stopped after 3 days. I said I don't think we need to do more, it will be overdone. You guys are there.
This is your second short format film in less than two months, after Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa from Ray, also based on a short story. Both the films worked really well. Does a short story lend itself better to a short film? How do you go about when you are making one? One gets the impression that you're an avid reader.
For most of my life, I have been an avid reader. Lately, I am reading a lot of non fiction, that too historical fiction, which is almost like a story. I read very less now because of the mountain of work that I have to do. I don't have much spare time anymore, and I regret it. Anyway, you know, it's great that we are getting to do short films. And we are getting to do short films not for the exclusive purpose of haath saaf karne ke liye, so that we can make a feature film. I think this is great. I'll tell you why this is great? It's almost like what happened in the the 1960s in the US, when the songs were 2-2.5 mins long because they were consumed primarily in radio. The radio stations demanded that they had to have a certain length because they had their format and so on. It's only when rockstars grew so much in power that they showed a middle finger to radio stations and said that, 'I am going to make a 9 minute song, take it or leave it'. What it did was it opened up rock music and you could do rock operas and things like that—that kind of thing exploded in the 60s.
Similarly, the 2-2.5 hour format in film is very restrictive. Only a certain kind of story can be told. And as we now realize—with the advent of HBOs and Netflix and all of this—is that we are getting to do a 7-hour story, which is fascinating. You can delve into details which the movie won't allow you to.
Likewise, a short film has its own beauty. Most short stories have a punchline ending—it doesn't have to be a nerve wracking kind of punchline, but can be soft. Short stories can be about a moment in life and can be as deeply affecting or meaningful and profound as any other thing.
Also, having been trained over the years to write in 2-2.5 hour format, when you get to do a 6-7 hour story, or two 20 or 30 mins stories, it challenges you — in the writing, in finding new kinds of images, new kinds of storytelling, new kinds of structure. I am lucky to be a filmmaker in such a time when we are getting to explore various formats, and that's only helping us getting better at what we do.
Does the short film form owe to the short story structure?
I think it does, to a great extent. As much as a novella helps the 2 hour format, in the same way. Because cinema takes a lot from literature, but cinema has its own space, it has its own identity. So in my case, it just so happens that the two films happened in the 2 months and both happen to be adaptations. When I was writing this film, I had no idea how I was going to to make it. It was long before this anthology was announced, or Ashi (Dua, producer) or Netflix or Ronnie (Screwvala, producer) walked into my office asking me to make anything. I had written this script already and was figuring out how to make it.
So yes, while it owes itself to the short story, and specifically these two films do, it does not need to. Short format film could also lend itself very well to a non narrative, absurdist sort of a treatment and make a very good film. And someday I would like to make one.
I saw in a interview you said that the first screenplay you attended was a Ray short story.
What was it?
It was "Ratan Babu Ar Shei Lokta".
Oh, it's one of my favourites.
It's one of his best. And when I wrote it, I was still young and inexperienced. I didn't know what the procedures of getting the rights were. And I was rightfully rejected.
You are doing a long format series for Netflix. Is there more creative freedom on OTT than theatrical?
Yes, for sure there is more creative freedom. Perhaps it's got to do with the fact that it's still new. If it's around for another decade, we all settle down to a level of mediocrity. Right now, it's a great space. I am really enjoying it. That's also because OTTs are primarily engaged with story. I mean now people are saying content, as if… I don't know what to make of that word. But the sad reality of our mainstream film is that story is not the main thing. No matter what they tell you. It's going to be star value, it's going to be other things. That business is too well understood. I think if you understand a little less of that business, it's better that way.
The great thing about OTT is that the primary focus is on story. The entertainment is via the story. It's not via anything else. So that is what is great being a filmmaker thanks to these platforms. Apart from the fact that we are getting to explore different mediums. And it's a revelation. It has tested me in all sorts of ways and it feels great to learn so much.
Do you fear that the pandemic is going to kill movie theatres?
No no. I don't think that's going to happen. It's a feature of the pandemic. Of course, pandemic changes society in many ways, but I think it's premature to say that movie theatres are going to die.