No other Hindi filmmaker in recent memory has made a debut like Neeraj Ghaywan. Back when the relationship between the internet and art was still at its infancy, his first short, Shor (2011), burnt a hole in the festival circuit, and is still widely regarded as one of the finest Indian short films of our times. Ghaywan then made his feature-film debut with Masaan (2015), a double award winner at Cannes that arguably rewrote the image of independent Hindi cinema on the global stage. He made his OTT debut by co-directing the second season of the Netflix hit series, Sacred Games. But with big splashes comes the pressure of swimming the ocean of legacy.
His latest short, Geeli Pucchi, starring Konkona Sen Sharma and Aditi Rao Hydari, is a segment of Ajeeb Daastaans, a four-film Netflix anthology produced by Dharmatic Entertainment. In a chat with Rahul Desai, Neeraj discusses the making of his film, his identity as an artist, the casteless gaze of Hindi cinema and, inevitably, the 'second-film syndrome':
RD: Your short, Geeli Pucchi, stars Konkona Sen Sharma as a queer Dalit factory worker vying for a deskjob position. Most Indian narratives tend to examine the conflicts of caste, class, gender, ambition and sexuality in isolation, as mutually exclusive genres. Were you worried that the medium itself – a short film as opposed to, say, a full-length feature – was possibly not doing justice to the plurality of your protagonist's identity?
NG: I was always aware of the intersectionality. I wanted to depict this complexity because no subaltern exists in isolation. We all have fused identities, and one identity plays off the other. Having said that, I love shorts. I prefer making shorts over feature films, because they give you the freedom one needs to make this kind of film. To make it work, I really focused on the conception. The pandemic made me write, and this script took about a year. I was worried about the balance – in the interest of one particular subaltern, would I put down another identity? The intent was also purely to not go the black-and-white way. We have to contextualise the villain. If we don't contextualise them, it becomes very easy to say, 'Yeah, I hate Gabbar Singh.' But what if we explain the backstory? The circumstances behind his rise? Like the way Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon contextualises Nazi Germany and how it came about. Thanks to Sumit (Saxena) being on board as a co-writer, I could bounce off these ideas. I also brought in a lot of people from the communities, because you cannot replicate a lived experience. So I had queer people and Dalit people guiding me with the portrayal.
RD: Were they involved in the writing process, on set, or all through?
NG: The writing. I actually bounced the script off many people to hear their take on a certain aspect. For instance, I involved a queer friend of mine. Earlier, I had written in a point where Konkona's character, Bharti, is jealous of the husband of Priya. And she [the friend] told me how that doesn't happen. She told me that as long as you find affection, envy or jealousy is unlikely. So mine was a cisgender perspective of looking at relationships, assuming that jealousy is natural. But that's not necessarily true, so I did not show that.
RD: I read that you had initially planned this as a sub-plot in Masaan. But it wasn't included because you feared it was too radical for the time. What do you think has changed since then?
NG: Actually, not radical for the time, but it was radical for Masaan. Because I think it didn't belong there. And the density is such that it would feel overwrought. It would take away from the core idea of Masaan. Instantly, Varun and I both felt it doesn't fit well. And at that point it was just a small-town, noirish subplot. From then on, whenever I reflected on it, I thought I needed to layer it. That's when the idea of intersectionality came into the picture. While writing, it was very interesting to see how each character plays off the other.
RD: Do you think the expansion of the streaming landscape in the last five years has possibly given you a platform to explore such an intersectionality?
NG: Certainly, I would say so. You're reaching two hundred countries in one go and getting to say exactly what you want to say. I think there is a certain kind of pressure of commerce that a theatrical [release] will need. And there's nothing wrong with that. That's a separate beast. But then maybe you won't get the kind of freedom to do it as you envisaged. OTT does bring in flexibility. For instance, I hate the idea of manic pixie dream girls. The attempt at least, has been to subvert the trope through Priya. Here she is not seen from a male perspective, which is the inherent problem of the manic pixie dream girl. She is seen from a female gaze. So she also has agency, she also has her own thoughts. These are women wanting, hiding or fighting back [against] patriarchy and insulating themselves with career. In a theatrical, there's always the pressure of including a romantic track. Consequently it's hard to explore the complexity of what real people go through: career, education, status, your relationship with the state.
RD: We've seen the release of several mainstream films from the South – Karnan, Asuran, Uppena – that actually foreground the caste conflict by having Dalit heroes. There are plenty of regional examples: Obviously, Sairat is the most famous of them. Why do you think mainstream Hindi cinema has been relatively casteless in comparison?
NG: For our generation, caste has masqueraded itself as class. It's easier to acknowledge a class problem, but it's difficult to acknowledge – or even understand – a caste problem. We follow a general societal structure. But in cinema, I feel we don't have enough people. The handful of caste-based films made in the history of Hindi cinema have all been made by savarnas. There's not a single acknowledged Dalit artist that you can name here, even though Dalits make up 25 percent of the population. Whereas in America, you have so many black directors, artists, singers, songwriters – and the Black American population is 13 percent! The irony is that this industry is not bigoted or casteist, it's just that we're ignorant. People need to acknowledge the gaze is simply absent. I'm not saying, 'Oh, you've been looking down on us.' It's just that the awareness doesn't exist.
RD: Which brings me to the fact that, over the years, you have been outspoken about your own Dalit identity on public platforms. Is this identity now indispensable to your art? Or do you ever feel that you owe it your identity to represent it in art?
NG: I actually live that dichotomy everyday. I feel that it should be indispensable, in the sense that I want to be known as an artist who would want to do many things and [explore] many narratives. I am not going to stick only to Dalit narratives. Because I am many more identities than that. Be it gender, class, sexuality, patriarchy – all of these things do occur to me. And as an artist, I want to observe life through a multifaceted lens. But at the same time, as I mentioned, there has been no representation. So you want to retain your primary identity as a filmmaker but also must live with the responsibility of bringing the community to the fore. It's a tough bridge to straddle.
RD: What is your reaction when you are referred to as a Dalit filmmaker as opposed to just a filmmaker? It's a conflict that a lot of directors who are women face on an everyday basis.
NG: You're so right because, for instance, I hate it when Zoya Akhtar is referred to as the best 'female filmmaker'. I'm telling you she has the craft to be at the top of the industry, but nobody acknowledges that. She's always slotted into the 'female director' bracket. It's the same way Pedro Almodóvar is put into the queer bracket. And I consciously want to break that pigeonholing. But, as I said, it is tough to walk that path because you have to tell their stories but also have to be aloof. So maybe I want to alternate between various kinds of stories that I like.
RD: There's a scene in the beginning where a colleague of Bharti's spells out her caste saying something on the lines of: 'You're a Dalit, stay within your limits.' Otherwise her surname is the only giveaway for the rest of the film. Given that a lot of discourse around a film like Newton missed the fact that the protagonist was Dalit – there was only one shot of an Ambedkar portrait in his house – was this scene driven by the fear that the subtext might get lost if you're too subtle?
NG: I must admit that there was a bit of insecurity of comprehension. Because, to be honest, a lot of people don't understand caste at all. For example, when I was once house-hunting, this broker asked me: 'Aapka caste kya hai?' And I was like, 'Excuse me, you can't ask these questions. It's unconstitutional.' I mean I didn't actually use that word, she would have been flabbergasted. But later on I realised that she meant to ask me my religion. So people rarely know the difference here. You rightly caught the scene, because two Dalits would never speak that way between themselves. You won't use that word. That's a mutual understanding. But I had to, also because two hundred countries may not understand the context; they need a little more. But yes, I admit to being expositional in that moment.
RD: Given that Konkana Sen Sharma headlines the short, where do you stand on the debate of casting a more privileged/upper-caste actor for the role of Bharti? Do you see it in any way as a wrongful appropriation of experience?
NG: I feel that debate is very, very complex and it's very individualistic too. We can't blanket-rule it. What I fundamentally feel is that if you want to talk about a certain subaltern, all that you need to bring in is sensitivity, and you have to come from a place of listening and understanding, but most importantly involving lived experiences of the subaltern. Now let's say I'm making a film on women. I'm not a woman. No matter how much I try to empathise, I cannot relate with the experience of what a woman goes through, of periods, of menstruation, of childbirth. Hence inclusion is essential. Bring people from the communities. Most importantly listen to them, don't just token-involve them. Bring them in during the development, bring them in the writing, bring them in the making. And that's when at least there will be a sincerity to it. That has been my process. "Why don't you cast a Dalit to play a Dalit character?" is a very valid argument. But the question is too early to ask, because right now we don't even have people. Also, let's say if I want to cast someone, how do you want an approach? A) You have to find a person not scared enough to acknowledge it, B) you have to find a person who fits the bill, fits the brief, looks the part. There are so many ifs. Though it is righteous, it's not operationally easy to execute that.
RD: Speaking of looking a part, Konkona's performance is very different from anything she's done before. Her role just stops short of the stereotypical tomboyish representation of lesbians in films. Her masculinity feels like more of a survival instinct than a physical trait. What was your brief to her?
NG: I was actually extremely conscious about stereotyping. I didn't want her to become super-butch, because Bharti also has to adhere to a subaltern and milieu that she comes from. She can't look a certain way just because it's supposed to fit a perception. So she will do masculine things because she wants to be like that in her world. She's not wearing leather boots, she's not wearing leather pants. But in her world, she's wearing loose jeans, shirts, and Konkana's hair is naturally curly. It fit so well I didn't want to change that. Also, queer people were part of designing her look. That was very, very essential for me, because I did not want to second-guess or be stubborn about her gait. My idea could be something like Kill Bill. But, no. It has to be authentic to the setting.
RD: Do you feel like the representation of a minority as flawed and greyer – like a Serious Men – humanises the underdog stereotype of films? Because presenting them as an all-out hero or victim can also be a subconscious way of patronising them.
NG: Absolutely. Vulnerability really humanises people. This is also the classic problem we see in biopics: they're outright heroes, they're flawless, they're righteous, they're everything that cannot go wrong. I think that's how they don't feel human. For me, both women in the film can be victims. Like I said, you can't hate the idea of abject villainy without context. Priya's character doesn't realise she's being casteist. She's been tutored, at home, at the workplace. She's making such a grave error but she's oblivious to it. That is the reality. She's the representation of caste-blind people who say that, 'You know, growing up, I've never seen caste existing'.
RD: Your short is part of an anthology. The title, Ajeeb Daastaans, suggests an ode to the very nature of storytelling. How much does the theme affect the way you go about designing an individual short?
NG: Thankfully, the title and the theme are so broad that you can explore anything under the sun with it. That helped a lot. In the end it can be about stories, about toxicity, about dysfunctional relationships – all of these themes fit within the bigger umbrella. My story already contained most of it. I didn't have to hone it towards the title. In fact, the film's title didn't even exist; it came in around the release.
RD: You've created across formats. This is your fourth short film. You've co-directed the second season of Sacred Games. But it's almost been six years since your feature film debut, Masaan. How much does the pressure of having to back up a globally acclaimed debut like that define this gap between films?
NG: It's a question I've personally struggled with. I want to be honest about it. It's not the pressure of what people think: 'OK, are you going to make another Cannes-winning film?', which is what Anurag [Kashyap] too keeps asking. But, for me, my fundamental problem is that I want to make something honest. I don't aspire for greatness. What I want to do is make a film which adheres to my sensibilities, my value system and my world view. Something that makes me jump out of my seat and want to do it with sincerity. Period. That's the only intent. I'm trying to find stories, but it is called the 'second-film syndrome', which directors go through, and is very difficult to explain. Like Vikram[aditya] Motwane went through it himself, and he used to warn me about it. And I thought that if Vikram's gone through it, I've already seen it happen, hence it won't happen to me. But I actually suffered through it for years. I also sought therapy to get over it. And Sacred Games 2 was what really made me escape that rut, get out of my house and actually make something. I'm still grappling with it, but I'm much more comfortable. I'm trying to do all these things on the side. I hope I'll make my second feature this year.
RD: Thanks to the internet and the advent of digital filmmaking, creators are far more visible and equipped today than a decade ago. Have you felt the temptation of taking advantage of the times and be prolific to simply practise your craft?
NG: It's a double-edged sword. If you want to be seen, it's fine – but not at the compromise of dishonesty showing up in your work. I'm petrified of that. It's taken me a long while, but I do come back to short films as a medium, which keeps me abreast, keeps me in touch with my craft. But merely for the sake of continuity if I do something, it will show in my work. Yes, it may win a Filmfare award, it may win a lot of things. But at the end, in your heart, you need to feel kicked about it. I don't know if there's a right answer either: It's a hard conflict to deal with.