Captain Harbhajan Singh patrols the Indo-China border, revealing Chinese strategies to his soldiers and making sure none of them fall asleep while on night duty. There’s just one twist though – he died in 1968. The Captain’s real life story is full of fantastical elements, illustrated over the course of an overnight train journey in Jyoti Kapur Das’ short film Plus Minus. It stars YouTube star Bhuvan Bam as the Captain and actor Divya Dutta as his co-passenger, who has problems with her overbearing mother-in-law. Das’ 2016 short Chutney, featuring Tisca Chopra, Adil Hussain and Rasika Dugal, is one of the most-viewed Indian shorts on the web, with 122 million views. She talks about the pressure to follow that up with Plus Minus, how a personal tragedy lent itself to the film, and what working with YouTube star Bhuvan Bam was like:
What are you like when you have a short film out? Are you constantly checking the views in real time? Is that the equivalent to people checking box office numbers when a film is out?
Not really. The producers keep me updated on the views. I’m more interested in getting feedback from the audience, whether it’s my industry peers or seniors or just the kids or family who are watching it. I keep getting a lot of feedback – this happened with Chutney too – but here it’s just been exponential, the way it’s shot up. A lot of people are sending me screenshots of the links that they’ve forwarded on groups, and people’s reactions to the short film.
One of the soldiers in the short film says that Indians only know about actors and cricketers. Is that what compelled you to tell the story of Captain Harbhajan Singh?
So Divya (Dutta) has a friend who wanted to produce a short film. Divya and I have been friends for very long, so she called me and said, “You’re the person for short films.” I had just finished Chutney and it had won accolades and I didn’t really want to do another short because Chutney was just such a big success and I don’t know how to follow it up. I thought it was a big fluke and if I made another short film, it would get exposed for the fluke it was. So, I continued work on my features and half-heartedly told my assistant director, “Koi idea hai toh bolo.” The AD met me one morning and he said, “Ma’am, do you know of Harbhajan Singh?” And I said, “The cricketer?” He said, “No, no, no. The babaji. Just Google him.” I went on his Wikipedia page and it blew my brains completely. It sounded very fantastical, it had this energy. So I can really take no credit for it because it was some energy from the universe that seeped into my skull and down my nerves and into my fingers and I typed out that story in two hours. What I typed was the first and only draft, which I shot, edited and which has come out now. It’s not even my work, it’s something that got gifted to me by the Universe. Credit to my producers, Guneet Monga, Achin Jain and Rohit Raj, who empowered me to make the film exactly the way I wanted, and to executive producer Guneet Dogra who fought crazy timelines and demands and delivered.
The Captain’s life has several fantastical elements – the short film ends with a voiceover describing how he continued to help the Indian Army even after death. What made you decide that a simple train journey was the best way to get this across?
The Captain’s life is amazing. And more than his life, it’s what he did after his death that’s fantastical. I think it’s just the purity of his soul. It’s an esoteric aspect – people probably don’t even believe in souls and life after death, so it requires suspension of disbelief at an insane level. But I’m really not being coy when I say the story was gifted to me. Before the story came to me, I had lost my mother-in-law, whom I was very close to. I knew her for more time than I knew my own mother, who had passed on when I was very young. There was a strong mother-daughter bond between us and I was in deep grief after she passed. The film came up in the middle and became something that I wanted to do for her. It all got mixed up – someone coming to me with the legend of this person and my own grief and love for my mother-in-law. That train journey just came out of my fingertips. I can’t take conscious credit for it.
We’ve got small fables, short stories, we’ve got epics and novels and stories of all lengths in the written world. Why should it be any different in the audio-visual world?
Bhuvan Bam is very successful for his humorous characters and impressions. What made you think of casting him?
He’s a lovely boy. I’ve seen some of his sketches, my teenage son is a huge fan and all his friends are huge fans. The Bhuvan you see in the film – the quiet, sensitive, perceptive, mature person – that’s the Bhuvan I met. He was very different from his sketches. He does 16 characters and then turns around and delivers Captain Harbhajan Singh. He does those characters as a performance, and this was also a performance, but I think it was a lot closer to who he is as a person. We met casually and because he was being himself, I had faith that he could carry it off. We discussed the story and he put his heart so completely into it.
After Chutney, this is your second successful short film. Do you think directors are now looking at short films as an art form unto itself and not just a stepping stone to making movies and features?
Every piece of content has its own duration. A lot of people said Chutney could’ve been a feature. I’d done a short film in 2003 called Lucky Day, which went to some 15-odd international film festivals. This was even before YouTube came up in a big way. A lot of people later said, that should’ve been a feature film. Both times, I said, “It’s over.The story’s been told.” The story merited that duration, it was effective in that length of time. Why would anyone stretch it out? There are stories which need two hours or 90 minutes to carry their message across and I’ve worked on those. But in certain shorts, you know that it would be counter-productive to stretch it. There are just different stories getting told. When a parent or grandparent is trying to put a child to sleep, the story is of a certain duration. That’s what humankind has been doing forever. We’ve got small fables, short stories, we’ve got epics and novels and stories of all lengths in the written world. Why should it be any different in the audio-visual world? Now there’s YouTube and everybody has smartphones and access to content. A lot of it has to do with bandwidth, with actual network – whether you can watch a feature film on your phone is doubtful. Shorter content is more snackable and easily consumed. That makes it easier for filmmakers to tell stories. For some, it’s still a stepping stone to features. They feel that they can make a short film and invest their own money into it and demonstrate their craft – and that’s okay. There are no judgements.