Filmmaker-writer Devashish Makhija has had as many as 18 feature films shelved at various stages of production. His debut feature Oonga (2013) was never made the way he intended and died down after going to a few festivals. He’s since made a handful of short films like Taandav and abs nt that have been widely consumed on the internet.
Makhija’s second feature Ajji which is in the India Gold section of the Mumbai Film Festival and will also be screened at the Busan International Film Festival has been produced by Yoodlee Films, a film production house by music giants Saregama. This time around, he says, years of not getting films made has taught him how to get producers to invest in his idea. He’s done well because Ajji is a tough sell. It’s a story about an ageing small-time tailor who avenges the rape of her granddaughter. It’s an important story that addresses some hard truths and Makhija doesn’t bother making it palatable for the viewer. There are moments in the film that will frighten you or force you to look away.
Before the screening of Ajji at the Mumbai Film Festival we caught up Makhija who tells us about the mental and physical challenges of making this film. “If I have to die, I want to die shooting,” he says.
Has it been easy to find producers to let you make Ajji exactly as it is now? Did you try narrating the film to others before Yoodlee Films came on board?
At that stage, I didn’t have a script. Over all these years of my films not getting made, I have learnt to pitch my films better. The 5-pager for the film was more of a Tarantino-esque sexy revenge film. Jackie Brown meets Kill Bill. That excited a lot of people.
Yoodlee Films signed me and I was in pre-production while I was writing it. They didn’t interfere but what I had then was a sexier film. By the time I got into production, the film had morphed into something else. By then, it was too late. They saw it first in February when I was sending a first cut for Cannes. They said, “This is not the film we signed up for, but it’s a great film so just proceed.”
What would you say was your biggest learning from all the turmoil you went through while making your first feature film Oonga?
There are two kinds of people in this industry. There’s the kind that comes to the table with trust and then proceeds with trust until the other person lets them down. And then there are producers in the city, who by default, approach the table with mistrust. They think you’re there to burn their money and indulge your artistic arrogance. They don’t believe you – they want to watch over and see how you spend every rupee.
Oonga didn’t get made the way I wanted to because I was trying to make a film that was pro-adivasi and my producer was not. He slowly took control and destroyed my film. It’s not a film I’m very proud of.
You’ve said you suffered behavioural issues as you researched for Ajji. You even had a prostate cancer scare! How do you keep a crew together with so much going on?
At that stage, nobody in my crew but my associate director knew. I had to have someone know it in case I dropped dead. But I had to protect my crew from it because though they’re a crew of warriors, it doesn’t do the filmmaking atmosphere much service. If I have to die, I want to die shooting. So I pretty much shut it out for 18 days.
Speak a little about how you directed the actress who played Manda, the 10 year old girl who gets raped. How do you explain to her what she should be feeling after such a traumatic incident?
I am inept at that – one of my casting directors Manuj who plays Dhavle’s aide and Pooja Chauhan my associate director prepared her. Between them, they prepared her not with the complete information about what was happening, but just enough to give her an idea. And that girl is an old soul. She would understand things without us telling her. And her parents were on-set and in the know at every stage.
Ajji is hard to watch. There are some scenes where you can’t help but look away. I’m not sure if it’s a film that one can rewatch. As a writer-filmmaker did you design this? Did you consciously want to create moments that would be hard to digest?
When we were creating it, I didn’t want to work backwards from what would be palatable for a viewer. Forget the Nirbhaya case and all the others in the news, think about all the cases in villages, slums and ghettos that don’t make it to the news. Those women, those little girls have it as brutal and as horrifying, if not worse.
It’s just that we’re not in their shoes to know how frightening it can be. I want to transfer horror to the viewers and not exempt them. Somewhere us not doing anything about it, is us being complicit in the rape of a little girl. I just didn’t want it to be anything but what that little girl would go through.
You said in an interview that the only way forward from injustice is dialogue. What sort of discourse do you want Ajji to generate?
I’m not expecting anything but this. That people will question me about these choices so we can talk about it. I’m getting an opportunity to tell you now that what you’re calling brutal and hard to digest is how it is! We’re in a slightly protected environment so we don’t think it might be that horrific. I would like this dialogue to continue so we all know and are aware that it’s worse.
I don’t know if there is a solution. But the more dialogue we have, the higher the chances are of finding it. Ajji and Manda, like every other woman, are not up against one man. They’re up against 5000 years of a mindset – a misogynistic, patriarchal one.
CATCH AJJI AT MAMI :
8.25pm on October 13, Friday at PVR ICON, AUDI 1
7.15pm on October 14, Saturday at PVR KURLA, AUDI 8
5.45pm on October 16, Monday at PVR ICON, AUDI 4
8.40pm on October 17, Tuesday at PVR ECX, AUDI 5