Let’s talk about the goat, I told Geetu Mohandas over the phone. Some of you may know the goat. It’s the goat in Geetu’s first feature, Liar’s Dice, that the protagonist (played by Gitanjali Thapa) takes along, on the road trip from somewhere in the Himalayas to New Delhi, in search of her husband. Metaphors are hard to explain—it’s the filmic equivalent of decoding poetry without losing the magic. But Geetu does an admirable job of likening the goat to the missing husband without making it sound silly. She begins with a different animal, saying it’s a dog-eat-dog world. There are predators and there’s prey. In the end, the goat is (figuratively) sacrificed—like the husband, who has been sacrificed at the altar of globalisation. I asked if the goat, then, could be the husband’s memory that the woman is dragging along. Geetu chews on that a bit.
She says she likes leaving it open-ended. She likes the ambiguity. She likes it that we only see the back of a man fleeing across the snow, in the scene that opens Liar’s Dice—and for the longest time, we aren’t sure who this man is. She likes it that we don’t get into Nawazuddin’s (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) head when he embraces the Gitanjali Thapa character. He’s a deserter from the army, and he can’t go back home because they will come and get him there, so maybe he feels this woman he’s met on the way and her little daughter are his family now, an opportunity to lead a new life with a different identity. There are many words in that sentence but the key word is “maybe”. That ambiguity, again. In this shot, Geetu did not want to go close, because then, she would have had to register the little girl’s reaction to the embrace. She kept it wide. And let it linger. The shots are long because the journey is long.
Her second feature, Moothon, has this ambiguity, too. It will have its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and will open the Jio MAMI 20th Mumbai Film Festival with Star. Geetu likes the Q&A sessions at film festivals, where audiences keep throwing their versions of her film at her. Geetu admits Moothon is more dramatic than Liar’s Dice. A lot of the film is set in the hustle and bustle of Kamathipura, Mumbai. It’s about a child from the Lakshadweep islands. He is enamoured by stories of his older brother (“moothon”), who was a favourite among the people of his island. There are various reasons, interpretations—namely, ambiguities—about why he left. The child comes to Mumbai looking for the brother. In other words, Geetu’s second film is also about the search for a missing family member, but she says it just happened.
Another similarity is that she didn’t share the script with her actors. She likes to explain the storyline, the situation. She likes to take her actors to “spaces” and leave them there, to “explore”. They improvise the dialogue, though Geetu will tweak things. She isn’t kidding when she says she doesn’t give too many instructions. She doesn’t even block their entry and exit from these spaces. This freedom extends to the cinematography, by Geetu’s husband Rajeev Ravi, who also shot Liar’s Dice and went on to win the National Award for Best Cinematography for his stunningly minimalistic work. For Moothon, he used a Sony Alpha a7S II, a small camera that he could go guerrilla shooting, in real streets filled with real people. But Geetu doesn’t want you to think everything is done on the fly. The preparation is meticulous.
Moothon had more of a script than Liar’s Dice, as it is more layered. It also has bigger star-value, thanks to Nivin Pauly. I asked if the selection of a star came about because of the larger-than-life nature of the character she’d just described—though later, she said, ambiguously, that Nivin could be the moothon, but he doesn’t have to be the moothon, either, and that’s the story. If it’s just about larger-than-life, she said, there are so many options. She wanted an actor with an unassuming quality. (It helps that Nivin is her neighbour.) She doesn’t see Nivin with the “star” tag that people have given him. She sees him as an actor, pure and simple. And it’s not a Herculean task to extract the actor from within the star, she says, because actors are just props that you manipulate in your story.
Not that Nivin played the star on the sets. Geetu says he was scared… in a really good way. He has worked with friends and with people in his comfort zone, and Geetu describes him as a headless chicken, when he came to her. He said he didn’t know anything and he wanted to start from scratch. He had 100 per cent commitment, mentally and emotionally, which is the only way to be an actor on a Geetu Mohandas set. She uses the word “trust” a lot. She wants her actors to trust her, just like Gitanjali Thapa and Nawazuddin Siddiqui did in Liar’s Dice. They spoilt her silly, and she wondered if she’d get that kind of actor-director relationship again, but she got it from everyone in Moothon, including Sobhita Dhulipala, Shashank Arora and Roshan Mathew.
With Liar’s Dice, Geetu just wanted to find herself as a filmmaker— everything else was gravy. She’s talking about the film journeying to the Sundance Film Festival, the International Film Festival Rotterdam, the Sofia International Film Festival, and ending up India’s nomination for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. It was a lot of luck, Geetu says. It just happened to be her time. But it showed her that even a small film can engage with and reach a large spectrum of the audience. The Oscar nomination scared her. It was like inheriting a white elephant, she says. She didn’t know what to do with it. It was hard enough to raise funds to make the movie. How was she going to put together funding to mount an Oscar campaign in Los Angeles! But the team managed. Geetu hates it when people call her “lucky”—for the Oscar nomination, for Moothon being selected by Toronto. It’s a lot of hard work.
Even so, Geetu says she is one of the lucky ones. She works in home productions and her husband is the cinematographer. She admits it will be very different if she were out there all alone. A lot of her women-filmmaker friends are facing this difficulty, but Geetu says it’s changing fast. I asked if she’d get annoyed if I brought up the “male” versus “female” filmmaker question. She said there definitely is a difference, whether it is painting or literature or the movies. Whatever women have touched and contributed to, it’s “different”. She doesn’t say “better”. She wants these clashes, these gendered perspectives of looking at the same story, to produce debate, confusion, conflict. Seen this way, her next film is going to be very interesting. It’s a gangster movie, and she’s almost done with the writing. For now, though, she’s just making sure all the deliverables for Toronto and MAMI are being delivered. She hates the waiting period between movies, but it’s got to be done. At least about that, there’s no ambiguity.