Great ideas, and stories should be rewarded: Shubhashish Butiani

With his debut film Mukti Bhawan, Shubhashish Butiani has attained the formidable reputation of an auteur whose meditative cinema has a life-reforming quality and whose voice is so fresh , authentic, accessible and original that he immediately finds a place among the most vibrant filmmakers of the country. Subhash K Jha speaks to Bhutiani

At 24, what prompted you to get so interested in mortality? Shouldn’t you be  making a film about young love and campus flirting?

(laughs) I don’t know what I should be making films about .But I think a few things happened at the same time that prompted me to make this movie. I was not living with my family for about 13 years, since I was about 9 years old. I had gone away to boarding school and then college abroad. It was when I came back and I started living with my family again, I started seeing everything in a completely new light. It’s quite amazing how your perception of people and your country changes once you see it from the outside and come back in. Maybe it’s a cliche. Anyway, when I did come back I felt like I was rediscovering my family, and observing the way they live and trying to make it work with mine. It wasn’t easy necessarily, and brought out moments we had never confronted, while at the same time I had seen them from close quarters of how especially my parents were trying to juggle their various responsibilities around them. This was a feeling I was carrying with me everywhere.

When you  returned to India you travelled extensively?

Yes,I had decided to travel around India and made a journey from Kerala to Varanasi. It was a life changing trip for me as the rule was that would I only traveled my train and bus. It was in Varanasi I had heard about these hotels, that I had decided to go see. And I was so surprised by how something like this could exist! But it was only when I met with the people that live in the hotels itself that the idea of a story started to grow. Because I realised it’s not so much about death, but the knowledge or acceptance of an impending one, that maybe lets us go of our chains. Maybe that’s what actually gives us mukti. A lot of the frivolous stops mattering. I am still trying to understand many things myself, and the process of making a film usually helps me get a little closer.

Mukti Bhawan  has been received with unanimous  praise by  critics. Did you expect this  kind of response?

No, I did not and neither did I want to think about it because it’s not in my control. I was more focussed on just trying to make the movie and make it as good as it could be. We worked on very tight timelines, and in a very intense amount of time so to be honest while you are making it, you don’t have that perspective and distance from the movie. The people working on the film were enjoying the film while they were making it, and I was occasionally bringing in people whose opinion I trust to come tell me what they are thinking, and I could see that the film was forming a connection with each one in a different way. That was a great feeling for me, and I was realizing early on that this was the kind of movie where people are bringing their own lives into it, their own personal histories.

There have been some remarkable films in the  past which have been shot in Varanasi, notable Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan. Were you influenced by Masaam. Who are your other influences?

Iconic cities have always had hundreds of stories told about them, and I consider Varanasi to be a city like that. That said, I think Masaan is a wonderful film. It’s in the list for me of one of the best films from India in recent times. And I absolutely love the music. My influences are subconscious because I was watching a lot of films in the past, and I have been watching Hollywood, Bollywood , independents, and films around the world. I have been influenced by things happening around me, and stories that I hear. And I am super influenced by music for instance, I used Tajdar Junaid’s album to write the screenplay, and even shoot scenes of it before he had even signed on or composed anything!

When and how did you become  interested in filmmaking?

I was interested in cinema from an early age. My father was a film lover since a young age, and he would often bring home almost a movie a day and watch it after work. I found cinema hypnotic, and transportive. When I grew older as a teenager I carried the traditions through by smuggling in my DVD player and DVDs to my boarding school and watching it under my blanket. If I broke a rule in school, it was to sneak out to watch a movie in Dehradun. So the love for movies was always there. But I really started to think I should do something in this space whenI started acting. I found a way to express myself, and use my bouncing-off-the-walls energy and yet it wasn’t enough. I wanted to tell the story, and I loved the whole process of watching it be put together, piece by piece. So I tried to direct my first play, Neverland, an adaptation of Peter Pan in High School. It is still one of the most treasured moments of my life. I was at that time 17, and had decided then and there that I would pursue this in a serious way. I decided to take the film school route to learn, as I had never held a camera or edited anything in my whole life, and wanted to expose myself to world cinema. So while I had stories to tell, I wanted to start to learn how to tell them.

Does  it help your creative cause to have your father as your producer?

Yes, I am fortunate to have him as my producer. Through the experience of Mukti Bhawan I must admit I have never seen him work this hard my whole life. I really feel like it’s two 25 year olds making their debuts as director and producer. He has done a phenomenal job to put this project together, and while we disagree on many things, I don’t think this film would be made without him. He has spoiled me a little bit because I think he has gone above and beyond. It’s been a huge learning experience for us too. And I think it also helped my creative cause, because we often found ourselves sharing a hotel room together while the writing of the film was taking place, so I am sure that helped as well!

How far have you travelled in the West with your film? How did you explain the film’s spiritual context , its theme of moksha to Western audiences?

We have travelled West and East with the film, with it playing from Korea to America! It premiered at Venice and spread, it has played in Dubai, Sweden, Germany and many places. I explain to them the idea of moksha in very simple terms. But more often than not they have a fair idea about it through the film and I elaborate. What is crucial to understand about this film and mukti, that I try to explain is it’s context out of the religious sphere. What mukti means to us in our daily life too. That it has the connotation of meaning “liberation” as well. It’s something I hope only adds to their experience of watching the film.

The casting in Mukti Bhawan is a  key to its efficacy. How and why did you pick Adil Hussain, Lalit Behl and the others?

I chose Lalitji because of his face. I had seen him in Titli, and loved his domineering silent presence. The tone of this film is very different from Titli but his physical  presence and face was key to that. Once he auditioned, I was sure I wanted him. Adil was someone everyone around me recommended for the film once they read the script, and I felt he had not played a role like this. He was someone whose work I love, and felt that he had the every-man quality to him still. Both of them have gone beyond my imagination and really made the characters real. Palomi Ghosh who plays Adil’s daughter, I have casted without an audition! I had seen her at a conference in Goa, where we were listening to Mr. A.R Rahman speak. She got up and asked him “How can a singer get in touch with you” and he said “Surprise me” so she stood up and started singing a Konkani Jazz song! And she had the whole crowd, including me, clapping to her! It was this courage that I wanted to have in Sunita that she showed, and I felt she would bring a new energy to the film.

Describe the experience of shooting in  Varanasi? Any particularly memorable incidents?

Shooting in Varanasi was wonderful. I don’t know what to say because the whole shoot was memorable. It was emotionally challenging for me but that’s because I find the whole process of making a movie that way. My favorite thing about shooting there though was the daily boat ride with the crew at sunrise and sunset. We would take a boat from one end of the ghats to the other each morning, and each day after pack up. It was a great way to start the day’s work and preparation and  a great way to end in contemplation, and absorb what we had done. That for me will always be special.

Critics have noted your fresh and intriguing style of narration where you don’t seem to be peering at your characters  through a camera. How have you managed to bring the audience so close to your characters?

I don’t know how to answer this question ,to be honest, because it would articulate a process that is very instinctive. It’s very much moment to moment and its about your cast and crew as well. We work in cohesion to create the moment, and check each other constantly.

The film has been well received in the West. How did  you hope it would combat the mainstream films like Baahubali which was re-released with Mukti Bhawan?

I am not here to combat anyone. I will move from film to film and try to make them the best way possible. I am not someone who hates the mainstream or big ticket films, because I grew up on them and enjoy the ones that are made well. But I do hope that we move towards a time where we have an ecosystem of diverse films in India. That’s my true aspiration where a Baahubali can be successful and a film like ours can be too in our own way. Great ideas, and stories should be rewarded irrespective of whether it’s big or small, mainstream or indie.

What are you doing next? Perhaps a  completely different frothy film?

I am writing two stories. But they are in the early stages. I am clear about the fact that I will only do stories that speak to me in some way. That story could from anywhere, and isn’t tied by genre, place or anything! But if it doesn’t connect to me I won’t be able to do it. Let’s see what happens, I am excited to see what the future holds!

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