If you get to be as lucky as we got when we met Devashish Makhija, you will not take much time to realise that the brains behind the powerful punch to the throat film Ajji is not only a cinematic genius but also the most humble human being you would have ever come across. Although most of his work falls under the cabinet of dark films portraying the dark side of humanity; contrary to popular belief, Devashish does smile and laugh at times. Find out more about him while he talks about his movie and explains his ideology. P.S. – Make sure you press the cc button on the bottom right corner to enable the subtitles.
If you haven’t watched the trailer of Ajji, make sure you hit this link right here where we analyse the hidden meanings and allegories of the same. The movie is garnering rave reviews right now and generating a lot of buzz. It is also hailed as the Must-see Asian Indies of the Year after its premier at Busan International Film Festival. Ajji, hands down, is one of the most visceral movies well in its way to disrupt the Indian film industry today. Following is the interview that deals into the artistry of Devashish Makhija and his process of filmmaking.
The interview delves into his artistry, his process of writing, his future venture and then some more.
Naman: Let us begin just as any movie would. We FADE IN. Tell me, how do you begin your scripting process? Is it a mechanical process? Do you sit down with cue cards or you just let it come to you one page at a time?
Devashish: I’ve never used Cue Cards in my life. Neither have I ever let it come to me one page at a time. And its never been mechanical. Anything that Hollywood prescribes I try my best to sidestep, avoid, fight, subvert.
From a core character, a setting, a story idea.
I build outwards, one stage at a time. It often starts with a nutshell. It may be a character, a group of characters, a particular setting for a story, a story idea, a trick, a message I might want to convey – political, philosophical, social, anthropological. I then build that nutshell into a paragraph. Then I slap some more meat on to turn it into a page or two of story. This may or may not have a beginning, middle and an end. But it needs to convey the character(s), the film’s mood, its intent, and a broad thrust of the journey I seek to take the viewer on.
The next stage is often the most critical and takes the most time and effort. I stretch out those 1-2 pages into a document that could be anything between 10 and 40 pages. This is my scene-flow, my screenplay-structure, where all the research needs to be done. This is the document that needs me to draw out all the character sketches in a parallel way. I summarise the details of every scene in each paragraph. This is where I find out that what is happening in every scene, who is in it or how the different pieces might fit. Where the scene begins and when it ends.
This might take me anywhere between 4 to 20 weeks.
When I finally screenplay, its just about laying out all the material from the ‘scene-flow’ document in ‘scene’ form, with dialogue. This doesn’t take me much time.
This process is one I’ve discovered for myself. It varies wildly in semantics from film to film. The writing of every film is a process of discovery for me. I mostly let the film dictate the nuances of my approach. This also makes it scary sometimes. Because although I might have some idea of where I want to head, but I mostly don’t know where this is going, or where I’m going to end up at.
Also, my favourite films never start with a Fade In. 😀
Naman: Speaking of writing, would you identify yourself as someone who goes by the books? Is it a conscious decision or the fact that your story telling has evolved with time?
Well, far from sticking to it, I try very hard to subvert the three-act structure. I’m not its biggest fan. I have a theory about it. The three-act structure is not very different from the current government’s anti-national label. You can force-fit it on any argument, and find a way to justify it. You can , without trying too hard, find the ends of act 1, 2 and 3 points in not just each of my films, but in any film under the sun. The three-act structure, having been bequeathed to us by the Greeks has suffered enough cultural iterations over 2000 odd years to become the amorphous, open-to-interpretation beast that it now is.
For every logical reasoning you give me that a film of mine has the three-act structure, I’ll give you one to deny it.
Naman: I wouldn’t say that out of all your work I find Agli Baar to be the best because I personally have my bet on Ajji. But, having said that, I do believe Agli Baar is extremely refined in its cinematic grammar. A particular film like Agli Baar where the art direction plays the major role, do you write it in the script itself or build upon it later?
Devashish: I write almost EVERYTHING into the script. When you’re working with frighteningly minimal resources you owe it to the team (and to the frighteningly little money you have at your disposal) to have as much detail down on paper. With Agli Baar especially, the technology (Skype, phone camera, Facetime), the reflection of the video, the placards (both in the slum shanty and in the activist’s room), the photos pinned to the soft board, everything was a screenplay element, not just a filmic element.
The dialogues between the characters tell you very little about who they are. It is the technology they use, the props in the frame they inhabit, the sound design of the scenes that inform you of who and what each person is. To tell the viewer about the character through their dialogue is the most trite device. Its not cinematic. I find such films (which is a majority of the films out there) dull and unrewarding to watch.
Which brings me to my pet peeve – calling screenwriters ‘writers’. This does a disservice both to screenwriters as well as writers. I’m both, so I am fairly aware and conscious of the difference in the intent or the tools, the process or the product that the two entail. It is a writer’s prerogative and duty to use language – word, phrase, turn of phrase, sentence structure, syntax, punctuation – to tell a story. In the context of film, putting down the scenario on paper doesn’t need to be a writer or make it one.
If you see the credits in the French new wave films, they have had gotten it right. Godard’s films always have a credit for scenario, never written by. A screenplay is basically the film – with its many directives put down on paper, as a filmic road-map.
To then put some of the art direction, the decided location, details of costume, the technology into the screenplay is my duty as a filmmaker. These elements often play a big part in taking the story forward. The films that have really moved you. If you pay heed, those filmmakers would always have done the same.
Naman: From raising questions on morality of justice to inequality of development. I guess I wouldn’t be wrong if I say that you aim for a cathartic effect on the viewer. If so, why?
Devashish: Cathartic is a generous word to use in the context. I do always aim to raise questions. There are some things in life we don’t think about often and deeply enough. Our daily lives always get in the way. Some of these are – Death, Injustice, our Anthropocentrism, our capacity for Hate and our very imbalanced view of Development. I like raising questions about these through my films. Generally, I never have a solution or an answer. I simply share with the viewer, the puzzles that plague my constantly haunted mind.
Through Absent, I tried to raise questions about the morality of Justice. Through Agli Baar, I tried to raise questions about the inequality of development. Through El’ayichi, I tried to question moving on (or not) after death. Through Rahim Murge Pe Mat Ro, we wanted the viewer to think about how we brutally place ourselves at the center of everything. Through Taandav, I tried to question that much abused, much misunderstood, unequally implemented freedom of choice. Bhonsle hopefully raises many different questions not covered by the films above.
I never intended to provide catharsis through any of these films. But I would be very glad and relieved, if anyone felt that I did.
Naman: You know, out of all over the top things I dream about, I never imagined you reading my article about Ajji. Thank you so much for doing that. I bring it out now because I want to bring out the trailer again. So, the movie is clearly being marketed as a twisted take on Red Riding Hood which makes me wonder – Was it your choice?
Devashish: I have a theory. Its one borne of experiences repeated on all my films. I’ll share it at this point. There are two very different beasts that come into play when a film is finally being birthed to its intended audience. There is the intent of the filmmaker, and the prerogative of the producer
The intent of the filmmaker is an energy that has a forward thrust. It emanates from them having lived this film for many months, years or lifetimes. It comes from a place that is both emotional and intellectual. The prerogative of the producer is an energy that is working backwards from what they have perceived or studied to be what the Viewer wants or expects of the film.
Which one of these energies is right and which one is wrong at which point in the build up to the birthing of the film is irrelevant. What is relevant is that these two energies are often in conflict. They push at one another in opposite directions. The filmmaker proceeds on a combination of Instinct and Emotional logic. The producer rides forth armed with the apparent Safety of statistics.
The filmmaker is pushing for the rush of Discovery.
The producer is pushing for the certainty of Familiarity.
Why do I say all of this?
I did not want the Red Riding Hood references to be spelt out for the viewer. I wanted to see how it would unravel over time. Also, this film is a lot more than just a twisted take on the fable. This is merely one layer of allegory. And I was keen to watch while the viewers – over time – peeled the layers off this film one by one. After having lived with a film for months, years, I didn’t want to reveal everything all at once. I try hard to establish a long term relationship with the viewer through my films.
But the producers were excited by the Red Riding Hood hook and believed that this would help position the film in the market in a very exciting way. In short they seek to shape the expectation of the viewer from this film, whereas I wanted each viewer to shape their own expectations.
But given that someone like you, Naman, who deconstructed the Red Riding Hood allegory so fucking beautifully in your piece on UnBumf, I don’t know anymore if the producers’ approach is the right one, or mine.
Like everything else in cinema, this too must be something that varies from film to film, and from filmmaker to filmmaker. I like to believe there are no rules to anything. All there is, is discovery.
Naman: Speaking of allegories, I was blown away (pun intended) by the scene in Taandav where we see the cracker about to go off is inter cut with a shot of Manoj’s character. Bong Joon-Ho in his masterclass of TIFF 2017 was asked as to how does he bring in the sub-text to which he said it happens naturally. How do you? I’m talking about ideation. (You’re just too good is a valid answer.)
Devashish: Bong Joon-Ho’s Memories of Murder and Mother are huge inspirations. But I suspect he either lied outright, or must have not felt ready to launch into deconstructing his process of building subtexts. I refuse to believe it happens naturally. Perhaps he meant it in a different way. Perhaps he meant that subtext emerges from an instincive space, so finds its way into the script and the film in an organic unforced manner? But to sum it up simply as ‘naturally’ is to do the process injustice. And to send out the wrong signals to those who might want to emulate his success.
Subtext mostly consists of ideas and philosophies and elements that emerge from the artist’s own sequence of experiences and circumstances and inspirations. These perhaps have collected over the artist’s lifetime in their subconscious. This is the abyss of material the artist dips into to create their work. To draw from the subconscious to layer the material at hand is at most times a very conscious process.
The firecracker you speak of in Taandav was not there in the script, I admit. But the script did require a ‘build-up’ of manic pressure on Tambe, from the elements outside of him, for him to finally ‘explode’. As we made our way to shoot, many elements found their way into this build-up. One of them was the firecrackers – the long string of them – that explode long and endlessly, snaking their way across the floor. This might have emerged ‘naturally’ from the process of building this sequence from the paper onto the screen, yes. But the psychological implications of the firecrackers on Tambe and the simultaneous climax of madness they both arrive at, was eventually a thought out choice. One that achieved full realisation only on the edit table, at the hands of the brilliant Shweta Venkat.
Subtext and allegory make stories richer. They make stories transcend the local and truly become universal. Everyone then takes away different things from the same story. And that for me is the biggest high. Like I mentioned before, the process of discovery then doesn’t end when the film has been made. A lifelong discovery awaits, at different hands, through different eyes, voiced via different tongues. This is what drives me the most.
Naman: In Taandav, you play with the aspect ratio. We switch between cinemascope and 1:1. I understand the fact that the 1:1 ratio gives a boxed in feel but why did you make that distinction?
Devashish: Its actually 1.85:1 and 3:2, and then almost 1:2 when it becomes a vertical cellphone image. I needed the viewer to feel mentally and emotionally trapped, like Tambe constantly was. And I enjoy using all the elements at my disposal for such things. Filmmakers often forget that there’s a lot more we can take advantage of than just the dialogue and the music. Most of Hindi cinema tries to stand awkwardly on only these two legs. Characters are often explained through dialogue. And emotion is often underlined through music.
When you start using all the other things you are allowed you need to rely less and less on the above two, which have started to seem trite to me as cinematic tools now. In fact these are the two tools that are more ‘theatre’ than ‘cinema’.
In Agli Baar there isn’t a shred of music. But you feel the fear, the palpitation, the anxiety, the thrill and the threat through sound design, the jumps in aspect ratios, the immobility of the frames, the information carried in the props, the absence of non-incidental light, and sometimes EMPTY frames!
In Taandav too when we go back into the past through Tambe’s mind, to make the viewer feel his emotional claustrophobia, we ‘boxed’ him in, we reduced the horizontal space on either side of him, making it feel like he might have no escape from this quandary of his.
Naman: How did Ajji come to you? How do you go about adapting a fairy tale into one which deals with rape? How faithful an adaptation are we talking about? Was I right about the transformation of Ajji instead of the wolf in the end?
Devashish: Like I said before, to me Ajji is more than just an adaptation of Red Riding Hood. The fable is merely one of the many subtexts in the film. It emerged in fact from the fact that we imagined the rapist as a Wolf. Not literally, but subtextually. I assigned a different beast to each of the characters in the story. This helped me impart a primal texture to the film. We even made the actors play their characters with some traits of the creatures we imbued them with. Working backwards from the wolf then, it struck me that here was what could be a juicy reimagining of the Grimm fable where for perhaps the first time it is the Granny who plays the pivotal part. In all the reimaginings to date, there is a Huntsman or a Woodsman, or a precocious Riding Hood herself going after the wolf. What if the granny did the job?
And then we set about building in more layers and planting motifs along the way – albeit not very obvious ones. I refused to let the colour Red enter my frame. It would make an otherwise excitingly profound process unnecessarily trite.
You were right. Ajji does transform in the end. The tale departs from fable, and hopefully turns into a documentation of our times. Every such unwilling transformation comes with a price. In the real world there is no easy redemption. There is always a modicum of Loss.
Naman: You said in your interview that if a studio were producing a film, it would have their ethos. Tell me something about Yoodlee and how has it effected Ajji? What ethos did they bring in?
Devashish: I wasn’t referring to studios, I was referring to Brands. Brands impose their ethos on films they sponsor. Which is why I never do brand films. And haven’t allowed any of them to sponsor any of my short films thus far either.
But lets talk about studios. This being the first film off their blocks, Yoodlee didn’t even have a name to their company when they greenlit the budget for our film. I was allowed complete freedom. They backed Ajji because they bought into what I wanted to do with it.
The films they’re making from here on might have something to do with where they’re taking their company hereafter. But thankfully none of it was imposed on my film. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that perhaps the Wolf in their first film – Ajji – gave them the idea for their logo?! Making this particular example the converse of the question you’ve posed. Perhaps Ajji has affected the ethos of its producer?!
Naman: You mentioned Kafka in the same interview. I wonder which are the classic directors that you really admire? Which classics have shaped you?
Devashish: To be perfectly honest I discovered the pleasure and profound impact of cinema rather late in life. I still see myself as a storyteller first and a filmmaker later. I have much still to consume and learn from. My diet growing up consisted more of literature, art, music, design and poetry, than cinema. RK Narayan’s stories, Dickens, Japanese graphic design, Tintin comics, and a limitless supply of music formed the better part of my diet growing up. Strangely I really started watching films much after I started working in the medium. It’ll be hard for me to pinpoint what has shaped me.
But some of the filmmakers though who have moved me tremendously have been Kieslowski, Ghatak, Raj Kapoor, Hayao Miyazaki, Cuaron’s and Innaritu’s earlier films. I discovered Miyazaki while working on my Disney-YRF animation film (which got shelved after three years of production, and put paid to my mainstream career). I’d spent three years trying to interpret Indian tribal & folk art (which is entirely 2D) into a 3D storytelling palette. I also love the work of Andrea Arnolds, Cristian Mungiu, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, and our own Umesh Kulkarni.
Naman: Tell me something about your taste in world cinema? Do you like Korean films or the French art films? Any particular foreign director you would like to work with?
Devashish: Don’t get me wrong but I abhor the term ‘world cinema’. Its yet again an invention of Hollywood. To them there is ‘American’ cinema on the one hand, and the rest of the ‘World’ cinema on the other.
Its difficult for me to regionalise or compartmentalise cinema. I’m not talking about the older masters here, but the contemporary scene. I’ve been sensing a more global culture percolating into every kind of cinema in the world today. There is a touch of European storytelling even in a quintessentially Iranian ‘A separation’. Some cultural boundaries have collapsed. More are to follow.
Also, there appears to be a shift from dialogue-intensive storytelling (the kind India’s oral storytelling tradition relied on) to informing through the cinematic tools. As a result every region’s cinema is slowly becoming less and less reliant on ‘subtitles’ or translators, and crossing over boundaries in a way that even the most well-meaning diplomats cannot do. Films, I sense, will soon become every nation’s truest ambassadors.
I don’t have a pattern to liking films. I like certain Korean films, a lot. ‘Memories of murder’ is an all time favourite. But then I’m not a big fan of the overt sentimentality of an ‘I saw the devil’.
The French Arthouse showed me possibilities beyond what anything America ever did. But in that period too there were filmmakers who abused that artistic freedom to the point of pseudo-artistic over-indulgence.
Naman: There have been many debates in the west about the use of digital medium vs the film medium for shooting. As a director in Bollywood, what do you think is the stance of our film industry on the topic?
Devashish: I’m not a director in Bollywood (I wish I would be considered one. I could then quote an exorbitant fee for every film! I operate mostly on the fringes of the ‘Industry’. As such I don’t get the budgets to be able to hire the top-of-the-line film cameras for all the days of my shoot. So I choose my stories, as well as write my scripts, in such a manner that I can work in sequences where I could make do with a Canon 5D, a Sony A7S, a C300, an iPhone camera, a lower end phone camera, or even a laptop webcam!
Most of the mainstream is often worried about the consistency of the ‘image’ in their films. The stars need to look good. The production value needs to be rich. The frames need to be larger than life. For those things they need to hire the biggest, best-resolution cameras available.
I am shackled by no such trappings. On Ajji, although we were the first film in India to experiment with the Red Helium, there were days when we used the Weapon, the Dragon, the Epic, and even two different kinds of phone cameras. There was difference in image quality and light-sensitivity to accommodate which we then improvised the scenes. I in fact celebrate the inconsistency of the image. It makes the proceedings more immediate, real and relatable. In our daily lives we don’t process the world in the same resolution all the time. Our minds and hearts make people and moments pixellate in different ways on different days. And I enjoy replicating that in my cinema. It happens subliminally, but seems to be working well for me thus far.
As regards the film vs digital debate, I have absolutely nothing to say in the matter. I’ve never shot on film. And I’m grateful for the democracy and cost-effectiveness of digital. So I’ll reserve comment.
Naman: Tell me something about your next feature? It is Bhonsle, right?
Devashish: Yes it is. We’ve shot a few days already, during the Ganpati festival. The major schedule begins right after MAMI. I’m exhausted beyond belief. We delivered Ajji end of May, and immediately began prep on Bhonsle in June. The finance hadn’t come in yet, but Manoj and I did not want to miss out on Ganpati, during which some of the key scenes are set. We’d waited too many years, and Muvizz (the producers) seemed keen and confident of wanting to make the film happen with us. Finance is still trickling in. A film like this is very very hard to find money for. But its being made by an army of very committed people.
I have a team of assistants who are all short filmmakers, auteurs in their own right. I let them shoot a lot of second unit footage, and direct the secondary cast of actors. It’s a cinema-social experiment, one I’ve wanted to do for a while now. To make a film not simply spearheaded by one individual director, but by a team. I’ve spent the better part of the last three months bringing each of them on the same page as me – creatively, logistically, philosphically, so that if a shot needs to be taken without me on set, it can be done, without compromising the film.
I believe this will empower us to make better films in lower budgets, if we can split responsibilities and work as teams. Often in the hindi film industry film sets are run like fascist feifdoms. There is too much sycophancy, supplicancy, catering to bloated egos, pandering to power. I’ve seen insane amounts of resources being wasted on such sets – time, money, equipment, human resource, food. Its criminal. Especially when on films like the ones I make I’m compelled to slave drive passionate people without even being able to feed them well enough.
I don’t see myself getting more budgets for the films I want to keep making. But I sure as hell want to try every trick in the book to make my films cheaper, and turn them around faster.
Making Bhonsle with a team, rather than as an individual, is one step in that direction.
Naman: What is your take on film gear? With most of the aspiring filmmakers who try to tackle the short-film medium, they go through the predicament of getting the gear. What is your take on it?
Devashish: Its almost irrelevant in the larger scheme. If the characters, the story, the setting works well, then one can work backwards from the gear available and tweak the cinematic grammar, the mood and the tone accordingly. Tangerine was shot on an iPhone not because the filmmakers woke up one morning and wanted to shoot a film on an iPhone, but because of the paucity of resources. That led them down a long journey of many decisions perhaps that made them end up with the world’s first iPhone film.
Its important not to romanticise the tools of a trade. They’re simply there to help the artist manifest their ideas. What is more important is to keep the discourse around the creation, protection and manifestation of the Idea.
A better pencil and better quality paper never helped a writer write a better novel.
I often use whatever is available to me. And tweak the intent, the grammar, the tone of the film accordingly to accommodate the gear I have at my disposal.
In the 5 days we’ve shot of Bhonsle thus far we have already used – the Arri Alexa, the Canon 5D, C300, Sony A7S and two other small cameras I don’t even recall the names or model numbers of. That’s six different, widely different types of gear for not only the same film, but mostly for the same sequence in the film. I’m still in the process of discovering what this is doing to the fabric of my film. The uncertainty is both terrifying and exhilerating.