I would be lying if I say Neighbour was my dream short film. Quite the contrary, I was banging my head to come up with an idea. But as they say, all’s well that ends well. Neighbour turned out to a part of my soul in a way I had never envisaged – not only was it a great independent learning process but it also touched many more people than my previous ambitious short film LOOT ever managed to. A lot of things happened in the process, but let’s begin from where it all started.
I was in a Shamiana Screening at Blue Frog, where I saw their monthly newsletter. It contained the advertisement and call for entries for their Short Film Festival – ‘Re Think India’, organised in association with NGO ‘Citizens for Peace’. It said that R. Balki, Asutosh Gowariker and Rahul Dholakia would judge the films. Frankly, I was extremely tempted by the names of judges, and hoped to meet them on the final day of prize distribution. Any kind of tips/comments from them was the major impetus that made me jump into the competition and start making. Though that did not happen and neither did I get a scope to interact with the special guest on the D-Day (Nandita Das), the process of making and submitting Neighbour itself turned out to be so enriching, that I didn’t seem to care about these aspects.
As I mentioned earlier, I was literally scribbling and scraping notes to come out with an idea to shoot Neighbour. From a story on terrorism to an animation film called “Vegetable Tray”, I thought anything and everything random. I really can’t pin point the moment I decided to make Neighbour, but I guess somewhere in my subconscious mind, it was always there. Living independently in a place like Mumbai, one understands the importance of this even more. Because here, your neighbour can actually fill up a lot of void that the lack of a family brings in. Moreover, I always wanted to explore the man-woman relationship, something that’s not romantic – to show that a man and a woman can be friends. LOOT had suffered because of its dialogues and I was partly responsible for it. So, while shooting Neighbour, I decided we would not have dialogues at all this time. And I strongly believe a drop of tear, a shyly stolen smile, a look of support or a sigh of hope express so much that words fall grossly insufficient in comparison. But the twist in the tale was, if I really had to pull that off – I needed more competent actors than I had for LOOT.
The search started soon and I posted details on Filmwallahs (I sincerely thank Anirudh Chawla for putting up all my posts) and Hoonur. I got a few calls on the first day itself. And the first caller ended up being my lead actress for Neighbour. Preeti sent her profile soon, and it was pretty impressive. She looked good, hosted shows and acted in some TV soaps. She sent pictures and Youtube links of all those – and I was almost certain to cast her. Though I got a few more calls, but none of the other female candidates were really suitable. At this point, I must mention that I had an ex-colleague (Nayana D’Costa) in mind when I wrote the script of Neighbour but she had date issues!! Actually, she could spare time only on weekends and I was shooting this on a Tuesday. So… But Preeti more or less lived up to the expectations I had.
The tougher task this time was choosing the right guy. I had few candidates who called, met, auditioned but I zeroed on Jitin Gulati (who messaged me through the reference of a friend Nikesh) because he again seemed to fit the bill perfectly. He is good looking, has done a host of commercials and even acted in a renowned short film Amen, where he matched up to the prowess of popular TV actor Karan Mehra’s acting skills.
At this time, I must mention one of the most important persons of Neighbour team – my batch-mate from MBA, dear friend, current flat-mate and producer of Neighbour – Praveen Dhawan (henceforth referred to as PD). PD stepped in as the producer on his own and rendered unconditional and inexorable support. Though I was keen on casting Jitin, PD was not too sure coz according to him, Jitin looked too much of a model to fit the guy next door. It was during this time that Jitin himself opted out of Neighbour, 3 days before the shoot and leaving me in deep sea. On Saturday evening, I messaged one of the guys who had sent his profile Hussein and asked him for an audition. I had the audition of other chaps, and though I had them as back-up, I was never too impressed them. And as if in a script written by destiny, Hussein seemed an even better fit than Jitin. Not only did he portray namaaz convincingly (I was too scared to have any discrepancy to show a religious process inaccurately, that too the opening scene of my film), but also he had the boy-next-door charm mixed with confidence that the character needed to exude.
My friend Abhimanyu came in for a brief appearance as Preeti’s husband, and I must thank him for sparing his time for the small part. And there was Tiffany Kane! Yes, I always thought of having a foreigner as the Muslim guy’s wife but had given up hopes on finding one. I changed the character into an Indian Christian girl, but how my international actress from Florida came in, couldn’t have been without a divine intervention, or should I say Neighbourly intervention – details on this later.
In the meanwhile, there was another major person who came on team – my gaalibaaz, gussewaali, US educated, Sardarni DOP Tejasvi Bhalla, also through Filmwallahs. As if nothing could be uneventful, my first conversation with her was amusing in its own right. She called up at a time when my cell phone was thriving with poor network connection. And it took me 3 minutes to figure out that she wanted to work as DOP. I guessed possibly everything – acting, scripting, editing but not cinematography. She later confessed that she had cursed me several times during those 3 minutes. When I finally realised, she sent me her showreel. Frankly, I was not very impressed with the thing but something in me told that a lady DOP would be best for the project because they can add depth to emotions and work without complains even under crunch situations. So, I chose her over a more qualified cinematographer. And did my gamble pay off? Yes, TB was an asset. She came from Pune, stayed on her own, shot the film, put in her creative tips, even helped me in edit touch up later on – all that by charging a token amount of 500 bucks, because her ideology says free work is never professional. Girl, if you are reading this, you outdid your previous works with Neighbour.
Akshay Ware came in as Assistant Director cum Cinematographer through a friend’s reference, also called Akshay (Patil), and I must say Maharashtrian guys with name Akshay (or at least the ones I know) are super hard working. He helped TB and me, did floor work, took production still and even chipped in for a crucial cameo.
With my cast, script and crew finalised, the next step was to finalise technicians at low cost. I was absolutely certain I cannot do this on a high budget and yet I was bent on having high-end quality. I needed a Canon 5D mark II because I needed high definition video. On the top of that, I decided to shoot it in black and white because colours would have killed the emotions. So, the aspect of light and shadow became even more crucial, and sufficient lights were needed to support my visuals, all at a low cost. And the market-rates people were pitching gave me multiple heart attacks. I think Shah Rukh was right when he said (or rather when he copied from Paulo Coelho) that when we want something passionately, the entire world actually conspires to make it happen for us.
Manish Chanana, who had once shot a corporate video for PD’s office and had not been in contact for 2 years, responded to our first call and put in his brother’s reference and I got my camera (with assistant) at 60% of only camera hire charge and lights at god knows what discount. Shit, I just realised I am yet to give Manish a treat!! My light supplier – Rafik bhai of Golden Lights gave up after an hour of haggling and said, ‘I cannot haggle with you. After all, you are a GUPTA.” Yogendra Mane or as I call him Yogi bhai knew me as the friend of his girlfriend. We had not met, not even spoken over phone. And he is a busy guy, a regular production manager for Marathi films. When I was certain I won’t get a make-up artist with 2k, Riddhi (my friend) called him up and he arranged one for me, that too at a price 25% lesser than the budget. Prakashji and Vinod did a brilliant job in the small time I gave them to do their job. And if you thought the affordability was the only criterion where I succeeded, I must tell you that my entire crew was super co-operative. I will tell you why.
When, on the D-Day, my lights camera and cast arrived (well, my heroine arrived late), the society president of our worn out dilapidated building said he won’t allow the lights to come up, lest the prop on stairs get dislocated. And our landlady only added voice to him. Just imagine my peril, having made bookings of 8k, I was there without permission to shoot in the home I live. And that’s when our NEIGHBOUR stepped in. Rani Aunty – she is the world’s best neighbour. I still remember it was one week after I had stepped into this apartment that I was greeted with Malaria, and aunty took utmost care of my health till I could gather enough strength to catch a flight to Kolkata.
When my land-lady had withdrawn support, Rani Aunty called up the society president and said, ‘they are shooting in my home and I gave them permission.’ She is an angel in disguise. And we actually shot 50% of the film in her flat. . Oh, by the way, Tiffany (my international actress from Florida) is Aunty’s would be daughter-in-law. Tiffany had come to Mumbai at that time to visit India and accompany her fiancée on the home-country visit. So, after all this, you know why I said with ‘NEIGHBOUR-ly’ intervention.
Why I said my crew were co-operative is because they stood by PD and me as we (especially PD) tried to solve this issue, and they didn’t charge me a penny for the 1.5 hour of extra shoot in addition to the 12 hour shift.
We shot fanatically and as usual, I lost track of time. We had our lunch at 4-30, 3 mins tea break at 7, and went on shooting from 9:30am to 11pm. PD meanwhile got some Subs for the cast which I ended up eating at midnight (might I add that all I had since 8 in the morning till that midnight Sub were 2 cups of tea, 1 glass of Mirinda and 8 Classic Milds). But, when I saw the exported video on the laptop, I turned to PD and said, ‘this is my most mature work till today. Now I am feeling hungry and thirsty.’ That’s when I had the Sub followed by 3 pegs of Old Monk and half a glass Kingfisher Premium.
Somdeb Chatterjee (Mama) has the unique talent of designing music for my films only by reading a script, without looking at the scenes. And he used his magical skills yet again. Anyone who has seen the film has complimented his work – the music is top notch. Niladri helped me with the edit, when I landed in Kolkata 3 days later.
And when it was all done, I got my first hug of appreciation from my sister-in-law. She was disappointed when she saw LOOT and so her compliment meant a lot to me. In fact, everyone in my family loved the film. My mother, who is otherwise not an ardent support of my film-making passion, for practical reasons only, said “you have improved a lot”. And I was in tears.
After all this, any prize seemed negligible. Of course the feeling was ephemeral. I have always been competitive and Neighbour couldn’t have been an exception. I did end up winning 2nd prize at Re-Think India, but I enjoyed the free beer and snacks as much as I enjoyed the award. Possibly, it sank in the next day onwards that this was my first award for a film. Here, I must thank Priyesha Nair of CFP for being supportive in the re-editing (our film had crossed the stipulated time limit by more than 2 mins).
I like recollecting Neighbour as an emotional catharsis, might be too strong a term but applicable nonetheless. Not only was I trying to be technically precise and dealing with human emotions like despair, hope and friendship, but also it was also about portraying people as I see them – an extremely delicate subject to handle. Besides evolving as a storyteller, Neighbour also taught that trusting someone blindly is sometimes not bad at all. I met most of my unit over Facebook and hardly knew them before the shoot and they all put in their best efforts to make the film as well as we could. They all were from different religions, cultures and backgrounds. Despite my initial hesitation about working with people I didn’t know (especially because the shoot was in my home), they made me come out of the scepticism and for that, I would be perennially thankful.
I don’t know if Neighbour would prove out to be a milestone for me in any which way. I doubt something like that would happen but I believe it happened because it had to happen. I would want to say that, contrary to the popular belief, people in Mumbai are not just about money. People here support an earnest effort and passion. If LOOT increased my technical know-how and made me face the flak at the same time, I can proudly say that making NEIGHBOUR has made me an evolved human being – someone who looks at the world with far less prejudices that he used to a year back.
Neighbour made it to the Finalist of 4th Advantage India Short Film Festival, organised by 1takemedia, and is in the running for WLC Media’s festival (the results for which have been due for long). I am keen on participating in other festivals in due time and win a few awards J. But what I hope the most is to generate certain credibility to arrange funds for my next short film – my dream project “The Rain Still Remains.” It is a script I have worked for 3 years and everybody seemed to have loved it till now. But the estimated budget is the reason why it has been on hold for so long. I hope TRSR gets made soon, for that may define my creative capabilities. Possibly if it gets done, I can write another equally long post on its making.
If you have read till here, thanks so much. Even the perseverance to bear my blabbering means a lot. Please wish me luck for TRSR and if anyone knows a producer who can fund a short film – partly or wholly, please let me know, hahaha!!!
In the meanwhile do check out Neighbour, and let me know your valuable feedback-