In Conversation with Avinash Arun: On Killa, Masaan and More

Avinash Arun is a Director – Cinematographer from Maharashtra, India. Born in the textile town Solapur in 1985 in a middle class Maharashtrian family, he started assisting in FTII Diploma films at the age of 16. He eventually graduated in Cinematography from FTII in 2011. In 2010, his school project “The Light and Her Shadows” won him the cinematography award in Kodak film school Competition. His diploma film “Allah Is Great” was the official entry from India for Student Oscars. It also won several awards including the National award in 2012. Avinash has worked on “Kai Po Che!” (Berlinale Panorama section 2012), Deool (National Award winner 2011). Killa is his first feature film as director. He is also the cinematographer on this film. KILLA won the Crystal Bear for the Best Film awarded by the Children’s Jury in Generation Kplus section at the 64th Berlin International Film Festival. He has recently shot MASAAN, the double award winner at Cannes and Ajay Devgn and Tabu starrer DRISHYAM.

Given below are excerpts from a conversation with Avinash Arun that MAM had recently.

Avinash ArunWhile going through your profile, I realised that you have given approximately 10 years of your life to the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). Tell us how that happened and how it shaped your perspective of Cinema.

I am from Pune, and I got to know about FTII at a very early age. At that point of time, I was not sure about what I wanted to, or whether I wanted to tell stories. The whole point was to know how films are made and how everything else goes into it. So, after the 10th standard, I started taking rounds of the institute and the guards used to tell me that I was a kid, too young to be a part of that place, which accepts only graduates. But I realise that it would be too late for I still had around 7 to 8 years to complete my graduation. When I was in the 12th standard, I did a basic videography course from FTII itself. After that, I started to assist on diploma films, the first of which was ”Girni”, directed by Umesh Kulkarni. Right from the set marking to the folly, I learned a lot of things on that film. Back then, I had not made up my mind about the aspect of filmmaking that I wanted to pursue, so I pretty much lay my hands on whatever I could learn. All the students required manpower for the diploma films, and I assisted on such projects for six different batches before becoming a student myself.

Given the different fields that you were gradually getting exposed to, what made you inclined towards cinematography?

I was always inclined towards photography. I had a small basic camera with which I used to click photographs in weddings, and I even took stills on the sets of Girni. On one on the shooting days, when we were in an extremely chaotic location, the director of photography gave me an Arri 3 and asked me to take care of it. I still remember the first image that caught my eyes when I looked through the viewfinder, and I realised that I wanted to be a cinematographer. In the middle of the shoot itself, I shifted to the camera department from the directorial team. I barely understood any of the technicalities, but I still noted down each and everything that I observed or learned during the shoot, and I still possess that diary. The institute was my world – I had not seen much of world cinema, and my standard was the level of diploma films I grew up working on.

After completing your graduation, you went on to work for cinematographers like Anil Mehta and Anay Goswami – share some experiences from that phase of your life.

I always wanted to work with Mr Anil Mehta, because he has the correct temperament for a director of photography. He always works for the story and becomes the director’s right-hand. I have never seen him quarrelling over anything. The kind of atmosphere that he creates on the set is wonderful. And that’s what my philosophy is, too. One bad shot doesn’t spoil the film, and one bad film doesn’t spoil anyone’s life. Above everything, we are here to have fun, and we should enjoy the process. After all, no one knows the future of any film.

How often do you see your past works and what do you take away from those?

Actually, after my work gets done, I tend to get detached from the film. So, I really do not watch much of my previous works. In fact, I do not have records of my previous works, except for a few scenes of Killa. Once it is out, a film is for the people to watch and react. I was a different person at that point of time the film was being made, and I can now only think about the different things that lie ahead. After all, there are so many films and so many filmmakers – there’s so much work to do, and I will tell my stories as well. So why look back?

Avinash Arun NewWell, we know that you had worked on Anurag Kashyap’s “That Day After Everyday” and Vasan Bala’s “Geek Out”. So, tell us how did Masaan happen?

Anurag had seen my work on “Geek Out”, and asked me to shoot for “That Day After Everyday”. It was during Anurag’s shoot that I met Neeraj, who was assisting Anurag. Neeraj shared the idea of his film with me, though he had some other cinematographer in mind. After that, I moved on to direct Killa, and was busy with the post-production of the film when I got a call from Neeraj asking me to shoot the pitch video of his film. He wanted to send the pitch for the Sundance lab, and his cinematographer was unavailable due to unforeseen circumstances. I told him that I would have happily taken out four days to shoot his film, especially because he was shooting in Varanasi, which I really wanted to visit, but I was completely tied up with the subtitling of Killa, as we had the festival deadlines approaching. So, Neeraj assured me that he would look after the subtitling, and we had a deal (laughs).

When I saw “Geek Out”, I was really taken aback by the comic book feel that you had given to that short film. It has a very interesting appeal. Was it always in the director’s mind or there were improvisations done later on?

Vasan, Neeraj and I – all of us – are very instinctive by nature. So, we definitely have some idea about what we’re going to do, but then we do it in our own way once we reach the set. Vasan is a very good craftsman himself, and though I tend to get confused about his vision when I read his script, his narration makes everything crystal clear.

We understand how you ended up shooting the pitch video for Masaan. But tell us how the film happened.

Neeraj and I went to Varanasi to shoot the pitch video, when all of a sudden, India was hit by the cyclone Phailin. It was during Durga Puja in October 2013, with lights gone off everywhere and almost ocean like waves forming in the Ganges. Yet, we shot for almost 4 days in that location, and by the end of it both Neeraj and I felt that we should work with each other. The kind of emotion that we have for people and places, the kind of vision that we have for our films seemed very similar and our bond got stronger. Plus, he used to invite me over to his place and serve awesome food. And that was the icing on the cake (laughs). On a serious note, if I really end up working with my friends all my life, I’ll be really happy. However, there was a year’s gap between the pitch video and the actual shoot of the film. In between, Berlin happened to Killa, and I even shot for Nishikant Kamath’s “Madari”, which is due to release soon.

We got to know from other people in the film that the objective of Masaan was always to portray Varanasi from an insider’s perspective and not as an exotic city. How difficult was it to achieve that goal?

That was always on both Neeraj and my mind. We were not completely sure about what we wanted to do, but we knew exactly what we did not want to do. My memories of Varanasi were formed by the films and the music videos I had seen, but the moment I landed in Varanasi I realised that it is a very different place. So, I was completely averse to the idea of showing the warm saturated colours. After all, even they have a very mundane life. So, we wanted to keep the movement minimalistic and stay with the characters. So, I told Neeraj that we should stick to a 1.85:1 aspect ratio instead of succumbing to the usual desire of using a 2.35:1 Cinemascope, just for the sake of shooting Varanasi. I do not believe in doing the textbook format of shoot, and I completely hate references. So, I try to go by the instincts that I feel when I read the script, and every script comes with its own connection, its own natural elements that talk to us. In fact, as I often say, if Killa has brought the force of water into my life, Masaan is the fire. Also, the energies of the people and the surroundings determine what we capture on the set. In fact, in one of the pyre burning scenes, we did not do any kind of set design at all. I told Neeraj to let the actor do what he wanted, and to let me capture him in that moment. I was sitting so close to the fire that a side of my chin had darkened, and some hairs had burnt in the small sparkles of fire flying around.

Now, coming to Killa, I read somewhere that you drew your inspiration for the film from your own childhood travels, and that you wanted to make a film which your father would enjoy. While Marathi film industry has produced some amazing films with children, Killa is not essentially a children’s film, despite having kids as protagonists. But tell us how you got the germ of the story. Also, how did you decide that you would cast school children and not college goers for the coming-of-age theme that you had?

I think that’s completely because I live in nostalgia. I realise the beauty of a moment once it’s lost. A lot of times, I don’t completely fathom my own feelings when I’m living in that moment, but when it stays with me and I look back at it, I realise what it really meant. So, when I was recollecting the images from my childhood – the rains, the leaves glistening in the morning light, the petrichor emitting from the moist soil, the sound of the crickets and the gurgling of the wild sea that lay in the distance – all those sights and sounds formed the subconscious of the film. I did not make the film keeping in mind that a film with children will be easy to shoot, produce or even run commercially in the Marathi circle, but I made it for my own nostalgia. It was for that feeling of leaving close friends, so very well aware that we may not meet them ever in our lives again, despite the fact that they have been so close to me and so integral to our lives at that point of time. We may not remember their names or even their faces after a point of time, but we never forget those moments which we have lived with them. It was a feeling that used to devastate me as a child, and FTII taught me the craft and showed me the path to share my stories with everyone.

But honestly, were you ever apprehensive that those kids may not be able to express the gravitas the story had?

Never, after all, who knows what will be the future of any film. I do not believe that anyone can be absolutely sure of the kind of film that is getting made. I would rather trust a filmmaker who says that he’s sceptical of the outcome than someone who claims to know everything. After all, that’s why filmmaking is the most modern and complex fine art, because everything is so interlinked and yet so contingent upon destiny. It is like lovemaking with your honesty. Just like no one makes love thinking about the kind of child that is going to be born or what will be its future, we should not make films being too bothered about the outcome.

Avinash Arun 2Because you’re also a filmmaker, and you are shooting for a film like Drishyam, which is a remake, how close to the original you want to stay or how much you want to alter the storytelling style? Or is it that you stick to the director’s vision completely?

Well, I did try to make it a bit different from the original, but I don’t want to talk about it at this point of time. We’ll see when the film is out. But when you have such a good reference film, it does become a task to think about how to make it different, especially given the limited time we had for pre-production. However, when I’m shooting for a friend’s film, just like it was a case with Nishikant, I want to make the film that he has envisioned. I believe that more than trying to get the technicality correct, it is important for me to understand the director and his vision. After all, films do not have a set pattern and we cannot have a generic mood of making them. Though Drishyam accidentally becomes a thriller, it is a family film at its core, and that’s how I have tried to treat it. Also, I believe that too much of craft can make the audience feel detached though they can become visual spectacles. However, such films are very different and so is their impact. So, we have to decide whether we want to give an emotional experience to the audience or dazzle them with a spectacle.

All the films that you have been a part of recently were shot on digital, while your training in FTII would have been completely on film. So, how different is your real-life experience from your training?

Indeed, both the forms are very different from each other. While a lot of people claim that digital is much simpler, it is not necessarily so. Sometimes the images become extra sharp and sometimes it loses its aesthetic value, but it obviously has its own advantages. Anyone can now make a film using digital cameras, and that’s how films like Masaan and Killa got made. I am completely in favour of digital filmmaking, especially given the fact that in a third world country like India, we are not able to arrange the kind of resources that we would need for our films. I do not romanticise shooting on film. Yes, if the script demands and the budget allows, I would definitely love to shoot on film, and I know it is the best possible mode to make a film in, but telling a story sincerely is far more important than the medium in which it is shot.

So, on a parting note, please tell us when we get to see you again as a director.

Well, I am working on two scripts right now – one in Marathi and the other in Hindi. This year, I will not be directing a film, but I plan to do it next year. It will be based on another segment of my childhood – my experiences in the Sahyadri Mountains. While Killa was my ode to the Konkan, this will show my love for the Sahyadri region.

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