In Conversation with Neeraj Ghaywan: On the Making of ‘Masaan’ and More

Neeraj Ghaywan, an engineer and an MBA, moved on from his corporate career in 2010 to pursue filmmaking. He has assisted renowned filmmaker Anurag Kashyap on the two-part film, Gangs of Wasseypur and was the second unit director for Ugly. He has also made two short films The Epiphany and Shor, the winner of the Grand Jury Awards at three international film festivals in New York, LA and London. However, at this point of time, he is best known for the man who gave us “Masaan” – the film that won FIPRESCI prize (International Jury of Film Critics prize for the Un Certain Regard section) and the Promising Future prize in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes, 2015.

Here’s the excerpt of the conversation I shared with him on Masaan and more…(Spoiler Alert-note the conversation includes some heavy spoilers,so ideally it is advisable to read this if you have already seen the film)

Neeraj Ghaywan 2From your biography, we realised that you were born and brought up in Hyderabad, and then spent your MBA years in Pune. So, what urged you to make a film set in Varanasi, because it’s fair to assume that you are not familiar with the milieu of that city?

Well, that is true, actually. The germ of the film lay in a short story that I had written way before joining the film industry. This came from a colleague from my corporate days. He told me that there are these ghats in Varanasi, where these cremations happen and how this Dom community works day in and day out burning those pyres. I was so intrigued by the way he narrated the place that I concocted a short story and narrated it to him then. However, I had forgotten about it, for this was more than six years ago. Then, after I finished my work on “Gangs of Wasseypur”, I revived it and added more layers to the story. After that, Varun and I went to Varanasi to write it further. At the same time, my experience on Wasseypur further increased my fascination for the place.

However, once Varun got on-board, he took charge of the screenplay and the dialogues, and you got relegated in the writing department. Why did that happen?

Correct, there are two reasons to that. Firstly, I am not a screenwriter and I did not have the technical expertise of writing for films at that point of time. At least, definitely not on the level of what Varun carried over the years. Secondly, and somewhat more importantly, we were also sure that we did not want to give an outsider’s perspective of the city. Because the entire idea of objectifying and patronising small cities that we are accustomed to in films was not our objective. So, if we had to present that deeply insider’s point of view, Varun had to write it because he knew the place well (Varun Grover stayed in Varanasi for four years during his engineering days). I did not want to get obsessed with my own “cool” ideas just because it is my first film.

So, if you had not found a writer of Varun’s calibre and also from that background, would you have considered changing the location of the film, for except the Dom aspect, the film could have been practically anywhere?

No, I would have never done that, for the seed of the film lay in Varanasi. In fact, the short story that I had written was about Deepak’s track and his tribulations of being a boy from that particular community. From there, it spread its wings and became what it is. So, yeah, it had to be Varanasi.

While talking to Nitin (the editor of the film), we got to know that he used to refer to Walter Salles’ “Linha De Passe” in case of any creative block during the edit. So, was there any global hyperlink film that inspired you while writing the story or making the film?

Well, I believe that Fatih Akin’s “Edge of Heaven” is the closest parallel that I can draw as inspiration as far as the script of Masaan is concerned. “Linha De Passe” was more about the edit pattern that we were inspired by, because in that film each of the four stories was talking about an emotional touch point and it was interesting to see how they were intercutting from one to the next. So, that sort of intrigued us.

One thing that I felt while watching Masaan was that there was no build-up to the interval. It was an important scene, we saw the bike going away, and the interval just came in. So, for you was it like putting an interval there because you had to put an interval somewhere?

Definitely, it was. To be fair, we all hate intervals and there are no two ways of looking at it. A film transports you to a world and then suddenly stops so that you can go out and buy popcorn from a guy who is talking to you in English, and then return to the theatre, where you are supposed to go back to that world. So, we had to keep the interval at an emotional high point so that people come back with the intrigue of watching the film. Also, that’s why we did not write the film in the typical first-half – second-half manner, because we did not want Masaan to have the curse of the second-half that a lot of Indian films suffer from.

True. Also, there were interesting characters like Jhonta and Sadhya ji, which were not given enough meat, because of which they remained just fringe characters. Do you think that if Masaan were a longer film, you would have etched out of those characters a little more?

Actually, they were etched out a little more. In fact, the most etched out character among these was Sikander (Deepak’s elder brother). It was his role that I have sacrificed the most while making the film. You must have felt the roots of the conflict in the start and then thought that it didn’t go anywhere?

Yes, I understood his agony, but it did not come across very strongly.

There was a long track of it which we had to give up. We realised that people are going to feel the most for the two main stories – Deepak & Shalu on the one hand, and Devi & Pathak on the other. So, Sikander’s portion would have come across as a deviation.

Please explain…

The throwing of the ring in the end was not about getting rid of Shalu’s memory. There was an entire plot of how the family had a certain property, which Sikander sold off and ran away, thereby leaving the entire family in a rather dire situation. So, Deepak’s family had to regain the lost property and Deepak was stuck on the horns of a dilemma. Because if he sold off the ring, he would be able to get back the property, but that would also mean losing his memory of Shalu.

And that would also be possibly a bit selfish on his behalf…

Yes, that was the dilemma that we were trying to portray – how he’s torn between love and responsibility.

So, that would have been a rather long track that you chopped off…

Yes, it was a very long track. So, after the film was made, a lot of suggestions came in. We realised that our narrative was clearly driven by these two stories of Deepak and Devi. So, just to add that one layer of dilemma before throwing the ring, we were adding so many minutes to the film and, in a way, digressing from Deepak’s grief. So, we thought we should not use it.

Fair enough, but why did then you give him alcohol for the outburst, when it could have happened without the intoxication as well?

I agree with you on that point. Actually, it was an approximately 6 minutes long scene, and what we see in the film is just the tail-end of the same. What originally happened was that Deepak is sitting with his friends, but is not talking at all for a rather long time. In fact, there was one more scene of similar nature, but we removed that from the film. So, his friends keep urging him to talk, but eventually decide to let him be. At that point of time, he starts blabbering about science and evolution theory. He explains how in the course of evolution, humans lost their tail and a lot of other vestigial organs. So, all those things which were no longer important had to part from the body. Then he arrives at the point, saying why haven’t we got rid of the pain of someone’s death, along with evolutionary theory when this is equally unnecessary? So, the outburst actually comes at the end of the entire monologue. Now, Deepak is a very intelligent boy and very secure considering the background he is from. So, I wanted the monologue to be a lot more heartfelt and was running completely on magic, and it really worked. One has to see the six minute long footage that Vicky did in one shot to understand the beauty of the scene.

So, why did you remove it from the film?

Actually, it was getting too expository. At that point of the film, someone wouldn’t want to hear the psychobabble from him, because that would take away time from the other story as well. The economy of the edit has been a major player in the making of the film and it was necessary to keep that sacrosanct. There would have been two problems if we had kept that scene – a) people would have wondered why Deepak was talking so much and why we were spending lesser time on Devi and Pathak, and b) while it looked great on paper, it did not seem very organic in the film for Deepak to talk about evolutionary theory at that point of time.

Neeraj Ghaywan-CannesWere you also skeptical that it would have looked indulgent?

Yes, it could have looked much indulgent, as if the writer and the director had a point to prove, or a commentary to make.

One of the things that I have seen and read in my analysis of films is that filmmakers have often tried to mute the actor’s expression of pain, especially when it is inexplicable. Did you ever think of doing the same?

Well, muting has been done quite often in cinema, and that is one of the problems that I have with our so-called “festival oriented” films. Such movies are so inclined on attracting the festival audience that they have a penchant for shooting on real locations, with real people – all that is great, but the entire idea of muted emotions is extremely European arthouse sensibility. Indians are by nature not like that. You and I may still do that, but given the milieu that Deepak has come from, he would not hold back his emotions at all. At some point, the bottle has to burst, especially with so much emotions that he had bottled up till then.

I get your point, but I’m not talking about holding back emotions or having muted emotions. I’ll give the reference of “Pather Panchali”, since you have mentioned in other interviews that you have been influenced by the works of Satyajit Ray. In “Pather Panchali”, when the mother reveals to the father that the daughter has passed away, Ray showed the mother howl, but let the music convey the emotion instead of the woman’s sound.

I understand, but I wanted to hear Deepak shout, because I also wanted people to feel his pain. See, in the international version, we have cut the scene just before he starts howling, whereas in India, we have extended the same, keeping the local emotions in mind. Trust me, the impact is much different. What happens is that the audience is connected so much with that character that they also want to cry with him in that moment. When you cut away, the audience feels a bit cheated, and I have got that feedback from people.

Cool. Now, the two stories in the film are kept segregated throughout its course, and somehow stringing them together in the end looks a bit too neat. Did you do that just to give a proper closure to the movie?

Actually, this was how the original short story was written – how the ring is found in another form. So, this was not something that we had added for the movie. What we had rather added was the story of this girl from the other side of the river. So it was about this boy who ends up throwing the ring, which is then found by a father-daughter duo living on the other bank. However, that duo was from a very different cultural background, and not even the educated segment that we have showed in Masaan. It was a different track, which was actually very bad.

One of the things that have often felt with hyperlink films is the apprehension that one story may become more prominent than the other one. In Masaan, as the two tracks have very different emotional pitch, there was a very strong possibility that the audience would get divided in their liking for one story over the other. How did you think of maintaining the balance between the two?

That particular bit is actually a very tough battle – not because we wanted to serve the actors, but the last moment of the film should pay off for the audience, and for that both the stories had to be convincing. For the climax to work, there had to be an equilibrium between the two stories. However, no matter what you do, this is cinema and there has to be perspective – there were likes and dislikes for both the stories. Also, the geography matters a bit, because in India we have a bit more focus on Deepak’s story, while in the West we have more emphasis on Devi’s track.

I believe that one of the most important scenes of the film and, in a way, what the film stands on is the opening act. As the police jeep moves away, we have the titles coming in. Had that scene not worked, there was a chance that the effect of the film could have substantially reduced. At the same time, I got to know from Nitin that you guys had shot the entire sequence in roughly 10 hours. So, did you have that conviction of its effectiveness while shooting the scene?

No, absolutely zilch conviction whatsoever. Trust me when I say I was shitting bricks during that scene. It was the scariest scene of the lot. As far as the ghat scenes are concerned, they were physically draining, but this one was mentally exhausting. What also contributes to it is the fact that both Varun and I are feminists in some way. I did not want the scene to look sleazy or exploitative, and did not want Richa to push herself beyond what she would be comfortable doing. Because we’re friends and I am the director, Richa may not have complained even if she were uncomfortable, but I wanted to respect her boundaries. It was very scary to shoot an intimate scene, and I had blanked out on the set; I was the most indecisive director in the world at that point of time. For a moment, everybody was looking at me because we were running short of time and waiting for my directions, but I excused myself and took a break. So, I had tea and did what Anurag Kashyap does – when in doubt, use humour. That is a very unstated formula I have seen him adopting. Because everybody was cautious about the beating scene, they were not doing it well. Plus, there was a make-out scene. So, I told the male actor in that scene that he needs to pant while making out and the panting was not being good enough. So, I got him to do push-ups. While Richa was lying on the bed and everybody was standing around, this poor fellow was doing push-ups, and it was a hilarious sight. That kind of calmed everyone and things moved back in flow.

We know that you went to Varanasi along with Avinash to shoot the pitch video for Masaan. Tell us how that happened and what did you keep in mind while doing it.

Fundamentally, what was going wrong was that while I was trying to tell the story, I could not manage to fake anything. Because I used to be nervous, I could not sugar-coat anything. For a financier, one ought to be a bit more flowery and present the prospect of the story more than what it really is. I had no clue how to do that, and so I just managed to honestly convey what the story was. They would turn around and say, “Nice, but I don’t know about the commercial prospect.” They kept saying that it would be a really dark film, and the only way for me to convince was to make the pitch video. I wanted to ensure that people will enjoy watching it. That’s why, I gave it an upbeat feeling and chose “Naav” from “Udaan” as the theme music for the video.

One of the things I really liked was the influence of poetry on Shalu’s character. Was that always a part of the story or was it an addition from Varun Grover’s side?

Actually, it was Varun’s idea and he wanted to pay homage to the stalwarts of Hindi literature. And I completely agree with him that our cinema does not include any of the vast literature that we have out there.

Given that you come from a Business Administration background, did it ever occur to you that you should make a more commercially viable film?

No, actually I shed my skin that way, it was exactly what I was running away from. Like, back in my corporate days, they wouldn’t let us travel by trains. I would take a morning flight, go and attend the meeting, and then come back on the same day. And I missed taking trains. So, when I quit my job and I traveled to Varanasi with Varun, we took a train and I sat at the train door, also. So, I wanted to undo myself and do what I truly enjoy.

Your team in Masaan comprises very new people, most of whom are working on their first film. Was the ever any apprehension or an inclination to take someone more experienced, lest something went wrong on the set?

I could have actually, and there was a point when we were contemplating approaching A. R. Rahman, not that Indian Ocean isn’t big enough. Same goes for the crew on the set as well. There was the thought that we should go with a senior DOP, but what really worked for the film is the cumulative effort that went behind it. As we were all debutants, we were all equally passionate about the film, and it may not have happened that way if there were a senior person for whom it would have been just another film. And it is rightly so, for when you’re making your debut film you expect everyone else to be equally passionate as you are, but why should they be? Varun, Avinash, Nitin and I were like pillars of the film standing together, holding the script on our shoulders, and had one pillar been higher than the rest, it would have all toppled.

Perfect. So, what do we see you doing next or is it too early to ask?

It is a bit too early to ask. I don’t want to sound pompous, but getting to this point in the last five years also meant a lot of sacrifice on the way – no holidays and no time for myself. As of now, I want to empty my mind and then think of the next film.

Sounds great. As a parting note, is there any suggestion that you would want to give to all those who are pursuing their corporate life but aspire to make films?

I can tell you the two things that I have learned from my experience. Firstly, filmmaking is not about one-upmanship; it is a teamwork and I believe directors often get way too much credit for it. It is also the director’s duty to find the right partners, and then inspire them enough to work all-out for the film. Secondly, what has really helped me has been honesty. At no point should you fake or get lured into anything. You must have a script that drives you, and that must be your biggest asset.

On behalf of MadAboutMoviez, we want to wish Neeraj Ghaywan and his wonderful team of Masaan the very best for their future.

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