It’s September 1998. Monsoons in full swing over Mumbai City.
On one such soggy day, my cameraman and dear friend SN calls me over to his place. He tells me he wants to discuss ‘MISHTEK.’
This is a short film script, which we have been talking about for almost a year now. We have been desperate to make it. We preferably want to make it on film AND preferably on cinemascope format. Why cinemascope? Cause we have never worked on it before! But perpetually broke, we have only wanted to make it. The means seem to evade us.
SN quietly tells me that we can start pre-production work for our dream project. He is going to produce it. I am a little taken aback. I mean I know, cameramen are a rich lot, but making a short film on film? That too a film which we have no idea how to exhibit and whom to sell to?
SN tells me that a few ad-film cameramen [our seniors from FTII] have been kind enough to give us left over bits of 35-mm stock from their ad-film shoots. (50 feet, 100 feet bits). Sanjay has collected them and it is around 1000 feet of stock. Of various batches, ASA ratings and of different makes.
Excited, we start making a budget on a cigarette packet silver foil. Soon we realize that the film is within our means. Sanjay puts in the money. A shippie friend of Sanjay chips in. Help starts pouring in from all sides. Within a couple of days we are ready for the shoot! Just like that! All of us are so excited. It is going to be one day’s shoot. Ours is an entirely outdoor shoot. We pray for either a dry day or a constant downpour.
It is a dry day. The sun is nice and shining. We are shooting at Essel studios. Normal shift.
Essel is one of the cheapest studios one can hire in Mumbai. Far-flung and in a bad shape, it is mainly used by horror film and television producers. It’s also supposed to be haunted in ‘real’ life. There is this famous ‘bottom pincher’ ghost who haunts the ladies make-up rooms and loos it seems….
A few yuppie music TV crews also shoot here for the ‘freaky’ atmosphere.
I have special fondness for this studio. I attended my fist day of film shooting in this studio eight years back in 1990. I gave my fist clap as an apprentice in a Hindi feature film which was an atrocious rip of Bonny and Clyde. I had goofed up with the first clap. It was a close up of a lisping leading lady. Those days, one wrote the scene details in chalk. And in a close-up, before the clap, one is supposed to blow away the excessive chalk powder to prevent it from flying on to the actor’s face. I didn’t know this. Not bright enough to figure it out. Not lucky enough to be told about it. Thus, I didn’t blow. The lispy actress threw a fit. The director called for another take. But not before addressing me as an incestuous eunuch. He also made some reference to my mother’s genitals. I remember the gush of hot tears. I remember a make-up woman taking me aside, giving me a tissue and teaching me all the basics of an assistant director. I forget her name. I remember her kind eyes.
Well…I am back here at Essel after eight years. As a film school trained director. Strange, nervous –nostalgic feeling.
There are three other units shooting in the studio, two indoor and one out door along with us.
The manager of the studio is a gentleman called ‘Welder’. Everyone calls him ‘Welder’, as he IS a welder. He also doubles up as a reluctant comic actor. Mild mannered laid back man. Thin and wiry with huge ears. He organizes a meeting between me and the director of the other unit shooting outdoors. It is a feature film unit. Welder tells us that we have to ‘adjust’ with each other, as both of us are shooting on the same location. We have to share the space, the air and power source.. We agree to ‘adjust’.
The director of the feature film is much older than me and tells me that this is his seventh film in Essel. He asks me what am I shooting. Before I can answer him, his assistant comes running and tells him that the shot is ready. He rushes off.
We start our shooting in full earnest. Actor friends are also doubling up as production assistants. Everyone is quite charged and giving suggestions. Our 35 mm Arri camera attendant, Pappubhai, is a veteran industry chap. He finds our approach amusing. While the shot is being set up, he asks me the theme of this ‘documentary’ we are making. I try to explain to him that we are making a short fiction film. He wants to know if it is an ad film, government documentary (which he associates with pauper productions like ours!), TV serial? More importantly for which channel are we making it? Who is buying it and showing it? I tell him we are making this film for ourselves. He says it is foolish to do such a thing but never the less starts getting involved in the shooting. Soon he is also giving instructions to actors, suggesting camera movements and making signs and sounds of approval and disapproval.
We are having great fun. Suddenly two old men come and stand besides the camera. Both are wearing silk kurtas. One has coloured his hair red with henna and the other is wearing a wig. During a tea-cigarette break, they corner me. They have tea and bum cigarettes from me. Then they ask me if I have a ‘card’ and if the actors in the ‘crowd’ in my film are members of the ‘Junior Artists Association’. I reply in the negative for both their quires. Immediately, they threaten to stop the shooting. They say it is unofficial. The only way my shooting can proceed is if I cast both of them (or at least one of them) among the ‘extras’ and of course pay them the union rates. Our production manager comes to the rescue. God knows what transpires between them, they go away. The production manager gives me a ‘production manager’ smile and wink, and tells me to proceed with the shooting.
But just before lunch-break, it starts pouring. There is not much the production manager can do this time around. We decide to break for lunch. The rains only get heavier. We are worried to death. SN and me get into the ‘let’s see’ mode. Then we give each other support and all the unit members say that come what may, as soon as it stops raining even for half an hour, we will complete the balance shots and complete the film. The unit disperses, goes off to watch the other shoots. It continues to pour.
For the first time, I get a clear idea of the other units. I get to know that the unit shooting outside is continuing through the rain and is facing no continuity problems. Also I get to know that one of the units shooting indoors is for the same film that is being shot outdoors! I get to see the units at work and am left totally dazed. ‘Fast’ is too slow a word to describe them. Our veteran camera attendant Pappubhai initiates me in to the world of the ‘C’ films.
These are full-length feature films (minimum 120 minutes with the mandatory 3-6 songs) made in budgets of 1 million Indian rupees. They are shot in 7-10 days time and the entire post-production is completed in about ten days. I am told and I can also see from the scenes being shot, that these are essentially sex films. Sex in different garbs, social (family drama), educational (‘college boy-girl’ films), horror, revenge dramas, dacoit films and the like.
The one being shot currently is of the horror variety.
As Pappubhai gives me details of the ‘C’ film industry, I watch in amazement, a song of around six minutes being canned in exactly one hour ten minutes. It has been converted from a normal ‘dance’ song in to a ‘rain’ number. The choreographer is handling the show. At one instance, when the cameraman pleads for a few minutes to place just one more light, he is given the normal answer. (In jest of course!). “You can place the lights later. First take the shots!” All takes are ok takes. The only retake is for a shot when the heavily padded heroine has some problem with the pads.
Indoors in a ‘mood lit’ night scene, the director of the film is taking ‘Chakravarti’ close ups of ‘senior’ artists. Senior artists are known faces from A and B films who are used to ‘pad’ up these films mainly as villains and comedians. They come in for a day or two. They are paid well. All their portions are finished accordingly. One or two master shots and then the ‘Chakravarti ‘close-ups. These are talkie and reaction shots to be inserted through the film. The actor/actresses give ‘looks’ in all directions and in different moods. Why are these shots called ‘Chakravarti’ close-ups? I have a story about them but will save that that for some other day…
As the unit proceeds to do a bathing scene in a closely guarded set of a shower, I catch a glimpse of the ‘ghost’ in full costume. He is in a foul mood and throwing a tantrum. This almost seven feet tall actor is complaining that he always has to make do with a ill-fitting mask which he has time and again asked to be discarded. His irritation is increasing as the girl, whom he is supposed to kill/eat up/rape in the bathroom, is constantly repeating what he is saying and laughing out a high pitched dopey laughter. I remember she had lipstick on her teeth and big boobs. Really big. Suddenly there are orders barked for all ‘unnecessary’ personnel to clear the room. Nobody actually clears out. We do.
The other unit shooting indoors is a Music channel team. Very hip and trendy. They are shooting some promos for their channel. Their famous VJ’s are partly attired in cheap mythological costumes. It is some kind of spoof. The cameraman turns out to be a senior from film school. But I cannot spend much time with this unit. The rain has stopped.
We rush back to our shooting.
Feeling a little disoriented but at the same time determined to complete my shoot. Maybe the enthusiasm and speed of the super fast unit has rubbed off. We finish just in time (avoiding an increase in the shift). Our stock also runs out during the last shot. But we have a safety taken. We all hug and pray that we get a reasonable rush print. (We have not tested the stock. Cannot waste any for that! We have taken a blind chance.)
The unit starts packing up. As I wait for SN who is settling accounts with the studio, post-shooting depression seeps in along with thin drizzle. A production hand from the ‘super-fast’ unit comes over and tells me that his ‘sahib’ would like to meet me. The ‘sahib’ is the producer of that film.
I am ushered in to the back seat of his van. An unassuming middle-aged fellow. Could pass off as a banker. Nowhere near the typical ‘Filmi’ producers one expects to encounter. He offers me a drink. I mumble about just having had tea. I accept a cigarette.
He tells me that he has been watching me at work. He likes my “English’ style of taking shots and asks me if I am from ‘Poona’ (FTII). Embarrassed, I tell him I am. He makes me an offer. To direct two super-fast feature length quickies. He tells me that his current director is a ‘useless fellow’ not fit to even be a spot-boy. He further adds that the guy got bad breath and does not even bathe regularly. Moreover, he has no style. He wants me to use my Institute ‘English’ style of ‘shot-taking’ to make his film slicker. He wants me to make his films more erotic, more scary and full of ‘thrills’.
I don’t know what to say. I puff away in silence. I slowly tell him that I’d love to make a film but a film that I could make. I tell him that I’ll make a feature film in the same budget he is offering. As I try to sell him an idea of one of my favourite scripts, he cuts me short. He tells me what I am suggesting is an ‘art film’. He tells me that he hates those kinds of films. They mean nothing he says and it is a royal waste of hard-earned money. I try to tell him that if made sincerely, there surely could be an audience for such a film. He tells me that he has been to many festivals abroad and in the country. He knows all about these kind of films. He says they show ‘intellectual’ sex. He tells me to sell sex to the common small town Indians where his films do roaring business. He tells me that his films do much more social service than all documentaries and art films put together. He explains to me how these films provide material for fantasy male audiences and subsequent ‘sexual release’ for them once they are back home from the cinema. He adds that for millions of illiterate Indian males in small towns and villages of India, cleverly added ‘bits’ (hard core porn scenes from American and European films inserted in projection rooms) make the experience all the more satisfying and worth the price of the ticket. So in effect his films are doing social service and at the same time providing lots of employment opportunities for actors, actresses and technicians.
Again, I don’t know what to say. He tells me to seriously consider his offer. But once I give my consent, we (he and me) will have to sit down and do a lot of detailed planning without which making the two films are not possible. He tells me that if I train making these films, I’ll become so disciplined and planned that making ‘A’ grade films will be child’s play. He also tells me that if I do not want to use give my real name as the director (lest my mother, sister and wife find out and face embarrassment) I should use the name ‘Bunty’ or ‘Raju’ as a screen name for directing such films.
I can see my unit members waiting for me outside in the rain. It is quite dark now. I tell him that I got to go now. I politely thank him for his offer and tell him that I will think about it. He again cuts me short and tells me that he knows that I will not call him or consider the offer as any person interested would have jumped and grabbed the opportunity right then and there. He wishes me luck and gives me his card.
Wading through knee-deep water outside the studio, we are met with Ganesh idol immersion processions. The streets are full of people dancing & shouting. As we make way through the throngs, I see the ‘useless fellow’ director also trying to cross the street with his assistants. Our eyes meet. He raises his eyebrows and gives me a smile. It is a sad & tired smile. A smile that says that, “I know that you have been made an offer to replace me. You ‘English’ style director!” Then that smile turns in to a sneer, which says” I dare you to do what I am doing, you would never be able to make that kind of film.” I smile back at him.
On the bus ride back home, SN tells me that we have gone over budget and we really do not know how we will manage the post-production of the film. We again go in to the ‘let’s see’ mode.
It pours for a couple of days, non-stop. One such wet day, I get a call from SN that our rush print is ready. He is managed to pay for the rush print and we can think of the edit now. Great news!
A leading industry filmmaker loans us his Steinbeck for one night. We do a silent picture edit. We are thrilled. A few days later, a sound recordist friend tells us that he will speak to a recording studio and get us a free shift to do the sound. This is great news once again.
But then I meet with an accident. Multiple fractures. Need to be operated. Days become weeks and weeks become months. I undergo two more major operations and two minor ones.
Today, as on 29th October 2002, it’s the fourth anniversary of my accident. I am healing fast and am expected to be fit and kicking in a couple of months. I have become a full time ‘writer’ for TV serials.
In the meanwhile, I had kept reading film trade magazines during my partial disability. I got to know that the C film producer’s sex film did very good business in the interiors. In places which I never knew existed.
I still have the producer’s visiting card somewhere. But my calling card short film is still incomplete.
A couple of more years go in hemming and hawing.
It’s 27th September, 2007. SN and me sit and watch our silent 3 minute masterpiece in a preview hall at Adlabs. There is thunderous silence as we look at each other and as if on cue, shake our heads in the negative.
We bury it.