Sharad Raj’s Ek Betuke Aadmi Ki Afrah Raatein has been through quite the trip from its inception to its crowd funding campaign to its final making. Following the Director’s Note published earlier, the three lead actors talk about the film and why it attracted them so. The film is all set to make its festival debut at the Toulouse Indian Film Festival on April 12th, later this year.
Every coin has two sides. One which signifies its economic value or number power while the other displays the roots of the place it belongs to. Ek Betuke Aadmi ki Afrah Raatein is the latter. It is in so many ways not only dwelling deep into the cultural roots and the history of our country but also into the roots of cinema on the whole. Which is something many like me were uneducated about.
An adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 2 short stories blended with a Munshi Premchand story and set against actual events in India just a few years ago seemed mind-boggling and impossible. But also irresistible. Which is precisely why I went ahead and did the film. Of course, it helped that the director Sharad Raj is a graduate with specialisation in direction from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune. I was thereby sure of one thing – the film will certainly have something of a soul in it.
Artists choose to paint a sunset in different ways. Some paint it landscape-like while others use imagination and creativity to blend stories into it which we celebrate as ‘Abstract’. I would say that Ek Betuke Aadmi Ki Afrah Raatein is one such abstract.
Simply because there were two ways to make this film. One, the simple narrative. The other, which is an ode to cinema as an art form. Here the director wanted his audience to trust their own intellect as much as he trusts them, Hence there’s no simple equation, 1+1=2, in the film. Instead, he gives you 1 and another 1 and leaves you with the decision whether you want to add them, multiply them, subtract one from the other or simply, let it be the way it is. I would say the the film is true to the phrase, ‘To each his own’.
At the heart of the film is Gulmohar, the ‘Betuka Aadmi’ of the title. Like any aspiring actor, I had multiple ideas of essaying it, craving to apply ‘the Method’ and live the character. But my director, Sharad had other ideas and a completely different vision of Gulmohar, which was poles apart to mine. The brief given to me was, “The camera doesn’t care about you, so please, you don’t care about the camera. Just be there and don’t ‘act’ like you’re doing things. Do it even if it takes time like in real life, the camera will catch the moments it has to. Don’t say lines like a dialogue, just say them. So, basically don’t act.”
To understand what he was trying to tell me, I was shown a whole new world of cinema ranging from the seminal works of Abbas Kiarostami to Andrei Tarkovsky to Robert Bresson. It was through repeated viewings of Taste Of Cherry, Stalker, Pickpocket and
A Man Escaped that I began to understand that the art of doing nothing is more than doing everything. I finally felt I was ready to take the risk playing Gulmohar. I totally surrendered to the Directors vision. And I have to say that I felt liberated. The look, the hair, the clothes, the make up, the body language etc were no longer something I was bothered about. That freedom is visible not just in my character but in all the other ones played by brilliant actors all – Adil Hussain, Archanna Gupta and Mia Maelzer.
Ek Betuke Aadmi Ki Afrah Raatein. The title itself generates curiosity and this could well be one of the reasons why I said yes to the film after doing several films down South besides hundreds of TV commercials. To be honest, I never imagined myself to be a part of an Indie film.
One of the producers of this film, Saleem Javed, is a good friend of my manager. He told my manager, Ajay, that Sharad Raj, the director of the film, was looking to cast someone in the lead role of Gomti and so Ajay recommended my name to Sharad. I first asked for the script before meeting Sharad, which didn’t go down very well with him. But after reading the script, I wanted to meet the maker. When I did meet him, I didn’t feel things were moving in my favour at all. However, a day before Diwali, 2017, I got a call from Sharad telling me we were on. I found out later that in between, he had done a reference check about me with the cinematographer of my Malayalam film and a senior of his from the FTII, Hari Nair.
Now that I was playing Gomti, the challenge was how to go about it because before this, I had done conventional song and dance films in various South Indian languages. But I always longed to do something different. With the arrival of digital and OTT platforms, different kind of films are not just being made but are finally finding their audiences too. Also, to portray a character from a Premchand story is very flattering for any actor.
When I asked Sharad how do you want me to portray the character of Gomti, he immediately corrected me and said that it is not character, it’s a role. Since I belong to Agra and the film is set in Lucknow and Muzaffarnagar, I then asked him if I could just be myself like the small town girl I essentially am. He immediately agreed and that set my mind free. He also told me was that there would be no instruction regarding what actions to do or not do and I was totally free to do what I want. He added that he would intervene only if I did something absolutely out of place. For once, I found myself completely uninhibited on the sets. It was exhilarating!
The most challenging scene for me while doing the film were when I had to break down while speaking about my experiences with Adil Hussain, who plays my foster father in the film. For the break down, I didn’t want to use any glycerine and keep it real. Thankfully, Shard was cool about it. I only asked him if I can get sometime to myself before doing the scene. He agreed. During filming, I broke down and must have wept for over five minutes minutes even as the camera continued to roll. Finally, Arun Varma, the DOP, must have felt sorry for me and indicated to Sharad for a cut. I also enjoyed the dance sequence I had to do with Adil as despite being a trained Kathak dancer, I had not yet got an opportunity to perform a classical dance on-screen. It was a memorable sequence for me.
Lastly, I have to thank my co-actors, Rajveer, Mia and of course, Adil Hussain, and the wonderful crew of the film. It is thanks to all of them that I cherish working on Ek Betuke Adam Ki Afrah Raatein.
Anita Muslim, my character’s name, was a name that attracted me first before even I heard the whole story. And then, the story was set in Muzaffarnagar where there were riots in 2013 that even shook my country, Bangladesh. I was studying in Delhi then and I had that memory of the fear I experienced at the time. So when I heard Anita is a Bangladeshi immigrant who was trafficked into the sex work industry in Uttar Pradesh, there was no way I could refuse the first Hindi language lead acting part I was offered. Even if I got it because the actress who was initially cast backed out. Along with the fact that the film was an amalgamation of the works of respected authors like Dostoevsky and Premchand.
I am normally a little careful about my team if they are not from a background of being trained in filmmaking, at least the key people in the team. Here, both director, Sharad Raj, and DOP, Arun Varma, were from the FTII. In fact, everything in this project sounded perfect to me except the budget they had for actors! Understanding their limitations, I offered to help them out by doubling as production designer as well since I had experience of that field as well. I am against working free which is why my volume of work is low even though I have been in the film industry for sometime now. A dignified amount for both my jobs took care of my bills and thus began my journey on the film.
As the production designer, I began to find my footing into the subject through my location recess including a visit to Lucknow and to Premchand’s home. The world I was creating became an integral force to push me into Anita’s world. As a method actor, my footwear is the first piece of my costume that I start preparing with. Depending on my footwear, my posture changes and then I start adapting other minute details into my character. I remember reaching Lucknow and having chosen to stay in an old hotel in the Aminabad area of the city, entering the gate of the hotel wearing a burkha. The hotel reception staff was totally confused as my name was not a Muslim name in records. Then of course, I read as much as I could and talked to my director, Sharad, for hours and hours as he grew up in Uttar Pradesh and lived in those very lanes of Lucknow. Our producer is from Muzzaffarnagar and we met several times for me to imbibe the basic mannerisms of Muslim women living there.
Anita Muslim is a contrasting kind of sex worker who lives in a normal neighbourhood away from a typical red light area shown mostly in our films. Since her body language and milieu therefore is different than those from the red light areas, I hardly had any prior reference points for the character, which was tough. She is a strange kind of victim who never looks like a victim until she falls in love and I’m more than satisfied with the way I was able to find a new voice for my role. I used to read and listen to a lot of old Hindi music as the only way a Bangladeshi girl, who isn’t very social, would first pick up Hindi from her radio. Her understanding of the language would be from that radio reference. Keeping that in mind, I achieved the distinct voice for Anita Muslim with very light vowel distortions from the Bengali dialect instead of characterising her as a caricature of a Bengali woman in Uttar Pradesh.
A smart woman like her who survived until the horrific violence took over is not a weak woman and I had to constantly keep that spirit of her love for life alive throughout the film.