It is very hard to understand people who act from motives different from our own. This, perhaps was the starting point. Gurgaon is not just a place, a geographical position if you will. For me, it’s a metaphor. For alienation and moral ambiguity. It seems to promote with prejudice binary classifications such as male v/s female, straight v/s gay, white v/s black.
When I begin writing, it’s not always from a known place. I pose certain questions that serve to create a universe, a context that brings the hidden to the fore. “What kind of a man are you? What role does it play in the quest for modernity? How does it impact us? Does it make us secure as people, or ultimately, do we lose our sense of humanity in the quest for modernity.” This led me to the major theme in the film, entitlement.
Sourabh Ratnu and I began working on the story as early as 2012. We were interested in the thriller genre but struggled initially with the world of the story. We knew the family was central to the film. Their personalities and inter personal dynamics would determine the course of events in the film. It was clear that the undercurrent of passion and greed would generate conversations. However, it took a while before we could see it being governed by the laws of ‘noir violence’.
The characters are fighting their way to achieve some an undefined happiness. They frustrate each other’s attempt to make sense of their lives making it difficult to communicate to one another. This is pretty much coming back to the metaphor of urban alienation. We could reveal pessimism as a way of being which obstructs any hope of creating a workable relationship.
The human condition is perhaps the sum of its fears. What typically defines a hero’s journey is his stand to do good in the world. Make a difference to the lives of others. He must summon a power to transcend his fears. Building a city can be seen as an act of service. To provide the needs of one and all. To see all relationships as equal. To be responsible. However, the creators of the city may not have delivered the promise if at all there was one. In Gurgaon, the film the narrative is about a man who has summoned a power which he ultimately cannot control.
Writing the screenplay began truly once we got the world of the story. Of course, it’s never easy and there are several factors that influence it. The writing has to ultimately translate on to film and the film must work. It’s important to define what would make it work as that serves as a guideline to the working process. I was never in the pursuit of a perfect screenplay. I wouldn’t know what that is. However, I did know the guideline was the compass that guided us to be in integrity. To be mindful of our tendencies to serve a standard rather than what’s possible.
Research was fun. Sourabh, Sachi (DA) and I met with real estate people. We met bookies and got an understanding of how they think and conduct themselves. I saw them no different from me. They had the same concerns about survival, family, future and identity as I did. They just went about it in ways that was unfamiliar and alien to me. The question that came up time and again was, “How did they wind up being this way?” It came from a place of empathy rather than judgement for me. I was truly interested in going to the source of what happened in their lives. The trigger point.
Raising finance for an Independent film may feel like digging one dry well after another till you find one that has enough water for the first month. In the film financing game, selling the script or the idea is not enough. Everyone wants to know who is going to play the characters. What genre is the movie? Are there going to be songs in it? One query that I got after the first draft was, “Are you making a classy film?” They did not mean if I was making a class conscious film, what they meant was is it going to be a film hard for the common man to get. Is it going to be a snooty snobbish arty film? Sometimes it can be hard to translate one’s intention in a language that simplifies the thought process. There is a risk of sounding reductive to oneself and also committing to something you would rather not. But then, film making is a risky business. It’s fairly unreasonable to say I want your money and I will do what I want and you don’t have a say in the matter. And actually make it happen. However, the real question that does need to be answered is, “What do I want?”
Ajay G Rai and Alan McAlex, from JAR Pictures called me one night while I was in Delhi, a few weeks before my daughter was born. They asked me if I would like to write something for them. I got very excited and jumped at the opportunity. We had some seed financing to get started. Sourabh and I wrote several drafts and arrived at what we thought was a good shooting draft. However, the financing fell through and the project was shelved. I can’t say I wasn’t disappointed. The months went by and I moved on to other projects. The movement on the film seemed to have slowed down to a trickle. For my part I kept writing and re-writing. I realized somewhere it was a good thing that we didn’t shoot then because the script needed a lot of work. In my solitude, I could hear the characters speak and they sounded false and affected. As if they were in a hurry to make a quick buck. This was also a period when I got to work on the tone and theme of the film. I slowly began to get the potential of the narrative. This turn was very promising and encouraging. The following year we almost went on floor but again it fell through. The reasons didn’t matter. This time it felt permanent. It was only during the third year of this project did we take stock of the project. Ajay and I straight talked about the film, about what is missing in it – in its content as well as our approach to it. For this script to be produced, we had to set the set the budget of the film to a workable number. Only then was it clear that we could actually make the film we wanted to make and serve it as originally intended. This shift is never easy even though it seems obvious in hindsight.
Financing a film is often seen as an act of compromise. It seems like one has to give up what we care about to make it happen. Most conversations are centered around justifying that notion and it only hardens our perception that only a certain type of narrative will be permitted. My experience was the opposite of that. I feel people don’t finance projects. People finance people. Forming a connection with a person has as such nothing to do with the kind of film you want to make. This is the hardest part to get. The opportunity is to really ask the question, “Whats in it for them?” From a place of deep love and respect. That’s the real payoff of making films for me.
We shot the film in 33 days. All of it in Delhi and Gurgaon. One advantage was that I had lived with the script, developing it over two years. So I knew the material. The Director of Photography, Vivek Shah, my closest collaborator on shoot was equally well versed with it. In fact, his contribution to the world of story was crucial in shaping the final film. We shot a lot and we shot fast. We had a lot of coordination to do. Location shifts, actors, local crew and the Delhi vibe. Avani Batra, our Associate Producer and 1st AD Rajesh Thanickan ran the set and held fort behind the scenes. Both of them knew the screenplay backwards. So if I had to shift things around because of time constraints, they would offer me alternatives immediately. For a director it is the highest kind of support. To feel they are watching your back constantly. I could write a whole book on film production where these two are the heroes.
My Production Sound Mixer, Vineet Vashistha, did some amazing location sound recording. He has a cool head on his shoulders and was fully tuned into what we were aiming for in each scene. In my experience, even though we had a lot of scenes to cover it didn’t seem a mammoth task with the kind of support I had. It was more from a sense of ownership they took rather than being there to do a job. Filmmaking, especially feature films, can seem like a thankless job while shooting. You can feel everyone watching you, waiting for you to give instructions. You mostly hear no from people. It may feel very restrictive. Especially if you have pre-determined notions about a director’s privileges. I don’t think one can avoid breakdowns but I would say being surrounded by committed talented people with the highest integrity is priceless. I might sound like I am stating the obvious. In hindsight it is. However, one can lost sight of it while prepping. Especially given smaller budgets and shorter time periods. Go for the best because they ensure you raise the bar.
We cut the film all of 2015. Then we qualified for the NFDC work in progress lab. We won the best project there and went back to cutting the film over most of 2016. I have worked with editor Shan Mohammed on three of my previous films as cinematographer. The Great Indian Butterfly, Frozen and Harud (Autumn). Shan wanted to be there for the shoot but could not attend due to other work commitments. When he saw the rushes, his first comment was this is nothing like what he had read in the screenplay. That’s the best thing about rushes. They are open to further interpretation. Shan and I talked about the film. What I had in mind. We re-positioned ourselves and began sculpting a narrative. There were several challenges. Some very real ones. Like missing close-ups. Missing only because of the nature of the construct. For an editor, this is not an unfamiliar place albeit a frustrating one. The role of an editor is commonly misunderstood. Most viewers, even people from the industry largely comment on the cinematography, performances and music. My view of what Shan did in Gurgaon is a like re-writing. It can be very difficult and challenging for an editor to re-fashion a narrative shot with specific intentions. And yet, that’s what he did. It’s magical. His attention to detail and working with sound design in mind was a treat to watch. It’s not easy to endure such a long journey especially when we never set out to.
I love working with sound. I believe it can make or break a film. Sound and music score the subtext in a narrative, especially in a film like Gurgaon. The sound design for the film has been done by Mohandas VP. I have rarely seen anyone more thorough in their work. Mohandas patiently adapted to all the edit changes. His personal discipline and being particular was the best thing for me for I was looking at the overall picture. We had some lovely debates about which ringtone to use and what level it should be in. Given the time span it took to complete the project I am glad Mohandas was there throughout.
The music score is done by the gifted Benedict Taylor & Naren Chandavarkar. They have been associated with the project from the start and their contribution to the screenplay is priceless. What they offered was a stand. A point of view, a compass to examine the integrity of the story and the story telling. The score is a result of a close collaboration. We rarely discussed instrumentation and beats. We spoke more about the characters. Their intentions. What they are hiding. What they want, but are afraid to ask. The score creates that world , an undercurrent which cannot be described in words. It’s intended to lead you into the heart of the matter. In that sense I feel the score in the film is a character that you don’t see, but feel it’s presence constantly. You can’t shake it away. Cyli Khare’s voice is just other worldly as are the lyrics by Manoj Yadav. Benedict and Naren have created something that I’m sure will stand the test of time.
Team Gurgaon has come a long, long way. On 4th August we release have an All-India release. It’s a validation of the work and generosity of incredibly talented cast and crew. I cannot say that enough.
Shanker, watching you over the years in your journey of ‘Gurgaon’, you carried everyone with you, not through your conviction in the film, but your conviction in them. That is incredible.