The first thing that struck me when I came across a Tulu play called Bojja written by Mumbai based Tulu playwright, Narayana Nandalike was that one, it had only one location – a huge old crumbling house and two, it had only eight main characters in the film. It seemed a perfect play to adapt into a DV feature film. Over the past two years, ever since I purchased a mini DV camera, I was on the look out for a story or script that could lend itself to a low/no budget DV film. Scripts that I was working out by myself either headed nowhere or expanded in scale as I began work on them. In the meanwhile I made three shorts – two fiction films and a short documentary. Although the films were selected to various festivals over the world and one of them also won an award, ye dil maange more – I had to make a feature film.
Tulu is a language spoken by people in two districts in Coastal Karnataka in Southern India. The language has no script of its own, but is supposed to be highly evolved. Off late, there have been works of literature published in Tulu, using the Kannada font. With Bojja, the search for the right subject matter came to an end. My assistant, Surendra Kumar, caught on to the idea and it was decided that we could shoot in and around an old crumbling house in his village called Marnad, near Mangalore. So, our location costs became nil, All we had to do is to enroll four warring brothers, the joint owners of the house. Then came the actors. They had to be from in and around Marnad. If we took them from elsewhere, we had to incur lodging expenses. Eight months before the shoot, taking time off from a different shoot in Bangalore, I took a detour to Marnad and met some local theater actors for pre-selection. They were of the loud theatrical kind. But I had no choice. I would have to work with them and tone them down. Surendra’s cousin, Mohan, who works in the Kannada advertisement dubbing industry in Mumbai, got sucked into the making of the film as well. He agreed to sponsor a vehicle for the shoot for fifteen days. Ramesh Shetty, in whose place we were staying during the shoot, sponsored our food. His house was to become a lodge for our tiny unit.
In between, we met Narayana Nandalike at an Udupi joint in Dadar. Over three rounds of chaai and two plates of kanda bajiya, he not only agreed to let go of his rights to the play, but also approved to whatever changes I was going to do to his play. It was his play but it was also my screenplay. I was pleasantly surprised. For till then, I always thought that the literary author types are extremely wary of such changes.
Ninety nine percent of written plays are verbose. How does one adapt them into a decent cinematic screenplay? I did not want a film having ‘talking heads’ – where actors sit and talk to each other – unless they are discussing or arguing. And I was very clear that my actors were not the types who could carry on talking to each other in a single shot and yet carry the film with them. So, I decided to give activities to the characters – activities that they might do in their daily lives like cutting vegetables, drawing water from the well etc.
Some of the scenes in the play were nine to ten minutes long. So, I chopped some repetitions, broke up the scene into many parts, placed them at different appropriate places, gave dialogues of one character to another making the necessary changes in the characterization and added ‘built up’ sequences to dialogues, actions and characters that were coming abruptly. For example, there was a seven minute sequence in the play where an uneducated former tenant of the household gets a letter written to his erratic son in Mumbai by the college going daughter of the house. In the play it came right at the beginning. I found it boring that it came there. So, I divided it into six parts and placed it in six different places in the screenplay. Each time the tenant comes to complete the letter, somebody or the other in the house sends him away with some pretext. The letter gets completed only at the end of the film. It not only highlighted the nature of the relationship between an erstwhile landlords and their erstwhile tenant, but also worked perfectly within the structure of the film!
In the beginning, I was confident that I would manage the camera myself, but as the shoot days began to zero in, I got cold feet feeling that directing the movie and shooting it as well would be a bit much. My assistant Surendra’s insistence that we lookout for a separate cameraman not only showed his lack of trust in my technical capabilities, but got me searching for a cameraman. There was no money, the notice was very short and people were busy. Till a week before the shoot I was without a cameraman or sound recordist. Plus, I was seeking professionals who would do it for no payment. I was looking for people who would view this project as an opportunity, like I was doing. Finally, FTII graduates, Sameer Mahajan and Santosh Kumar came on board and agreed to do the camera and sound respectively.
And then, a day before the unit left to Mangalore, came the bombshell! The Charted Accountant, Shetty, who had promised to bear the sound expenses, backed off. We had to arrange and raise alternative recourses or reduce the gear. Then Mohan, the only Mumbai based actor who was supposed to sponsor his own rail ticket and do a role in the film and in whom I had immense confidence as an actor, got busy with his professional commitments and backed out. I found an untested actor near Marnad and selected him a day before the shoot. Again I had no choice but to train him first and then utilize him the best I could.
Before the shoot, I spent half a day with the actors familiarizing them with some basic things about filmmaking like letting them know about image sizes, coming exactly to the mark given to them by the cameraman, making them do the same things over and over again and telling them what critical focus is all about etc.
We shot for exactly seventeen days. Available was the key word – be it lights, costumes, properties – and there was no make up… The locals first wondered if we were shooting a film at all. After all, what was a film shooting without lights, songs, heroes, heroines and their chakachak costumes? The actors too were perplexed. They began demanding that we hire a make up guy from the local drama troupe. One actress even went to the extent of purchasing some fancy clothes for herself all the way from Bangalore, thinking that she was the heroine of the film and that she needed to be nicely dressed in song sequences!
Initially the crew consisted of just Surendra, Sameer and Santosh and me. Then we trained a few volunteers from the local youth club into managing tasks like holding the boom rod or handling make shift reflectors and thermocol sheets. Surendra’s sister, Savita-akka, became our Woman Friday. She was our continuity, property and costume girl rolled into one.
The first few days our average shooting ratio would be fifteen to seventeen takes for each shot. All the hard work we had done initializing the actors to the camera had come to naught, when the actors faced the camera. They simply were finding it difficult to tone down their performance and not make use of a projection they are accustomed to on stage. But by the end of the shooting, we were down to an average of seven to eight takes. There were many hazards making a film using people who are not professionals. Although the actors would support each other with their dialogue delivery, there used to be sometimes hilarious but otherwise not so practical moments when the person who has supported the actor with his dialogue delivery would smile approvingly and nod his head when his ward delivered the perfect lines, coolly ignoring the fact that he himself is in the shot!
The owners of the house in which we shot were mama excited initially. But soon, restriction on their movements while filming caught them on the wrong foot and sometimes this used to create unpleasant situations. One day after a week of shooting, I found the house owners remove a heap of grain kept in a corner because they wanted to sell the stuff in the market. I was aghast!! We had already shot a few scenes establishing the heap. We would be having a continuity problem if they were removed. But the house owners would have nothing of it. Finally, we literally had to bargain about the number of days they would keep the grain and I had to make the necessary last minute changes in my script for the same.
There are times when I really was thinking if it was worth to shoot a feature film in such non-professional conditions. Many times, Sameer would himself hold the reflector in one hand and switch on the camera with the other, because the local guy holding the reflector could not be trusted for a shake-less hold. Ashok from the Marnad Youth Club, who had become an expert boom operator by the end of the shoot, would sometime not be there on the set because he had to report for a drama rehearsal. In such situations, it was up to me to hold the boom. Invariably, I used to forget to operate the boom because I was too busy watching the action! The result – a retake!
Finally it took me seventeen days to complete the shoot, although we had only planned for thirteen days. But by the end of it, I had taped every shot that I had planned. The job was done… done to the satisfaction to everyone concerned. Needless to say, we overshot our expenses. I had planned to upgrade my computer into Pentium IV with windows XP and install Adobe Premium Pro to edit the film. But since the shoot expenses went overboard, I might have to still put up with my Pentium III, Windows 2000 and Adobe Premier 6.5.
But who cares? I have a film to complete…