It sounded like a fair enough rule. That each of us eleven filmmakers will all be given exactly the same amount of money to make our segments no matter what the length and where the segment fit into the larger film.
And, it was a ridiculously small amount of money we started off with, given the experimental nature of the project.
To put it in context with X: Past is Present, we were embarking on a putting together a Frankenstein’s monster version of cinema as a group of 11 very different filmmakers who shared nothing in common.
Absolutely nothing except maybe a sense of misadventure or lunacy to defy a “Too many cooks…” dismissal.
But that was also the most reassuring bit. Nobody would expect this to work. So, there was absolutely no pressure. We could just go out and have fun shooting what we wanted to do but were scared of doing, in whatever language – English, Hindi or Tamil, irrespective of market factors.
And early on as an executive producer on the project, I knew I had to make the team own the film literally. Share responsibility, credit or blame for this – together. And the only way we could get that equation right was if we all were given exactly the same amount of money.
Say, a thousand dollars or something like that. (Officially, I can neither confirm nor deny if this is a real figure).
Little did I realise that this would mean I would end up shooting the present day narrative of the film, the thread or anchor segment as we were calling it, for the same amount even if it meant I had to shoot 40 minutes of the film with the same money.
I was lucky to get Hotel Taj Mount Road to come on board as a hospitality partner on the condition that we put up our cast there and the indie-background help.
To cut a long story short, I shot with a ten-people unit (with an average age of maybe 20-21) over four days at a largely controlled shoot environment at Taj Mount Road with Rajat Kapoor and Aditi Chengappa during non-peak hours which in a hotel means 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. We didn’t have a choice but to shoot only during these slots, so we did even if meant not letting our actors get enough sleep.
Four days and 16 scenes later, I was pleased with how the longest part of the film was completed within budget without even realising what the last bit of the puzzle – the climax portion – would entail.
Nalan’s segment, unlike the modern day conversational mystery film I was making, was a diametrically opposite romance noir thriller. It was set about 25 years ago. In a small little village 120 kms away from Chennai, a little outside Pondicherry.
That’s how we found Koovathur, thanks to filmmaker Gautham Vasudev Menon, who was supposed to direct the segment originally and his man Friday Suriya Narayanan (who introduced us to his folks who lived in this remote village).
Gautham loved the script Kumararaja had written and agreed to shoot it instantly. He knew about our budgetary limitations but he said he would pitch in the rest to do the film his way because he didn’t want to compromise on his style of filmmaking. He had a scale he had to live up to.
Gautham Menon then was dealing with the lowest phase of his career both financially and emotionally. After some three months, we realised it would be very unfair of us to expect him to take this up. That’s when we thought of asking Nalan if he would want to direct this. Nalan shared Kumararaja’s interest in dark humour.
Nalan too was caught up with another film he was trying to develop but he loved the script Kumararaja wrote. He found it very difficult to say No right away. He said he would get back to me about it the next day.
I called Kumararaja and told him how it was very unlikely that Nalan would shoot the film given how badly he wanted to make his own film.
“If he tells you tomorrow that if he cannot do it, I’ll do it myself. I feel very bad making you chase directors. We have been waiting for this to happen for long,” Kumararaja said. “But don’t tell Nalan I’m willing to direct it right away. Because I still feel, if he makes it, he will be able to add something more to it.”
Kumararaja couldn’t commit to shooting it himself earlier because of another script that had consumed over two years of his life. But now, he was willing to put that on hold and quickly shoot this. Relieved that finally the guy who wrote it was going to direct it, I met Nalan the next day fully prepared for him to turn us down.
“Let’s do it,” he said, almost immediately. He had thought about it for the last 24 hours and had decided he wanted to do it. “Don’t worry about the money. I got some advance for a project, I will just put that into this,” he said even before I could figure out the scale and logistics of shooting at the remote village Gautham was planning to shoot at.
Swara Bhaskar and Anshuman Jha were able to work out dates between themselves because they both loved the script and had respect for each other’s work. But now, they were going to shoot with a unit from the far South without being able to speak a word of Tamil themselves.
“I’ll take care of everything. You just take care of the actors,” Nalan asked me if I could chip in there. “Done,” I said. This was a script all of us were very excited about and I was willing to jump at any excuse to hang around the sets.
Since there was no three star hotel around Koovathur, we had decided to put up the actors at sponsored accommodation at Hotel Checkers in Chennai. Now, this was about 120 kms away from the sets.
“Take my car. We can drive them there everyday,” said Shilpa Rathnam, my Good Night Good Morning co-writer, who also agreed to assist Swara on set. It was meant to be a two-day shoot. It spilt over to three days of double-shift. If you included the two-hour driving time to the sets, we were losing four hours just in the car.
Braving the Chennai heat without air-conditioning or vanity vans, fighting dehydration, food poisoning and menstrual cramps, the two young actors who were new to these extreme working conditions patiently and respectfully did all the endless takes they were made to do. Because they could experience first hand Nalan’s commitment to this script. Here he was, miles away from home, camping there with a 50 people unit, spending on their hotels from his pocket and even offering to host the actors for another day or two (Dates we didn’t have).
The passion for cinema I witnessed in those four days as an outsider, as the proverbial fly, made me realise filmmakers around the world, irrespective of the tags “commercial”, “indie” or “arthouse” were not all that different despite our differences in sensibilities, styles or budgets.
Whether we were shooting with a three people unit in San Francisco (Sandeep Mohan operating the camera, Richa Shukla and Avantika doing sound in a car) or employing 18 year-olds to build colour lights with bulbs in Chinese lanterns since we couldn’t afford a light unit in a five star hotel or 50-people shooting in a village burning money by the hour, we were not all that different when it came to things we were prepared to do to finish the journey we had started out on.
San Francisco, Chennai or Koovathur… Three people, ten people or 50 people… Sandeep, me or Nalan… The HOW we think and WHAT we do maybe different but when it comes to the WHY we do it – I realised that there was just one answer.
Because we must.
Nalan’s shoot made me see what we filmmakers really are.
We are compulsively obsessed about the puppet show. We like to see what happens we pull a few strings. We want to see what we can do. What all we can do. Money was just one of those things we needed but not the reason we were doing films. Maybe we liked the idea of playing God to the world we were creating.
We were just curious Gods. And every time we fucked up and/or failed, we remembered we were human. At least, temporarily. Before another delusional bout of insanity.
* * * *
TWO WEEKS AFTER RELEASE
What did we do?
We have as much clue as we had while putting it together. And I’m sure only time will tell us what we have done.
Unlike films which are unanimously acclaimed or panned, X polarized audiences. If there were 11 different directors, there were 11x different opinions on what was working and what wasn’t.
To be honest, at some level, the reactions were predictable and only revealed what we already knew about the parts.
That accessible, crowd-pleasing commercial cinema sells. And the two segments made by commercial filmmakers with crowd pleasing sensibilities got the most love.
That abstract arthouse cinema confuses audiences. The people who liked the commercial segments found some bits pretentious and indulgent. Also, the few people who liked these bits hated the need for the final segment and pointed out the lack of logic behind flashback scenes without the narrator’s presence.
That exploitative B-movie cinema would be met with holier than thou eyebrows. And there were people who found the male gaze offensive even if the narrative made clear that depiction wasn’t endorsement.
That a puzzle film will frustrate.
And so on.
All observations were valid. There is truth in all criticism we got. But it’s also true that when you attempt to speak in a new cinematic language you are trying to discover, there will always be people who will have trouble understanding. I’m still VERY proud of the editors who put together a non-linear jigsaw narrative of this nature. It’s an impossible task and full credit to Vijay Prabakaran & Sreekar Prasad for putting all these odd pieces together.
I know this because pretty much everyone who has seen the film twice has only high praise for the film. As I say this, I also realise that NOBODY is obligated to watch a film twice. Certainly, one that’s not working for them.
The one thing I noticed that everyone who looked at the film as a whole understood what we were doing and everyone who looked at the pieces, got a little lost in the details (or the lack of them) in each piece. Of course, the parts are uneven. Of course, they are inconsistent. But that was the idea. To get filmmakers with disparate styles of filmmaking and see if we can make something together.
X was never about the pieces. It was about what the pieces form when you put them together. I’m pretty sure that time will iron out the unevenness in performances or the questionable aesthetic choices in shot-taking after a few years. And that’s probably when we would know what we have done.
We have never claimed that X – Past is Present is a film you will like. It’s not for everyone. It was always meant to be an experiment. To see if we can build that bridge between different cinemas and sensibilities. And tolerance for all kinds of cinema.
Experiments require an open mind.
We are glad we found many.
What have we done?
We have made a film that everyone has a unique and personal reaction to, a reaction that lies between our ability (or inability) to express and their ability (or inability) to comprehend. This, I believe, is an inevitable part of trying to develop a new language or code.
We may not succeed entirely at first but it’s an important step towards evolution. Evolution of our cinematic expression and understanding. And failure would have been in abandoning a cinematic experiment of this kind.
I see X as a personal triumph of adventure and ambition. I got 10 very talented filmmakers who never agree on anything together and made them make a film with practically nothing except the fact that we were all in it together as a team. That we played together is our greatest success, no matter what each player feels about it today.
I can’t be more proud of our partners Drishyam Films for having the balls the go all out to take it to an audience that’s never seen anything like this. An audience that’s probably not even ready.
To me, X – Past is Present is a sum total of our cinema. The good, the bad and the ugly. It’s a sum total of who we have been in our lives. And how we cope with the past that is present all around us, shaping everything we do.
To paraphrase a line from the film, it’s not really important what X is. Or what we have done.
The real question is: What are you? And what did you make of X?
Let us know.
(X – Past is Present is releasing in Bombay Talkies, Singapore on December 4, 2015. Book your tickets here. Do help us spread the word by telling your friends by linking them to this post. Thank you.)