By PRERANA MANKER
My first memory of a Bollywood Film is watching Rangeela with my parents in 1995 at Regal (Colaba). This was Plan B – we had just missed out on tickets to see Jaanta Raja – a critically acclaimed Marathi Play on Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. I still remember being overcome by euphoria when the music for “Yaai Re” began ascending into the cinema halls. My mother recalls me singing loudly along with Asha Bhonsle to the tunes of A. R. Rehman. The crowd was delirious and so was I. I was in 4th grade.
When time came for post-graduation, I was required to give the entrance exams for MBA. But I needed a contingency plan in case it all blew up in my face. I gave the entrance for the Television & Video Production Course at Xavier’s Institute of Communications without much expectation. Decent scores in the MBA entrance ensured a second tiered college. But topping the XIC entrance was the only push I needed to abandon the idea.
Plan B was in motion.
What started out as a genuine thirst for learning photography, blossomed into a deep love for Cinema. That one year changed everything. Armed with my newfound self-confidence and eagerness to learn, I was ready to take my first steps into the hallowed realm of Cinema.
Little did I know what was in store for me.
My first gig as a Director’s Assistant was on a film that had already been shot and was in the post production process. I was working on a semi-independent setup where the director was co-producing along with a big banner. The film was massively delayed and everyone was racing against time.
In the midst of this chaos, I was at the receiving end of a dictator who had absolutely no patience to deal with someone new on the job. The pressure of living up to expectations after a massively successful first film were weighing down on him, and were manifesting themselves in ways of reprimanding the minion (me) for not ordering Sambar Masala From Mysore Café in time, which would in turn anger the editor who, frankly, couldn’t give a damn.
“I’m not cut out for this; I don’t think I will survive in the industry; I’m not even sure if I want to write or direct; if every director is like this then I’ve had it for sure; I’m not thick-skinned enough to deal with this; I should’ve done the MBA” – thoughts that kept circling my head space in that time. My closest friends, who could see me suffering, kept telling me to quit; my professor, through whom I had gotten the job, told me to have patience and weigh my options. Two long months of weight loss, confidence loss and tears later, I learnt that I should trust my instincts, which told me on my first day itself that this is not the place to be. I also learnt what not to do when you are helming a film of your own in whatever capacity.
Time for Plan B.
My classmate from XIC, Archana Phadke (Producer of ‘Placebo’) asked me to join her on a film that was being shot in Pune. The producer had just fractured her leg and needed someone to handle the props and continuity. I cut my losses and plunged headfirst.
The film:“Samaantar”; The director: Amol Palekar and the producer, his wife, Sandhya Gokhale. My first Marathi film was to be shot in Pune and Kolkatta; Amol sir was making a comeback to the big screen opposite Sharmila Tagore. It was a coup. It was also the beginning of a four-film-long association spanning over two and a half years. My real-world learning curve.
It was pretty much an independent setup; 5 people were literally doing everything. Sandhya Ma’am was the writer and the production designer of the film. Sir and she were making the film with their own money. She handled everything from catering queries, costume problems and light lists to casting, scheduling and legalities (she is a lawyer by profession). All this was being ably executed by our Production Manager – Ashwini Paranjape – who worked at the speed of light. An all-women crew was practically unheard of, but it gave our director a massive sense of pride.
Sandhya Ma’am is not your atypical producer.
She will not sit in one place on the set and expect the delegated duties to be carried out on their own. If something needed to be moved for the frame she’d get up and do it herself. She’d ensure everyone had eaten on set and were as comfortable as in their hotel rooms; all this while being an associate to Sir during shot division. The lines of hierarchy blurred. That didn’t mean she wouldn’t hold you accountable for your mistakes. She treated us like intelligent beings capable of much more than just being mere operators.
My biggest lesson under her was discipline. That was brought about by the complete breakdown of the script on paper. Scenes, characters, costumes, props, locations, day/night – all organized and then re-shuffled to form the schedule. I’d never touched Excel in my life till then. I had also never multitasked till then.
It was all about synergy and synchronicity. They say the producer and director don’t normally get along because the director envisions the universe while the producer can only provide Earth. Though there is truth to that statement – it was reassuring to see that if you are focused on a common goal, then anything is achievable. Her vision as a writer and his guidance as a director and their immense faith in each other’s capabilities was enough to bring the film to fruition. It’s not easy because you land up fighting on the same side of the argument. But as long as the end game is the same it doesn’t matter what path you’re taking to reach it as long as it is together.
I clearly remember when an actor refused to wear a piece of clothing in a scene because he found it to be ridiculous. Sir quietly told him that Ma’am had put thought into it, and he had agreed with her on the subject, so he had no choice but to wear it despite his personal sensibilities. It was their vision (together) and he would adhere to it with integrity. Mad Respect.
Their professional relationship (even if it was tinged by their personal relationship) made me realize how important it is to have implicit faith in your team and ensure it happens vice versa.
Apart from all the professional wisdom, I also gained a friend. Ashwini was line producing a short film for a couple from the UK and she wanted someone she was comfortable with on board. Producer Jamie Nuttgens and Director Smita Bhide were helming an all-Marathi crew and could barely communicate with it on their own.
This was the first time I would be staying alone in a city for a month, handling my own affairs independently. I had no internet, no television and barely anybody to hang out with. My only company was my laptop and a hard drive full of films.
Best month ever.
Here too, we were 5 people handling almost everything together. Ashwini had involved young students – Ameya and Gauri – on the film who were willing to learn new skills and make a quick buck on the side as well. Prateek, her righthand man, was in charge of the light men, spot boys and drivers, Ameya was in charge of the food and Gauri was in charge of acquiring props, costumes and accounting.
I was in charge of translation – English to Marathi/Hindi and vice versa. During auditions I’d try to explain a character to an actor on the director’s behalf, while on set I was giving instructions to the gaffer and lightmen on the cameraman’s behalf. I was re-learning my mother tongue in its natural environment and bridging the communication gap between two countries – literally.
Because I landed up spending so much of my time with the cameraman and the director of photography, I grasped the importance of lighting. You don’t need two light trucks at your disposal at any time of the day during a shoot, when you can create powerful imagery with only what is absolutely necessary and sufficient.
My initiation into film-making may have happened with Amol Sir and Sandhya Ma’am, but I grew up on the sets of “Another Planet”. I got trained in a discipline that wasn’t too dissimilar from what I was used to, but this time I had more responsibilities. Every decision was preceded by a discussion with the main crew members, and all our opinions were considered and some even taken seriously.
Our crew was really small, but that helped us align our frequencies faster and produce results even in difficult circumstances. My greatest learning with them was humility – it didn’t matter where they came from, they were all about what they were there to do. I gained confidence in my own abilities and recognized to respect each crew member for the role they had to play.
I still remember an incident whilst shooting a scene inside a hut, in a village called Belavade on the outskirts of Pune. It was between the mother and daughter, and they had just finished saying their dialogues when the sound guy screamed “CUT”. Jamie, heatedly, asked the entire unit, “Who screamed CUT?” The sound guy told him about the glitch in the lapel output and the need to rectify it immediately. Jamie categorically told him and everyone else present that nobody had the right to scream “CUT” except for the director. It was not an option.
I recognized that a producer empowers the director to fulfill his/her vision.
When it came down to it, I knew I wanted to venture out on my own.
On my first day at XIC, my professor had asked me what I wanted to do, and I had instinctively said that I wanted to create a platform for aspiring directors to make the kind of films they wanted to without overwhelming Bollywood baggage.
I’ve known Srinivas Sunderrajan since college.
I may have been absent for the majority of The Untitled Kartik Krishnan Project’s making but I’ve seen enough to know how far perseverance and patience and never giving up takes you. He was producer/writer and director, and he had managed to pull off a good film that didn’t have an expiry date.
Post its screening at MAMI in 2010, we decided to form a small collective to pursue our so-called celluloid dreams.
Being in charge of your own destiny? I’m in.
The four of us began with our original skill sets – a cameraman, an ad film producer, an indie film maker and I. I was figuring out all the logistics for it to become legitimate and quietly, Enter Guerrilla Films came into being. We were shooting a web-series called Headbanger’s Kitchen at the time for Srinivas’ friend and musician Sahil Makhija. On the side, we succeeded in making a few corporate films where I got to dip my fingers in all the departments. It was liberating to know that we could pull it off without anybody’s help.
Then my first feature film as a producer happened.
Srinivas returned from Transylvania International Film Festival, determined to make this happen. He wrote Greater Elephant within a few weeks with Omkar Sane, and got HumaraMovie – consisting of Vinay Mishra & Pallavi Rohatgi – to co-produce with us. Having already worked with Ashwini, I knew she’d be our best bet to make this happen within the proposed budget, as she was always up for a challenge.
The task for us was to make it happen in 10 days. We were able to to scout for locations in two days within Pune – since it was Ashwini’s stronghold – before HumaraMovie even came on board. For three weeks we held readings with the actors to ensure that performances are not conceded due to shooting time-constraints. A costume trial and makeup session was subsequently held. We learnt to economize without having to compromise.
Those ten days were a miracle. There was no hierarchy. Pallavi, the producer, was in charge of sound recording; Ashwini, the producer, was making sure we were adhering to the rules and permissions given to us as per location; Srinivas was juggling direction and scheduling, and I was doubling up as a gaffer, taking over camera duties when it was getting physically taxing for the DOP as well as being a costume assistant. It was exhilarating.
Mehr, an intern who had worked on Headbanger’s Kitchen and was familiar with our working style, joined us as an assistant director. Gauri became the production manager, Ameya and Prateek were designated production assistants and thrived under Ashwini, who had by now developed her own style.
Through the process of pre-production with Ashwini, I learnt the following crucial lessons:
– Being honest was of utmost importance while making deals with potential equipment renters. If you don’t have the money, be upfront and disclose how much you can stretch yourself financially.
– Be nice to everybody; this way when have to hold people accountable they will take you seriously.
– Speak to each and every crew member on the set and make an effort to learn and remember each of their names. You’ll be spending a long time with them and they should feel they are valued for what they bring to the table.
– No task is too small. Fill in when there is a need, like serving food when the spot boys or production assistants are occupied elsewhere.
– Make sure that the crew never tires of the food being served. Switch it up and make it interesting. Everybody works to eat – so keep the food choices interesting within budgetary constraints. For example serving cream rolls or cakes during tea time or ice cream on a hot outdoor shoot.
– Keeping people happy is easier. They won’t mind being paid a little less if it means respect for the job done.
The biggest lesson for me was to invest in people. Your team is your salvation.
Not only Ashwini but Vinay and Pallavi too were great in their unconditional support to provide the best avenues for the film; to push it wherever they could reach and beyond; to have faith in somebody’s talents and capabilities and seeing it through to the end. Awards mean something only when you are standing side-by-side with someone who believes you deserve that glory, and are making way for the spotlight to find you.
And last but not least Srinivas, who taught us newbies, time management, people management and multitasking, thanks to juggling a career as a filmmaker and a musician. His experiences on TUKKP were a great guide to not make the same mistakes he had made when he was “25 and stupid” – something which was first articulated by Chris Smith (director of The Pool on which Srinivas had worked as an assistant) when he made his first film.
I remember when our first choice for a DOP had to rethink being a part of the film because of his dates clashing with a big-budget film.
Srinivas told him – “The film will be made. With or without you. It is your choice.” The DOP couldn’t fulfill his commitment.
Srinivas never looked back. “Nobody is above the film.”
When I work with different people now, I realize how blessed I’ve been with the kind of people I have had the opportunity to associate myself with. Even if I may not have realized it at the point in time and have been extremely dismissive and arrogant about it, whenever I come across something that is fundamentally against my grain, I know where my roots are, and the kind of nourishment I’ve received by the way.
All the above experiences gave me the confidence to do things on my own. I managed to kickstart a documentary under Enter Guerrilla Films, which is in its editing stage. Co-produced a short film – Mamta Tonic – for a popular YouTube Channel, which did what no other film we had worked on had done before. We’re producing a web series which is still in its pre-production stages, and we’re simultaneously working on a feature-length film, still in its scripting stages after scrapping the first 3 drafts.
There’s so much to look forward to in this constantly changing scenario. The bigger picture for me, however, involves challenging your own boundaries and crossing over.
A film producer is somewhat demonized today. He is the Raavan to the Director’s Ram; the Duryodhan to the Actor’s Arjun; the Krishna to the scriptwriter’s Karan. You get the picture. But Duryodhan went to heaven for his integrity, Raavan is worshipped for his devotion to Lord Shiva, and Krishna is hailed for his intellect, however self-destructive it may have been.
We’re all multi-dimensional just like these characters. Striking a balance between being good at your work and being a good person may not always be met, but being assertive and fighting for the right values always go a long way. After all, it is simply in pursuit of one supreme goal – to tell a good story in the best way it could possibly be told.
The producer’s role is to plan for contingency. There must always be a Plan B.