Just a week into 2016, and we already have a serious contender for the best debut director here. Bikas Ranjan Mishra’s Chauranga, which opens across theatres today, is a brilliant and searing first film that leaves you breathless with its climax. Most film buffs would know Mishra as the guy behind the go-to site for indie films, DearCinema.com (currently offline), the 35-year-old tells me about the journey to making his first film and lots more.
Q. Take us through your journey of how Chauranga started, it’s obviously a script any regular producer with an eye on the box-office would not have jumped at. How long did it take between, say, the first draft to the point that Onir and Sanjay came on board as the main producers?
Bikas Ranjan Mishra: I met Onir at the Screenwriters’ Lab in Locarno. It was way back in 2010. He liked the first draft and said he would like to help me make this film. I asked point blank, “do you have money?”. He smiled and said no! I kept working on the script till the end of 2011. I gave the tenth draft to Onir to read and he said I’m onboard.
Q. The caste hierarchy, the violence and the disparity – were these elements something that you personally witnessed while growing up in Jharkhand? How much of it made it to the film?
BRM: The film is set in the village where I grew up. Many characters in the film like the blind priest are taken straight from the real life. I felt it all around me but didn’t understand what causes it.
Chauranga is in a way revisiting my childhood with the acquired understanding of the adult world.
Q. Chauranga is performance driven, if any of the actors had delivered a false note, the film would have slumped. Even Sanjay Suri manages to pull of the rustic zamindar act, despite his suave urbane charm. How long did it take to get your cast in place?
BRM: Casting was the most challenging part. Nalini, my casting director and I, started looking for actors way back in 2012. Finding the child actors was the biggest challenge and I found the protagonist (Soham Maitra) just one month before the shoot. He is supremely talented and dedicated. I did workshops for about a month before the shoot with both child actors.
Sanjay and I travelled extensively pitching the script to film markets and developed a shared understanding of the script. When I asked him if he would play Dhaval, the rustic rural character in the film, he smiled and said only if you trust me enough and will help me out with the diction.
Q. Dhritiman Chatterjee probably plays the creepiest role ever in his career in your film, was he difficult to convince and where did the idea of the character of the priest come from, with his suppressed desires probably getting twisted with time?
BRM: I feel indebted to him for a lifetime. Satyajit Ray’s Pradidwandi is my all time favourite film, I feel so ill at ease with him because of his performance in the film. But it didn’t take me much to persuade him.
When I sent him the screenplay over email, he wrote back within a week, “Laali Pandey is unlike anything I’ve done before, which is perhaps why it interests me!”. He even waived his fee for the film. As expected, he delivers a terrific performance in the film.
Q. You shot the film in 20 days in 2 locations. It must have been helluva task to finish the film. At the end of it were you happy with what you got, or did you feel you could have done better if budget and time were in allowance?
BRM: While I dream of the day when Indie films would have the luxury of budget, I’m quite happy with what we managed.
Q. The film ends with this scene of a boy and a train. It just brought back the popular motif we used see in the Bollywood films that we grew up on. How much did popular cinema influence you in your journey into being a filmmaker? Any particular film or filmmaker who you were really influenced by?
BRM: Bollywood is referenced throughout the film. The world of Chauranga is the world of Bollywood films, superstars and dance numbers (though I don’t have any of them in the film). Growing up in India is simply not imaginable without our popular cinema. I love popular cinema, it’s intoxicating, addictive and maddening. However, I’ve been exposed to regional and international cinema pretty early in my life and that has also left a huge impact.
More than Bollywood, the images of train and the boy brings back the memory of Apu running to catch a glimpse of the train in Pather Panchali. I dare not compare my humble film to the great master’s, that would be sacrilege, but couldn’t stop thinking about him.
Q. The film has now travelled to a few festivals besides also winning awards, what’s the most memorable compliment you’ve received?
BRM: Renowned French critic Berenice Reynaud met me after the screening in Los Angeles and gave me a warm hug and said, “The truly terrible thing is that everybody has their reasons”. Then she said, I quoted Renoir on purpose because Indian cinema has a Renoir connection, he inspired Ray.
Q. Coming to the economics of it, though Chauranga may have been made on a shoe string budget, you really aren’t looking at getting any returns from satellite because it does not have a “star” cast and it’s been certified ‘Adults Only’ too. Your box-office again will be limited with a 68 screen release. What is the revenue model for a film likeChauranga?
BRM: The revenue model is constantly evolving. Arrival of Netflix in India could be a game changer. Reviews so far have been fairly positive and we’re hopeful that as word of mouth spreads people will go to theatres to watch Chauranga.
We will reapply for a U/A certificate for television. Some international distributors have also shown interest in releasing the film internationally. We’re opening today in Singapore too and talks for an Australian release are on. My producers are very positive about recoupment.
Q. Your one big advice to all the aspiring filmmakers out there?
Write, rewrite and rewrite. Don’t make alternative career plans, risk your life on that one film that will make your life worth living! If you can’t do that then stop dreaming of making films.