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Interview Hindi

Audience was always ready, industry is only ready now: Amit Kumar on Monsoon Shootout's long wait

The writer-director of the critically acclaimed Nawazuddin Siddiqui-starrer speaks about the challenges of waiting for four years for his film's release, the torture of writing, and how Sholay helped turn him into a filmmaker. 

Shriram Iyengar

The release of a film after four years might bring an outpouring of relief and joy from some filmmakers but not Amit Kumar. He is calm and zen. "I am a very different kind of animal," the director laughs. He certainly is. To pick a dark subject that delves into alternate timelines and versions of truth is certainly proof.

Having started his career assisting Asif Kapadia on Irrfan Khan's breakthrough film The Warrior (2001), Amit Kumar talks about cinema with an urgent exuberance. The idea of cinema as a medium to experiment with time, to alter and change perception, is a theme that is close to his heart as a writer.

Not consciously though, he clarifies: "I am definitely fascinated by something that is not just the usual life around us. In life, you can only experience everything linearly, in cinema you can change everything."

For someone whose first cinema influence came from the iconic Ramesh Sippy film Sholay (1975), Amit Kumar could well have been an actor. "I used to play Amitabh Bachchan's character [from Sholay]," he laughs. But it was his strong desire for telling stories that led him, even as a child, to modify Sippy's classic and create an alternative Ramgarh in his story.

"At some point, I realized they hadn't seen the film, so I can do whatever I want to," he says, laughing. 

This innovative style is most apparent in Monsoon Shootout. The film starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Neeraj Kabi, and Vijay Varma, which was released on 15 December, carries a style and format that experiments with the linear narration style popular in Hindi cinema. 

In an exclusive conversation with Cinestaan.com, Amit Kumar opened up about the nature of his cinema, exploring time, and the challenges of making Monsoon Shootout. Excerpts: 

It must feel like a weight off your shoulders with the film finally being released.

Well, you know, I am glad. I am a very different kind of animal, very philosophical about life. There was no rushing making the film, and there is no rushing taking it out. 

We premiered in Cannes in 2013. It would have been great for it to release then and there, but even sitting in 2013, I didn't know it would be released in 2017. It could have been released in 2025. I watched the world in wonder. I am a witness to what is happening around me. 

Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Monsoon Shootout

I feel very happy because a lot of people have been involved in the film. A lot of people's journeys are attached to the film, so it is nice for the film to come out. 

The whole notion of the Indian audience not being ready for [such cinema] is bullshit. I think the Indian audience was ready in 2013, maybe even before. I am an Indian, I made this film, didn't I?  But the industry needs an example to say 'Has a film like this ever worked?' before they release it. Over the years, several content-driven films have made it successfully, and so they think it is right. Fair enough.

According to the industry, the audience is now ready. According to me, the audience was always ready, it is the industry that is ready now. 

But the wait still happened. So, how did you cope with it?

I wouldn't use the word cope, because cope would be if I was traumatized or something. I carried on with my life.  It's not like 'what do I do with the rest of my time?' My kids will eat up the rest of my life! Then I worked with Asif Kapadia and Florian Gallenberger, my international partners, whom I worked for before. Two years ago, Florian shot a film with Emma Watson called Colonia (2015). So I shot for that. 

Now, since last December, I have been developing a show for Amazon Prime. I have been writing, and will also be directing and producing. So, it will take up a lot of my time as well. 

In a certain sense, that's how I coped, by carrying on with my life. I was lucky to have Guneet [Monga] with me. She could do this, knock on doors, bang on doors, keep trying to break them down and get the release. 

The film rests on the duality of truths and perception that change with the choice a character makes. Interestingly, your diploma feature for the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) was titled 'Ashwatthama (The Elephant) Is Dead'. The title refers to the famous episode in the Mahabharata, where again truth is perceptive. Is this is a recurring theme you return to in your works?

I don't think it is something I consciously do. It is probably in retrospect. But now that you say it, I realize that even this Amazon show that I am doing, it does play around with the duality of life and death or time. I guess I am definitely fascinated by something that is not just the usual life around us. It seems to be so far. Most of the ideas I get are playing around with something, either time or perception. I think that maybe kind of drives me on. 

The film does carry a sense of nostalgia. Nawazuddin Siddiqui's current image is far from when he started shooting for the film. Vijay Varma, too, is now recognised for Pink (2016). Does this perception help or hinder the film's delayed release? 

I think Nawaz has become quite a star in these years, and he has a huge fan following. There would be this whole bunch of people who would go for a Nawaz film anyway. The good thing is they will come expecting a normal Nawazuddin Siddiqui film. They will go back with a lot more than what they came for. 

Other than that, there would be fans for the concept. I am counting that overall these would bring enough people into the theatre to have a great experience. 

The film was shot in December 2012,  and you used rain machines to create the monsoon. Considering that it is set in Mumbai, you could have picked July when it is raining abundantly. So, why the insistence on man-made rain?

Initially, I wanted to shoot in the monsoon. We got the money and the equipment to shoot in the monsoon. Rajeev [Ravi], my cameraman since my FTII days, said, 'You can't shoot in the rain!' I said, 'We can organize ourselves. We can shoot in the rain.' And he told me 'It's not about organization. How are you going to manage continuity?' It starts raining in the morning, start the scene, stops raining, and doesn't rain the whole day. Then?'

The second point he made was that rain looks amazing in the film because you light the camera in a certain way. I can't light real rain because I don't know which direction it is coming from. It can change direction. I need time to light up, he said. By the time I light up, the rain might stop. You can't control that. He wanted to use rain machines.

Vijay Varma in Monsoon Shootout

My worry with rain machines was that it would not look real. My homework for it was that I accept that it looks real, and that it would increase the budget. But I would only shoot if the rain looks right for the scene. I spent 3-4 hours getting the rain right before I even brought in the actors. So, the rain was like another character in the film. 

The rain machine guys were like 'My god, we have been in the industry for 20 years. Nobody has spent so much time on the rain! You are mad about the rain!' It was quite painful, but for me, these processes are quite fun. 

Is this attention to detail a key to your filmmaking process?

I can't say if I have any style considering I have only done one feature and a short. I know that in Bypass [the short film], I was very obsessed with the look. I was very particular with the way who was looking at whom. Monsoon Shootout originated with the idea of a guy standing with a gun in the rain, with the dilemma — do I shoot or do I not shoot? At that time, it was a gangster actually compelled by circumstance to kill somebody, but he doesn't want to. What does he think at that moment? 

Of course, over the years,  it changed to a cop. Even cops have to kill people. But how do they overcome this dilemma? How does their conscience allow them to kill someone? I extrapolated and imagined that this is what goes on in your mind. 

I think the best thing that happened for me was during a screening in Hawaii. I was taking a shuttle bus and got talking to the driver about the screening of the film at the festival. He comes for it in the evening. After screening, he meets me, with his wife, and says he really loved it. 'Do you know why?' he said, 'because right now I am just a bus driver, but I was in the US Marines. I served a tour of duty in Iraq and Ethiopia. This moment that you catch, believe me, it exists.'

Somebody like that, far away from my experience, who had been in the moment and tells me is cool!

You mentioned working with Florian Gallenberger and Asif Kapadia. How did those experiences help shape the director of Monsoon Shootout?

In terms of making me the kind of filmmaker I am, like a sponge I have absorbed from them. When I was working on The Warrior, I learnt how to work with non-actors. Asif's golden rule is always 'keep it simple'. No tashanbaazi [style]! I think I totally absorbed that from him. 

When I was working with Florian, I gained a lot of confidence in getting a performance from an actor and recognizing the truth. Discovering if that actor is living in that moment, or faking it. Over the course of 2-3 months of the Shadows Of Time (2004), I learnt to know when I know the moment, and when he [the actor] knows the moment, that's it. I should trust myself with it.

Irrfan Khan in The Warrior (2001)

Of course, working on their other movies, Florian did a World War II movie in China. I was doing second unit. Normally, the second unit does the skies, the background and stuff. But one thing led to another and he cut 15 days off his schedule of 65 days, and said, "Ok Amit, you are going to do this." That was pretty cool. War, and stunts, 3-camera and 5-camera units. That gave me a lot of confidence, that I can do this. 

After that, at no point have I ever felt 'oh, will I be able to do it?' The question is I enjoy the story, will people be able to enjoy it? That's the challenge and the doubt and the insecurity, and I think it is important. It is important that I feel scared, unsure, because it stimulates me to do better. 

No film is ever without flaws, and directors will often tell you of the ones they missed and wished they had changed. You had the opportunity of having an unreleased film on hand for four years. Did you ever succumb to the temptation of going back and tweaking things? 

Flaws, hundreds of them when I see the film (sic). Whenever a film goes to a festival, a lot of directors either go off and have coffee and chat with the festival people, and come back near the end. I always sit through it. I am mad. Everytime I look at it on the screen and think, how could I have done this differently? I know I went wrong because I did this. It is part of a learning experience. I am still learning from it now. 

When we finished shooting the film, we finished in 2012. Five monsoons have gone by. Every time I am tempted, 'Should I shoot some more monsoon shots?' But I tell myself, 'No, no. The film is over. It is done. You made mistakes. Too bad. That's the way the film is. Live with it now.' 

The film has strong visual appeal. With the rains, the red palette. How did these visuals form through the genesis of the story?

I think some of these subjects automatically let you know what they would look like. With Rajeev, it has always been like 'let us decide one thing that we are sure of'.

In Bypass, we looked at movies, posters, artist paintings and this and that to basically arrive at one decision of what the colour of the sand would be. That's it! Once we locked on that, everything else fell into place around that. 

In this, for me, the pivotal moment is the guy with the gun. This look I need to be sure of. It has to be dark enough. 'Sodium vapour or mercury? No, it is sodium vapour. What colour, how far is it from him, what kind of shadows?' We really went crazy over that.

I think the fact that it is night lends itself to all these noirish elements.

The cinematography by Rajeev Ravi is fantastic because it brings an atmosphere to the story. The rain, the lights, set up the drama in the story. How important are these visual cues to you as a director?

For me, it is really important. I think so much visually. I go the extra limb to get something more visually. I remember the scene with Vijay meeting Neeraj [Kabi] at the cliff, that moment. People said, 'Kahin bhi karlo na!' [Do it anywhere]. But in my mind that had to be perfect. I said, 'No, no. Let's go find a cliff.' Let's say it achieved 50% of what I had in my mind, but even that 50 gives a certain experience. 

The same with the monsoon. At a time when we were struggling with the budget, people said, 'You shot Bypass in the desert, why don't you shoot in the desert? It doesn't have to be rain?' Then I didn't have a logic to explain why rain, but post-facto, after the film has been shot, I have 50 logical explanations as to why rain had to be used. At that time, I said, "Listen, it's my gut that tells me I need this. I have already done Bypass, and I don't want to do the same thing again." 

Even the Amazon show, because it deals with death, it is going to go crazy with the visual element. I don't know how it shapes up. I am just writing right now, but the visuals are super important for me. 

You travelled through Botswana and Zambia, among other countries, in your childhood. What were your early cinematic influences?

The earliest influence was Sholay (1975). I still remember that. We left for Zambia in 1976, and I remember Sholay had been released just around that time. We saw Sholay, me and my elder brother, he is now settled in America. Our neighbours, whatever Indians there were, hadn't seen Sholay. They had heard about this crazy film that had been released in India. Me and my brother enacted it for them. So I would enact Basanti, I would enact the dying, I would do 'Kitne aadmi the?' All that stuff.

Amit Kumar cited Sholay(1975) as his first cinematic influence

At some point, I realized they hadn't seen the film, so I can do whatever I want to. Add scenes, go off on a diversion. I used to play Amitabh Bachchan's character, and I didn't want to die. So I wouldn't die sometimes.

In that sense, Sholay was the start of my journey. After that, there were a lot of TV shows that I would watch there. Six Million Dollar Man, Columbo, The Rat Patrol and other such American shows. I used to find performances of a certain kind that I would relate to.

That's why, when I would come back to India and watch shows on Doordarshan, I would often find these overdramatic, and the performances, and ask 'Why?' That's when I decided I want to change this. I want to come back and make TV serials. At that time, it was TV serials.

Then, I was in Delhi, a French film festival opened. There was this film called Mauvais Sang (Bad Blood, 1986) by Leos Carax. That was the film that totally blew me. That was the moment when I decided it has to be cinema.

Another film that hit me, literally, within a week after I joined FTII was An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge (1962). The short film won the Oscar and the Cannes top award in 1969 or something. [It actually won the award at Cannes in 1962 and at the Oscars the following year.] That film played with time. For me, that is what cinema is for. It is not for putting a camera and having two people talk. It is about what you can do with this medium. In life you can only experience everything linearly, in cinema you can change everything. That was very exciting. It woke in my mind the potential of cinema. 

The influence of TV shows and sharp scripting does show in Monsoon Shootout. The film possesses a kind of tightness in its script. So what is the writing process like for you? What are your bouncing boards?

First thing, writing is very hard for me. It is very traumatic and stressful. It is a real nightmare, but a necessary evil. My producer would say, 'You will take three months for the first draft? He would give me in three weeks!' I think my approach to writing is to first vomit everything out. While writing, sometimes I realize it is all redundant dialogue, but still I have fun with that. Keep going to four pages. Sometimes, I write and finish and think I am a genius. Next morning, I read it and say, 'You are an idiot!' 

Eventually, when I have a draft in shape, I start looking at every word and ask, 'Is this really necessary?' I butcher mercilessly. I do that in the edit as well. There is no sentimental attachment. If it is not working, cut it out. 

A lot of people tell me, 'You're a torturer. I can't look away for a second also. If I look away I'll miss something.' And I say, 'If you have come to my hall, you better watch it man!'

We reached an edit [for Monsoon Shootout] which was 100 minutes long. Everyone thought it worked beautifully, but in my mind there was something wrong. We couldn't figure out what it was exactly. Then, Asif [Kapadia] suggested his editor, who had edited The Warrior (2001), Eve [Ewa J Lind]. I told her 'I don't want any scene to go, but I feel it's not my film yet.' She took out 10 minutes, without cutting a single scene. 

I know you have worked with Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Bypass. What led you to Neeraj Kabi and Vijay Varma for the cast?

Neeraj, I was working with a friend of mine, who was doing a film called Gandhi Of The Month (2014). Neeraj had come in for one of the readings. Sehar Latif had brought him in. I was helping, and I saw him and thought, 'This is my Khan.' Again, it was one look in the eyes and I was sold. 

Vijay was a very different process. My associate director at that time was Rima Bohra, who suggested him. He came home, and I looked into his eyes and thought, 'This guy, pukka!' But not everyone was convinced. But going from the moment of 'I see this' to getting it translated through a performance, it took about 40-50 sessions.

To be fair, when I first met Nawaz for Bypass in Mumbai. I had seen him in this TV show, Star Bestsellers, and liked his eyes. I had initially met him, and he said, "Amitbhai, sab mereko bolte hain ki drama school ke ho to kucch karo. Aur aap bolte ho ke kucch mat karo [Everyone tells me you are from NSD (National School of Drama), do something (dramatic), and you tell me don't do anything!]." It took me a while, before he said, "I understand what you mean, but I can't do it right now." So, we kept working, and finally he got it right. 

It is about working together to reach where I see the character in my eyes. 

You mentioned the Amazon show. Are there any other projects you are working on?

I have two other projects to do at some point. One is a time-travel love story, and another is a World War II feature about India. Many outside India do not know India's role in World War II, even several in India from the current generation don't know it. It is a thrilling ride about two friends, and their journey, and the scale of war and the scene. But I accept it. It will take its time, and I can wait for it. 

The time travel story, I pitched it to Asif, and he was like, 'You have to let me direct it. I have an Oscar now, and it will be like a cool Hollywood thing.' But I insisted that I have to direct it. I let him produce it.