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Meet the filmmaker who has revived the travelling cinema

Sandeep Mohan has his own way of making and screening films in India.

Keyur Seta

The days when films were screened inside makeshift tents are long gone. But filmmaker Sandeep Mohan has kept the tradition alive, though not in tents. Under his initiative, the Great Indian Travelling Cinema, he travels with his projector to various gatherings, be it in a home, an office, or anywhere else. Viewers are free to pay as they wish.

Sandeep Mohan has made three films till date: Love, Wrinkle-free (2011), Hola Venky (2014) and Shreelancer (2017). All three are based in contemporary India and tell stories about common people. His latest, Shreelancer, is being screened these days across the country. Taking a break from his India tour, Sandeep spoke exclusively with Cinestaan.com to explain his style of micro-budget filmmaking and his unusual manner of reaching an audience. Excerpts:

What is Shreelancer about? Why such an unusual title?

It is the story of Shree who is a freelancer. Therefore, Shreelancer. I am trying to understand the psyche of a freelancer in contemporary India. For the first time I am delving into the life of a mid-20s guy. In my previous films – Love, Wrinkle-free and Hola Venky – my protagonist was in his mid-30s. I wanted to explore how I was in my mid-20s. When I see people around me from this age group, I find them quite confused as to what career to choose and what to do in life. So, I thought it’s worth exploring their psyche through Shreelancer.

All three films of yours are slice-of-life sagas revolving around common people. Why this special interest in the lives of everyday people?

I pretty much make films about people like me. I mean, I don’t live in a mansion. I am a normal person, like most people who work in cities. I see them around me. My wife and friends are working in offices. I used to work in an office. I have stories to tell about them. The theme is universal because across the world, people wake up and go to office. I find them interesting because they are the best of minds. But they feel stuck in their world. I like telling universal stories. It’s not deliberate. It just comes naturally.

You said you were working in an office before. So, how did your filmmaking journey begin?

I grew up in Madhya Pradesh and mostly in Kerala. I came to Bombay at the age of 21 and assisted Sanjay Leela Bhansali for Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999). But that was for a few months. I wasn’t comfortable in the city for the first two years. So, I went to Bangalore. From 23 to 29 I was working as a copywriter in various agencies. I was never happy at one place. The most time I spent in one company was 4-5 months. Just like pub-hopping, I was job-hopping (laughs). I knew I wanted to make films but I was stuck there. I returned to Bombay when I was 29. After working in advertising agencies, you get more confidence about ideation and writing and discipline comes in. I started writing scripts and at the age of 31 became an independent filmmaker.

You started this Great Indian Travelling Cinema, where you carry a projector and show your films at various gatherings. How and when did you think of this strategy?

I always fancied the idea of travelling in a caravan around the world. Even before Love, Wrinkle-free, I used to think it would be awesome if I could travel in a caravan, pitch my tent and show my films. But for my first film, Love, Wrinkle-free, we had a small theatrical release through PVR Director’s Rare. I went the conventional route and singed myself. The film got an Adults Only certificate and there were some censor issues.

With my second film I thought of keeping my budget lower. But my films are not typical festival films and I don’t have contacts to get into some big festival. So I thought what is the other way to reach the audience? I knew there is an audience because I am living in the same world. I thought let me go to their space where they like to hang out and show my film. Then maybe somebody would buy it. There wasn’t any big plan and there still isn’t. But I got a platform. 

During a screening of Shreelancer in Mumbai

But do you earn a decent living this way?

I have a fee in all projects as writer and director. I am also the co-producer of this film [Shreelancer]. So, if the film gets sold, I get a percentage. And my films have much smaller budgets. Having said that, I don’t take exorbitant fees and I try to live a very simple life. I don’t go to parties and I don’t hang out too much. I travel a lot. I live a middle-class life. I don’t spend unnecessarily. I live through films as I am not making anything else now. My wife is working too. So, we manage. It’s not as difficult as people think. I am a normal guy like you. 

It is because of this digital age that you are able to make films easily with digital cameras and hold screenings with a simple projector. What would you have done if you were born in the pre-digital era? Would you have succumbed to commercial pressures?

This is a very good question. When I was 21-23 in Mumbai, not everyone had a cell phone. I don’t know what I would have done. I knew I had stories but the only way to make movies was through big budgets. And we didn’t have digital cameras too. Then digital cameras and the internet happened. It is only because of the internet that I am making films today.

I pretty much learnt filmmaking by watching films and reading scripts online. I didn’t have a network. In Mumbai, unless you network and know people, things won’t happen. But social media made it easier. It changed the game. I would have been stuck earlier. I had a choice: compromise on what you want to tell or succumb and do what they want. And succumbing for me is never an option because I can always pick a job. That’s a better compromise than making movies you are not comfortable with. In this way, you at least get a salary. Here you succumb and still don’t get much sometimes (laughs).

Is independent cinema better placed in 2017, according to you?

Things are changing fast. Not everybody would go to the theatre to watch indie films. But if more spaces come up and home theatre systems get better, in a year or two I can see people watching these films more on phones or inside a house. If this starts happening and if budgets are kept smart, then indie filmmakers will have a decent time. I won’t say all indie filmmakers; only the smarter ones. By smarter ones I mean those who understand the reality that one can’t spend Rs1.5 crore on an indie film. Keep the budget tight, make a good film and market it properly; reach out to them. You cannot just say, ‘I am a genius so find me. I exist so that’s enough.’

A lot of people are suddenly making films because it’s easy nowadays. There should be a reason to make films and if you have something to say. The reason should not be that you have a camera.

Quite a few indie filmmakers are tying up with big studios to distribute their films. Would you be open to this?

My whole fight is that if nobody includes you in the process, I’ll make my film and wait. In the last stage if these guys come and release the film, I will be very happy. It will go to theatres and more people will watch it. But I will still continue travelling cinema. I find it very interesting to meet people, see the movie with the audience, and understand more.

I am okay as long as they don’t interfere in the creative process. If others make it for Rs2 crore, I will make it for Rs35 lakh. I have nothing against studios. It’s just that they have too many people employed and they need to comment on everything. And they have meetings, which I am not used to. I have wonderful producers with whom I have never had meetings. They are friends so they don’t interfere. It’s not that I don’t listen to people. But I need to have the final say as a creator.

Would you ever be interested in making a mainstream commercial Hindi film with known stars? Has this thought ever crossed your mind?

The thought did cross my mind. But at the moment it looks difficult. The kind of films I have got used to making need actors who totally trust me, are with me, and travel with me. With big stars it is very difficult. Either they won’t give you dates or you can’t move around freely with them. There are a lot of brilliant actors out there. But I like writing for people who have no image. You can mould them in whatever way you want.

I don’t know about the future. But not immediately for sure, because I am finding my own space. I am comfortable doing this. I am happy making a small good film than a bad big film.