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I did not even have a script when I approached Nawazuddin: Shlok Sharma on Haraamkhor

A first-time director, Sharma exudes the quiet confidence of a man who trusts his product. The director of the critically-acclaimed Haraamkhor, starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Shweta Tripathi, sat down for a talk with Cinestaan.com about his much-delayed film, and the nature of its simple story. 

Photo: Shutterbugs Images

Shriram Iyengar

The first thing that hits you about Shlok Sharma, the director of Haraamkhor is his sincerity. The first-time director has already received great praise for his little film. Haraamkhor stars Nawazuddin Siddiqui as the school teacher in love with his student, and won the Silver Gateway at the 2015 MAMI International Film Festival in Mumbai, as well as the Best Actor award for Nawazuddin Siddiqui at the New York Indian Film Festival (2015). However, its release in India ran into the inevitable hurdle of the Central Board of Film Certification. Now, armed with a U/A certificate, the film is set to release on 13 January. 

Sharma agreed to talk to Cinestaan.com in a lengthy interview about his progression from a short filmmaker to a feature filmmaker, as well as his dabbling in the technology of guerilla filmmaking via an iPhone. Here are excerpts from the interview: 

Finally, Haraamkhor is set for a release? What are you feeling? 
Relieved, yes, because four years is a long time for a film to be held up. In these four years, I have gone through a number of emotions. Sometimes you feel nothing is going to happen in your life, and want to give up. It was my first film, and you always expect that it will be the big break for your career. But it took me a long time. The only relief is that it is finally done. As they say, 'Der aaye durust aaye' (Though late, it is here).

I am happy with the support we have received so far. We won the Silver Gateway Award at the MAMI International Film Festival (2015). We received a positive response at all the screenings we had in MAMI. A filmmaker always dreams about his film receiving the maximum audience in theatres. Everything else is secondary. 

The censor issue was just a minor hurdle. Now that it has been cleared (by the CBFC). In fact, FCAT has actually given us a U/A certificate. I guess this is a good time for filmmakers all around. Times are changing, I guess. 

Photo: Shutterbugs Images

The language of the film industry is beginning to change. There is an influx of stories from the heartland, small towns, and villages of India. Do you think this is a great time for filmmakers across the country? 
People are interested in small stories. Even Haraamkhor is not an extraordinary story. It is a very simple story about a very simple emotion. If you take Nagraj Manjule's Sairat or Neeraj Ghaywan's Masaan, these are small stories that need to be told. There is an audience out there for these stories too. There is a space for entertainment based films, and a space for this kind of cinema as well. There is a balance in the industry right now. It will take some time for the change to take place. 

Even in the past, there have been many filmmakers trying to make a difference with their cinema. We have started, but have a long way to go. We need to explore which direction we want to head into. 

Tell us a bit about Haraamkhor. It looks like a fascinating film. How did the story come about? 
The idea of Haraamkhor is a very simple one, about a school teacher in a small village. It is also the story of a young girl who looks up to the teacher as a father figure, someone who listens to her problems. It is a wonderful little story of love. But the most interesting characters in the plot are Bittoo and Kamal. They are two very young boys from whose perspective the entire story unfolds. They bring a mischievous, imaginative touch to the entire film. 

Haraamkhor has faced some trouble with the CBFC which led to a delay. There was also a problem with the title. Was there any specific thing the board objected to? 
To be fair, there was no major issue with the board, which explains the U/A certificate we have received. The only bone of contention was the theme of the film. They didn't agree to the depiction of a school teacher falling in love with a student. We placed our points to them, explaining that these things do happen. Even when we had won the award at MAMI, the presenter had compared it to Aaina (1993), as an example of its content. 

That was precisely our argument. If a city like Mumbai, with its diverse people and opinions, can accept the film, the board should be willing to allow its release. If it is indeed bad, the audience will reject it themselves. The audience is smart enough to make the judgment. 

Despite the positive reviews for the film, it does have the issue of a long delay. Do you worry about the time lapse between the production and release of the film? 
No, there is no such worry. We have already made an impact because of this controversy (laughs). We are confident of the film we have made. The film has had an encouraging reception from the audience. There will be flaws, as there always are, but we are not worried about that. If we get praised, we are ready for it. If we get criticised, we are just as ready for it. 

Photo: Shutterbugs Images

From working as AD with Anurag Kashyap and Vishal Bhardwaj, to making short films, and now a full-length feature. How is the transition working out? 
It is a simple thing actually. There are many short films made today. When I started off in 2008-2009, it was not as popular as a narrative medium. One reason for that was that the digital platform had not really arrived in India then. Back then, if you had to make a film, the best you could do was with a 7D camera. The digital medium has changed everything.

I have shot an entire film on an iPhone myself (Zoo), so the access to this medium has increased exponentially. Back then, if you were working on a short film, it was to improve your own technique of filmmaking while creating a showreel for yourself. Eventually, the objective was to make a feature film after all. 

Yet, the medium has a different flavour. You only have so much time to tell a story. I had a couple of films that went viral on the internet, one was Bombay Mirror. Short films are great fun. You have to tell a story within a very short period of time. The process is the same. You have to go through the same routine of editing, working with an art department...Everything else is the same as a proper feature film. Except for the story, which needs to be crisp and short. 

Working with the name of Nawazuddin Siddiqui as a first-time filmmaker must have been apprehensive. Does the presence of such names add a burden to the expectation of the film?  
They (Siddiqui and Shweta Tripathi) were genuine actors when we started the film, and they continue to be so. Their work remains pure, in terms of dedication. In fact, Shweta was cast in Masaan later, it was Haraamkhor that she started work on. They might have gone places, but their work remains captured in my camera as it was back then.

What were the main challenges when working on the film? 
One of the challenges was that it was my first film. When you take it to an actor or producer, there is always the chance that they might not like it after the reading. Thankfully, I faced no such problems. Shweta had agreed to the film after the first reading itself, and the same goes for Nawazuddin bhai. In fact, it was Nawaz bhai's confidence that really helped me. I am grateful for his trust in me. I know him since the days of Gangs of Wasseypur, so when I went up to him with the idea of Haraamkhor, it was just an idea. I did not have a script with me. I only wanted to ask him if he would be willing. He agreed on the spot and asked me to call him up with the basic story. He never asked for the script. 

The entire thing was hurried. We had no specific dates in mind, and luckily, he was also available. So, we decided to go on with the shoot and finished the film in 16 days. The shooting period for the film was very small. We had initially set aside 25-30 days for the film.

I still remember getting to the set on the first day, and Nawaz bhai asking me "Script hai na film ki? (You do have a script for the film, don't you?). I assured him I did. It was his trust in me that gave me the confidence to work harder. I could not let him down. The apprehension remained with me till the first cut of the film came out. After the first screening, he said, "I never thought this was such a good film. I was a little doubtful, but this is an excellent film." He even thanked me for casting him. That was when the tension in my mind diffused. 

It is always important to not break trust with your actors. Once it is broken, it is very difficult to regain your confidence as a storyteller. I am happy I was able to manage that. I hope all my actors learn to trust their director. Not that they shouldn't read the script, but they should learn to judge the director's vision for the story. 

Was there a conscious decision to keep the film's schedule so tight? 
There was no conscious plan as such. I have produced a couple of short films, so it is my tendency to think about the budget when I make a film. I had previously worked on Gangs of Wasseypur (2012). The film had two parts, all of which was shot in a duration of 80-90 days. Or Omkara which was shot in 65 days. So, I marked my schedule up to 25 days, half the time of these big films.

I would mark up each day on Facebook, to keep a timeline of the shoot. Slowly, I began to realise that I was ahead of schedule. We started to shoot the film on 16 June and wrapped it up by 2 July. It was a great experience. 

The film got picked up by NFDC and found serious support by Anurag Kashyap and Guneet Monga. Was there any pressure to deliver a product that stands true to their support?
That depends a lot on how your mentor is. If you take Anurag sir, he hasn't even read my script. He only saw the first cut, and loved it. I was lucky to have their trust. They believed in my vision for the film, and the idea. I never had the pressure of having to work according to their ideas or beliefs of cinema. 

The technology of filmmaking has certainly changed. It has brought about accessibility and a whole universe of media to the modern filmmaker. How big of a challenge is it to find visibility amidst the crowd? 
Well, you should never follow with your eyes closed. It is important to understand every media and form before you step into it. I have shot a film on an iPhone, and someone else decides to do the same, it is not necessary for both films to be successful. You should always wait for the result. I was lucky to see Tangerine (the film by Sean S Baker shot on an iPhone), and I thought why are we sitting around waiting for our scripts to be picked up. The questions of finance, directors were answered by this film. I produced Zoo by myself. Other than the expense of buying an iPhone, the rest of the production cost was bare minimum. There will be others inspired like me to try this. The digital medium is simply another way for the filmmaker to tell his story. 

The current scenario in the film industry is quite positive for small films. There are a number of production houses willing to bet on smallscale films and stories. Yet, every small film that fails adds to the pressure on others that follow. Does that bother you? 
I don't think so. I don't think I am making a film that will cost Rs50 crore or a Rs100 crore. We are working on a very small budget of under Rs1 crore. If we can make a decent film within this budget, it can only be good for the industry. 

As more and more small films are made, the industry will discover more and better filmmakers. There will be new stories, content, and point of views entering the film industry. This is necessary and very important. 

This is not to say that there will not be bad films. There will always be mistakes, if you don't make mistakes, you will never learn. It is an important cycle that needs to be nurtured. 

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