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Vikramaditya Motwane: We need more films like Dangal and Jolly LLB

In an interview to Cinestaan.com, Motwane talks about the process of making his film, Trapped, bringing the best out of his actors and how Hindi cinema can compete with Hollywood releases.

Suparna Thombare

Vikramaditya Motwane has had only two directorial releases in the last seven years — Udaan (2010) and Lootera (2013). But even this brief work is proof enough of the depth of his characterisation and narration, and his ability to break genres and make niche subjects appealing. This is something that he is hoping to achieve even in his next film, Trapped. 

Motwane loves to delve into genres and subjects that are relatively unexplored in Hindi cinema. While in Udaan he explored a coming of age story of a small town boy, in Lootera he told a complex love story in the form of a thriller. "I enjoy breaking genres," he says as we sit down to talk about his experiments in Trapped, a story that was e-mailed to him by writer Amit Joshi in mid-2015.

Motwane immediately loved the idea and began to out flesh it out into a full-fledged script with the writers — Joshi and Hardik Mehta. He soon approached actor Rajkummar Rao when he met him at a film screening and the actor was all gung-ho about doing the film. The director had an opening in his schedule before he could dive into his next project as director, Bhavesh Joshi, an action vigilante film starring Harshvardhan Kapoor, and decided to shoot Trapped in 20 days straight. 

The survival thriller revolves around Rao's character, who is trapped inside a high-rise apartment in Mumbai, a scenario that seems highly implausible at the outset, but Motwane reassures,"You will know everything once you watch the film."

Motwane is confident of the content and why shouldn't he be? The film received rave reviews when it premiered at the MAMI Mumbai International Film Festival in 2016 and the director is hoping the appreciation is extended to the theatrical release of the film when it hits the theatres on 17 March. 

Here are excerpts from our conversation with the director where we discussed the making of Trapped, his filmmaking methods and taking valuable feedback from fellow writers and directors from the industry. 

Did you only have Rajkummar Rao in your mind when casting for Trapped?
One and only person, Raj! I don’t think very many (actors) can pull off a character like this... someone who you are going to watch from beginning to the end, and someone who is going to take you on a journey where you are with him and rooting for him throughout. He has a phenomenal quality of making you want to root for him.  He has this halka sa bechara vibe in a good way. You want him to succeed.

What were the challenges of shooting a film in the confines of an apartment? How do you break the monotony that the audience may feel?
The important thing in this film is not so much the space, but it's the person. The idea is that for you to be involved in the journey of the protagonist and want him to succeed and you are with him throughout. So then I don’t think the space really matters. After a point, you ignore the space around and it starts to become more about the guy. The focus shifts to become more about the guy. That was our focus from the story-telling perspective, directing and cinematography perspective — it was more about the person. He comes first.

Is it also freeing as a filmmaker to shoot a film at one location, in one schedule and also not worry about the budget of the film?
Budget... not really. But it is liberating from a filmmaking perspective. Production and the logistics of production don’t start to weigh you down like this day we have to shoot at that location and we need 50 people on set. Every day we were going back to the same location. There is a different set of challenges, but yes it's also a luxury because we got to shoot the film in sequence, which never happens. He [Rajkummar] had the chance to discover his character every single day and I had the chance to discover where we were going every single day. So that was cool.

Did you expect Rajkummar push himself to the limits that he did for the role from the beginning? (The actor starved himself to show a realistic loss of weight of his character) 
I was secretly hoping he would and he did. So I was quietly very happy. Though it was completely his idea to go on a carrot and coffee diet.

When you make a film like this do you worry about the box office fate at all?
It affects me in the sense that I don’t think any film should lose money. People who have worked on the film should feel that their efforts have been paid off. When a film does well it just means that you will get more work and everybody will get more work. More box office (numbers) means more people have watched the film. I don’t think anybody makes a film for only 10 people to watch. We make it for the largest possible audience. Nobody wants their films to fail.

Are there any survival films that you are influenced by?
I don’t think the genre is that wide for it to become a large influence. Also, I don’t think there has been a film in the urban space. Cast Away was on an island or 127 hours was about being stuck under a rock or Buried which is in a coffin. There is nothing that I am influenced by as such. It was more about the instinctive thing and excitement of the idea where we said 'let's go out there and do something different and interesting and cool'. I think we are experienced enough individually where we don’t have to look for stuff to get inspiration. We hopefully inspire ourselves.

You are known to bring out the best from your actors — may it be Ranveer Singh in Lootera or Ronit Roy in Udaan. Considering each one has a different method, how do you as a director adapt?
One thing is trusting the actor and believing that they are going to bring out their best. It's about you trying to find what’s the best way in which you can guide them literally to give their best work. Sometimes there’s strife, sometimes you have to fight the actor and say no do it this way. Most of the times I have discovered that if you trust them enough and guide them along saying ‘try like this’. And then of course, you realise that so and so is a one-take actor so make sure everything is prepared because you have one go at it and they’ll give it their all.

Rajkummar is a fourth or a fifth take actor. He’ll work himself up to it. Somebody is a second take actor. She does one take and then I tell her what she has done wrong and tell her exactly what I want. Then she nails it. First few of days of shoot you kind of figure it out. Then you nicely build your relationship. I think actors and directors have a very open and honest relationship. I don’t think there is any kind of diplomacy that is happening. You are really straight up in saying that it was a really bad take.

Vikramaditya Motwane with Ranveer Singh

Is it difficult to be honest with actors sometimes?
No, it's not. You are all professionals on set. You are expecting it from each other and expecting that level of honesty from each other any which way. I don’t think anybody has any qualms about going up to an actor and saying that it was a really bad take. At the end of the day even stars are actors on set and they are actually there to act. That level of honesty is needed.

There is huge competition for Indian filmmakers as almost every other Friday there is a Hollywood release...
And they are all doing exceptionally well too! It shows that the audience is out there waiting to watch some new stuff so are we (Hindi filmmakers) not giving them new stuff? To be fair, we are trying. Bollywood is changing a lot and our content is getting better. I think there can be a lot more that can be done. I would love to see a lot more of Dangals, Jolly LLBs — films that are using big stars and going out there and making interesting films that people would love to watch.

How would you react if you were stuck in a situation like in your film?
I don’t know. It was very interesting when we were writing this and fleshing those scenes out. We were thinking of what he could do — jump, shout? We hard large brainstorming sessions where he discussed he could throw this out or burn this. We’ve put pretty much everything inside it. 

If you are involved you are going think 10 steps ahead. I did have many people who came up to me and said I knew you would do that. Or they came and said I thought there was a hole in this, but then two scenes later I got exactly how or why. I think the more the audience interacts in a film, it's fantastic. The MAMI screening of the film had people who were very vocal in the film. People were actually reacting, which is great. It’s a nice, old-fashioned cinema experience. 

Are you able to be objective about your work when you look back at it?
I am over-objective and very critical of my own work. I am always going back and fine-tuning. In fact, my team and my post-production people are sick of me because till the last minute I am going to them and be like ‘let’s take out that scene’. And they are saying no you can’t, it's sealed. First, you write, then shoot and when you are editing it's almost like rewriting. If you cut a scene then people probably won't get some part of it. You have to then rewrite that portion at the editing table. The edit is a very powerful medium of retelling a story. Change bits of information back and forth and the concept of what you are trying to show changes. If you change the order of information everything changes. So you keep fine-tuning and eventually, it makes it a complete viewing experience.

Do you show your film to others in the industry for their suggestions and inputs?
I show it to a bunch of filmmaker friends. I show it to some family members. I show it to my wife and her family. My other friends, technicians and my writer-director friends like Navdeep Singh, Sudeep Sharma, Abhishek Chaubey because I know they are good. They are critical, but they are also constructive. And they give me ideas and suggestions. I do the same with my scripts. Once the script is written I give it out to 10 people and take feedback from them whether it's good, bad or ugly.

Do you think these kinds of interactions between filmmakers is good for the industry?
It’s good. If it helps you make your film better it cannot be wrong. Everybody is helping each other make a better product, which means the audience also sees it. The more collaboration we have the better. We’ll end up making better films.

Have you actually incorporated changes suggested by them?
Yes, absolutely. They are giving their point of view. You are so involved in the editing that you lose a sense of what’s working so somebody comes in and says your first half is great, but second half is starting to drag a little bit so why don’t you tighten that up. You don’t see things sometimes.

Trapped is a very niche genre and so was Udaan in that sense. Does breaking genres give you a better kick?
I like breaking genres. Udaan was a coming-of-age film and I couldn't remember a coming of age film in India before that. Lootera was a love story, but for me it was a romantic thriller. One thing is that Trapped is survival thriller, but is almost the story of a guy who grows up and changes. Bhavesh Joshi (Motwane's next film) is a vigilante action drama, but it's also about friendship, responsibility. It's a film about hope. I love to mix up all these genres.