Interview Marathi

Raakshas is not just a part of our story but also reality: Director Dnyanesh Zoting

The first-time director shares his childhood memories and speaks of how films like Harishchandrachi Factory (2009) played a role in his journey as filmmaker.

Sai Tamhankar in Raakshas

Keyur Seta

Global warming has wreaked havoc upon the planet. But it has wreaked far greater havoc in Dnyanesh Zoting's life. It has destroyed the world of his childhood memories.

This became the basis for Zoting's directorial debut, Raakshas, starring Sai Tamhankar and Sharad Kelkar, which was released in theatres yesterday (23 February).

In a candid conversation with, Zoting spoke of his childhood and also explained how films like Harishchandrachi Factory (2009) played a big role in his journey as a filmmaker. Excerpts:

How did the idea of Raakshas originate?

My parents were teachers in a residential school for tribals in Taked in Igatpuri [in Nashik district of Maharashtra state]. They started teaching there immediately after marriage and continued till I was five years old. So, the tribal area, forest or nature is my first environment.

My father passed away when I was six. We had to shift to Aurangabad [city in Maharashtra state]. This shift was like a shock for me, not just because my father had passed away, but also to land up in a city suddenly. From then on, I have missed my father and the forest.

The world in which we grew up as kids always appears quite fascinating to us; the open space and nature. I have woven quite a few stories of the tribal world.

So, you have included your personal experiences in the film?

There is some part of it. I went to Pune for education after growing up. [But] I always had this desire to visit the place where I grew up. We never visited it after my father passed away.

When I finally went there, I was totally caught off guard. There were no more forests. They had made resorts over there and people were clicking selfies. I thought, this is not the place connected with my memory.

We keep talking of global warming and conservation of forest and nature. But I got personally hurt by it. The place connected to my father and birth was no more the same.

At that time I was doing short films. One film of mine got the Silver Conch at MIFF [Mumbai International Film Festival]. Hence, I felt I should continue making films. 

Something desperate came out of the experience. I shared my idea with Tanmayee Deo with whom I made a short film. My experience was very personal. So, her participation was very necessary to make it objective. Else it would have been just an experience rather than a story.

Tanmayee was the first person who saw a film in it. When we finished writing the story, the Maharashtra government and NFDC [National Film Development Corporation] had started a script camp called New Voices. Here is where the first draft evolved.

Then I met [producers] Vivek Kajaria and Nilesh Navalakha and pitched the story to them. We felt this is not an idea that can be narrated orally. Therefore, I shot a pitching video or trailer synopsis with non-actors in all the locations that you would see in the film.

They had seen my short film. After the first reading they said, “We will do it.” They said they haven’t seen something like this as an audience.

Sai Tamhankar, Rujuta Deshpande and Sharad Kelkar in Raakshas

It is a very treatment-orientated script. Whenever I used to start narrating it, people would ask, ‘Is this like Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)?’ I used to say no, Pan’s Labyrinth is total fantasy. My inspiration lies in folklore. Or it lies in the struggle for existence of forests today.

The pitching video also helped me get into the Sundance festival. That was the rarest and most important experience for me. I feel I am lucky to get this opportunity for my first film. It helped me nurture the script without any pressure and keeping my solidarity intact. 

I was lucky to have Sriram Raghavan and Sridhar Raghavan as my mentors. They have done the kind of thrillers I have always looked up to. They are not just thrillers. They also have human relationships, deep characters, and philosophy.

I also got guidance from Sundance team members Paul Federbush and Martin Scorsese’s script curator Matthew Takata. I feel it was a dream. I still can't believe it is true. The first scripts of Robert Rodrigues and Quentin Tarantino have also come from Sundance. Even The Lunchbox (2013) was a product of Sundance. 

In your first directorial you had the challenge of shooting in the jungle, that too with a child artiste.

There were a lot of challenges in the first film actually (laughs) like VFX, action, forest, female protagonist with a little girl and an old man.

My first encounter with film, theatre and literature was with children. I was actually a recluse as a child and did not speak much. But my first friends were in a child theatre organization in Aurangabad run by Suryakant Saraf. My interest in this field was born because of that place. Each summer I still visit it and interact with the kids. Therefore, I am used to working with kids.

I feel you should treat them as individuals. Never treat them as children. Don’t lisp and say things like, ‘Kay kalto tu?’ They wonder why is he speaking to me like that. They get offended. One should respect their individualism and choices.

Rujuta Deshpande

The most intelligent actor for me was Rujuta Deshpande [the child artiste]. She would ask a lot of questions.

The process becomes organic because of child artistes. Her journey and her character’s journey are the same; just the names are different. She was experiencing everything for the first time. She had to cross a river in a scene. She had swum before but in a pool. She was excited. I had thought of cancelling that scene thinking she might get scared. But she herself asked when is the river scene.

A child is just like nature. If the mood gets cloudy, you have to wait. 

What is the relevance of the title?

It is evident from the trailer that the film speaks about something vicious happening in the forest. In that sense, the film is called Raakshas [Demon].

Also, the first villain we encounter in our lives is Raakshas from our childhood tales. Whatever is bad, negative, destructive or unwanted is Raakshas for us.

After growing up, we see all the negativity in that context. We use terms like raakshasi [demonic] price rise, raakshasi traffic, raakshasi hunger, raakshasi ambition, etc. So, Raakshas is a part of our story but also a part of reality in this way. 

There are not many thrillers tried in India. Do you think this is because of a lack of subjects or the fear that the audience might not accept it?

I don’t know because mysticism and mystery are part of not only Marathi but Indian literature. In fact, Indian culture is known for that.

I feel this is the most exciting time in Marathi cinema for trying different genres. I was lucky to have such producers who agreed on the spot to make it. Even celebrities like Sai Tamhankar. She is one of our biggest stars, known for love stories and looking beautiful. But immediately on hearing the story she agreed.

This made me realize that there is scope. But unless we do it, it will remain unexplored. And people do get excited. A thriller is a kind of thing which excites you. Also, on NetFlix, 90% of the content is thrillers. 

How did your journey take a turn towards cinema from theatre?

After my 10th, I took science. But my favourite subjects were history, geography and literature. At that time, there was a belief that people should either become engineers or doctors.

But I wasn’t interested in science. I had written and directed a play for a contest in college. I started thinking that Aurangabad does not have such cultural exposure, maybe because half the population is Hindi-speaking and because of the nizam's influence. Then I landed at the Lalit Kala Kendra in Pune.

During one workshop, Mukta Barve was the guest. She told us that if you wish to do it [theatre] seriously, learn it academically.

She was new then. People didn’t know her like they know her now. At that time she was as a young theatre actress from Pune. She had just passed out from the Lalit Kala Kendra.

After my 12th, I enrolled at the Centre for Performing Arts in Pune University. The head of the institution was [actor-director] Satish Alekar, who is my guru today. He used to say that my writing is more suited for literature or films. He felt I wrote stories whereas theatre wants dialogues. He felt I should think about writing for films. Samar Lakha used to teach us filmmaking in the same institute. 

Dnyanesh Zoting

The most exciting part was that from 2005 to 2007, when I was a student, a lot of festivals started coming up. PIFF [the Pune International Film Festival], which had just started, was like another film school. Films like Harishchandrachi Factory (2009), Vihir (2009), Gabhricha Paus (2009), etc were shown.

We used to get so charged up after listening to the makers. We used to discuss for nights on end. We had gone crazy after watching Harishchandrachi Factory. We met Paresh [Mokashi, the director] and he was so willing to talk to us. Same was the case with Umesh Kulkarni. We were so impressed with the kind of films they were doing and the kind of people they are. This is how it started.

I gave the entrance exam for the FTII [Film and Television Institute of India in Pune] but could not pass. So, my mother felt I should now stop all this and think about earning. I did mass communication. I made a couple of short films. One got selected at the IFFK [International Film Festival of Kerala]. For the first time my badge had ‘filmmaker’ mentioned on it instead of ‘delegate.’ I felt okay, I am able to do it.

Then I assisted Mokashi for Elizabeth Ekadashi (2014). The casting of kids and the dealing was done by me.

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