Interview Hindi

Nishil Sheth: I had completely underestimated kids before Bhasmasur

The co-writer and director of Bhasmasur speaks about the challenges of making a first feature after film school, working with child artistes, and the experiences of crowdfunding.

Photo courtesy: Nishil Sheth

Sonal Pandya

Making your first feature after graduating from film school can be daunting. Just ask writer-director Nishil Sheth.

The promising filmmaker’s directorial debut had its world premiere at the 19th Mumbai Film Festival last October.

Bhasmasur is the story of a poor farmer, Dhaanu, whose tenuous bond with his young son Tipu is threatened when he has to sell Tipu’s pet donkey, Bhasmasur, to pay off his debts to moneylenders. The moving film was one of the underrated festival films of 2017.

In a telephonic interview, the director, a graduate of Whistling Woods, spoke about the film’s journey, casting the two leads, and the challenges of directing a donkey. Excerpts:

How did you decide to become a director? Was it something you always wanted to do?

Not really. I was doing engineering and it was around that time that I failed in one of the subjects. I didn’t want to be home that day because I was feeling guilty. There was this workshop being held by [cinematographer] VK Murthy. I turned up there just to pass the time actually. It was a weekend thing so I started attending that and really started getting into it.

That’s when I really asked him, ‘How do I really know if I want to pursue something in this?’ [Murthy] was like, if you feel the same way or maybe more, in a year’s time, keep watching more films, maybe it is something you should do. So I started watching a lot of films. I think it was a gradual process. That was the germ, from where it began.

What year was this?

This was around 2009-10.

And then you joined Whistling Woods?

Before that I did a course in editing, during my last year of engineering in Bangalore itself at a place called Flash Frame Visuals Academy. I was scared, why would any film school take me? That [course] really helped me, prep at least, to try and apply for Whistling Woods.

After the film’s screening at the 19th Mumbai Film Festival, you said Bhasmasur was a failed short film project you did for school that you later turned into a feature? How hard was it to be objective and begin again?

That is why it was very important that Raghav [Dutt], my co-writer on Bhasmasur, could come on board, because I just had those three minutes that I had shot. The whole idea of the donkey which would tie these two characters together, and also help us take the plot forward, was all Raghav in that sense. He would help work on the scenes and write them. So that was the sort of equation we had with each other.

The film is inspired by true events. What motivated you to capture it on film?

In film school, sometimes we would have a 16mm project and we would have to come up with a script in like two days. During those times, one night, I was surfing the net and came across this article and I didn’t even bother about it. But then for the next two-three days, it sort of stayed. I won’t say it nagged me, but it stayed. So I thought [for a short of] three minutes I could do something with it which is not so comical. Because I was always doing something comic, at least I thought I was doing something comic.

So that’s when I thought it would be a nice way to go about it, at that point. It was a lot to do with desperation as I didn’t have anything in my head.

The project is a collaborative effort with your batchmates at Whistling Woods? How did they all come on board?

As soon as you leave film school — at least this happened to me — there is this utopia that has been created in your head for those two years. It just shatters when you are outside because by then you are so used to making your own films, even on a very small scale. My concern for the day [when I was shooting in film school] was I should get the right shoes on set. We were all doing that sort of work.

In six months, I became very bitter about it. I didn’t like the way things were going around. There was a time when I was also moping a bit, with friends and around, and [we were] like we would rather do something than mope. That’s when I thought, what could happen, quick, in that sense, so then I thought of doing Bhasmasur and it was something I didn’t do well also. So I thought maybe it will be a nice way to start about it. Let me just start off first by writing, if I could write 60 pages, it would be amazing.

It started off on that level and after the script was done, I just had a narration once with the people who I thought would like to be involved, and everyone showed a lot of interest. So we began from there.

It's something special when the right people come on board.

That's what I've heard. Whatever little experience I have had is working this way. If anyone is part of a film, it should feel like our film, because as much as there is a director, a producer, it’s not a one-man show. It cannot happen that way, at least that’s what I feel.

How did you cast the two leads?

Trimala Adhikari, who is on casting, helped out a lot. We took some auditions. She used to do a lot of theatre, and Raghav’s from a theatre background, so we kept some auditions with people we thought would fit the bill and then eventually Imranbhai [Imran Rasheed] worked for us. On the father front, it was that.

When it came to the kid, there were two things — one, financially I knew I couldn’t afford a kid from Mumbai with the amount of days, and also, the way we were working, we had issues on every front in terms of production, so the parents of the kids would get scared. My own parents would have got scared.

It was very important that we got someone from that area. And we thought a non-actor would really be helpful for a part like this where there are hardly any lines and it’s more how one expresses with body language.

Then Trimala really trained the kid, more than anything, to the point where I could start working with him, because I didn’t have that much experience working with kids or even acting for that matter.

Was it difficult giving direction to a non-actor in Mittal Chouhan?

It was the hardest thing, because you would go there [to the set] and, you know, you only have four minutes for a shot and it was on the kid’s mood. Today, he is not in the mood to be happy. The one thing I realized with him, and not many people might be up for it, is that the only way he will be able to perform is if he is what he is. So we tried to club in the happy scenes together, so I can keep him on the wavelength, tell the entire crew to talk to him and play with him.

But the day when we would have the sombre scenes, you would see the crew ignore him. So that would come on his face. I would go out of line and tell him something.

But what was really interesting is, even though he was really young, after a point, he realized this is a process and became a part of it. So that is something that blew me away, more than the acting. I had completely underestimated kids before Bhasmasur.

A lot of credit goes to Trimala and even Pavan [Bhat], who was on the edit, because he really shaped the kid’s performance, to be honest. When we got them for [dubbing], the sound designer, though it’s not generally required, was literally directing him to say a few things a certain way and even cry on a certain day to get it right. It was sometimes unnerving, but overall, it seemed to work. It was good and I’m sure he had fun (laughs).

This is the third movie I saw in 2017 that had a donkey as a key character, after Walking With The Wind and Gauru: Journey For Change. So what was it like working with a donkey on set? Did he trouble your crew? You had a trainer?

So there was an animal handler on set, as required. To have a trainer for a donkey per se, from what I have understood, is pretty much impossible. The animal handler would know what the donkey wants and doesn’t want, so that way, for his well-being, it was perfect. But apart from that, it was on its own, pretty much.

Initially [Mittal Chouhan] found it very difficult to bond with the donkey. The donkey looks very unassuming that way, but it has these very heavy legs so even one foot on your foot, you are down for like 10 minutes for sure. So the film is about the kid liking the donkey (laughs). It was around seven-eight days [until they bonded]. We saw [later] in the edit that good drama could come out of it. There were a lot of happy accidents also.

Bhasmasur review: Father and son make a heartbreaking journey to the city

What are your plans for the film’s release now that it has premiered at the 19th Mumbai Film Festival?

Right now, our plan is to do a festival run for the coming few months. And then possibly see a way to monetize, mostly digitally, but if something tangible comes our way, we would be more than happy. From what we have understood, it would cost a lot more to release [the film]. I could make another two films.

We are quite new into it and we are learning as we go ahead. So if something comes up like that, we would be super excited.

Did you have any trouble with crowdfunding?

The whole concept of crowdfunding, my producer, when he first told me about it, because we had no choice by then, I was quite against it. Because why would we take someone’s money? I was in this very weird space. But then I realized, more than anything, it was out of desperation. We need the Rs5 lakh and we were really overwhelmed when we completed the target in 30 days.

I don’t think it was easy for us to do it otherwise. In the process we found an associate producer, got eyeballs [on the project] and started speaking to people about Bhasmasur. On that front, it really helped push the film. The by-products are very nice of crowdfunding

What are you looking forward to, any future projects?

Right now, I am going to be editing a Hindi feature [film] which is a semi-independent project. And we have finished working on a screenplay which we have begun pitching, one that I want to direct. These are the two things at least, but you know, it’s at such a nascent stage right now, I don’t know what else to say. But we are definitely working towards something happening.

I saw that Rima Das thanked you in the credits of Village Rockstars. Did you collaborate with her on the project?

The film was [already] made. Pavan and I cut the trailer together before it went to TIFF [the Toronto International Film Festival]. It was very nice of her to thank us actually.