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Interview Hindi

Because it’s a dark psychological film, Gali Guleiyan was very tough to execute: Dipesh Jain

The first-time filmmaker spoke with us about the journey of making Gali Guleiyan, the festival darling that has captivated audiences from South Korea to the US.

Sonal Pandya

Nearly a year after his film had its world premiere in Busan, South Korea, writer-director Dipesh Jain’s first film is ready to be released in India, where it’s set. The film, released on 7 September, is a psychological drama about a lonely man, Khuddoos, who voyeuristically watches the citizens of old Delhi. When he hears a young boy, his neighbour, being abused through the walls, he can’t help but want to rescue him. But how?

Jain, who studied film in the Czech Republic and the US, spent a long time writing and shaping Gali Guleiyan. Serendiptiously, eventually fell into place for the first-time filmmaker. Perhaps, patience and passion were key, as Jain kept at it, working on the story and screenplay, and making sure the right people were in the right positions to take his film forward.

We spoke with the director about proving himself as a director with his debut, the logistics of casting for and shooting Gali Guleiyan and why old Delhi is an extra character in the film. Excerpts.

Gali Guleiyan is a project you’ve been working on for over three years. What challenges did you face taking it from script to screen?

The kind of films I want to make are not easy ones. I don’t look at packaging first and then scripting later on. Being a first film, it always is a little tough to get it mounted and everything. [For an] independent film’s journey, if you see, it’s not taken that much time. By the end of 2014, I had written it, by 2015 it was in [script-writing] labs, while we were setting it up, and in 2016, the shoot was also completed.

But consciously, we let it run in festivals for a year, otherwise, we could have released it earlier also. Our thing was, we wanted to show the world what we can do with the story.

We got a lot of acceptance and appreciation everywhere so that gave us more confidence that okay, let’s keep doing it, let’s keep creating the buzz. So, from South Korea all the way to the US, and every country in between, till Australia, we’ve played [the film in] every continent. South Africa is left now, which we are going [in two] months. The film is actually still going in festivals.  

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When you started, did you know that you wanted this film to be your first feature?

No, because I had actually written something else. So, I live in Los Angeles and I write a lot there. I wrote a political thriller that got a lot of traction in Hollywood because it was ranked by [Francis Ford] Coppola’s [American Zoetrope Screenplay Competition] in top 20 scripts to read that year. We started raising funds for that, but it was a big film.

It was a political film with a 10-12 million dollar budget. I was going to all these big production companies and they were loving the script. They were saying that you sell us the script, but we will not have you as a director because you don’t have any experience. So that went on for almost a year.

Right after graduating from film school at USC [University of Southern California], I spent one-and-a-half years writing and setting that film up called A Stone’s Throw Away which we are now casting for. Now because of Gali Guleiyan that film has also begun. At that point, I felt that I should do something that I can execute to show the world that I can direct.

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It was that idea, what story can I talk about? This story, when I was in film school, I had flashes of scenes. I never had a story. Every year, I wrote something, 5-10 pages. I knew I wanted to tell a story in old Delhi; it won’t be that expensive and I’ll tell it on an independent scale, but it will be visually cinematic – a story of a man trapped in old Delhi.

But that was enough for me to binge into a full-fledged [script]. But when I began researching a documentary on child violence and learnt about their real stories, I started realizing that if I combine these two stories, it will be a very strong-layered narrative. Jab woh idea mujhe aaya [when I got that idea], it took me three-and-a half - four months to just write the screenplay. Then it was just like flash [snaps fingers together].

Ek ke baad ek, acha yeh hogi story, aur phir usme yeh connections hoga [One after the other. Okay, this will be the story, this will be the connections]. And at that point also, a lot of people discouraged me to make this as my first film because it’s a dark psychological film. It’s a very tough film to execute, you have a main protagonist who has a psychological problem and he doesn’t have a lot of lines. It’s not a dialogue heavy film, it’s mostly visual.

Everybody was like, you’re stacking all the odds against your favour and then you have a kid. So everything we say, don’t do it, you’re doing it all in one film. But I also thought if I have to make, risk it all, then go all out, why not? And it has paid off.

Is this the cast you envisaged when you were writing the screenplay?

Yes. Luckily, when I was talking with my casting director [Dilip Shankar] for the first time, I was in Germany. He read the script and said I’m going to do it, which was a great day for us, because he’s a great guy. He told me, ‘Give me your ‘A’ choices, your ‘B’ choices and your ‘C’'. I said, ‘‘B’ and ‘C’ I haven’t thought about, but here are my ‘A’ choices. Ranvir Shorey for friend, [Khuddoos] was written for Manoj Bajpayee, Neeraj Kabi for father because I loved his performance in Ship Of Theseus (2013) and Shahana Goswami for mother because I have not seen a lot of her work but there’s one scene in Rock On!! (2008). Every time I see, it makes me cry, and I think she’s very underutilised, brilliant performer and she will be perfect for the role.'

The casting director said, ‘You know, you’re a debut director and all these people are usually not seen in one film.’ I said, ‘You try, then we’ll see.’ And as luck would have it, everybody loved the script.

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How did you approach Manoj Bajpayee for the lead role?

Manoj was actually the last one to get cast because we don’t know anyone. We didn’t know him. My casting director was not able to get a hold of him because he was not based in Mumbai. He was based out of Delhi. We had already started pre-production, [with] two months remaining to shoot. A friend of mine connected me to Manoj. I call her guardian angel of this project. She’s been thanked at the top of the film. Then when he read the script, not many questions were asked. He grilled me for two-three hours, he wanted to know exactly about the character, but once he read it, he liked it, and within four days, he signed it.

Neeraj Kabi, you thought of him as the negative character?

Yes, precisely because of Ship Of Theseus. He played a Jain monk. I’m a Jain, and he was so method and perfect [in the film]. So to see him as a Muslim butcher who is violent would be a complete diametrically opposite role that he would have done, and he’s brilliant.

The reason he did the film was because the father’s character is not black and white. It’s very complex and problematic. It was not that he was beating the kid all the time. He loves the kid also, he would hug him, but when he loses it, he doesn’t know when to stop, which is how real people [act]. He has anger issues, but at the same time he’s a deeply problematic man. That is what was fascinating for him. In the MAMI [Mumbai Film Festival] screening, when he saw the film for the first time, his daughter said, ‘Dad, this is your best work.’ I’m very proud.

The film is set and filmed in Delhi which almost becomes like an extra character in the film. How essential was it that you shoot on location?

For me, it’s very essential because I’m a person who thinks in terms of spaces. I’m also someone who is very classical in terms of cinema. I also give lectures on film, and talked about [cinema], so present day, there’s a lot of focus on story.

Back in the day, there was a word that a lot of filmmakers used — setting. Aap ki film ki setting kya hai? [What is the setting of your film?] That was the first thing they asked. If you see the films of Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor, setting means you’re building a world, through spaces, through costume, through production design. That is cinema.

And I truly believe, the people who I admire, Roman Polanski, Ingmar Bergman, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Martin Scorsese, [his film] Taxi Driver (1976) used New York the way nobody has ever done. So we are not telling stories in isolation. Space is the biggest character. So for me, setting is the most important thing. I believe if you have gotten the nuances of the setting right, you can tell any story.

I could have told a romantic-comedy in old Delhi. I’ve got old Delhi nailed down, the look of it, the feel of it, the nuances of it. As a filmmaker also, I respond to that a lot, the neo-realism of Italian cinema, I’ve always been very fascinated by it. It’s a character in the film. When you see the film, I can bet, you may like the story, you may not like the story, but you will definitely come out saying, ‘Maine purana Delhi ko aise kabhi nahin dekha [I’ve never seen old Delhi this way]’. The claustrophobia that I want to show, you will feel it physically.

How long did the shoot take?

40 days. It was one full schedule. As an independent film, we couldn’t afford to go back. We couldn’t even afford reshoots. This is something I learnt in film school. The first thing I learnt through editing is any film that I have done, I’ve never had to go back and reshoot. I plan it in a way that I get whatever it is on the day. Only that’s natural, after that, everything is recreated.

Did you always want to be a filmmaker?

As a kid, I’ve always wanted to be a filmmaker.

That’s why you went to Los Angeles to study film?

First, I did chartered accountancy, and I also did chartered accountancy of the US. That was something for my family and my parents.

Like a backup?

I don’t think of it as a backup. But they thought it would be a backup. Kuch backup bana ke rakho [Keep something as backup]. I was like, I will do it for you, but I don’t want to do it. So, I studied films in Prague, Czech Republic first, and then I went to USC film school in LA and I did my masters there. I spent five years in that film school.

You have allowed the film to keep playing at festivals since last year, you’ve got an amazing response from audiences around the world. Was that what you were hoping for?

That was the hope. We didn’t know that will happen. Manoj sir and I keep talking about it. This is a truly independent film in its form and structure. We are not supported by anyone in the industry. Everybody has a mentor. No one is backing us.

It becomes even tougher to crack festivals without that kind of a backing. Everybody knows. But I think it was the power of the storytelling, the power of the film that we went to the top festivals and we played alongside everyone’s film that had backing and then we won. I’m not boasting, but apart from an achievement in the film, I think this is our collective achievement, because we stuck by it and we kept pushing it.

It’s not easy to place a film in Busan as a world premiere, but we know how stressful it was for three months when we were trying to find a world premiere for the film. The first world premiere screening in South Korea was an eye-opener.

I was sitting with my producer, we were in the cinema, just outside in the lobby as they were prepping the cinema. It was a 450 seat theatre. And I was like, it’s an Indian film, in Korea, if 20-30 people come, we’ll be very happy, if 50 come, we’ll be set. And then we see them open the theatre and a batch of 50 go in, and I was like, at least 50, and then another 50, it was a packed house.

Everybody responded to the film. They were coming out crying, it was subtitled. The same day, we were doing the India premiere at MAMI that night. And I was like, let me see what the Indian audience says, the response was off the charts. My parents were there to monitor it and people were going gaga. They’ve never seen something like this come out of India, this kind of storytelling.

When we came for the second screening, there were 200 people waiting to get in, that day I knew that this film is universal because it can play in Korea, US, everywhere, and we are set. It will have a festival path.

Now that the film is getting a theatrical release in India, what’s next for you, the movie you mentioned earlier?

Yes, that’s in casting right now. The other thing is we’re doing a series. It’s going to be a mini-series based on a real-life person. We are currently getting the life rights to that. A series that will combine Chinese, Indian and American industries, the idea is to pitch it to HBO first, if they pass on it, then Netflix or Amazon.