First-time filmmaker Abhishek Shah speaks about making his debut film over three years, winning the National award, and finding a cinematic story for the big screen.
Had clarity on what I wanted for Hellaro: Filmmaker Abhishek Shah
Mumbai - 21 Nov 2019 9:00 IST
Fresh off its National award for Best Feature Film, Hellaro (2019, Gujarati) has been enjoying a good run in the theatres since its release on 8 November.
The period film opens the golden jubilee edition of the International Film Festival of India today. It will also be screened in the Indian Panorama section at the festival.
The critically acclaimed film has been garnering praise for its exacting production values and uplifting music. In an interview with Cinestaan.com, writer-director Abhishek Shah recounted the film's three-year journey, the National award win, and that striking ending.
The unassuming filmmaker from Ahmedabad, Gujarat, has been writing and directing plays for the past 19 years, beginning when he was just 18. He has also been a casting director of note, with films like Bey Yaar (2014), Chhello Divas (2015) and Wrong Side Raju (2016) to his credit.
The story of Hellaro called out to him so he decided to give it his all to bring it to the big screen. “Storytelling has been my preferred work," Shah said. "I have done a lot of plays as writer-director which had to do with social concerns. It wasn’t that I suddenly decided to switch from being a casting director. I love telling stories and I found a story that had a lot of cinema in it.”
The feature has been inspired by folklore. Shah went on to explain how the inspiration of women dancing the garba was expanded into Hellaro and what you see on the screen.
“It’s only that in folklore women play the garba on the beat of the dhol. That’s it, only that is taken. But the part about the women’s self-expression, that’s my own thought, and suppression has never been associated with garba, so that was also a new idea,” he said.
From October 2016, Shah began working on the script and screenplay with Prateek Gupta, a process that took them a year and a half. Later, Saumya Joshi joined them to write the dialogues and the lyrics to the soundtrack.
While Shah had initially set out to write a play, like he did every year, the story of Hellaro kept telling him that it was meant for cinema.
“It was the cinema that attracted me [about this story], that this needs to be portrayed on the big screen,” the director said. “When I started to write the story, I was very clear about everything. I could see the first time the women would meet the dholi [drummer], how the first garba would be, the second garba, and how they would eventually be caught. That visualization was growing very powerful.
“I’m very lucky that I got a story as a writer and director that guided me from inside. When we went on the floors, I was very confident because I had worked hard on the script. We had prepared the actors so much that I told them that I didn’t even want one word to be changed. And my screenplay, if you read it and if you watch the film, you will see that there is no change in it, front to back. It was that precise.”
With that clarity in mind, Shah led his cast and crew to create a whole fictional village in Kutch, close to the last village in Gujarat near the Pakistan border, right in the middle of the desert. The whole set was erected and remained there for two months. Eventually after a pre-production period of around five months, the film was shot in 35 days.
For his cast, Shah looked to actors and actresses he had previously worked with on plays or had auditioned over the years. The female cast of 13 actresses — Shraddha Dangar, Shachi Joshi, Denisha Ghumra, Neelam Paanchal, Tarjani Bhadla, Brinda Nayak, Tejal Panchasara, Kaushambi Bhatt, Ekta Bachwani, Kamini Panchal, Jagruti Thakore, Riddhi Yadav and young Prapti Mehta — were singled out for their performances and a Special Mention by the jury at the National awards in August.
The filmmaker said the National awards are extremely special to him and he was elated that the actresses were singled out.
“This is happening for the first time ever in the history of Gujarati cinema that the Swarn Kamal, the Golden Lotus, is coming to the state. I was more than happy, and it was unbelievable. The feeling was very great,” he said.
Music, and the folk tunes, are an integral part of Hellaro and, once again, Shah was clear about the direction the score had to take. “I compose for my plays so I had many songs for my plays, so I have that inherent musical sense," he said. "Music director Mehul Surti is very talented, be it folk music, classical music or cinema. He knows this kind of music.
“My brief was clearcut, that I want these kind of songs. In a lot of films, there are directors who have a good sense in their music and you can see that in their films, like Raj Kapoor or Sanjay Leela Bhansali. I had that clarity, I don’t know how it will happen, but I had that clarity of what I wanted.”
Moreover, Shah wanted to move away from the kind of music that is the norm today. “[It had to have the] authenticity of 1975," he said. "If the dhol is playing, that’s what you should hear. Music for cinema is different, but I also wanted to keep the honesty of the garba, because it has to be a garba. Here, in films, you don’t have garba, you have songs like dance numbers. But I wanted a [traditional] garba.
“The people who collaborate with you, their vision should be better than yours. If they only do what I want, it won’t work. What I wanted or had imagined, I was confident in what I wanted, but Mehul Surti took it way beyond. He did something that was beyond satisfaction. That happened to me even with the choreography. Again with the cinematography. All the departments came through for me. What I had thought, they went far ahead of it,” Shah said of his crew.
The crew spent a significant portion of its time making sure the period film would look right, and Shah remarked that a lot of hard work goes into making an authentic feature.
“We did intense research for the artwork, the village interior and exterior; also for the costumes and jewellery. So I think we spent more than a year just on research. It’s very easy to do beautification, that you gave someone a colourful lehenga or a good jacket or pugree. But authentication is very difficult. I think we had 400-plus costumes, all of them were newly made. The material, the stitching, the design, everything,” he explained.
Shah also spoke about the film’s dramatic ending, which can be taken in different ways, and said that while people may have their own interpretations, he wrote the ending with hope.
Referencing the landmark Marathi film Sairat (2016), Shah stated, “When I began writing, I wanting to leave [the film] on hope that whatever revolution has happened in the world, it began like this. And whatever kind of person you are, that kind of an end it will be for you.”
Besides taking on gender inequality and patriarchy, the film also weaves in the pertinent issue of caste. Shah explained how a newspaper image from 2014 about a Dalit man in Punjab made an impact on him, and he incorporated his story into Hellaro.
“On the front page, there was a photograph in which his hands were burned and bandaged. So in this film, when [Mulji] has his hands bandaged, it’s from there. And with stories of suppression in our country, it’s just the year that changes. Otherwise, it stays there, the style changes. Taking the incident from 2014, we took the character of the dholi and tried to tell his story. I always say, aap jaise ho, waisi aap film banate ho, and I really dislike this kind of discrimination.”
Of course, all eyes are on Shah and his team, bringing Gujarati cinema to the forefront. Shah is happy with the positive change his film has wrought, and hopes that it can inspire others like him.
“There are many filmmakers like me who actually want to tell their stories that aren’t like any other films, so they will get a lot of hope from this," he said. "Another thing is that Gujarati films haven’t received any acclamation at the national level, not that there haven’t been good films made, but since three months, there has been talk of Gujarati films!”
Shah said he believes cinema is a necessary medium of communication: “I wanted to make a film that would reach people properly. I feel I have tried to do that, there is a lot of hope that people will like it. We have tried to talk about issues in an entertaining way. I’m not thinking about numbers and the box office, but I want this film to reach out to the maximum people.”