Interview Marathi

5 years of Killa: I knew I was making something special, says director Avinash Arun

Avinash Arun looks back at his critically acclaimed debut feature film.

Suyog Zore

Avinash Arun, a cinematographer trained at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), made a smashing directorial debut with Killa (2015). A film about coming to terms with loss, about displacement and the mother-son relationship, about learning the meaning of friendship and experiencing the pain of betrayal, all seen through the eyes of an eleven-year-old, Killa is easily one of the more important Indian features of the second decade of the 21st century.

Killa travelled to various film festivals, winning the prestigious Crystal Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival. Back home it bagged the National award for Best Marathi Feature Film.

Killa is the story of Chinmay, who is at the cusp of adolescence. He has moved to a town in the Konkan from Pune with his mother Aruna (Amruta Subhash), a government official who has been posted there for a year. Avinash Arun's beautiful melancholic feature captures the Konkan in the monsoon at its most hypnotic.

Killa was released five years ago this day. Director-cinematographer Avinash Arun looks back at the making of the film in an exclusive interview with Excerpts:

How do you feel when you look back at Killa (2015) today?

It's not like I'm completely detached from the film. Your first film is always special because it kind of validates your efforts and gives you the courage to go ahead and explore more. Even after five years people talk about the film and send me messages on social media. I'm really happy that my first film got such love and adulation from the audience.

Was it difficult to get producers to back you because it was your first film?

Not at all. On the contrary, I got producers very easily. I was lucky in that aspect.

I was assisting Anay Goswami on Kai Po Che! (2013). He was the cinematographer on the film. There I met Ajay Rai from JAR Pictures. He was one of the producers of Kai Po Che!. He asked me to come for the narration of another film. He wanted me to shoot that film.

After the narration, he sought my opinion on the script and I told him honestly that I didn't find it interesting. That is when he asked curiously whether I have any script or know someone who has some interesting ideas because he was interested in producing a Marathi film. So I narrated the story of Killa. He loved it. Two days later he called and said we are making your film.

I didn't even have a script at that time. So I, my friend Omkar Barve and Tushar Paranjpe sat down and wrote the script. We wrote three drafts in a month. Immediately thereafter we started shooting. It just happened so quickly.

We know Killa is sort of based on your experiences. Can you tell us a little more about that?

Almost everyone knows now that Killa was a semi-autobiographical film based on my childhood which I spent in Murud, Konkan. It was not based on any particular incident but was about capturing that feeling of those innocent adolescent minds. It was about reliving all those memories that are still there in my unconscious mind.

All the child artistes in the film gave very natural performances though all of them were facing the camera for the first time. How did you choose them? And how did you extract such natural performances from them?

Omkar conducted a workshop in Pune. He had called around 40 or 45 children. I used to chit-chat with all those children and during those sessions, I started getting a vague idea about who should play whom. It was all based on instinct. And I prefer to cast newcomers because they are not rigid and are more open to experiments. It suits my directorial style, I guess.

Archit Deodhar, Parth Bhalerao, Gaurish Gawade, Atharva Upasni

Talking about natural performances, once they understood the core emotion of the story it became easy for me. Even at such a tender age, they had the maturity, which is rare. I loved working with them.

Besides winning the Crystal Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival 2014, Killa won the National award for Best Feature Film in Marathi. While making the film did you have that intuition that we are making something special?

Definitely. While I was at the FTII, all those internationally acclaimed films we used to watch, I felt my film had that same germ. I knew there was something special in the story and if I am able to present it cinematically then it will surely get nominated at some international film festivals. But I didn't expect to win the Best Film award, especially at an A-list festival like Berlinale. Berlinale, Cannes, Toronto, Sundance, these are all A-list festivals and I didn't think Killa would make it at such a big festival.

Killa also collected Rs10 crore at the box office, a rare feat for an arthouse regional film. Did you expect that?

No, not at all. I knew if I tell the story in a simple manner without any melodrama, people will like it. But I didn't expect such an overwhelming response from the audience.

It's difficult to find that sweet spot where critics as well as the mass audience like your film. You try to appeal to the sensibilities of both mass and class audiences and It's easier said than done.

To be honest, I don't think about the people when making a film. I believe I'm my first audience and if any story appeals to me then it will appeal to the general movie-going audience. There is that famous quote from Steven Speilberg, "I always like to think of the audience when I am directing. Because I am the audience.” I believe in that quote.

You shot on location and used natural light, so what challenges did you face as a cinematographer?

First of all, I don't like artificial lighting in my films. Technology has evolved so much, with the camera and lenses available today, I don't think you need to use artificial lighting any more.

The biggest challenge I faced while shooting Killa was rain. People generally don't like to shoot in the rain. Mani Ratnam, [Andrei] Tarkovsky, [Akira] Kurosawa, these kind of legendary filmmakers and their films always had a huge impact on me. In their films, the atmosphere plays a crucial role in creating a certain mood. And I like the rainy season. There is something about rain that, if captured with a certain authenticity, creates magic on screen. That's why I wanted to shoot in the monsoon.

But when you are making a small film you don't have the luxury of a huge budget to get a rain machine for artificial rain and stuff. So shooting in actual rain was the only option. It was genuinely a tough task because you have no control over rain. Sometimes it poured heavily, sometimes it used to drizzle. So we also had to work on maintaining the continuity and keeping the camera and other types of equipment safe. But it was all worth it.

Though Killa was set in the 1990s, except for the STD phones we don't get many references to that period. Generally, if the film is set in a specific period, filmmakers tend to use that to generate nostalgia, but you refrained from doing so.

I believe less is more. Just because the film is set in the 1990s I don't think there is a need to bombard the audience with references from that decade. You have to trust the audience and keep it subtle. The audience is intelligent and they will sniff out if you are doing it for the sake of it. So I wanted to be true to my story.

Though children played the lead roles in the film, it's not a children's film. It has some mature themes. Did you ever think you should dumb it down a bit so that even children could enjoy the film?

But I don't think children are dumb. Sometimes they are not able to articulate it properly, but they have a better emotional understanding than some adults. Adults only understand the words, but children understand the core emotion of the scene.

Killa and two other films you worked on as cinematographer, Masaan (2015) and Drishyam (2015), were all released within a span of a month. What was going through your mind in those 30-odd days? Were you nervous or excited?

Yes, I was excited, but it was not like I was on cloud nine. It was subdued excitement. More than that I was observing how people's perception of you changes in such quick time. All three films were very different. Each had a distinct cinematic language and a different target audience.

Masaan and Killa were more arthouse films, but they had different settings. Masaan was set in Varanasi whereas Killa is set in the lush greenery of Konkan in the monsoon. Drishyam was a more commercial film with an A-list actor. So each film had a different demand from me as cinematographer.

I was taking in all the criticism and appreciation for all three of my films. I was observing how the audience, as well as people within the industry, respond to these three completely different films. It was a learning experience for me and it really helped me.