Interview Hindi

Independent filmmaking is a miracle, says Ashish Pant of his journey to make Uljhan

The first-time filmmaker speaks about his debut feature which made its world premiere at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in California.

Sonal Pandya

In Ashish Pant’s Uljhan (2021), a couple’s relationship is further frayed after a car accident in which they run over a poor rickshaw wallah. Their decisions in the aftermath reveal their differences in class and mindset as they figure out what to do.

The first-time filmmaker’s debut feature made its world premiere at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in California, USA, which was held from 1–10 April. Pant is happy that his film was finding an audience, albeit virtually, and glad that he had the opportunity to showcase Uljhan for an international audience.

Pant, who is also from Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, where his film is set, grew up in a middle-class family but always was interested in filmmaking. “[I] had this dream of being a filmmaker some time in life," he said. "I went on to work in business, and in industry, but always had this in mind that when I could get a chance, I would love to get into the arts and be an artist.”

He assisted many theatre directors in New York, worked as a stage manager, and finally took the plunge when he joined Columbia University for his MFA (Master of Fine Arts). While he was there, he began writing the screenplay for Uljhan, with encouragement from his screenwriting mentor, and eventually things began lining up for him.

“In 2017, I applied with the screenplay of Uljhan to NFDC’s Film Bazaar Co-Production Market,” Pant said. “The script was selected as one of 17 projects and I can’t emphasize how important that was for me to get this film made, because NFDC’s Co-Production Market is a great platform for independent filmmakers from South Asia. We were able to pitch the film to about 300 film executives and producers from across the world. That’s where I met Kartikeya Narayan Singh, whose films I had seen and really admired.”

Though Kartikeya Narayan Singh was already busy with other projects, Pant kept following up with him with Uljhan’s screenplay and later came on board as producer. Another mentor of Pant’s, American filmmaker Christopher Zalla, also joined the project as producer after reading his script.

“It was really the kindness and belief in the project from a lot of people that I was able to get this thing made,” he said. “It’s almost like a miracle when I think about it. But that’s what independent filmmaking is, it’s a miracle!”

It’s usually hard to produce and make a feature film, and for an independent filmmaker, the process is harder.

“Filmmaking, not only is it an expensive enterprise, but it just requires a village to make a film," Pant said. "I think at every stage as a filmmaker, you are trying to sort of convince people and inspire them to believe in the project and to say this is worth doing.”

Uljhan is based on a personal experience of Pant’s when he was a child. He and his father were on their way to his grandmother’s, for lunch, when a scooter came from other side and ran into their car.

“Within moments, our car was surrounded by people, banging on windows, saying ‘Baahar niklo [C'mon out]!’,” he recalled. “I was so scared, and my father said, don’t open the door and he stepped out of the car to talk to them. That image of people looking in, out from the window, and banging at us, I think just gets seared in your memory, especially when you are a child.”

While he was spared the details of what happened, Pant said there was palpable tension in his family for the next few years because of the accident. When it came time for him to write his first screenplay, he went back to that initial memory he had as a child, using it as a point of departure.

“It’s really an exploration of how our differing viewpoints ultimately seep into our closest relationships," he explained. "In this case, [with a] husband and wife. That was the background of how this all came about.”

Being from Lucknow himself, Pant was keen to hire artistes for his film from the same city and state for authenticity.

When it was time to cast the three leads, the filmmaker had certain characteristics in mind. He was looking for a “certain mismatch” between the husband Shirish and the wife Geeta. For Shirish, he needed someone who could be a climber and portray a small-town businessman. He found those qualities in Vikas Kumar.

“As you know, Vikas is a very well-known dialect coach, and he’s just a fantastic person,” Pant said, adding that the actor moved to Lucknow for a month to prepare. Calling Vikas an “absolute professional”, the filmmaker said he was grateful he took on the part as a personal challenge.

“He went and lived with my parents and I introduced him to people in the business community, he spent time with them. He hired a driver, he would drive around Lucknow, talking to the driver and trying to learn the Awadhi dialect,” he said.

For the part of Geeta, Pant and KN Singh looked at Saloni Batra who had starred in Ivan Ayr’s Soni (2019). Like Vikas, she, too, moved to Lucknow and Pant asked her to observe how women who come from similar business family backgrounds behaved. Her character represented “protected feminine elegance” from Lucknow society, he said.

Finally, for the final lead role of Manoj, the brother of the injured rickshaw puller, Pant and his team zeroed in on Nehpal Gautam, a graduate from the National School of Drama (NSD), after auditioning actors for nine months.

“Nehpal was really a find because he’s trained in NSD, but he actually comes from a very rural family in Shahjahanpur, which is about an hour or so away from Lucknow,” Pant said. “So it was just such a great combination that someone who has trained at such a top dramatic programme but actually belongs to a milieu that can understand and speak that language, and really inhabit that character without trying to imitate.”

Through Gautam, Pant was able cast two more key characters who are associates of Manoj. Lastly, for the role of Munni, Manoj’s niece, they cast a child artiste with help from a non-governmental organization that works in the slums in Lucknow, running drama programmes.

The journey of making Uljhan has been a long one for Pant. It took the team around a year and a half just to lock the locations, because the production team was on the hunt for the perfect house which plays a key part in the screenplay.

“It was very hard, because Lucknow is not like Mumbai where there are certain stock houses you can get for film shooting,” he said. “Kartikeya and I were going door-to-door in these crowded neighbourhoods and ringing doorbells and saying we are looking to shoot in your house.”

When people realized that they would have to leave their homes for 20 days, they turned them away. Eventually, production designers Prashant Deshmane and Satish Poddar found a solution with the set that made it seem it was all together.

Pant also spoke about his methods in preparing for scenes. The filmmaker revealed that he didn’t like to rehearse scenes from the script because he feels they become mechanical. Instead, he explained, “I write a lot of scenes that have happened in the lives of these characters before this movie began and I rehearse those scenes. So, in a strange way, those scenes become a memory for an actor.”

He reminded Vikas and Saloni about those “memories” before scenes, allowing them to evoke those emotions for the new scenes. Pant felt both artistes surprised him a lot from the feelings they were able to draw upon for the camera.

Similarly, Pant worked on setting up the scenes with his Polish cinematographer Pawel Kacprzak before any shot was filmed. The duo worked out the blocking online for around six months, through FaceTime, as they were in different countries.

“For me, directing is only about one question: where to put the camera?” Pant said. “One of the things that cinema offers as a medium that no other art form offers is time. We were very cognizant of what is the experience of time that the audience is getting.”

Uljhan contains many long takes and Pant said he was grateful that the cast and crew were patient enough to believe in his vision of how his story should be told. The filmmaker also framed his shots in a way that allowed the audience to experience certain moments as bystanders.

The quiet drama hits home with its final 20 minutes in which the emotions and fears that the characters have been suppressing all the while come to the forefront. Pant said it took him around a year to work on the ending as well, working with producer KN Singh on it. He was anxious that it should be believable.

“One of my writing teachers once told me, many years back, the challenge with endings is that they should feel both unpredictable and yet inevitable, which is a paradox, right?” he said. “That element is what you want, that people should say, well, in fact, this is the only thing that could have happened, but I didn’t see it coming.”

Uljhan has just begun its festival journey and the filmmaker hopes to have premieres in Europe and Asia as well. But Pant is most keen that audiences back home see it eventually. “I hope we will get some outlet in India because I would love for people to watch it and see how they respond,” he said.

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Santa Barbara International Film Festival