Interview Kannada

Every character in Koli Taal is based on people I have encountered, says director Abhilash Shetty

Writer-director Shetty speaks about his debut feature film which has been selected for the Indian Film Festival Stuttgart 2021.

Suyog Zore

Abhilash Shetty's first film Koli Taal (Chicken Curry) had its premiere at the prestigious New York Indian Film Festival last month. It was one of three Kannda movies selected for the festival.

Now the film is competing in the Indian Film Festival Stuttgart 2021, in Germany. The festival begins tomorrow.

Koli Taal tells the story of an old couple who are expecting their grandson for dinner. They will be seeing the young man after a year and so want to prepare his favourite dish, chicken curry. They have even selected a particularly healthy rooster for the meal. But on the day of the grandson's arrival, the rooster goes missing. The rest of the story is about all the things they do to find the rooster.

With no formal training in filmmaking, Abhilash Shetty learnt whatever he knows about cinema by watching movies. And for his first feature film, he chose a subject that is close to his heart. The film is set in the Western Ghats of Karnataka where Shetty grew up and of which he has fond memories. It is based on people he encountered in his childhood.

In a telephonic interview, Shetty spoke in detail about his film, the hurdles he had to cross to make his dream a reality, and his passion for cinema. Excerpts:

You hail from a small village in Karnataka. How did you get interested in filmmaking?

I grew up watching a lot of Hindi cinema. I loved all kinds of films. After completing my BCom, I worked as an accountant in a company in Bangalore for two years, but I wanted to be in the creative industry. At that time I had no idea how to make films or about the process of filmmaking.

Finally, I resigned from my job and started making short films with amateur videographers. That's how I got into filmmaking.

Then I started exploring world cinema and, at the same time, continued making short films. I used to watch the films of Satyajit Ray, Shyam Benegal, Wes Anderson and that's how I learned the craft. I haven't been to any film school; whatever I have learned is by watching films.

On the surface, Koli Taal deals with a trivial issue. Generally, people make a short film on such subjects. Why did you decide to make a feature film on it?

When we make a short film we spend 15 or 20 days in pre-production, so I thought if I can make a 10-minute short film why can't I make a 90-minute feature film. I had resigned from my job and was free and was getting more technical knowledge about filmmaking, so I had the confidence that I could pull this off.

I used to watch a lot of masterclasses by Robert Rodriguez and many other filmmakers. He used to say that creative people are born creative but technical people are not, so once you learn a technique, you are unstoppable. That's how I started learning every aspect of filmmaking like editing, sound design, camera.

Also, if you want to make a film on a big subject, It would cost more, so I thought why not make a film on a simple story.

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For this film I came to my roots. Koli Taal is inspired by my background and the place where I grew up in Karnakata. In our village, there is a ritual of sacrificing a rooster whenever there is a special guest. I used to visit my grandmother and she would keep a rooster for me to make a curry.

So I just thought: what if that rooster goes missing? That's how I started writing and every character is based on or inspired by real people I have encountered. I didn't need a big crew, so I began the shoot and I'm happy that Sachin Pattanshetty believed in my script and produced it.

You said you have had no formal training in filmmaking, so did you face any difficulty during post-production?

It took 15 days to shoot the film, but it took more than 200 days to complete the post-production. We did all the post-production in the lockdown [in 2020]. There is no background score in the film. We have only used ambient sound. That's why I and my cousin, who is also the assistant director on the film, recorded more than 500 sounds. It took us two months to record ambient sound, foley and everything.

You were a newcomer and the film has two senior artistes from the Kannada film industry. How did you convince them to take up the project?

Radha Ramachandra is a famous actor in the Kannada film industry. She has acted in a few Hindi films as well, like Gori Tere Pyaar Mein (2013). She was not getting meatier roles in commercial Kannada films. But she is a fantastic actress. She has acted in films by National award-winning filmmakers like Girish Kasaravalli. So when I approached her with the script, she immediately agreed to be a part of the film.

Prabhakar Kunder is from Udupi. Characters in my film speak a specific dialect which is used especially by people from the Western Ghats. Even people from other parts of Karnakata sometimes find it difficult to speak that dialect. Thankfully, Prabhakar knew the dialect.

The other three people who play the role of daily wagers are actual workers from the village. They are not actors and had never seen a [film] camera before.

I just wanted to make this film like a docu-drama where you capture even the simplest details of their lives which are generally ignored in commercial films.

You play the grandson yourself. Did you always want to act?

Yes, I was always interested in acting. That's why I became a filmmaker. [Vishal Bhardwaj's] Kaminey (2009) is the film that changed me completely. I was a passive viewer who would watch commercial masala movies just to pass the time. After Kaminey, I started exploring realistic cinema. I had also acted in short films before, so it was not completely new territory for me.

The thing is, I was not the first choice for this role. I wanted to cast someone else because I was already doing the scripting, direction, editing and other stuff. But I just didn't like anyone's performance during the auditions. And whoever auditioned for the part struggled with the dialect. Nobody could speak naturally in that dialect, so in the end I had to do that role.

There are two or three long takes in the film. Why did you opt for single takes? You could have shot those scenes in a simple manner too.

When I was writing those scenes I visualized them as single takes. When we shoot a single take, the audience doesn't get distracted. It pulls you right into the conversation and forces you to focus on even the smallest details. I wanted to make the audience feel like it is also part of the conversation between grandpa and grandson.

You have also edited the film. Was that something you had decided from the beginning or were you forced to take that up also by lack of options?

It was like I had purchased everything from the market and now I only needed to cook it. Editing was like that for me. I had read a few books on editing and also took some masterclasses. When I was writing the screenplay I had already added those cuts and transitions. So even before the film was on the editing table I had a fair idea of how the final output would turn out, so I decided to edit it myself.

There are a few animals in your films, like the rooster, a cat, a dog. It's not easy to shoot with animals. Did you face any difficulties while shooting those scenes?

Actually, that dog wasn't friends with everyone. There is also a scene where it has to bark at the workers. So to make sure that it looks authentic, I told those actors to not get close to the dog before the shoot. I didn't want the dog to get accustomed to their presence, so when he barks at them it will look authentic.

Recently, veteran filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan wrote an article in The Indian Express newspaper on censorship where he mentioned how acquiring a certificate from animal welfare officers has become a headache for small-time filmmakers, and hence we don't see animals in films any more. Did you also face such issues?

Yes, it took us three months to get the certificate from the Animal Welfare Board of India. I had gone into depression because they were asking for far too many certificates. Dog's vaccination certificate, cat's vaccination certificate, there are many other certificates. I had no idea about this entire process because I don't know anyone from the film industry. We had one veterinarian on set during the shoot with animals.

It's a very tedious and expensive process. The fees to get a certificate are very high and indie filmmakers like me can't always afford to pay Rs35,000 or Rs40,000 for a certificate. Even by mistake, a bird appears in a shot, the censor board will ask for a separate certificate for it.

It was a very long process, but we don't have any other option. My next film is also set in the Western Ghats. So I have to show animals because they are as much part of nature as we humans. In the Ghats, every house has roosters, dogs, cats, cattle. We all live together. So if I have to show the lifestyle of these people with authenticity I have to show these animals.

I read that article and completely agree with Gopalakrishnan sir.

As you just mentioned, your next film is also a small film set in the Western Ghats. After that will you be interested in making commercial films or do you want to continue making small indie films?

I will stick to the small-budget indie films. Because no one can come here and tell the stories of the people of the Western Ghats and their lives more authentically than the people who have actually lived here. And I'm one of them. There are a lot of stories from this place which can be made into films.

Related topics

Indian Film Festival Stuttgart New York Indian Film Festival