Shlok Sharma’s Haraamkhor, set in a small village in north India, narrates the story of a married school teacher and a 15-year-old girl student. In his directorial debut, Sharma wanted to tell an “adulterous” story. But to him, it was important that the audience sees the lovers without any prejudice.
What began as a challenge has emerged as a beautiful love story, about “taboos” in a relationship between an under-age girl and an older man. Set to premiere in India at the Mumbai Film Festival, which begins on October 29, Sharma’s Haraamkhor is told from the perspective of two children. “The children were the perfect foil for any prejudice. To them, the teacher is just a dark man who manages to win over a pretty girl,” says Sharma, who premiered the film at the New York Indian Film Festival and later showed it at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles.
Set in a near-arid but developing village in Madhya Pradesh, Haraamkhor unfolds with the simple romanticism of a Hindi novella. Nawazuddin Siddiqui essays the role of the teacher, Shyam, who lives with his wife and supplements his income by giving tuitions at home to children from the school. Shweta Tripathi, who made her screen debut with Masaan, plays Sandhya, the lonely, vulnerable teenager. Mohammad Samad and Irfan Khan are the delightful and riotous 11-year-olds Mintu and Kamal.
Produced by Guneet Monga’s Sikhya Films, Haraamkhor was shot in Gujarat, and given their limited finances, Sharma and the cast and crew filmed the entire movie in 16 days, rarely going beyond two takes for a scene. “We didn’t have the luxury of time but also, it helped to get a raw — not practised — performance out of the actors,” asserts Sharma, who has in the past assisted on Omkara, No Smoking and Gangs of Wasseypur, among other films.
The story, says the writer-director, grew out of a newspaper report he had come across a few years ago. His curiosity about what such a relationship must feel like to the two people in question led him to research the subject. It wasn’t merely the age gap that made the relationship a taboo, but also the fact that in Indian culture, a teacher is a quasi-parent. “Everyone I spoke to said that these relationships rarely conclude happily, either because of societal pressures or because the lovers have a fallout,” recounts the 30-year-old director.
Originally, the story had only three key characters — Shyam, Sandhya and Kamal, who holds a candle for the older girl. But inspired by the characters of Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool — based on Macbeth’s witches — he decided to tap into the camaraderie between two boys to add humour to the otherwise serious story. “I have borrowed a few dialogues from the film too, as an ode to Maqbool, such as ‘Aag ke liye pani ka santulan bana rehna chahiye’,” says Sharma, who began his journey in the film industry at the age of 19, working under Bhardwaj on the sets of The Blue Umbrella.
In Haraamkhor, the two children lend the love story a distance that rids it of awkwardness. For instance, the scene where Shyam and Sandhya get intimate for the first time has been filmed from afar. Even though the children aren’t shown watching them, the scene conveys the vulnerability and hesitance of the lovers, without the need for a close-up shot.
Stories told from the perspective of young protagonists greatly interest Sharma. The two scripts he is currently working on also focus on youth. “Some of my most vivid memories are from my school years,” says the director, who grew up in Sion, Mumbai and quit studies after completing school. “In those years, I viewed everything with curiosity and delight. It’s that perspective I bring through my films.”