THE second feature film by writer-director Devashish Makhija, Ajji (Granny), is a dark retelling of the classic fairytale — Red Riding Hood — with a shocking twist. When society fails to deliver justice for the rape of a nine-year-old girl, it’s her 65-year-old arthritic grandmother who takes brutal revenge. The film has been officially invited to compete in the New Currents section at Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) this month and will have its India premiere this week at the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival. Makhija, who is preparing for his next, the Manoj Bajpayee-starrer Bhonsle, takes out time to talk about the making of Ajji and why he chose a grandmother as avenger. Excerpts:
How did the idea of Ajji come about? How close is it to real-life incidents?
Ajji is a response to the systemic evil that gender-inequality perpetuates in a heterogeneous society like ours. It is a response to several real-life incidents, so many that I have lost count now. There’s a reported heart-breakingly brutal transgression of a female almost every day in the news. But that’s where the similarities end. I don’t like basing my stories on real incidents per se. That limits the narrative scope I can explore. The idea of Ajji is entirely fictional.
You have written other scripts. Why did you pick up Ajji as your second directorial feature movie?
For nearly a decade, my films never saw the light of day. That trained me to work backwards from an opportunity. I had the idea of Ajji as a short film. When Saregama approached me through my managers (Tulsea), they needed feature scripts that could be made in under Rs 1.5 crore. Overnight, I tweaked my short film treatment to make it sound like a feature and pitched it.
Can you share the details of its scripting and making?
When budgets are frighteningly low, the turnaround time has to be scrunched too. We wrote three drafts of the screenplay in under three months, while simultaneously doing pre-production. The film was shot in exactly 18 days. I did not have the luxury of any patchwork either. The first cut in edit was made in 17 days. The second cut in six days. And the third and final cut was made in two days, bringing it down from a three-hour epic to a taut 100-minute movie. These numbers might sound insane. But to achieve a film in resources this tight, one has to find a way to turn around things in dizzying speed. For that, I do a lot of preparation at every stage.
The character of Ajji is quite unlike the protagonists in rape-revenge dramas.
In a family with a rape victim who is a minor, we wondered who would be the least likely to be able to get up and do something about it. Then, we proceeded to make that least likely candidate’s life as tough as we could. So, not only is this person the oldest in the household, she is also a woman in a patriarchal, misogynistic system, she has severe arthritis, and is so poor that they struggle to get two meals a day. Now in a film, that sounds like some heavy odds stacked against the protagonist, right? In the real world, it’s often precisely this person who pays the biggest price for the inequalities we turn a blind eye to. So, I channelled all my fury and frustration through the weakest link in the chain — to see how far I could take it and her.
Your short films, especially El’ayichi and Taandav, have done exceptionally well. Did they work as validations of your directorial and writing skills?
My first film Oonga (2013) didn’t work out as I intended. The producer and I — after a point — were trying to make two different films. My desperation to make the film made me weak and I couldn’t fight to protect the film. It wasn’t shot the way I intended, and I wasn’t allowed to edit it my way either. The final film is not really my film. For a couple of years after that experience, I had severe self-doubt. I wondered if perhaps, I wasn’t a filmmaker at all. I needed to prove to myself — and to the world — that perhaps I did have it in me to make films my way. Short films allowed me that.
Your films often carry socio-political messages.
Socio-political turmoil is my overriding preoccupation. I am most disturbed and most driven by injustice. It finds its way — in some form or the other — into most of my stories. This must be the case with all of us. When you try to be true to your own inner self, your own preoccupations shape your work and your voice. There is no escape.
You are also an author of bestselling children’s books. How much pride and satisfaction do you draw from it?
I take most pride in that. Children are the most exciting, open and surprising audience. There are lessons I learn from their response to my books that I apply in the making of my films as well. Children can call you out on your bullshit. They catch you when you’re trying to be clever. They’re restless. They force you to engage them at every step. All of that I apply in all my work. Writing children’s books have been my storytelling schooling. I have a young adult fiction book coming out next year with Tulika Books. I can’t wait to finish it.