While waiting for his train at the Cannes station, in the summer of 2001, the vision of a lonely assassin in a lonely place flashed past filmmaker Ashvin Kumar, then a student at London Film School, who had landed up at the Cannes Film Festival, with a script in hand, little realising that people were interested in completed films. Later that year, he saw The Warrior. He dropped out of the film school to make a movie – his debut, Road to Ladakh, shot in 2002 – one that not many have seen or heard of. Last week, he released it online (YouTube) as a tribute to Irrfan Khan, who died a fortnight ago.
The film opens with a Jeep emerging from bare mountains. It halts and a woman disembarks to check on the tyre – a well-conceived plot device. In the background, Papon sings to guitarist Sushmit Sen’s iconic strumming – synonymous with the early sound of the band Indian Ocean – a rubab-like earthy sound to suit Ladakh’s bleak, wry, lifeless, silent, rugged terrain.
The 47-minute featurette is peppered with elements of a thriller: a drug-smuggling lonesome terrorist, who falls in love with a coke-snorting “crazy city girl – a lonely misfit”, there’s suspense, sex, death, and a car chase. Irrfan Khan’s Shafiq is unscrewing Sharon’s (Koel Purie) car’s tyre as she zooms off. Thinking it to be a game, she speeds, he follows, lest she goes flying into the deep ravines. “The cars are actually going in circles, but they appear to move in a straight lane,” says Ashvin Kumar, who applied the same principle that was used in the speeder-bikes’ race, floating on dunes, when Luke goes to meet Obi-wan Kenobi in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977).
“I wanted to make a movie of silences and Irrfan bhai’s image was already in my head, his ability to speak with just his face – from that came the idea of the bleak and silent landscape of Ladakh,” says Kumar, who had chaperoned Irrfan on a shoot of Zee TV’s Cell 3 in Chennai in 1997-98. Purie was completing her course at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art when she was offered the role. For a film that was almost not going to be made, for reasons one too many, the crew (cinematographer, focus puller, clapper loader, sound recordist, etc.) came from all over the world, via networking portals like Shootingpeople.com, and worked for free (even the film rolls were donated by Kodak).
Irrfan Khan, too, did it pro bono, in spite of “high-altitude sickness, splitting headaches, and – with a broken arm in a cast – the immense pain and difficulty in just pulling the zip of the sleeping bag in the tents, which were filled with water (and it hadn’t rained in Spiti Valley in 16 years!),” says Ashvin Kumar. Much later, when the two went to London, Irrfan had told him that on the shoot, when he was resting in the Jeep, he once saw a bus coming his way and was so tempted to hop on it and leave. Kumar is only too glad that Irrfan had second thoughts.
Towards the end of the shoot, they were running out of film stock, with just one left, the actors had to get the death scene right in a single take. “Irrfan bhai gave me more than what I had written,” says Kumar.
Irrfan Khan also did something he had never done before, never after. “It is rare that a man’s backside is shown, not the prettiest thing to look at. In sex scenes, mostly, it’s the male gaze, idolising female body parts. The scene made people uncomfortable and that’s exactly where I wanted the audience to be at that moment in the film,” he says.
“People were conservative, I knew my films would get no funding or release in India, and I had to make my career overseas,” says Goa-based Ashvin Kumar, who returned to India from the UK in 2009. He adds that in the early 2000s, India didn’t have much independent cinema, his only reference point was “English, August (1994), people talked about it for the next 10 years. It was a pre-Anurag Kashyap era, there was no Masaan, Dev.D, or Gangs of Wasseypur, Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya (1998) was hailed as indie and Vidhu Vinod Chopra was considered the most avant-garde filmmaker. I was completely out with Road to Ladakh.”
The Oscar-nominated filmmaker says Irrfan Khan had a great sense of destiny about him. When the two had gone to present Road to Ladakh at Cannes in 2003, Irrfan turned to Kumar and said: “Bhai, I’m going to come back and walk on the red carpet.” And he kept his word.
“Road to Ladakh was my film school,” says Kumar, who, much to Irrfan’s chagrin, insisted on rehearsals, and nudged the National School of Drama (NSD) graduate, saying, “rehearsals are what happens at NSD, not performances”. Once he clarified that it wouldn’t be “mechanical” with line readings, but switching of roles: “Koel as the man and he the woman”, did Irrfan give the nod.
The filmmaker wanted to “close the circle” and write a “great film” befitting the person who taught him to be organic. “The performance-driven approach that I apply in my films, from (the Oscar-nominated) Little Terrorist (2004) to No Fathers in Kashmir (2019), that’s coming from Irrfan bhai. To let the actors first explore the space, watch them and then organise the lights and camera,” says Ashvin Kumar, who often appears as characters in his films – he changes the tyre in this one too – and will be next playing the lead in a feature film by a first-time director, Mukti Krishan.
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