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‘Short films freed me up…I made what I wanted to, the way I wanted to,’ says Devashish Makhija

Author-filmmaker Devashish Makhija on his two new short films – Cheepatakadumpa and Cycle – and why he finds short films as most artistic and freeing

Written by Alaka Sahani |
Updated: December 12, 2021 9:20:29 am
Devashish Makhija talks about his short films Cheepatakadumpa and Cycle.

Far from the hype and glamour of commercial cinema, writer-director Devashish Makhija’s artistic voice finds an outlet in the stories he writes and the films he makes. Though two new short films — Cheepatakadumpa and Cycle — directed by Makhija seem to be different from each other, they reflect his concerns and approach to filmmaking that make him a distinct voice in Indian cinema.

Cheepatakadumpa, which recently won the Gender Sensitivity Award at the Dharamshala International Film Fest (DIFF), is about female desires — something that rarely gets screen space in India. Cycle, which premieres at the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala on December 12, is about the state-backed atrocities against tribals, and the recurrent effect of such violence.

In a creatively rewarding period, Makhija published the novel Oonga, based on his 2013 debut feature film by the same name, earlier this year. The novel, which is about the adventures of the titular Dongria Kondh boy and exposes “the dystopia of development”, bagged the 2021 Neev Book Award in the Young Adult category. The multi-talented filmmaker is currently busy with the pre-production of his next feature after making critically-acclaimed Ajji (2017) and Bhonsle (2018). Excerpts from an interview:

Cheepatakadumpa and Cycle are very different films. Tell us about the process of writing and directing them.

I’d been wanting to make Cycle for years. I found myself with some saved money in 2019 once my father passed away from Alzheimer’s. I had stashed away that money for his treatment and care. But it still wasn’t enough for the ambitious experiment that Cycle was to be. Joint producers Abhinav Singh and Pria Mundra stepped in with some more. One of the co-producers Bhumika Dube has a theatre troupe in Bhopal. We figured if we could approach this film like a theatre production where everyone does everything, we may be able to pull it off in the frighteningly minuscule resources I had. The film was shot entirely on an iPhone. Coolab, run by Sreeram Ramanathan and Sumeet Kamath, came on as producers too and did its post-production for free.

cycle A still from Cycle.

With all this in place, I wondered why I was making so much effort to make just one short film. So, I started exploring the idea of a second short film to be made with the exact same resources. Only its tone and mood would be the extreme opposite of Cycle. So that the team of warriors who were going out on a limb to make a dark, disturbing, difficult film possible, could also have some fun along the way. Ironically, Cheepatakadumpa ended up being a more difficult film to set up, craft, and pull off than Cycle. The two films together made the entire process of independent filmmaking on my first home production(s) very fulfilling for all involved.

How did having two female co-writers — Bhumika Dube and Ipshita Chakraborty — for Cheepatakadumpa change your understanding of female characters?

Bhumika and Ipshita were co-improvisers more than co-writers. We approached the film like a theatre group would approach the staging of a new play. I tossed a set-up before everyone and we played out, explored, improvised, extemporised scenes and moments over and over again across weeks until the ideas we started with began to solidify and sharpen. Each time, I’d suggest something that felt or looked like the male gaze, either Bhumika or Ipshita or Annapurna Soni (the third actor in the film) would turn their nose up at it. I discovered over this film that only women perhaps can truly be the unerring filter for gender inappropriateness in a story about women. Perhaps the same holds true for any story seeking to ‘represent’ a people.

Cheepatakadumpa A still from Cheepatakadumpa.

Is Cycle an extension of the world and concerns that your debut feature Oonga (2013) deals with?

When Oonga (2013) didn’t turn into the moving, powerful film I hoped it could have been, I wrote a long short story called Butterflies on Strings which appears in my HarperCollins’ anthology, Forgetting (2015). It is this story that I adapted into Cycle. Ironically, in the three months before I began work on Cycle, I turned Oonga into a novel. Even more ironically both the novel, Oonga and Cycle took birth in 2021.

Short film El’ayichi (2015), directed and written by you, went viral at a time when the term viral was not widely used. Did that create opportunities for you that your debut feature Oonga did not?

Absolutely. Without realising it, in 2015, I ended up riding the wave of short films online and ended up with three viral shorts — El’ayichi, Agli Baar, and Taandav — the last of which finally put me on the radar in some manner after years of shelved projects and incomplete films. I had almost always wanted to tell my stories my way. The feature film space back then – entirely reliant on a ‘theatrical release’ – always made me feel like I’m an outlier, a peripheral entity because the stories I wanted to tell in this medium were without precedent in the Hindi cinema firmament, and so impossible to compute the market value of. Short films freed me up. No one had any market expectations of them. I made what I wanted to, the way I wanted to.

As a filmmaker, how do you look at short films?

I see a ‘short film’ as most artistic and freeing as compared to a feature film, which is burdened in some way or another often by someone else’s finances. That said, a majority of the short films out there are sloppy, mediocre ‘content’. Some of the better ones are parts of ‘anthologies’ commissioned by streaming video platforms and production houses. So, the short films I speak of are neither of the above, but instead those dreamed up, self-produced, and lovingly crafted by the artistically-driven auteur themselves, without any idea of who will watch it, where, how, and when. These have not found wider acceptance nor a larger audience, and probably never will. Even the film festival space – which used to be our only safe haven – is shrinking post the pandemic.

Is finding a platform for your voice the most important for you as an artist?

No. It is to find vent for the rage and disillusionment I feel with ‘authority’, the government, the human race, and our collective insatiable greed.

Over the years, has it become any easier for you, as an independent filmmaker, to make feature films, rope in actors and find financiers?

No. The stories I choose to tell – even if they are comedies – unsettle viewers. No one wants to fund anything like that today, especially if it’s auteur-led. After Bhonsle created ripples in June last year on SonyLIV, I got endless calls to explore opportunities with producers, platforms and studios. On each such call, I brought over a dozen of my own scripts to the table, hoping to get those good folk to back a film I wanted to make. Each time, I was told they weren’t interested in my material but wanted to ‘attach’ me to write, direct or show run something they wanted to be developed or made.

Manoj Bajpayee has attached himself to a script I’d written seven years ago. We had been trying to find funding for it for years. We may finally have found it. So over four years since I shot Bhonsle I may be entering prep on my next feature now.

Cycle, which is in competition at the ongoing International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala, will be screened on December 12 and 13.

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