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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

I don’t see Marathi films as a stepping stone to making Hindi movies: Umesh Vinayak Kulkarni

Over the last decade, Umesh Vinayak Kulkarni has been at the forefront of a resurgence in Marathi independent cinema. The National award-winning director on his new film, the importance of regional cinema and why he doesn’t feel any urgency to direct a Hindi movie

Written by Sankhayan Ghosh | Mumbai |
Updated: August 30, 2015 8:00:02 am
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All your films — Girni (The Grinding Machine), Valu (The Bull), Vihir (The Well), Deool (The Temple) and now Highway: Ek Selfie Aarpar — have non-human entities at their centre. Is that deliberate?
We (with co-writer and actor Girish Kulkarni) don’t start writing a film until we get a title. It gives a sense of structure to the story and helps us define what my playing field is going to be. An idea generally takes several years to take shape in my mind. The ones that I end up working on happen to be these open-ended objects or concepts. Be it vihir or a highway, they have several connotations and every human being has his own association with them. It also helps us to look at things from a distance, to try and see what is happening — the dichotomies, paradoxes and the little moments of life.

The Maharashtra landscape outside the city finds a unique place in your films. How important is the setting to you?
People in cities are becoming increasingly unilateral. Their ways of thinking and taste are becoming similar. When you go a little outside the city, you meet people who have an uniqueness to them — each one has a character of his own. I am fascinated by people who live close to nature. I often end up having long interactions with them. Topography and natural surroundings have a huge impact on the personality of people. In a way, they are more lively. Also, as a person, I always want to be close to nature, where I can see hills and the sky as much as possible. This gets reflected in my films. There is a sense of adventure in going outdoors and shooting. The making of the film is as important as the final product.

How did the idea of Highway come up?
When we were looking for producers for our first feature film Valu (2008), for a year-and-a-half, I used to travel between Pune and Mumbai. Most of the time I would take a share cab. At the start of the journey, you are with strangers about whom you know nothing. By the end of it, you realise, that you know exactly what is happening in their lives. Most of them talk on their phones and in a three-hour journey, there is no escape from hearing those conversations. These are people who you haven’t chosen to meet. You will probably never meet them again. There is a Sanskrit shloka — yatha kashtham cha kashtham — it talks of how two logs meet and depart. I always thought of it whenever I travelled. The idea of Highway started forming in my head at the time. Later, a friend told me about a strange scene he saw on the Mumbai-Pune highway. There was an accident involving a lorry ferrying fish to hotels. The truck had overturned and thousands of fish were on the road, wriggling and trying to survive. A lot of people travelling on the highway were stopping to get some of the fish. The image got stuck in my head. I needed to explore what it meant to me. When I told Girish about making a film on this and the stories of the share cab, he suggested a short film. But I had the gut feeling that it needed the canvas of a feature film.

The tagline of Highway is Ek Selfie Aarpar. What does it mean?
It’s an attempt to see our existence in an urban space. The overarching theme in all our films is the attempt to explore what it means to exist, to know society and its relationship with individuals. We live in the age of selfies, which only captures the exterior. The film’s tagline asks, can we take a real selfie, one that sees what is behind the facade?

The Mumbai-Pune expressway is an intrinsic part of the two cities. What kind of memories do you have of it?
The expressway is a recent phenomenon. Earlier, the route used to be different — through the Western Ghats with trees all around. It would take seven to eight hours to drive down. You would look outside the window, halt at Karjat for vada pav, spend some time in the hills of Lonavla. The journey used to be an experience. Once the highway came up, you could reach in three hours and the destination somehow became more important than the journey. In the past few years, something similar has happened to our lives. We have become faster and more goal-oriented. The film is not a comment on that but an attempt to see ourselves in today’s times.

This is the first time that your film has an urban setting and it features Hindi film actors such as Huma Qureshi, Tisca Chopra and composer Amit Trivedi.
I have never bifurcated my films as rural or urban. But I’ve often been asked when I am going to take my film outside villages. It was obviously not a conscious decision. This time, the subject just happens to be about urban existence. The highway joins two cities so it could happen anywhere in India. We have nine vehicles and 35 characters and it’s the story of one day. We have a lot of non-Maharashtrian characters in the film who speak different languages such as Hindi, English, Telugu. Huma and Tisca fit right into it. As for the music, I wanted an urban sound. Amit is the first person I could think of. I’m happy he agreed to do the film.
How do you reach out to non-Marathi speaking audiences?

A large section of my non-Marathi speaking audience is from Mumbai. As with the rest of the country, the problem is that our regional cinema isn’t shown in other states. There are wonderful experiments happening in Tamil, Bengali and Malayali cinema. We share a common ethos, yet each language has its own peculiarities. We need to make our films accessible to audiences who speak other languages. It’s high time we have a channel that enables this, at least in the cities. It will change the way we think, inspire each other.

Is there ever a temptation to make films in Hindi, to be a part of Bollywood?
I don’t know if a Hindi star-centric film will give me the freedom I get in Marathi films. If a story needs to be mounted on a big canvas, needs a star or should be told in Hindi, I can make a Hindi film. But it’s not that I see Marathi films as a stepping stone to make Hindi movies.

You are one of the pioneers of the Marathi new wave cinema. What do you think has changed?
We are a group of young filmmakers who are trying to make films out of our own life experiences, stretching the possibilities of the medium. There is a Fandry, a Court and a Killa happening. I am happy that today Marathi cinema has the space that gives the freedom to convey one’s own way of looking at life. Our films are doing great in foreign film festivals, but what’s most heartening is that people are buying tickets to watch them. It’s like when we made our first films, we were telling the audience to come a step forward as we took a step towards them. That gap is getting bridged.

You also have a special collaborator in actor-screenwriter Girish Kulkarni.
We are close friends and have been collaborators for 20 years. He gives a solid, practical, tangible form to my ideas, which are vague and even esoteric sometimes. He makes them accessible. Highway is his best work so far. Here, we’ve completely broken the structure of how we normally look at a story. We’ve played with linearity and questioned the presence of a story itself.

How did you get into filmmaking?
I never had the ambition of being a filmmaker but I was interested in the arts and in doing new things. In bits and pieces I explored painting, architecture, music, travelling. If I could sing, I wouldn’t have done anything else other than learn Hindustani classical vocals. I got into assisting Sumitra Bhave and I found the idea of filmmaking challenging and collaborative. It had everything: literature, music, theatre.

You are an FTII alumni. What do you think of the the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as its chairperson?
It’s unfair to not just the students, but to society at large. Considering the kind of relationship Indians share with films, appointments in India’s premier film institute needs more attention and seriousness. The person needs to have a vision, a body of work, knowledge of the relationship between Indian and world cinema and be familiar with the dynamics of regional cinema. It can’t be this casual.

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