During the first 15 minutes of Jaoon Kahan Bata Ae Dil (JKBAD), the most pivotal dialogue is delivered by actor Khushboo Upadhyay. Her nameless character, a young woman meeting her boyfriend at Marine Drive on a hot Saturday afternoon, has been listening to him rapidly pontificate on a number of subjects for the past minute and she tells him, “Tere se love karti hai main, isiliye tereko sehen karti hai (I love you, which is why I tolerate you).”
Her lover launches into his comeback, picking apart her comments about anything and everything before she sighs and says, “Tujhse baat karna hi bekaar hai (It’s pointless speaking to you).” And thus begins Aadish Keluskar’s second feature film, a hard-hitting, tightly-wound love story about a day in the life of a Mumbai couple, where lust and loathing, familiarity and contempt, and the city, collide against each other till they reach a breaking point.
“If you dissect any human emotion — love, sex, loyalty, etc — at the core, you will find the antithesis of what these emotions are projecting outwardly. I wanted to examine the inherent power play in romantic relationships — what makes people hang on to their idea of love even though the relationship is anything but loving,” says Keluskar, 32, when we meet at a cafe in Versova. Last year, the film was selected for the India Gold section at the 20th Jio MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Image) film festival, where it won the Young Critics’ Choice Award; last month, it was released on Netflix.
With a budget of less than Rs 15 lakh, JKBAD is a conversation-heavy film that is miles away from the dewy Before Sunrise (1995) experience. Mumbai is contained into spaces that merge the public and the private such as the back seat of a taxi, a café, a near-empty single-screen theatre that shows B-grade films, a spot on the beach, a room in a shady lodge.
“We shot for eight days with a hand-held camera, packing in as much as we could in our long takes, because the police might interrupt us at any time. I wanted the city to be a character in the way it is for most middle-class people. If there’s any actual romance in this film, it is with Mumbai,” says Keluskar. He reunited with actor Rohit Kokate, who was the lead in his directorial debut, Kaul – A Calling, a Marathi feature which also won the Young Critics Award at MAMI festival in 2016.
In JKBAD, Kokate plays a man who wants us to view him as a working-class hero, a smart man with smart lines for every argument. But, as the day progresses, we see an intellectual bully who won’t pick on someone his own size. Upadhyay’s character is a 30-year-old dark-skinned Muslim woman who brushes aside the emotional abuse she is subjected to for fear of becoming single and lonely. “I brown-faced the actor because I wanted to use that complexion to explore her insecurities; we’re a nation where dark skin somehow translates into being a lesser person, a feeling that Upadhyay’s character internalises. So she puts up with her lover’s hurtful words,” says Keluskar, who didn’t allow his actors to improvise their dialogue.
The constantly abrasive, acerbic exchange is relentless, and is crucial to understanding how misogyny permeates and corrodes their relationship to the point of no return.
By taking its name from the hit song sung by Mukesh for Chhoti Bahen (1959), Keluskar turns romantic love on its head, but takes lust head-on in some of the film’s most graphic scenes. Amey Chavan’s camera does not shoot sex “aesthetically”, as most of those in the Bollywood fraternity claim to do; it traces stretch marks and moles as faithfully as it does the lovers’ most base instincts.
“As a man, I think it’s nearly impossible for me to be completely devoid of the male gaze. But we didn’t shoot sex to titillate the viewer. It was important for us to show the fascination and discomfort men experience with the female body — a site where desire and disgust mingle, and men want to claim ownership with their bodies or by recording the act,” he says.
Keluskar had once considered journalism as a career but everything changed when he watched South Korean director Park Chan-wook’s 2003 cult hit, Oldboy. He went to the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune in 2010 to study filmmaking but dropped out before making his graduation film.
“If there’s one thing young filmmakers would really benefit from, it is if they are taught about the reality of making films in India. I’m talking about the production aspect, of getting your film out there. I don’t expect producers to watch my film and call me. I know why I make films the way I do — no assistant, an eight-member team, including cast — because I want control of my creation. My film has been to a festival, people will call it an ‘arthouse’ film but it’s not. It’s an independent, realistic film that aims to merge different genres without diluting its realism,” he says.