Ukrainian director Dar Gai is a strong supporter of gender neutrality, so much so that she abbreviated her real name Daria Gaikalova, to keep the focus firmly on her work, away from the curiosity about her nationality and gender. Her debut feature Teen Aur Aadha, about the inhabitants of a home told in three different eras, travelled to over 35 international film festivals and won 12 awards.
Her new film ‘Namdev Bhau: In Search of Silence‘ was born when they were in the last phase of post-production. Her team, who often complained about the traffic and noise in Mumbai, on a getaway to a hill station, found the silence overwhelming, inspiring the idea for a film. The story was of a driver who tries to escape the sights and sounds of Mumbai because he lives next to a railway station on one side, a highway on the other and an airport in the middle.
Ahead of the screening of Namdev Bhau at the Indian Film Festival Melbourne, we spoke to her about directing Namdev Gurav, who has been working as a driver for more than 45 years. Excerpts from the interview:
Tell us about your relationship with India?
I have been living in India now for about eight-and-a-half years. It’s my home. It’s formed me. I have made both my films here. I see stories here. When someone what you think about your home, what will you answer? It’s the place that you hate, that you love. That has given you dreams, that has destroyed your dreams, that you have a connection with that can’t be destroyed. It’s forever. Whether you want it or not, it’s a part of you.
How did you start making movies?
From my childhood, I have been involved in theatre, acting in and directing theatre plays. After my undergraduate degree, I sent my resume to different art organisations, festivals and schools in China, Japan, Korea and India. I got several responses but was somehow most attracted to the Scindia School in Gwalior. I was invited there for six months to direct theatre plays but stayed on for another six months. This is where I met Anand Mahindra who advised me to move to Mumbai. There, I taught filmmaking at Whistling Woods for three-and-a-half years. A lot of my crew, my ADs and DAs are my former students.
My first feature film was produced by Anurag Kashyap. This is when the idea for Namdev Bhau was born. While all of this was happening, my producer Dheer and I decided to form a production company called Jugaad Motion Pictures with our third partner Sakshi Khanna.
What made you cast a real-life driver for this character?
When I was writing the script, I called the character Namdev, even though Dheer Momaya, a friend and producer of my films, warned me not to as then I would be stuck on casting his own driver Namdev bhau, a non-actor. However, I felt this textured role could only be performed by him since he has a heavy experience of life. Namdev Bhau is very special and unique. You never know what he is thinking. He is very sarcastic. He has a very deep sense of humour. I wanted to bring all of that on paper. When I finally told Namdev that I wanted to cast him, he thought we were crazy! Finally, two weeks before the shoot, he began taking me seriously. It took me 37 days to become his best friend.
We are seeing amazing scripts in Bollywood. What inspired you to tell this story?
Yes, I think that Bollywood is going through a very interesting period. I will call it the Renaissance period. “Three and a half”, I thought, was quite a festival film but at one of the screenings in Kerala, a rickshaw-driver cried at the end. He said he could connect to so many things. The inspiration of telling stories will always be what I see, hear and experience myself or what bothers me at a particular point in time.
Do you think people in India don’t live according to their free will? What made you send Namdev Gaurav (the character) on a solo trip?
Actually, this is a very interesting question. The main purpose of Namdev Bhau’s character is that he is looking for silence. Subconsciously, he is looking for some sense in his life. He wakes up every day at 6 am, has his food, works till 9 pm and returns home — this is how it has been for the last 40-50 years of his life. He is going on this journey to find peace, to answer the questions that he doesn’t even know he has.
How important is silence for you? Do you meditate?
Silence is very important to me. Sometimes, I am actually looking for places where I can cut off from everyone and everything. We have to find a balance, to be able to hear the truth among the noise.
Since you have made a movie on silence, you would know that physical silence doesn’t lead to inner peace. How did you manage to bring out this aspect in the film? What gives you inner peace?
We are living in interesting times when information and noise are everywhere. In my case, the story of Namdev Bhau was not possible in another country or in any other city but Mumbai. We have to strike a balance, to live this chaotic life and at the same time find peaceful moments — going away to the mountains, forests or deserts to be on our own. This can bring peace and understanding of one’s true self.
Gender inequality is a theme that resonates with you. Your thoughts?
Being a female filmmaker in India is like any other woman in India. My work is gender-neutral in most aspects; I feel that my team forgets whether I’m a man or a woman once I enter the set. Even when it comes to the audience, I don’t want them to know who directed the film — a male/female, Indian/foreigner. That’s why I go by a gender/nationality neutral name, Dar Gai. Having said that, I also feel it’s important to bring my female perspective and sensitivities when I tell stories of women.
Was shooting in Ladakh a struggle? Tell us about your experience.
Ladakh enthralled me with its unusual landscape. It has a very strong character that I wanted to capture. However, shooting in Ladakh was quite challenging as it was at a very high altitude. We were most concerned about Namdev Bhau’s health as he previously had heart problems and had to walk a lot in the film. But he was amazing. Once, when he fell ill, we had to postpone the shoot, though he wanted to continue as he didn’t want to let down the team. Of course, we waited for him to recover, but that was touching.