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Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Folk tales

The proud team of I AM,a hit on the festival circuit,visits the Screen office for an exchange on big-small movies,sensitive stories and more.

Written by Rinky Kumar | Mumbai |
April 15, 2011 1:12:04 pm

The proud team of I AM,a hit on the festival circuit,visits the Screen office for an exchange on big-small movies,sensitive stories and more.

I AM,co-produced and directed by Onir, just won the Audience Choice Award at the River-2-River Festival in Florence and the Engendered Award for Human Rights in New York. Though a hit on the festival circuit,Onir has had to struggle to finance the film and get a theatrical release. Finally I AM is being released independently and will make it to the theatres on April 29. But Onir and his band of actors,Juhi Chawla,Nandita Das,Rahul Bose and Sanjay Suri can take heart. The box-office is currently leaning towards small films,and I AM may just prove to be a winner. After all,the first release and success of 2011 was the moderately-budgeted No One Killed Jessica. Screen,which has been in the forefront of encouraging quality cinema,opens this year’s Screen Preview with the internationally-acclaimed and innovatively-funded I Am.

Comprising four short stories,I AM is a bold and sensitive take on the hitherto unexplored facets of human relationships like the discrimination against homosexuals,the complexities of a man who has been sexually abused as a child. There’s also the story of a woman struggling with the personal choice of embracing motherhood through artificial insemination and another woman dealing with the anger of being a displaced Kashmiri Pandit. It is also the first Indian film to have been made with finance raised through a social networking site like Facebook. Another interesting fact is that it has a couple of directors acting in it. While Anurag Kashyap has played the role of a child abuser,Anurag Basu has a cameo as a doctor. With so many talking-points to it,we were eager to meet the team of I AM at our office. Even the I AM team was enthusiastic about to kickstarting its promotional campaign.

Not surprisingly,on the big day,the trio––Onir,Rahul Bose and Sanjay Suri arrived bang on time. But it was the girls,Juhi and Nandita,who drew the maximum crowds. Juhi Chawla was looking her summery best with a flowery top and white capris — the guys in our office couldn’t stop clicking pictures with her. Nandita brought her year-old baby boy along with her and made sure that her toddler was comfortable before she went on the dais along with her team. What followed was a thought-provoking and lively Q & A session.

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SENSE & SENSIBILITY

Tell us about the starting-point of the film and the journey.
Onir:
Initially,I was keen on making separate films on each subject. But I realised that traditional financiers would not be interested as this was not something that fit into their concept of a project. At the same time,the desire to do these films was immense. That’s when Sanjay Suri came up with the idea and suggested that I should start writing them as short stories. In India,we don’t have a market for such individual stories but the idea is to create a dialogue,not a monologue. So we thought of making them into short films and interlinking them through characters so that we can reach out to a wider audience. Many people ask me about the film’s structure but it has shaped up primarily because of the way it has been financed.

For My Brother Nikhil (MBN) friends and family came together to support us. So we thought,for I AM,let’s try and see if we can make this into a bigger family. Quite often,you come across people on Facebook and Twitter who want to get associated with your project but get scared because the risks are huge. So we thought,“Why not try and put up a post on Facebook?” The first film that we were shooting was I AM Abhimanyu,so we put up a post on FB saying ‘Why Abhimanyu? If you believe that this film should be made then start donating from Rs 1,000 onwards.’ At times,it was tough to raise the money too. There was a person who said that he would give me the money only after he was convinced that I was the real Onir. So he asked me to come down to New Delhi and have a cup of coffee with him. And I did that. But having said that,in less than a month,we had collected a crore. The entire journey started because we were fortunate enough to get contributions from people. Sometimes it takes over a year just to get a script approved from a corporate house. But here despite all odds,in a little over a year and a half,we have not only shot the film but it’s also getting released independently. The whole journey has been a huge success.

Sanjay Suri: This film,besides its content,means a lot to me. It means a victory for true independent cinema and for more than 400 people who had faith in us. It requires a lot of focus,passion and persistence to invest your money in a project without a release date in mind,without even knowing whether the stories would get made or not. I would like to thank all those people for supporting us in this endeavour. I AM would also not have been possible without the cast who supported and believed in us. Everyone,who is a part of this film,has done this project out of love and friendship and not out of any commercial motive.

Onir,were you under any kind of pressure as the finance that was riding on the project was the common-man’s hard-earned money? And how involved were these people in the film?
Onir:
We didn’t have a model to follow. So everything that we were doing was an experiment. But it was a formidable task because when so many people trust you and invest their money,then you have to reach that goal. Everyday I would spend three hours on FB,answering their questions and just talking to them. My whole effort was that just because they have sent a cheque,I shouldn’t forget them. So we had to keep them involved through the entire process of filmmaking. It’s really time-consuming to sit and answer each and every question,but at the same time it is so rewarding. The biggest challenge now is to return everyone’s money.

How did you choose these four stories that are also linked to pertinent contemporary issues?
Onir:
A couple of stories are inspired by real-life incidents that I have seen or that have happened to friends. It’s not that first I zeroed in on the issues and then thought of making a film on them. Sometimes you are reading stories and few of them remain with you. The story of My Brother Nikhil came to me five years before I actually started filming it. The idea struck me when I was editing a documentary on Dominic D’souza,the first HIV positive activist from Goa. Similarly I knew about Sanjay’s story. But it was only when I went to Kashmir for a recce for another story that I wanted to film when I understood the gravity of the socio-political situation there. For me,the insurgency in Kashmir and the displacement of the Kashmiri Pandits was always a piece of news that I read in newspapers. It was only when I saw endless rows of deserted colonies that I suddenly felt the need to tell this story. So for me,the starting process of making any film begins with the need to tell a story.

What prompted each of you to be a part of I AM?
Juhi Chawla:
I did this film mainly for Onir. I had first met him through Sanjay on the sets of Jhankaar Beats. He discussed with me the story of MBN and I really liked it. While shooting for that film,I realised what a fine director he is. MBN was close to my heart as it was a small film made on a shoestring budget but it took me far as an actor. It travelled to various festivals and was used for many campaigns to create an awareness about AIDS. Later,we worked together on Bas Ek Pal. And then Onir came to me asking me for some finance for I AM. There was no sign of a role then. Since I knew Onir,I was aware that he wouldn’t just disappear with the money but actually make a nice film. About six to eight months later,he came back with the script of I AM Megha and told me,‘This is your kind of film.’

I heard the story and loved it. Going back to Srinagar after 20 years was lovely. I had first gone there during the filming of Sultanat.

The second important thing was that I was working with Manisha Koirala for the first time. Though we knew each other,we had never worked together. But in I AM Megha,she was cast beautifully as a Muslim girl Rubina. It was a wonderful experience. However,I was stunned by the fact that I AM Megha was inspired by Sanjay’s life. It was shocking because I have always known Sanjay. But after I learnt about his story,I just felt how little we knew of each other.

Nandita Das: I could relate to the journey and the situation that Onir went through (finding a producer for the film) as I have struggled with it myself as an actor and a director. Often,one wishes to produce a film oneself. It allows you to do things the way you want. That was the primary attraction for me. But there were other reasons too. Firstly,Onir and Sanjay are very good human beings. It’s nice to work with such people as there’s no stress and you know that no games are being played. Secondly,the way they were planning to do the film was a novel idea. The whole idea of raising funds through a social networking website democratises the whole process and I wanted to support that. Thirdly,the stories that they were trying to tell were human stories. They are extremely relatable yet unique. These are stories that we know but don’t tell or don’t want to hear. I personally like stories that do shake up and disturb us. I AM Afia is about a woman who is struggling with the personal choice of conceiving through artificial insemination and being a single parent.

Rahul Bose: For me,this film is about discrimination and it raises a lot of questions. Why should a sperm donor feel embarrassed? Why should a homosexual be scared? Why should a Kashmiri Pandit feel defensive among Muslims and why should a Muslim feel defensive amongst a whole lot of non-Muslims? Why should a child who has been sexually abused by his father feel bad? Why is it that the people who are judged the most are not judged for who they are,but for what they look like? All of us have felt discrimination.

Sanjay: I grew up in a joint family where everyone was very close to each other. As a kid,when such things (child abuse) happen with your near and dear ones,you know something is amiss but you can’t understand what is it at that time. You are old enough to remember but not old enough to understand the situation. Child abuse is usually dealt with in films as a sub-plot but never as a theme. Fifty-three per cent of Indian kids are abused,so it’s horrific that no one wants to talk about it. People are more keen on changing the names of cities but are not concerned about real issues. But as a filmmaker,you need to tell such stories. The common factor between these stories is that there has been a silence on it — either personal,political or legal. The more we talk about it,it will be better for everyone.

Rahul,was it challenging to play a homosexual?
Rahul Bose:
It’s irresistible to play someone who is homosexual,to try and understand what it feels like to be in disguise from the moment you wake up till the moment you die. I know two actors who are homosexuals but are in the closet since the last 20 years. They don’t have the guts to come out in the open and that holds true even in Hollywood. I have never played a role where my character is hiding something and living in constant fear that someone will find out his secret. My character in the film has this intense visceral feeling and suffers from an unnecessary shame,which is what made it interesting.

Were you apprehensive to play such a character?
Rahul Bose:
The only apprehension that an actor will have while playing a homosexual is whether it will impact his career in a negative way. I don’t have a career so that thought didn’t worry me! One might feel ‘What will our parents say?’ but my parents are dead so that wasn’t a consideration either. Will any girl ever want to marry me? That they don’t want to anyways! The only thing that perhaps one could have thought of was how society would receive it. Would they throw stones at my house? By now,everyone knows that I would welcome that. In that respect,Onir and Sanjay have cast the right person. It’s a fantastic role and people will appreciate it. It’s the writing,the creation and what happens to that character that is really stunning. It’s a role that would take any actor to a new place.

Nandita,what is your personal take on the issue of artificial insemination?
Nandita:
It’s a very personal choice. I firmly believe there should be space in personal choices as long as you are not harming anybody. Our society needs to give us more space. Quite often journalists ask me why I do not work in commercial films,but I feel I’m doing films or roles to which I relate. I’m not asking a commercial actor ‘Why do you do only those kinds of films?’ It’s their choice. We can create space in our society only when all of us can make our own choices. And that’s what Afia is fighting for. In that sense,I relate to Afia,her strength and her confusion. She is strong and vulnerable at the same time.

How did each of you prepare for the role?
Juhi:
After hearing the script,Onir and I had so many discussions that there wasn’t any doubt left in my mind. I had a fair idea about my character Megha. But having said that,there are some things that hit you only when you are in that situation. It was only when I reached Kashmir and we started shooting there that I felt the pain of my character.

Nandita: When people ask me how did I prepare for the film,I feel sorry that I don’t have a lovely story to tell like ‘I looked at the mirror and did method acting or I read up books in the library’. I’m sure there are roles which require you to do all that. But someone like Afia or the characters I have done earlier are so human that you just have to imagine and ask yourself,‘If I were in her place,would I react like this? Would I make these choices?’

And often the answer is ‘Yes’. I wouldn’t say there was any preparation per se,also because filmmaking is a very technical medium unlike theatre where you go through all the emotions at a stretch. So I prefer asking all the questions to my director beforehand.

Sanjay: As an actor you don’t have to go through each and every experience to enact a role. When a role is well-written,you get sensitised to it. The more you think of it,the more perceptive you get.

Which is your favourite story in I AM?
Juhi:
I liked Afia’s story. It’s almost lyrical.

Nandita: I really liked I AM Omar (Rahul’s story). It’s very powerful,yet layered at the same time. Usually homosexuality is touched upon with broad brush-strokes. You know so little about it,and what you know little about,you fear it the most as you have your own prejudices about it. A short film cannot make or doesn’t dig the whole gamut of things but it takes one slice of it and does complete justice to that. It’s disturbing because you don’t quite know what to feel,it’s not in black and white like most mainstream films,which give you everything rather simplistically. But this story has many grey shades and the fact that it confuses and disturbs you is its strength.

Rahul: I loved I AM Megha (Juhi-Manisha’s story) because the issue is double-sided. It’s not about the trivialisation of homosexuals where there’s only one side. Here there are both sides. I think whether you are a Kashmiri Muslim or a Kashmiri Pandit,India has been so soaked in blood on both sides that you don’t know which way to go. It will be compelling to watch that and it has been portrayed very finely by both the actors.

Onir,apart from the characters,is there any common link between the four stories?
Onir:
Apart from the characters,these are stories that are about contemporary India. Each of the individuals are struggling for that space where they can lead a life of integrity despite their political history,gender or sexual preferences.

How did you cast Anurag Basu and Anurag Kashyap?Onir: That was not a planned move but it was interesting as few people know that both the filmmakers had come to Mumbai to become actors. I called up Anurag Kashyap because I was finding it difficult to get an actor to play the abusive father in I AM Abhimanyu. He interacts with a lot of theater actors and I asked him,‘Would you know anyone who will be interested’ and he said,‘I will do it.’ That’s how it started. Similarly Anurag Basu and I were once having coffee and he just told me that he had forgotten his wallet and asked me if I could lend him Rs 500? I was looking for a Bengali doctor for I AM Afia and Basu fit the bill. When I told him that he would be acting in my film,he initially thought it was a joke but later accepted it sportingly.

Apart from Sanjay,has anyone whose life has inspired this film watched the movie? What was their reaction?
Onir:
I have shown this film to Ganesh Nallari (whose story has inspired I AM Abhimanyu) and after watching it,he opened up to his parents about his abuse. He recently called me and said that from now on he’ll call himself Ganesh Abhimanyu Nallari. That was really touching.

rinky.kumar@expressindia.com

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