The Loneliness of Being Vikramaditya Motwane
When Vikramaditya Motwane’s urban survival thriller, Trapped, releases on March 17, it would have been three years, nine months and a few odd days since his last film, Lootera, opened in theaters to universal critical acclaim. For an industry that churns out 200+ films every year, any director of calibre typically has a release every second year, and the more prolific or fortuitous ones may even manage to put out a film a year.
This inordinate gap between Motwane’s two films has little to do with his calibre; his debut film, 2010’s coming of age drama Udaan was officially selected to compete in Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious Un Certain Regard category, the first Indian film to do so, in almost a decade. His second, the heartbreakingly beautiful Lootera, inspired from O Henry’s The Last Leaf, found a place in most year-end ‘Best Of’ lists, with film critic Rajeev Masand calling it a film that “makes a place in the heart”, and leaves “a lasting impression”.
Motwane’s prolificacy isn’t in question either; in the same period, as part of the directors’ collective Phantom Films, Motwane has produced an incredible eleven films (along with Vikas Bahl, Anurag Kashyap and Madhu Mantena) including critical and commercial successes Queen, NH10, Masaan and Udta Punjab.
So as is the wont of Bollywood, it all comes down to luck, and Motwane has been plagued by a particularly bad stretch of it over the last four years. At various points in these years, he has been attached to a dysfunctional family drama starring Ahana Deol, a thriller, AK vs SK, starring Shahid Kapur, vigilante drama Bhavesh Joshi, first starring Imran Khan, then Siddharth Malhotra, and a superhero drama Chakra, co-created by Stan Lee.
While the first film never took off, AK vs SK was shelved after some days of shoot, and at some point, so was Bhavesh Joshi, as the script had stopped being relevant, having been written back in 2011. And so, Trapped, a story about a man locked in an apartment in a newly-constructed, empty Mumbai high rise, trying desperately to break free, happened because of, and as a reaction to, the stalled movies before it.
“To be honest, the film was made in anger,” a wistful Motwane recalls amidst a packed Juhu café. “I had reached a point where I felt responsible towards my crew as they had hung around with me for so long through all those shoots that started and then stopped. I was also tired of just doing ads or prepping for movies. I wanted to shoot something narrative, something that was longer than three days.”
The idea for the film came to him through an email by writer Amit Joshi, and Motwane’s first reaction was, ‘I can do this!’ “It was such a good challenge for all of us,” he says. “It was a great story, easy to make, and I liked that the nature of the idea was universal. It could have been set in Bombay, Delhi, Bangalore, Cal (sic), or even Shanghai or America. And after everything that had happened, I just felt that I should jump in.”
Motwane and a minimal cast and crew did just that. Within three weeks of having decided to do the film, Motwane and his crew were shooting a start-to-finish month-long schedule in one location, an unoccupied building in the middle of Parel’s frenetic commercial district. It felt almost like a “student film”, Motwane says with a chuckle.
Beyond the fact that a survivor thriller like Trapped had never been done in India, what attracted Motwane, a filmmaker whose painstakingly beautiful frames in each of his first two films were just as much talked about as his grasp over storytelling, was its theme of ‘urban loneliness’.
The lead character in the film, Shaurya, played by the very able Rajkummar Rao, is an immigrant in the city, one of the many anonymous people with anonymous jobs, who come to Mumbai and try to find both, their calling and themselves. He is completely alone in that he has no dependency on anyone in the city, and there’s no one by way of family to come looking for him if he goes missing.
At the start of the film, Shaurya is in a relationship with Noorie (played by Liar’s Dice actress Geetanjali Thapa) though, and Motwane characterizes this relationship as a form of urban loneliness too, in that the two are “alone together”.
“When two people like each other in Bombay, and you see them together at Marine Drive or Juhu Beach or in cabs or trains, these are two people are both lonely because it’s only each other that they actually have ,” says Motwane. “Their isolation from the city to me was best encapsulated in a scene where the two of them are listening to music on the same pair of earphones in a train. It’s something I’ve seen couples do… and I find that very cute, yaar (smiles).”
There is certain comfort and ease with which Motwane talks about loneliness, and for anyone who’s followed his filmography so far, it’s not tough to see why. Both Udaan and Lootera were films about lonesome, misunderstood characters, whose battles were not just with the world outside, but with their own selves in a world that they were trying to find their place in.
In Udaan, the lead character’s isolation and quest to be appreciated by his father, was memorably captured in a scene where he beats up his father’s car. In Lootera, the isolation manifests both physically, as Sonakshi Sinha’s character, betrayed in love, lives in seclusion in Dalhousie; and symbolically, as Ranveer Singh’s character takes up a solitary task to of painting the last leaf on a tree every day, so as to give hope to the dying woman he loves.
In hindsight, Motwane reveals, he’s always been a bit of a loner himself, and his films may just be a materialisation of that on to the big screen. “I believe in characters whose actions speak louder than words, characters who do things alone and quietly,” he says. “I love making films without too much dialogue. That’s not to say there’s no communication in my films, in fact there’s a lot of it and I really, really enjoy that. But I really get off on silent scenes, yaar (smiles).
“Udaan has a lot of that, Lootera has a lot of that, Bhavesh (Joshi) also has a lot of that (laughs), and now that I think of it, maybe that’s what attracted me to Trapped as well. I just like lonely characters… I find them interesting in cinema, in books, and in general. There’s something about one man versus the world.”
On further reflection, Motwane believes this could be because, hailing from a divorced household, he grew up too fast as compared to other kids his age. “I had a maturity level a little higher than that of everybody else,” he recalls. “I started smoking before everybody else, drinking before everybody else and smoking weed before everybody else. I had elder cousins who were too old for me to hang out with, so maybe I took that leap to fit in with them. But I never could fit anywhere, not with them or with my friends.”
Meanwhile, the city in which Motwane grew up in, ‘Bombay’ changed into ‘Mumbai’ overnight and he couldn’t recognise what had happened to it anymore. He characterizes his relationship with it as “love-hate”; there’s parts of the city he grew up in and knows like the back of his hand, and there’s the bustling metropolis that is Mumbai, where it seems that some people care [about others], but the others do not at all. “The city overwhelms you in a weird kind of way now,” says Motwane. “It’s almost as if the city I grew up in was Bombay.. and Mumbai is a city I don’t know at all.”
This nagging feeling of being an outsider within your own city is a feeling that’s stayed with Motwane for much of his life. And as a filmmaker, who belongs to that school of filmmaking where God lies in the details and craft is just as important as story, this is a feeling that has percolated into the art he makes and the industry he’s a part of too.
“I still feel like an outsider, even within the industry and film circles,” Motwane admits, “in the sense that my stories are very different from what anybody else is making. I think that’s a good thing because compromising or becoming like everybody else is not going to be a solution to anything. On every story I develop or work on, I soon start feeling that ‘Oh, this has got a very limited audience’, which I’m quite happy about! I know I can then take them and turn them into something larger and bigger, within the aukat (capacity) of the film.”
Motwane agrees that it may be the producer in him talking about making things ‘bigger’ but the fact is, the movies that he grew up with, the classic ‘cinema’ of Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg or even Quentin Tarantino, are hardly relevant anymore; the last movies of these auteurs – Silence, The BFG and The Hateful Eight, respectively – failed to set the box office on fire, and the ones before didn’t rake in substantial money either.
It now seems that with dwindling attention spans of audiences in the age of Snapchat, the only way to stay relevant is to move on from purist cinema towards a new kind of event cinema, which all modern day auteurs from Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity) to Alejendro Inarittu (Birdman) to Christopher Nolan (every film) seem to be embracing.
Five years ago, Motwane would have been reluctant to agree, but today, having seen the collapse of the mid-budget film that could very well have been his strength, he concurs. “You have to evolve now, you have to grow as a filmmaker… I think every film you make should be an event,” he says.
“I think there’s a general acceptance within me towards that; that you have to hit the ground running. The world is not as patient with cinema as it was when I made Udaan or even Lootera. You have to be conscious of that, and I’m understanding that.”
But all is not lost, where the scheme of things in commercial Indian cinema is concerned, and Motwane recognizes that. As a producer, he’s been part of films like NH10 and Udta Punjaab, that challenged the status quo of ‘mainstream sensibilities’, and still managed to work at the box office. Such risks are inherent to Motwane’s storytelling ability, and it gives him heart that the audience is welcoming them, as recent films outside his banner like Neerja or Dangal prove.
The fact that Dangal, a film that Motwane believes may not have been made at all ten years ago, is the highest grossing film of all time, gives him a ‘vindication’ to believe that the audience are accepting a certain kind of story now… that perhaps, it’s not a lone fight anymore.
And so, the Trapped director is prepping himself for the next stage of his career, where he wants to liberate himself from his own boundaries, by ‘overstretching’ and ‘overreaching’ and making all kinds of movies, including sci-fi and animation, as well as a sequel to Udaan, because of the opportunities he has at his disposal today. He wants to make up to two films a year, if possible, and will keep developing scripts till he is able to achieve that, but at the same time, is keenly aware of the library of his work that he eventually wants to put together.
“I feel that there is the here and now, where you go and make films and get successful, and then make more films, but then what? Do you want your films to be seen 15, 20, 30 years from now, do you want a library, in the (Stanley) Kubrick sense of the way, that people value? I do, and I’m conscious of that. So you need to not only challenge yourself, but in some sort of a way, challenge your audience too.”
For Motwane, the greatest such challenge lies in finding the balance in his work in a way that feeds his creative soul and still appeals to the audience. He calls Trapped his ‘most commercial film’ and believes that with it, and his next film, Bhavesh Joshi, he has found a way to make his stories “more accessible” and “universal”. This is not to say that he’s become less inventive or “sold out”, “I just believe it’s a bit selfish to be stuck in your own loop.”
“I have tried to open up my audiences but at the same time, I have taken exactly the kind of risks in Trapped that I know the audience for this kind of a film would like. So I’m hoping, film by film, the audience grows out. Because what’s happening on the commercial spectrum is so heartening that you also feel like extending yourself.”
Motwane pauses for a brief moment, then smiles. “Or maybe, it’s just maturity, you know.”
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Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on March 10, 2017
Picture courtesy: Ritesh Uttamchandani for Open. None of the pictures are owned by the author all rights belong to the original owner(s) and photographer(s).
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