'When we make these action machismo films, the stupidest thing is to show that the hero sails through a thousand people. It's a tradition we have grown up with.'
'We don't have the basis of creating a Bruce Lee or a Jackie Chan.'
Vasan Bala is a rare talent in the Hindi film industry.
He has written scripts for other directors, including Bombay Velvet (2015), Raman Raghav (2016), both directed by Anurag Kashyap, and dialogues for The Lunchbox (2013).
He has worked as an assistant director on a few of Kashyap's films.
He has also been an associate director on Michael Winterbottom's Trishna (2011).
Bala is a very patient man.
His first feature film, 2012's Peddlers, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in the Critics Week section and later also played at the Toronto International Film Festival. Peddlers is yet to be released in India.
Six years later, Bala has directed his second film Mard Ko Dard Nahin Hota (The Man Who Feels No Pain), a quirky and at times hilarious homage to Hong Kong's martial art films and the Amitabh Bachchan starrer Mard (1985), told from the point of view of a young man, Surya (Abhimanyu Dasani, son of the actress Bhagyashree), who suffers from a rare condition called Congenital Insensitivity to Pain.
Surya fights evil along with his childhood sweetheart Supri (Radhika Madan), his grandfather (a lovely Mahesh Manjrekar, whose character is inspired by Bala's grandfather) and a one-legged martial arts expert (Gulshan Devaiah), who has a psychotic evil twin (also played by Devaiah).
Mard Ko Dard Nahin Hota premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival's Midnight Madness section, where it won the People's Choice Award.
A few Indian films -- like Monsoon Wedding (2001) and Angry Indian Goddesses (2016) -- have been runners up for this popular award, but Mard Ko Dard Nahin Hota is the first to win.
"The film-makers in India -- either we are the very Bengal-Benares existential kinds or we are complete Bollywood. This whole middle of road is where we have not found respect, or perhaps the finesse," Vasan Bala tells Rediff.com's Senior Contributor Aseem Chhabra in Toronto.
Vasan, this is such a clever film. Where did the obsession of martial arts come from?
My interest in martial arts has been there since childhood.
Did you learn any form yourself?
I watched all of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan's movies while growing up.
But cinematically, the interest evolved suddenly after I discovered Stephen Chow. It hit me that here is a guy who is taking the martial arts genre films and treating them like works by Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
Jackie Chan also did it that most of his life, but with Stephen Chow, there was a lot more story telling than Jackie Chan.
His films were in the great tradition of stuntmen film-makers, which unfortunately I am not. I would love to do my own stunts, but unfortunately, I can't because of my weight.
I can just do it in my mind.
But that's unfortunately a zone of film-making that India does not have.
The film-makers in India -- either we are the very Bengal-Benares existential kinds or we are complete Bollywood.
This whole middle of road is where we have not found respect, or perhaps the finesse.
We have had these B-movie makers right from the beginning.
Vijay Anand was amazing and outstanding, but we had these ambitious film-makers, who wanted to make action films.
There was a film called Karate with Mithun Chakraborty in 1983, with Bappi Lahiri's music, but it did not have the finesse.
We did not know what karate was and Mithun just did this (Bala does the hand chop gesture).
Obviously, they must have seen the Bruce Lee films.
Even Kamal Haasan tried his hand at making marital arts films.
There was a wonderful martial arts film that Girish Karnad directed with Shankar Nag, Ondanondu Kaladalli (1979). But it was a traditional Indian martial arts movie.
Oh yes, that's true. But we kind of never got the form right.
All those people can take great lilting shots, but when it comes to action, it cuts into these weird close ups.
So this was an attempt to get into action and show it the way it was done back then in Hong Kong.
I loved the slow motion sequences in the film, but why do you use so much of it?
Slow motion is basically getting into the mind of Surya.
Most of the slow motion happens as his fantasy treatment of his real life.
But if you snap out of it, it's all real 24 frames action that is actually happening.
If you look at the percentage, it would be 30 percent slow motion, 70 percentage is real live action.
But it's just that the imagery holds itself on its own for a longer time and it gets imprinted stronger.
It was a lot of fun. And you start to laugh and the humour stays there.
Obviously it looks cool, but we wanted to also get into his mindset, which is a hyper thing, away from reality.
That is why we needed to push from 48 and 96 frames per second but to go beyond to 500 frames (the higher the frame rate, the slower the motion).
I think that is how he is processing the world, probably watching it like that.
So whenever we try to look from his perspective, we get into the ultra hyper-realistic zone. But when we get back, it's all 24 frames per second and there's no manipulation.
How did you find Abhimanyu Dasani? Did he have any martial arts background?
We don't have the tradition of actors who have been training since the age of three. Like Jackie Chan or Tony Jaa.
Akshay Kumar claims he learned martial arts.
Yes, but as a kid in school, he must have taken classes.
Abhimanyu had some skills.
Radhika had no skills. She trained for this film for six to eight months.
She went from zero to hundred. She hadn't thrown a punch or a kick in her life.
She wanted to be a Dharma heroine -- good hair, good clothes.
I kind of forced her and convinced her into doing this.
Her film Pataakha released recently.
Yes, she's amazing in it.
But she's a force of nature.
I am so thankful that she has gotten out of that Bollywood aspiration and has become this.
She can fulfill those dreams later.
She's very young, only 23.
Physically, she was able to take on the challenge.
There were a lot of painful days for all three of them, Abhimanyu, Radhika and Gulshan.
It would be grueling and I think I was a brute pushing them every day.
I would feel very guilty at the end of the day, asking them to come to work the next day because I knew they would be sore. But all of them kept going.
What is Abhimanyu's story? How did he learn martial arts?
He had learned some martial arts. Then he had a slip disc and went out of action.
There was no hope in hell for him to do any action film in his life.
He would have just tried to do Drama.
But he overcame all that and busted his ass for this film.
It's quite remarkable.
This is his first film. He was hoping to be launched in a much bigger way, because of his mother. But it's good that he went through the gruel, and through the audition process.
In fact, Radhika was cast on impulse -- one video, one audition and she was cast. Abhimanyu went through two-and-a-half months of auditions.
So you had other actors you could have considered?
So many boys and girls.
But where do they get martial arts training in India?
They all do mixed martial arts, which has become a legitimate form of exercising.
Many of them have a basic body movement that looks like they could be doing martial arts.
But there is no hard-core training.
That's why we will never have an international breakout star only on the basis of martial arts skills.
It has to be an actor who knows martial arts.
We don't have the basis of creating a Bruce Lee or a Jackie Chan.
Also, they had a vision. They were film-makers and not just practitioners of martial arts.
I tried to cast real martial artists, but they couldn't act. And they didn't have the presence.
Also, their form was too rigid because of their discipline.
What I liked about this guy was that he sometimes had this blank sort of look, but he tells so much through that look.
That was by design because all actors scratch and do stuff, but as a character, he can't feel any pain. So his body language and his approach to life is not too expressive.
I read some place that you know a dentist who had a patient who didn't need anesthesia. It adds another dimension to the story, but the other characters feel pain. What drew you to this idea of a character who doesn't feel pain?
When we make these action machismo films, the stupidest thing is to show that the hero sails through a thousand people. It's a tradition we have grown up with.
Lately, even in ads, when we show empowerment, the ideas of patriarchy have been instilled in us.
But most human beings should be able to do all wonderful things -- be vulnerable, be able to cry, be contradictory... That's what Supri is.
I think she is the most fulfilled character than any of the other characters in the film, who are burdened with this need to be conventional heroes.
For me, Supri is the hero, who is making all the wrong decisions, although she thinks they are right.
The conditioning of patriarchy is so toxic, and deeply instilled that even the strongest of us fall prey to the imagery and not realise the fundamentals of it.
Advertisements also show all the badassness that we are expected to follow, which is also untrue and so superficial.
I am very satisfied to have developed a character like Supri and reflect her through Radhika Madan with all her spectrum of emotions.
But Surya's character, the fact that he has never felt the itch, did you research that?
It's all research.
All these kids, the first thing they learn to do is to say 'ouch.'
What percentage of the world's population has this condition?
It's only a couple of thousand people. And in India, people die early without even knowing about their condition.
I have received some tweets from mothers, who said their sons suffer from this condition and it is tough for them.
When you don't understand the concept of pain, your social communication becomes limited because you can't express emotions correlated to pain.
We do it all the time, but they can't do anything.
They remain this blank steely representation of what machismo is, which is so false and that it alienates them from the rest of the world.
Have you thought of finding an audience for a film like this?
Obviously, while writing and making a film you can't think of all this. You completely believe in it; you think this is the real world.
With the same zeal, you convince the producer and make it. After that, then you have time to sit and settle and think about it. So for now, it is only observing and learning.
You made Peddlers and you came to TIFF in 2012. What's the story with Peddlers? When will we get to see it?
It's still stuck with Eros and I have left it like that.
I don't know what else to do.
I keep talking to Guneet (Monga, producer) sometimes. There is some movement and then suddenly, it stops.
I know you have been doing a lot of work with other directors, but why has it taken you so long to make your next film after Peddlers?
I wrote a lot of scripts, but I never found people to support, fund or even understand the projects.
Finally, Ronnie Screwvala said I don't know about the script, but I believe in you, so make the film.
I needed someone to believe in me as a director, writer.
It was more like 'This guy wants to make something which I don't understand,' but he said 'I want this film to be made.'
I didn't find another guy like this in the past six years, so it took time.