'There's no point making grand plans all our lives when life itself is so fragile.'
Madhur Bhandarkar's India Lockdown, which had its premiere at IFFI in Goa a couple of days ago, looks at the lives of Indians affected by the lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic.
"It was during the second lockdown, which came in the wake of the deadly Delta wave and took away a lot of our near and dear ones, that it struck me that even privileged people like us turned small, insignificant and vulnerable in the face of this deadly disease," Bhandarkar tells Rediff.com Senior Contributor Roshmila Bhattacharya.
Was India Lockdown shot during the lockdown?
No. It was shot last year, in February-March 2021, when we were taking baby steps towards normalcy.
It was shot in the tiny window that had opened for us, just before the deadly second wave struck.
Shootings had started with limited units working in a bubble and adhering to all the SOPs.
We meticulously followed the protocol laid down by both the central and state governments.
Masks were in place and there was daily testing.
It must have been tough.
Very, because the film is shot in four zones.
While Aahana Kumra and Prakash Belawadi's track unfolded in apartments, Shweta Basu Prasad's took place in a semi-studio in Mira Road (a township north of Mumbai).
With Sai Tamhankar and Prateik Babbar, we filmed in a slum in Ghatkopar (north east Mumbai), where migrant workers lived in shanties.
It was easier when one was shooting in a closed, controlled, environment, but we also had some outdoors, when we joined real crowds on the roads.
We also filmed in a truck crammed with 80-90 people.
Even though our Kamathipura was set in a semi-studio, there were 18-20 girls and men around Shweta Basu Prasad, who plays a sex worker.
(With a wry chuckle) I always had a prayer on my lips that kissi ko Corona na ho jaye (that no one is infected).
If one person tested positive, I knew it would bring the shoot to a halt and hit our tight schedule for a six.
Were there any scares?
No. God was kind and we managed to wrap up the film, as planned, in 25-26 days with just a five to six-day break in between.
There were no roadblocks during the shoot, but in April, the second lockdown happened after a severe and diabolical second wave and we were locked in again.
I could started editing only after four-five months, around July-August.
Aahana Kumra as a pilot confined to her home and drawing close to a young man who lives in the same building, Prakash Belawadi as a lonely, old man desperate to get to his pregnant daughter in Hyderabad, Sai Tamhankar as one half of a migrant couple were all natural choices for the characters they play. But Prateik Babbar as Sai's husband taking the long way home is an unusual bit of casting.
(Laughs) Everybody in my team was reluctant because Prateik is such a city boy.
He himself loved the script, but asked me doubtfully, 'Sir, do you think I can pull it off?'
I was 100 per cent sure he could and would.
I told him to watch Balraj Sahni's Do Bigha Zameen, Om Puri's Aakrosh and his mother Smita Patil's National Award-winning Chakra and Pet Pyaar Aur Paap as part of his prep.
He is brilliant!
So you didn't actually venture into Mumbai's red-light district for Shweta Basu Prasad's segment.
The original plan was to shoot there.
Eventually, we recreated the lanes and ambience of Kamathipura in a studio in Mira Road on a set that we re-designed to our specifications.
But I went to Kamathipura with my DoP (Director Of Photography), costume designer and a few other members of my unit so they could replicate the red-light dstrict convincingly.
I also took Shweta there and she spent time interacting with the sex workers, observing their body language, the way they spoke...
Her character is spunky and chatty, has some of the best one-liners in the film and brings humour into the narrative.
Like she says, 'Kya danger bimari hai yeh, aadmi aadmi ko chhu nahin sakti aur bina chhuye apna dhanda chale nahin.'
The lockdown hit sex workers hard as their business is all about physical proximity which was difficult when you were repeatedly being told to practice social distancing.
Any censor problems?
The censors had issues with the language used by Shweta's character.
I was not ready to take the cuts they proposed so I went to the revising committee.
They loved the film and only wanted me to edit out a couple of slur words which was barely anything.
The only problem I faced was with Shweta's track because of the sexual innuendo and brothel lingo. That was diluted slightly, but everything else was retained.
Has the pandemic changed you in any way as a person?
Yes, it did. The pandemic came out of nowhere and turned our lives upside down.
The first lockdown was hard on certain sections of society, like migrant workers, who were left jobless.
But it was during the second lockdown, which came in the wake of the deadly Delta wave and took away a lot of our near and dear ones, that it struck me that even privileged people like us turned small, insignificant and vulnerable in the face of this deadly disease.
Money and power, nothing worked, as despite the best of efforts, lives could not be saved.
That's when I realised that there's no point making grand plans all our lives when life itself is so fragile.
I myself have never planned anything in my life.
When someone asks me, 'Madhur, what are you doing next?' I tell them, 'I don't know.'
From Chandni Bar to India Lockdown, I have not planned a single film of mine, they just happened.
How has the unplanned 2022 been like?
(Laughs) It's turned out to be a pretty good year.
Avijatrik, which I co-produced, bagged two National Awards, for Best Cinematography (Supratim Bhol) and Best Feature Film in Bengali.
Babli Bouncer has done extremely well on OTT and got Tamannah Bhatia huge appreciation for her performance in the titular role.
It's a film that speaks of woman empowerment, but in a lighter, entertaining vein.
You know, I have this image of an intense film-maker who makes dark, hard-hitting films, but I am fun-loving in real life and this film reflected that.
David Dhawan, after watching Babli Bouncer and the trailer of India Lockdown, called to compliment me on making such vastly different films.
Yes, they are two very contrasting films, but I believe as a film-maker and a storyteller, I should be able to pull off different subjects.
Look at Guide, Tere Mere Sapne and Johny Mera Naam, such dramatically different films, it's hard to believe they were all made by the same brilliant film-maker, Vijay Anand.
Raj Khosla also made Mera Gaon Mere Desh, Mera Saaya, Kuchhe Dhaage and Main Tulsi Tere Aangan Ki, again very varied cinema.
I'm happy I made Babli Bouncer and India Lockdown in the same year, along with the National Award-winning Avijatrik, which is another feather in my cap.
Avijatrik, based on Bibhutibhushan Bondopadhyay's Bengali novel Aparajito, takes off from where Satyajit Ray's Apur Sansar ended, tracing the relationship between Apu and his son Kajol, and is officially recognised as the sequel to his classic Apu trilogy.
Yes, it's an amazing film and has won accolades everywhere.
I am happy I could back a thought, a subject and a film that is so daringly different.
I was pleasantly surprised when (Director) Subhrajit Mitra told me he wanted to shoot it in black and white.
I had not seen any of his previous works, but he narrated the story so beautifully that I was immediately convinced I had to back this film.
I am a huge Satyajit Ray fan; I have been a member of the SRFTI (Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute).
I am proud that we could come out with this film, celebrating the auteur's legacy and bringing back one of his most endearing characters Apu, in his centenary year.
I know you don't plan, but the pandemic has made people realise that time is short and one should not keep putting off dreams. Is there something in your bucket list that you want to tick off soon?
I am a travel junkie and this is the one thing I missed when coped up at home during the pandemic.
I would reel back to my old Instagram posts and watch English series that made me feel I was in Europe.
Not just abroad, I love to take a break from work and travel across India too.
This is the time to read, watch movies, eat, travel and enjoy life.
Would you like to make a travel series some day?
I would love to. I also want to make an action film soon, which is a blend of realism and Manmohan Desai cinema.