Filmmaker and FTII dropout Aadish Keluskar’s restless energy is like the third wheel in his relationship with cinema, omnipresent in his films. Even his love stories quake with the nervous vibe of edge-of-the-seat thrillers. Jaoon Kahan Bata Ae Dil, his second feature after Kaul A Calling is not only among the Indian titles selected for the India Gold competition section at the Mumbai Film Festival 2018 but is also nominated for the Oxfam Gender Award.
A nihilistic take on Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, Jaoon Kahan... starring Rohit Kokate and Khushboo Upadhyay brims over with caustic truth bombs a la Aaron Sorkin. It punctures the idea of toe-curling romance.
The long takes and handheld camera movements of his ‘anti-romantic film’ are not just devices exuding authenticity, they are symbols of disquiet, making the film at once intimate and universal. “If one investigates any emotion without judging it, tries to unearth as many layers as possible, one arrives at a certain vulnerable core of the emotion that is contrary to how it manifests itself. The facade drops. This anti-romantic film tries to strip not just a relationship of its romance but also the idea of a brighter future or a better economy of the country. It’s the story of a relationship but it’s also about politics, about religion, about power equations etc. It’s my approach that makes it anti-romantic,” he says.
The banter between the lovers has a loose, swingy tempo that Keluskar confirms is entirely preplanned, down to the word. “My screenplay always grows inside me with dialogue attached to it like limbs. There was no room for improvisation. We had no permission to shoot in public spaces too,” he says. His characters speak like whizzing metronomes spewing venom. You’ll find yourself laughing uncomfortably at many points but his lines are set to unmask your own prejudices. Keluskar is interested in posing moral dilemmas for the viewers.
Aadish’s unflinching gaze goes beyond the slivers that you see to the hidden valley of the psyche. Jaoon Kahan... revels in the contradictions between treatment and content. How else would you explain a film steered by a misogynistic male lead to be picked up for a gender award? The director enjoys giving his audience binary shocks - tenderness is followed up with unexpected cruelty as we see a middle-class couple’s love story unfold in locations like the Marine Drive promenade, an Irani restaurant, a single-screen theatre and a seedy hotel room. Keluskar shows you how a conversational film can be a ticking bomb with a diabolical climax.
We caught up with the filmmaker ahead of his film’s screening at MAMI 2018.
You either love or hate SRK. What is it? There are a few nods to him in this film and even in your earlier short film, I Love You Too.
I like SRK as a performer. I have grown up watching his films. I like the sensitivity that he brings to male characters. Now that you’re saying this, I must give it a thought.
The stream of consciousness dialogue turns into poetry in your hands. There’s a cadence to it. You call it ‘gutter poetry’?
It’s a phrase I had heard in one of Tarantino’s old interviews. I don’t know where he picked it up from. My idea of gutter poetry is that it does not have the ‘cleansing’ approach as far as the arrangement of words are concerned and it does not have that political correctness. Even Namdeo Dhasaal and Bukowski’s poetry is gutter poetry.
It is the lingo that is developed in certain strata of society that does not find representation in literature. I approach dialogue like a musical composition. Poetry at the end of the day, is stylisation of thoughts. I find poetry in conversations between people at a tea tapri too.
How did you manage the tightrope walk between being uncompromising and yet not being exploitative. What went into the most brutal scene of your film?
I looked at this scene like an action scene - a bloodbath. If you’re a director, in a scene like this you will think of the speed at which the sword will come down, the type of sword; by the time it hits the hand, what part of the hand falls out, the colour of the fake blood etc. I was clear about my gaze and after that it was very clinical. I had told Khushboo about this assault scene even before I sent her the screenplay and the probable composition with the partial nudity I’d require from both actors. On an aesthetic level, I didn’t want to show some things deliberately. That comes from the Hitchcockian tradition. I’d like the audience to play it in their minds.
Your films are marked by experimentation and are made on a shoestring budget, yet you don’t identify with the indie movement? What’s your process?
I follow two different processes when it comes to writing, one is the normal one, where you come up with a logline and you develop it into a three-act structure. The second one is where something just explodes in the sub-conscious. Jaoon Kahan... is a blast of the subconscious...you have no other option but to write it. So I wrote it in February and it was shot in May. It came to me with everything - beginning, middle, end, dialogue. That was the first draft. The conscious process starts after that. Like Sorkin says, there are some things you write that sound great on paper but sound stupid when you say them. It’s in the third draft that you do the character analysis and correct these things. What would the aesthetic be if I borrow money from friends vs a producer coming on board. I don’t want to get addicted to this kind of filmmaking because you don’t know when this epiphany will strike. It’s an urge I cannot deny. What do I do till then? This impatience led to my exit from FTII too - the bureaucracy of a government organisation affects the lowest common denominator. Post 2009, the Canon digital revolution changed a lot -5D cameras etc. Now filmmakers didn’t have that excuse - Camera Kidhar Se Laun? Now if you want to tell a story and can’t make a film, there’s a problem with your imagination. James Cameron was not happy with his final output too in case of Avatar, he wanted more money to make it. Who gets what they want? Independent filmmaking is all about thought revolution, staying true to your ideas not about budgets.
How is your film relevant to the MeToo movement?
It’s a fitting coincidence. I didn’t set out to make an issue-based film. The #MeToo movement is absolutely indispensable now. It’s the first revolution since the JP movement that is actually addressing the mindset of the nation. We had the IT revolution that was profession based. This movement attacks patriarchy and feudalism. Like Ambedkar placed his movement in the constitutional context, we need someone to do that for #MeToo. If you make a film with an overt agenda or issue in mind, it actually is counterproductive. People watch that and don’t get affected. It’s like saying Dangal will lead to female empowerment. Haryana ka abhi bhi haal dekho. In Marathi we say, Shivaji Chalel pan majha gharat nako. Let Aamir Khan do it, why should we? - that’s the mentality.
The worst things in life come in mixed packages. Show me one politician who has not done good for a lot of people, otherwise he won’t get elected. It’s like Rohit’s character in the film, you nod your head in agreement at many scenes,‘Sahi Bol Raha Hai Yaar’. But every villain is a hero in his own story. In the #MeToo movement, the supporters of the accused say, ‘He never did that to me.’ But that’s human behaviour - that’s the dichotomy. It’s not a Barjatya film - all good or all bad characters.
Sporadically, our conversation veers towards how Keluskar believes that there could be a complete dictatorship in the country after 8-10 years and how behind every fascist government, there’s a failed democracy, letting us in on how his seemingly personal films are deeply political at heart.
“Civilisation will never get used to peace,” signs off Keluskar.
Jaoon Kahan Bata Ae Dil is set to premiere at the Mumbai Film Festival on 28 October.