A young tribal woman, a 4-year-old girl, a mysterious stranger and a goat. This forms the cast of debutante filmmaker Geetu Mohandas’s Liar’s Dice, which has been selected as India’s official entry to the 87th Academy Awards. Mohandas recalls how many of the producers she approached were confused about this unusual ensemble and had quizzed her on why the film had no songs. “It was a seven-year long struggle to get the funds for the film as nobody had any idea how to sell it if it got made,” says Mohandas, who started her stint with the movies in 1986 at the age of 5 as a child actor in Malayalam films. Awards and recognition are not new to Mohandas, who then went on to become a known face in the south working with acclaimed filmmakers like Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Shyamaprasad, and has bagged the Kerala State Award twice, one for her very first screen outing. She has also made a Malayalam short film titled Kelkunundo? (Are you listening?) about a blind girl and how urbanisation affects her small word, which won the National Award in 2009.
Liar’s Dice follows Kamala (played by Geetanjali Thapa), a young mother from Chitkul, a village in Himachal Pradesh, who sets out on a search for her missing husband from her hometown to Delhi. She meets a stranger on the way (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), with whom she forms an unlikely bond. There are strong political undercurrents in the film that unfolds as a linear narrative, documenting Kamala’s journey and its apparent futility, and touches upon issues faced by migrant labour in the country. Liar’s Dice have had a successful run at international festivals, having premeired at Sundance and screened at others in Japan and Rotterdam. It also fared well at this year’s National Film Awards, with Thapa and the film’s cinematographer Rajeev Ravi (also Mohandas’s husband) picking up respective honours.
The competition was tight, with Hindi films like Shahid, Aankhon Dekhi and Marathi films like Fandry in the race along with Liar’s Dice. However, Mohandas calls this selection just “an icing on the cake”. “There was a point when I was doubtful whether this film would even be completed,” she says. “To reach here from there is in itself an achievement. So all that follows is like a bonus for me and I am happy that our efforts are being appreciated.” The film’s script had received a project development grant from the IFFR’s Hubert Bals Fund at Rotterdam, after which Mohandas and Ravi co-produced it with Mumbai-based production company JAR Pictures.
The last two days were a blur, says Mohandas, who got to know of the selection when she started getting calls from the media. Currently trying to strike a balance between giving interviews, pacifying her one-yeard-old daughter Aradhana and penning the script for her next (a Malayalam film), she is happier than ever.
Although she started off as an actor, (“by default of being a child star,” she says), her passion always lied in filmmaking. But this experience helped greatly during filming, feels Thapa. “Geetu knows when you are faking it or when you are acting because she has been doing this from a small age,” she says. “She wanted us to just behave and react according to the situations in the script and gave us complete freedom to do so.” Mohandas, who calls herself “an industry baby”, credits her early exposure to great filmmakers, world cinema and her habit of reading to have shaped her vision as a filmmaker. Another great influence, she says, is her husband, with whom she has collaborated for both her films. “He is like my eye. He translates my vision on to the screen,” she says about Ravi, who has also shot films like Gangs of Wasseypur, Chandni Bar and Dev.D, and has directed two films in Malayalam as well. “So it is like a hand-in-glove existence for us.”
Last year, there was a big furore over the choice of Gujarati film The Good Road for the Oscars, with many hinting at the lack of international banners backing and lobbying for it as a reason why it could have lost out in the big race. However, Mohandas is not in the least worried about the same happening to Liar’s Dice as she says she doesn’t understand or know anything about it to get worried. “People have been asking me about lobbying and marketing. But I have no clue of all that and have left it to my producers to manage it,” she says. “I just feel like my journey has just begun and irrespective of whether we get shortlisted or not, it is not going to take away the efforts and hardwork we put in to make this film. At the end of the day, we made out film and are proud of it.”