Interview: Filmmaker Aditya Vikram Sengupta

How many words do you need to express your love? Not many, proves Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s debut feature Asha Jaoar Majhe (Labour Of Love). The film sans dialogues, which had its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival, managed to capture the hearts of audiences all around the world, winning ten award at the 40 international film festivals it was screened at. It also won two National Awards this year–the Indira Gandhi Award for the best debut feature and for sound designing. Starring Ritwick Chakraborty and Basabdutta Chatterjee in the lead, the film is an exploration of love and life in a world struck by economic crisis. 

aditya vikram sengupta

Tell us a bit about your background.
I was born and brought up in Kolkata. After college, I studied graphic design at NID. For the next three and a half years, I worked as a promo producer with Channel V. I was always interested in visual art, painting and film. So I quit my job at the channel to pursue my other interests. I started writing, painting and reading. And, then films happened.

How did this idea of placing a young couple in the backdrop of recession come about?
When the recession happened, I was in Mumbai. But I knew what was happening in Kolkata. Many family members and friends had lost their jobs. So it became a fictitious setting in which I could place these two characters in. From childhood, I have seen that in our families or among friends, love is expressed in very different ways. Very few people express it verbally or physically. The manifestation of love comes through the little things that they do for each other. So that was what I wanted to explore.

How long did it take to write the story?
Actually, there is no story as such. But we had a strong screenplay. Honestly, it didn’t take long to write that down because I had everything in my head. I knew what I wanted, down to the shots and angles. I write only at the last minute. And, it is a way to sort out the logistics or to make someone who couldn’t catch up on my vision understand what I mean. I wrote the film in a very different style–there were storyboards, illustrations and text. Most of the screenplay was visual.

There are no dialogues in the film. How hard was it to take this decision like that and stick to it
Frankly, none of the decisions were that hard to make because we had no producer. We were on our own. When I wrote the film, it did have a dialogue in one of the sequences. But when we started shooting the film, it took on a life of its own. Then, we all felt that it was best for the film that we avoid dialogues altogether. We just let the film be and allowed it to evolve spontaneously and organically.

How did you fund the film?
I funded the film with my personal savings and from what I was earning from freelance commercial work. Even now, whatever we are earning goes into this film.

You have both edited and co-shot the film with Mahendra Shetty. How was the experience and which role did you enjoy more?
Of course, editing. I just love to edit and I have decided that I will edit all the films I will make in the future. Editing was definitely more of a choice, but cinematography wasn’t. Mahendra Shetty, who shot about 40 per cent of the film, had to leave midway due to some other commitments and I was forced to pick up the camera. I had a very difficult time shooting the film. I did approach many cinematographers, but they weren’t keen on working in the film. Mahendra had brought in a distinct style into the cinematography that I had to study thoroughly before getting into it. We really understood each other’s work well, so I felt it was better to stay alone and try to complete it, rather than take on someone else and ruin whatever has been done till now.

What camera did you use to shoot the film?
We used a really old one, the first model of RED called RED ONE. This was because we could get it for really cheap rates from the studio. No one uses it these days. We shot the entire film with just two lights–a light bulb and a shooting light.

How did you design the look of the film? Were there visual references you fell back upon?
The look of the film was pre-designed carefully before we actually went on the floor. I knew exactly what I wanted, what the images would look like and how I wanted to portray them. Mahendra did give me some valuable inputs, which only improved it further. As the film doesn’t have dialogues, automatically the stress is on the images. So every frame was planned in advance. We knew what exactly we wanted. For this film, I haven’t used any visual references, but I think it is a great idea. I would love to look at the works of a painter and devise the colour palette for my next film.

Who are the people or filmmakers who inspire you?
Anyone and everyone around me inspires me. In the case of films, there are so many directors and technicians whose work I have loved. For me, a film is a waste of money if I don’t get to take back anything from it. So every film that gives me some takeaway, I like it, maybe not cinematically, but in some other aspect. So it is hard to pinpoint the filmmakers who have influenced me.

How did your experience of working in TV help you while making films?
It helped tremendously. At Channel V, we never had budgets. This meant that everything had to be done by one single person. Right from pre-production to shoot, editing, sound design, animation, graphics, all of it rests on the shoulders of one single person. So it made us more involved in the craft and detailed in our approach. Everyone was responsible for a full production and one person heads every department. You have amazing control over everything. For me, NID was very raw when it came to my creative expression. Channel V was more like a finishing school for me.

How long did you shoot the film and how long did the post-production process take?
We shot it in 21 days, spread throughout the year. As I edited it on my own, initially I wasn’t able to get the rhythm right. So I took about a year to edit it.

What was the biggest challenge while making the film?
Money, without a doubt. But looking back I am really happy that we didn’t have the money. Because it not only gave us the freedom to do what we wanted, it also made us more involved in the craft. We had to plan everything and we learnt the cinematic process inside out. We had to make difficult choices and we would look for alternatives to do the same thing in a cheaper way. This, I think, had a huge impact on the cinematic language that has evolved in this film. So in a way the experience was a lot more intense as we had no money to make a film.

What is your advice to aspiring filmmakers?
I would want to tell them never to get hung up on the equipment you will be using. If you have a clear idea of what you want, you will be able to get it done. So be sure about what you want and find out ways in which it can be accomplished most efficiently. Films need not have to be always made on a big-scale. Nowadays, you can shoot a good film even with a mobile phone. So do not lose hope just because you couldn’t get funding.

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