Interview: Filmmaker Harshavardhan Kulkarni

Nowadays Hunterrr director Harshavardhan Kulkarni waits a while before picking up calls on his phone. He is being bombarded with calls from several vaasus like Mandar, his debut film’s protagonist. The reason being that the number that flashes as Savita Bhabhi’s on Mandar’s phone in the film is his! Although the team had blurred it in most of the scenes, the vaasus outsmarted them and caught hold of the number the one time it was visible onscreen. Although he is spending most of his time and energy trying to solve this problem, Harshavardhan takes out some time to talk to Long Live Cinema about the journey of making his first film.

Tell us a bit about your background.
I was born into a middle-class family in Mumbai, very similar to the milieu shown in the film, in a locality like the one shown in the film. I went to a boys school and did petro-chemical engineering in Pune. During my college days itself, I dabbled in theatre, writing , directing and acting in plays. And, because I was in Pune, FTII was like a dream. I wanted to get into films, so I didn’t take up any engineering job after college. Instead, I joined B.P. Singh, who was an FTII alumni and produced iconic TV series like Aahat and CID, in Mumbai and worked with him for 6 months. Then, I joined FTII. That was an experimental batch and although I wanted to join the direction course, that particular year the institute had decided to scrap the undergraduate course and replaced it with a post graduate one. So there was only editing, sound design and cinematography, so I took editing. Then I came back to Mumbai. Now here, there are two kinds of people–one, whose parents own a house here and another, who need to pay rent to get a roof over their head. As I fell into the former category, I was quite laid back and lazy. I didn’t want to assist anyone, so I started this production house with my friend Kirti Nakhwa [who has also edited Hunterrr] and we started doing corporate videos. Ten years just flew past, yaar, we didn’t even realise! Then, I thought I had to start doing what I really wanted do–make films. Then Hasee Toh Phasee happened and now Hunterrr.

How did the idea for this film come to you and how long did you take to write it?
Actually, the idea or the concept of Hunterrr came to me as long ago as 2000. But I was too scared to even develop it. I come from a normal middle-class family and was scared whether I would end up making a B-grade soft-porn film. It took a lot of goading from my wife and my friends to actually sit down and write it. After I wrote it, I gave it to my wife and some women friends to read and their response encouraged me. None of the women who read it were offended by it. So I went ahead with it. The writing process was really long. I began writing in 2005 and finished it in a year. But what came out of it was a 450-pages long vaasu screenplay. It took me another year to edit and tone it down to 150 pages.

Why did you choose to tell the story in a non-linear way?
That was how I wrote it. And one think I feel not so good about now is that I introduced the supers at the edit level to simplify it. The notes that say ‘six months later’ and years that appear on screen, I think, simplified the film way too much. On seeing the rough cuts, a lot of people advised me to add the supers so as not to confuse the viewers. But on hindsight I feel that I had anyway not made the film for people who watch it munching on popcorn. It was made keeping in mind people who take film seriously. Now I think those supers rob them of an opportunity of decoding the film. This is the biggest learning I took back from the film. At the end of the day I am making an independent film and I had to push the envelope a bit. I should have stuck to my original idea only. I feel it would have been gratifying for the audience to crack it.At least a few people feel that the film was positioned wrongly as a sex comedy because of its trailer. Do you think so?
After we cut the trailer, we definitely had a huge discussion about it. But if you ask me I stand by it and think that it represents the film well. If you look at it now after watching the film, you will also feel the same. The problem is that Indian filmgoers have a set definition for “sex comedies”. It involves a lot of double meaning and below the belt shit. But if you have watched the film, you will know it has nothing of that sort. There are jokes, but there is a difference between a pun and a double meaning phrase. Pun is literature, yaar, there is an educated effort behind it. Look, if we had wanted, we could have put some skin show in the trailer and positioned it completely differently to draw more people in. But we stuck to this. Even in this, we had two options: one was the coming-of-age wonder years type of trailer and the other the current one. I feel this is the one that reflects the film and its theme the best, the reason why we went with it.

How did Gulshan Devaiah come on board?
When I wrote it I had no one in mind and I think that’s the best way to go for a writer. It limits your own writing if you have an actor already in mind while scripting. Because I feed off from real people and real incidents, I was on the lookout for faces that looked very real. I didn’t know what exactly I was looking for but I knew I would recognise my Mandar when I see him. I have said this a thousand times, but I was looking for someone like Amol Palekar. Unassuming and someone who wouldn’t stand out in crowds. He is the perfect common man. Mandar is under-confident, yet with a huge appetite for sex, and with no special talent whatsoever. I wanted someone who did not look heroic. I was also looking at actors who had a Marathi background.
I had seen Gulshan in a few films like Dum Maaro Dum and That Girl In Yellow Boots in both of which he had a Konkani-Maharashtrian accent and I was impressed by his acting. Then I saw him in Shaitan, in which he played a north Indian, and I was again blown away. So I decided to watch his play and that was when my dreams and hopes of casting him came crashing down. Because Gulshan is extremely goodlooking. He is not one who will blend in with a crowd, he is tall and handsome, he can actually stand out. He is quite a head turner. But I gave him the script and the first thing he told me was that if he were to play Mandar he would do it like Palekar. And, that was it. I knew he had nailed it. All credit goes to him for looking so ordinary in the film.

The music of the film is also very interesting and conveys the mood of each stage in Mandar’s life well. What was the brief given to the music director and how was the process of composing like?
The music is composed by Khamosh Shah, whom I have known from my junior KG days. He is a very good friend and has been part of the project, not as a composer, but as a friend right from the 450-page draft stage. So he knew the project inside out and when it got to a time we had to decide on the music director, he was my natural choice. He is a very talented singer himself. And, we were both not looking to create music for an album, but for the film. He totally gets me and the milieu the film is set in because he, too, comes from a similar background. Most of the songs were composed after the edit, so he had the visual montages to guide him through the process. As for the brief, there were times when he didn’t stick to it and thankfully so. For instance, the Chori Chori song in which Mandar and Jyotsna communicates through signs. The brief I gave him was more like a thriller song, with jazz and punk and a lot of tring trings in it. And we hadn’t shot that portion yet. I received a mail from him the day I was going to shoot it. He send me this song, the lyrics were also his, from Chennai, where he was dong his course at A R Rahman’s music conservatory. What can I say! I was blown away, it was insane. The song was just too beautiful. And it was the perfect contrast to what was happening on screen.
Khamosh has a different process, which is rare in Bollywood, which is he composes only after the lyrics is done. And this got us into a bit of a problem when we worked on the song Bachpan, which Amit Trivedi was so kind enough to sing. We approached Swanand Kirkire for the song. It was a special moment for us because Swanand actually sat and watched the whole film and enjoyed it before he agreed to write for us. As usual he came up with some amazing poetry. Now Khamosh had to tune it right and that was a huge challenge. He took some time to figure it out but I am glad that it turned out so well.
Another striking aspect of Hunterrr is the cinematography. It is simple, seamless and unobtrusive. It is almost like there is no camera. How did you achieve this?
I am glad you noticed! My DOP is also a first timer–John Jacob Payyapalli. He is from London Film School and over there they teach you film, not just one stream like cinematography or editing. You get out of the course as storytellers and filmmakers. We had done an ad film together in Goa and the three days I spent with John, we just ended up laughing our heads off. It was an instant connect. We just got each others humour. And I was looking for someone who got this kind of humour. When I gave him the script, he was like ‘I don’t want to do a feature film!’. But after I read it, he just got it. He doesn’t get much Hindi either, but he perfectly understood the film and was on board.

There is lot of thought behind the camera work in the film. The childhood shots are more classical and static, with very few track shots to give an effect that a camera wasn’t there at all. The scenes with Trupti and Mandar are more romantic, with slight backlight. And, the present day is a lot of blues and handheld because it is a little disturbing that the guy hasn’t still changed his ways. Also, John and I was like, this is our first film and we don’t know how long film is even going to be around and so we wanted to shoot on film. But 35mm would have been too expensive so we shot on 16mm. People who saw the film complains about the grains and was saying it looks outdated, but actually that was how we intended it to look.

How do you react to the response that Hunterrr has garnered? Some say it objectifies women and others seem to love it!
Like I said I was scared to even pen this story. But after I wrote it I gave it to my father, G.V. Kulkarni, who is a Kannada poet. He was very encouraging and he told me about Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House. When the play was staged for the first time, theatres were burnt down due to its explosive content that involved a woman walking out of her marriage. It was as immoral as it could get at that time, but now it is almost nothing in our society. Morality changes with time.
But I am still disappointed that my film is being described as ‘shockingly bold’ by even veteran critics. These are things which happened in my childhood and I stayed away from making it for over 8 years thinking when I finally do make it, it will be accepted more openly by society. But I was wrong and it is really sad. When I was in 6th standard, I remember that we had a slot in DD every Friday to play A-rated films, which were not porn films but arthouse classics meant for an adult audience. But now I feel we are regressing culturally.

It was never my intention to glorify Mandar or vaasugiri. I don’t understand why people don’t get it. It is Mandar, the character, who objectifies women, not me the filmmaker. If you watch the film, we have always maintained a third person view and never wanted to show my actors in a vulgar way.

Who are the writers and filmmakers who have inspired you?

I have grown up watching popular Hindi films. But I am drawn more to books. Nowadays, I don’t watch many films because I do not like watching them on small screens. So no streaming, no downloading for me. So it was in FTII that I watched the maximum films in my life. I completely admire writers like Amitav Ghosh and Vikram Seth. Ghosh’s Shadow Lines is a my favourite book. A lot of people told me that they saw shades of English, August, Upamanyu Chatterjee’s novel, in Hunterrr. I have read the book so many times and his humour is so Brit and subtle that I relate so much to it. So maybe I was subconsciously drawing from it. Among filmmakers, I adored films of Manmohan Desai and Prakash Mehra. But filmmakers whose work I relate to and see myself drawing most from is Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Sai Paranjpe and Gulzar. They all talked about the middle class and their stories. Also there was a huge phase of Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak fascination. And, at FTII, I liked the neo-realistic films. But what has remained constant is my love for narrative films. I just don’t get non-narrative filmmaking.

Upcoming projects?

If I had a choice I would have taken a break, but I am being pushed into working by my wife and my friends who think I am too lazy. So I am writing Vinil Mathew’s next film.

You said a lot of the situations in Hunterrr are inspired from true events and real incidents. So which of them were your stories?
(Laughs) I was the old man who stood at the balcony looking at Mandar and Jyotsna having their affair!

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