Interview: Filmmaker Neeraj Ghaywan

Filmmaker Neeraj Ghaywan loves rickshaw rides, especially if they are driven by north Indian rikshawwallahs. He loves talking to them, listening to their stories and trying to soak in their worlds. Although born to Maharshtrian parents and raised in Hyderabad, Ghaywan says that he is “dil se bhaiyya”. This fascination is what drove him to set his first feature Masaan in Benaras. Having made the cut as an official selection in the Un Certain Regard section of this year’s Cannes Film Festival lineup, the film talks about life in small cities and the aspirations of its people. With no background in the film industry, Ghaywan is one among those filmmakers who found his own way through it. Starting from a marketing job in Hindustan Times to travelling with his first film to Cannes, Neeraj Ghaywan talks to Long Live Cinema about his passion for cinema.
Tell us a bit about your background. How did films happen?
I was born and brought up in Hyderabad. Just like most people in my generation, I did my engineering and went on to do an MBA. I was always interested in watching films. But it was during one of the lectures on film we had that I started appreciating it more. FTII professor Samar Nakhate gave the talk. He explained every aspect of filmmaking in so much detail, with so much passion. Sadly, nobody paid much attention to his lecture. I was probably the only one who paid attention then. This added to my interest in films and I started looking at cinema more seriously. Earlier, it was just limited to watching Hollywood films or thrillers, but my awareness about the art and form started growing. After my MBA, I got placed in Tech Mahindra, from where I moved to the marketing department of Hindustan Times. I was also leading a parallel life, that of a film buff. I stumbled upon the famous blog Passion For Cinema and started commenting on posts there. In no time, I started writing for them and finally became the editor. On this site, I met people like Anurag Kashyap. It was a pro bono initiative and everyone was in it just because of their interest and passion for films. I later thought I should join a production house thinking that film marketing would be my thing. It would pay well and I would get to work with something I liked. I kept applying to UTV Spotboy because they were the ones who were making the kind of films I wanted to watch. But they weren’t recruiting for Spotboy and I was taken into UTV New Media in their digital marketing team. But within no time, I was getting burnt out. There was a lot of money, but still there was no satisfaction. Inside I was screaming for a way out. Anurag was a friend and I used to hang out at his place and all. So once he called me from Madrid, while he was writing Gangs Of Wasseypur [GOW]. He was just asking me about life and stuff and I confided in him that I wanted a change. But I told him that I didn’t even know if I had it in me. So he told me, ‘why you looking for a shortcut, drop on to this side of films. If you never try, how will you know whether you have it in you?’ That call was a turning point. After I hung up, I went to my desk and put in my papers. I felt liberated and couldn’t contain my excitement.
So how did the idea for Masaan come about?
I had this one story that occurred to me years ago. I wrote a basic 36 page draft of it as I had time between quitting my job and commencing work on GoW. But it was so shitty that I cringe even at the sight of it.  Then I went on to assist Anurag in GOW. GOW was my real film school. I have been a film critic and have written extensively on film on Passion For Cinema, but only when I started assisting did I understand what exactly it takes to make a film. Those 2.5 years of shooting those two films was a course in itself and I am thankful I jumped on board. I was involved in every part of the GOW process and it was such a huge canvas. During the post-production of GOW, I decided to make Shor. Anurag really liked Shor, which travelled to many film festivals and won many awards. This was a huge encouragement for me to go ahead with my feature. Masaan’s script evolved from the stories I had heard and the people I had met during the Wasseypur shoot.
How long was the research process for the film?
I was very particular that I didn’t want to have an outsider’s point of view while telling the story. For an insider’s view, research was inevitable. Varun Grover, my friend from PFC, came on board then, he was a graduate of BHU and as crazy about Benaras as I was. We left for Benaras together, we stayed at the BHU guest house and for 40 days all we did was meet and interview the locals. Every day we would speak to 8-10 people and record the conversation and transcribe it. It was a long, but rewarding process. Varun wrote the screenplay of the film. We took the screenplay for a script session that a few prominent writers like Vikramaditya Motwane had organised. They would read the script, discuss the film and give us feedback. When we read our script, they were very happy with it. That was the first encouragement. Then, of course, we went to Sundance with the script. We kept churning the script and we won the award at Sundance. That was when we became confident that we had a story that was interesting and deserved to be told.
How did the producers come on board?
Anurag (Phantom Films), Guneet Monga (Sikhya Entertainment) and Manish Mundra (Drishyam Films) came on board initially. Guneet pitched the script to our now French producers, Macassar films, which had Melita Toscan Du Plantier and Marie-Jeanne Pascal as partners. Melita was friends with Anurag and Guneet. They loved the script and made Masaan the first film of their company. They then got Pathe Films and Arte France on board along with Guneet and Anurag. Phantom has produced the film in India along with Sikhya Entertainment and Manish Mundra while my French producers are Macassar films, Arte Cinema and Pathe. This is a first for an Indian film to have such a big distributor as Pathe on board at a script level. Usually films go to festivals and create a buzz and then get distributors and producers but this is the first time that we got the producers lined up before production itself.
What are the biggest lessons you picked up from Anurag Kashyap?
Vikram and Anurag have been instrumental in all what I am today. During my low phase, I used to listen to Udaan songs and keep myself motivated. They are like the icons I look up to. They have taught me a lot about filmmaking, but the biggest lesson I learnt from them was not about filmmaking. It was about how they deal with people. Filmmaking is all about craft and technique, yes, but it is also about managing people on set. If you go to Anurag’s set, you will see that there is no hierarchy on his set. There is complete freedom. He is very critical about his work and is open to feedback from any of his team members. He creates a very positive vibe that adds to the spirit of the film. So I have also tried to imbibe that from him and use it in the making of my films. The entire crew of the film is debuting with this project because I wanted to work with people who were as passionate as me. Our passion was the only thing that got this film made. The first rule on my set was–no sir or madam, no departments. It is one big team and it is our film. I think that’s the best way to make a film.
Another thing I learnt from Anurag is guerrilla filmmaking. Now, I can say I am a pro at guerrilla filmmaking. I have tried every possible way to shoot without people knowing. This is to capture and maintain realism. In our country, it is such a struggle to get permissions. It takes up to months and even years and it is so costly. Things get done easier if we are equipped to shoot on the go.
How did the short films you made help you while making Masaan? 
Making short films gave me the confidence that I had it in me. I also kind of got my voice. People who saw my films told me that I have got a way of making the viewer feel for my characters. I think I developed it while making shorts. Also, they were my way of testing my craft. My second short, The Epiphany, is shot in a car with a divorced couple having a conversation. In a car, you can’t do much in terms of gimmicks, or camera angles or shot technique. I wanted to put myself to that test. So the recognition made me confident and it also was an affirmation for the financiers that, ‘Yes! This guy can make films.’
How was the casting process like?
Some of the roles, for instance of Richa Chadda and Shweta Tripathi, were written for them. Rajkummar Rao and Manoj Bajpayee were very interested to do the film and I was excited to work with them, but then due to prior commitments and date clashes we couldn’t work together. Mukesh Chhabra, the casting director, and his team members Pawan Singh and Shridhar Dubey did extensive auditions for each role. Finally we cast Vicky Kaushal, who worked with me as an AD on Wasseypur. We were very good friends and I was afraid if I would get biased towards him because of that. If you see Vicky, he is a very urban, tall, Punjabi guy and I wasn’t sure he would fit the character. I wanted to maintain that the film is and will always remain above me or my own preoccupations. Mukesh Chhabra convinced me with a powerful audition that Vicky gave for the film. I discovered a whole new side to him. He plays a guy from the Dom community, who do the most menial work on the ghats of burning the bodies. He is a boy from that community who probably, is one of the few members in his community to go to college. He falls for a girl from a higher class. Once we got to Benaras, Vicky spent a lot of time with the locals and transformed into one of them. It was amazing how he transformed to become the character that I would some times seek his inputs on my direction notes. Again, Sanjay Mishra is a very underrated actor. After Ankhon Dekhi only people have started to recognise and acknowledge his talent. He plays Richa’s father in the film. Pankaj Tripathi plays pretty much himself in the film. His real life persona is the opposite of what you usually see in films. He is a soft guy, who loves to cook and is sweet. While casting, we had problem in finding a boy who jumps into the water to search for coins. I wanted someone from the Benaras ghats who was used to doing it. So Mukesh’s team went to each ghat and auditioned more than 60 diver kids to arrive at our leading kid Nikhil Sahni, who plays the part of Jhonta.
You have co-written the story with Varun Grover. What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of a writing partnership?
To be honest, I got lucky.  Varun and I connected almost instantly because of our love for Benaras. We also came from the same milieu, of having been raised in middle class families, with the same kind of value system and world views. We also had the freedom to trash each other’s ideas and no one would feel bad about it. So it was a superb working relationship. There are both pros and cons of working with a co-writer. The biggest pro is that he/she brings in the much needed objectivity to the story. As a writer-filmmaker you are so obsessed with your story that you lose objectivity. So with a co-writer you get immediate honest feedback. And, it is all for making a better film. The con is that it is really difficult to find the right guy. I got lucky that I found Varun. But you have to take care that you should find someone who would want to approach the story how you want to.
Could you take us through the timeline of making Masaan?
The writing and funding took 2 years, we prepped for 2.5 months, we shot for 40 days and we edited the film in 3 months.
Who are the filmmakers whose works have inspired you?
I have been deeply influenced by Satyajit Ray. Another Indian filmmaker who inspires me is Shekhar Kapur. His Bandit Queen left me shaken. It was such a poignant story, told so realistically. Also, the fact that he was the one who made a Bandit Queen, a Masoom and a Mr India is commendable. I admire that kind of range in a filmmaker. Of course, I love Anurag’s and Vikram’s work. Among international filmmakers, I connect with the works of Micheal Haneke and Dardenne brothers. They talk a lot about the working class and their conditions in the society, their moral conflicts etc. These are themes I am moved by and love to explore through my films.
What are your expectations about Cannes?
I have zero expectations. I am just going with the flow. It is a miracle that I even got so far, so I am just waiting and leaving it to the universe to take it on from here.
What is your advice to aspiring filmmakers?
My only advice is that honesty is the most important thing. The other thing you should remember is that in a film, narrative is the foremost thing. Technique comes only second. Even with all the technique in the world, a film without a strong narrative falls flat. But a strong story will work irrespective of the technique used. The best example is Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation. It is such a simple, yet powerful story, that travels everywhere and connects to people who may not even identify with the social conditions in Iran. So concentrate on telling a strong story and don’t be obsessed with technical aspects.

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