We’re now competing with Hollywood filmmakers, says Amit V. Masurkar
New Delhi: Four years ago, Amit V. Masurkar’s independent slacker comedy Sulemaani Keeda struggled for release despite encouraging reviews. As his second feature film, political satire Newton, opens in theatres across India this week, Masurkar can feel there is better acceptance for Newton. Having toured the festival circuit from the US to Hong Kong, the slice-of-life tale of a government clerk (played by Rajkummar Rao) who vows to conduct free and fair elections in the Naxal areas of Chhattisgarh, has been produced by Drishyam Films, known for backing unique voices in the independent film circuit.
Masurkar speaks to Mint about his journey from Sulemaani Keeda to Newton ahead of its release, why Bollywood has taken to small-town, slice-of-life tales lately and how competition has expanded to Hollywood with the onset of online shows. And, of course, the Oscar nomination. Edited excerpts:
Were you expecting the Oscar nomination? How does it feel?
I didn’t even know that we had applied for it. I got a call from a journalist and I was pleasantly surprised. The film is in the theatres right now and today is our first day so we’re very lucky it came at the right time. We weren’t expecting this but I have good producers in Manish Mundra and Aanand Rai so I’m sure they’ll come up with a marketing and promotional plan to take this ahead.
Did Sulemaani Keeda make it easier to find a producer for your next film or did you just learn to navigate better around Bollywood? What has the journey between the two films been like?
I think I owe this film (Newton) to Sulemaani Keeda. I’d never directed professional actors before and Sulemaani Keeda was like a student film. After I made it, I felt confident enough to pick up a bigger project. Secondly, Shiladitya Bora was the distributor of Sulemaani Keeda at PVR who joined Manish Mundra’s company (Drishyam Films) as chief executive officer and introduced us and vouched for me so that’s how things happened.
Do you think it’s a better time to make content-driven films for the Hindi film industry in the four years that have elapsed since the release of Sulemaani Keeda?
I think a lot has changed in the last four years. For instance, look at the proliferation of internet shows. Four or five years ago, we weren’t watching shows at the same time as the US. There’s so much content available now that we are not just competing with Indian content creators but also Hollywood filmmakers. If you look at the box office collections of It (Hollywood supernatural horror flick), it’s far higher than some big-budget Indian films. So that’s scary. If we have to compete with them, we have to up our game.
I wasn’t making Newton or Sulemaani Keeda for any other reason but to satisfy my creative urges and to tell stories that I wanted to tell. But a lot of filmmakers look at what’s working and plan their films accordingly. So perhaps they will also start making films according to their passion now.
What about the logistics? Have the marketing, distribution and exhibition aspects of this film been easy?
Initially, we were planning to have a small release. But Aanand L. Rai (the filmmaker who owns production house Colour Yellow Productions) was shown a clip of the film by Rajkummar Rao. Once he watched the entire film, he said he wanted to come on board and support us to distribute the movie in collaboration with Eros International. That has made our life easier because Aanand Rai has a lot of goodwill among the audiences and exhibitors. With him and Eros coming in, it’s become a better project.
It’s a great time to make a film with Rajkummar Rao who has acquired a reputation for good work. Do you think his recent successes will help the film?
I met Rajkummar when he was working on LSD: Love Sex Aur Dhokha (2010). Even at that time, I could see that he was a sincere and hardworking actor. But I also knew that he had a sense of humour. For Newton, I needed somebody with good comic timing and who naturally looked sincere. Rajkummar fit that role. When I narrated the script to Manish Mundra, the first name he took was Rajkummar’s. So it just worked out well and now with Raj’s recent successes like Bareilly Ki Barfi, he’s found a wider audience. We were in Delhi and people were thronging for pictures which was really nice to see.
What is your relationship with your actors on the set?
I don’t have a plan as such. Casting your actors right is not just about getting people who fit the part but also those with the right attitude. Because we were shooting in the jungles of Chhattisgarh, we wanted actors who not just understand the gravity of the situation there and were willing to adjust to things but also those who knew and cared about the subject and who were willing to learn more. These are qualities I look for in an actor before he/she is cast apart from acting abilities which are the most important thing. When you have all these things in place, your life is easy and you don’t really have to do much more. These actors also have their own processes. So you just have to talk to them about how they want to interpret the role and it becomes a very collaborative process.
For example, Rajkummar tries to understand the character really well. With Newton, he didn’t have to do much of that because the character is this duty-bound government clerk who is hardworking, honest and sincere. And Raj is a lot like that, he has these qualities that set him apart. He just had to bring them out here.
Bollywood has really taken to these small-town, slice-of-life tales lately. Why do you think this formula has picked up?
I think the audience that wants urban, NRI (non-resident Indian) stories is already watching them on (online streaming platforms like) Netflix. If I want to watch something fun, I will watch Aziz Ansari’s series or Fleabag (a television series now available on Amazon Prime Video). Why would I watch a petered down, censored version of the same here? Also earlier, the industry was dominated by Bombay-bred, film dynasty scions. Now people from all over the country—writers, filmmakers and actors are coming and making films. So you’re getting this talent pool. They’re telling stories of where they come from and that they find interesting.
Newton seems like a message-driven film with a social conscience. Do you think films should say something at the end of it?
All films are message-driven. But the message they are giving out is different. You can know and understand the politics of a person by watching his film.
I’m not balancing anything (entertainment and social messaging). I’m just telling a story. Newton is set in a world that’s interesting because you don’t know about it. Also, it’s a story that needs to be told. How long are you going to see stories based in London, Mumbai or Haridwar? People have stopped reading. So I think cinema is the only way you can bring people together. It is the best way for a filmmaker to reach out.
How much can festival praise help a film get attention? How important is this theatrical release for you after all the festival acclaim?
Both are equally important. Festivals give you access to an audience that you wouldn’t reach otherwise. If the audience likes it, then distributors in those countries come up with offers. It’s good for the film that gets wider reach. Theatrical release is also very important because the film needs to make money and become sustainable. If a film loses money, people associated with it get disheartened. Then they decide to make something to make up for that financial loss which isn’t in the same space.