The steel town exudes a cold, industrial, oppressive energy in Vikramaditya Motwane’s debut film Udaan. Seventeen-year-old Rohan (Rajat Barmecha) returns to Jamshedpur, his hometown, after being expelled from his boarding school in Shimla. He comes back to an abusive father (Ronit Roy), a factory owner, and a young stepbrother whose mother abandoned him and the father.
Most of the film is heartbreaking and dark—but eloquent—in the hands of a terrific team. Motwane, 33, was surprised when Udaan became the first Indian film in 15 years to be selected for a top competitive category, the Un Certain Regard, at the Cannes Festival this year. Most Western critics, however, were unmoved; some praised it with the lens of someone used to the “Bollywood” language. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote: “It’s well made, involving, but (to my eyes at least) not particularly Indian. This story could have been set anywhere; it doesn’t depend on location, but on personalities.” He ended the short review by saying, “But India has one of the world’s largest middle classes, and its members spend little time riding around on elephants.”
Motwane says he was not surprised. “Only in India can people get it. It was not made with a Western audience in mind. Only here, and perhaps in some other Asian countries, it is outrageous to want to be a writer or anything creative. Being an engineer is considered an achievement, especially in smaller towns like Jamshedpur.”
Rajat Barmecha as Rohan
Motwane has lived in Mumbai all his life. He began as a TV director and then entered films, working with director Sanjay Leela Bhansali on films such as Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam as assistant, and later associate, director. He met writer-director Anurag Kashyap while they were both working on Deepa Mehta’s Water. “His two films, Paanch and Black Friday, were in the cans without a distributor. I had given the script of Udaan to him to read. He said ‘Only I will produce it one day’. Six years later, after Dev.D was released, he called me,” Motwane says.
Motwane wrote the script when he was in his early 20s and the coming of age theme was close to his heart: “I had read many books with that theme, Catcher in the Rye being one of them. But after watching Ken Loach’s Sweet Sixteen, I thought about writing the story seriously.” The cruel father, with a few shades of grey of his own, was imagined, based on a real character Motwane had heard about, a role Roy perfected. It is the best performed role in the film.
The story was ready in the form of a screenplay by 2003 and was rejected by many producers and production companies before Kashyap took it up. Made with a production budget of Rs3 crore, Udaan is releasing in theatres in India, the UK, Australia and some parts of West Asia. UTV Motion Pictures, which is releasing the film, is distributing more than 150 prints worldwide.
Motwane preferred to have two cuts. The India version is longer, with about 2 hours and 10 minutes of running time. For the US and Europe markets, Motwane has deleted an entire track in the film—an edgy sub-plot of Rohan’s friendship with a gang of boys who get high, get into brawls and laugh and cry talking about their sad, insignificant small town lives at the town’s seedy bar. “The shorter version is an entirely different film in mood and pace. It is more dark and relentless. I wanted to pull people into the two boys’ plight to a point from which it can only get better,” Motwane says.
The Super 16mm film medium works well for Udaan although that was dictated entirely by budget constraints. The slightly pixilated and raspy quality of the frames eliminates all possibilities of prettiness. The story stands tall. “I wrote for two years and shot in real locations in Jamshedpur for two months. I think that will pay off,” says Motwane.
Udaan will release in theatres on 16 July.