It’s tempting, if not always advisable, to use the details of someone’s room to speculate on their current state in life. In Vikramaditya Motwane’s room in the Phantom Films’ office in Mumbai, the bookshelf mostly has comics and graphic novels—Grant Morrison’s 18 Days, a Batman anthology, Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s The Push Man And Other Stories—which might lead one to believe that the writer-director is busy researching Chakra: The Invincible, his forthcoming collaboration with Stan Lee’s POW! Entertainment. An even bigger logical leap might be in forging a connection between the number of posters with “lone wolf” protagonists (Yojimbo, John Wick, Kill Bill) in the room and the fact that his next film, Bhavesh Joshi, is about a vigilante.
The truth is that it’s unlikely either Chakra, still in the initial stages of planning, or Bhavesh Joshi, only 60% of which has been shot, is uppermost in Motwane’s mind right now. His third feature, Trapped, releases on 17 March, which means that he’s busy with interviews, Reddit AMAs and photo-ops. In the film, which closed the Mumbai International Film Festival last year, a white-collar employee, Shaurya (played by Rajkummar Rao), inadvertently locks himself inside his new flat in an unoccupied Mumbai high-rise. Murphy’s Law kicks into high gear, and what starts out as an inconvenience soon begins to resemble a nightmare.
Trapped originated not with Motwane but with a first-time screenwriter named Amit Joshi. Joshi, who left his job with a telecommunications infrastructure company to write full-time, says the idea for Trapped came from a desire to write something that wasn’t buried in layers. “It should be something everyone can get—one person, one location,” he says over the phone. Life imitated art-in-progress; Joshi found his scenario when he was auto-locked inside his Goregaon flat in Mumbai for half an hour. After fleshing out the idea, he visited the Phantom Films office, managed to catch Motwane at the gate and told him he had an idea for a film.
Joshi may not have realized it then, but his timing was perfect. AK Vs SK, a project Motwane had been working on with Shahid Kapoor, had fallen through. So had Bhavesh Joshi—twice. Trapped presented an opportunity to work on something that didn’t have the variables of big star and budget. It also meant that, for the first time since Lootera in 2013, Motwane could get some proper directing done. “I’d been prepping and prepping for so long,” he says. “At that point, I really just wanted to shoot a film.”
Motwane liked Joshi’s idea, and asked him to send a draft. This arrived in April 2015. Motwane then introduced Jain to Hardik Mehta, an assistant director on Lootera. Mehta and Joshi worked for the next few months, brainstorming over games of table tennis, sharpening the original idea, with Motwane turning up every now and then to “stir the pot”. In a few months, Joshi’s 130-page draft had been whittled down to 40 pages.
Motwane and his cinematographer, the versatile Siddharth Diwan, decided, reluctantly at first, to use the Red Epic Dragon camera, convenient for shooting in enclosed spaces. They ended up loving it and are now also using a Red for the expanded canvas of Bhavesh Joshi. The shoot was wrapped up in around 20 days (Motwane’s first feature, Udaan, took 42). Key elements were added in post-production, including an atmospheric score by Alokananda Dasgupta and complementary sound design by Anish John. Musical motifs were used “to get monotony into the film without making it seem monotonous”. You can hear two such sounds in the trailer—a metallic clanking and a tapping—which were inspired by the sound of rhythmic breathing in The Revenant.
Trapped falls under a subgenre rarely attempted in Hindi cinema: the survival film. It isn’t a typical example either; most survival films take place outdoors, with protagonists battling nature, the elements or other people. With most of its action unfolding in a single location, Trapped is a subgenre within a subgenre: the survival film in an enclosed space. Motwane mentions the Ryan Reynolds film Buried as an extreme example; there’s also 127 Hours (though the audience gets frequent relief from the cave) and psychological thrillers like Repulsion and Panic Room.
Watching Trapped at the Mumbai Film Festival, along with the sort of adoring crowd that special screenings in the city usually attract, I was struck by how different it was from the swooningly romantic Lootera; just as when I first saw Lootera it felt like a huge departure from the grainy, intimate Udaan (influenced, Motwane says, by Ken Loach’s Kes). This willingness to switch between genres and styles, he says, is because “I’m willing to fail, my producers are willing to fail, my crew is willing to fail.”
Though Motwane’s films are certainly dissimilar on the surface, they do have one thing in common. They all have individuals who are trapped: Rohan in a house with an abusive father in Udaan; Pakhi and Varun by their life choices and social stations in Lootera; and Shaurya, quite literally. “I like the films that gain awareness at the end—a sort of breakout moment,” Motwane says. “I feel this stems from the fact that my heroes are always a bit reluctant till the end, which is when they get the strength to do what they should have all along.” Put another way, it’s the classic superhero narrative, which should come in handy when he’s directing Chakra.