Srinivas Sunderrajan’s The Untitled Kartik Krishnan Project didn’t win any statuettes or special mentions when it was made in 2010. What Sunderrajan actually should have got was a bravery award for daring to put out a black-and-white movie on a Rs.40,000-budget about a software professional who wants to become a film-maker, his love interest, a corrupt policeman and a talking robot. The fiercely uncompromising indie, which was far out and “larger than logic”, as one of the characters puts it, even for most film festivals, finally sneaked into PVR multiplexes in July for a week-long engagement in the Director’s Rare programming slot. Sunderrajan’s second movie has had a relatively smoother ride to the cinemas. Greater Elephant, which was completed last year, will play from 25 January at PVR multiplexes in Mumbai.
Greater Elephant is less of a head-scratching exercise from Sunderrajan, who is also a bassist with the indie band Scribe. Set in Pune, Maharashtra, over the course of two days, the 90-minute existential drama opens with a mahout in search of his missing elephant. Things get more complicated as the mahout meets a man and a woman dressed as Shiv and Parvati, Dracula, a constable and a tea-stall owner, all of whom are looking for something or the other. A metaphor for film-making or for life itself? A bit of both, Sunderrajan tells Lounge. Edited excerpts from an interview:
Compared to ‘The Untitled Kartik Krishnan Project’, ‘Greater Elephant’ has a simpler and more linear story. Was it easier to make?
It is completely linear and more of a story. It’s play-like, in a way. Maybe keeping it simple is an exercise in itself—the question for me is whether I can tell a story that people can relate to more than Untitled, which was niche and indulgent in a way. Well, if a personal story is indulgent, then so many films are indulgent.
It was challenging to stick to a linear story—there were always times when we felt we could break the structure or jump a scene. But better sense prevailed. People who saw the edit said you actually write straight stories.
The movie is easier to follow, but it remains as stubbornly indie-minded as your first feature.
I once met (director) Saeed Mirza. After watching my short films, he asked me if I was making a feature. I said I was. He said everybody makes a first film from the heart, then a BMW comes, then a penthouse, and then people make the same thing.
I made Greater Elephant in the same indie way as I made Untitled. I wasn’t making Untitled as a showreel, there were stories that I wanted to tell. I feel that if you stick with it, it will pay dividends later.
After Untitled, I was advised to write a script. I got swept away in doing so, but it didn’t happen that way somehow. Also, the label of Rs.40,000 got stuck, so people told me to make a film within that budget; it was never a jump into Rs.10 lakh or Rs.1 crore or anything like that. I felt if that’s the case, I want to make whatever I feel like doing. At least you’re staying true to yourself.
The film poses existential questions, but it’s also autobiographical, right? Does the elephant in the title also refer to a certain God?
The idea of trying to find myself after doing Untitled has subconsciously come into Greater Elephant. I am still trying to figure out if this is the cinema I want to, or am supposed to, do. Is this my purpose? Am I doing this right?
You need to believe in something—an idol or an idea. The elephant is a metaphor for our search for what we need in life.
Why should a viewer participate in this introspective exercise?
The way you tell the story is what makes it interesting. Some audience members might think about their own searches for meaning. I am not going on about what I went through—there’s no angst—but everyone in the film has some agenda that he or she is trying to solve.
How important is it for you to be an indie film-maker?
I don’t know if I can be any more conventional. I don’t know what is conventional and what is not—I just follow what is right. The day I become conventional I will have to stop.
The Dracula character doesn’t fit into the narrative as easily as the other characters.
There are two ways of answering that question. The production answer is that we got permission to shoot for 10 days, and it was easier to shoot at night. That’s when I came up with the idea of a character who would roam around at night. That could be a demon, somebody like Dracula, who is trying to figure out his blood targets, so even he has a problem.
The scripting answer is that we thought the presence of Dracula raises the question of whether he really is Dracula or a lost soul like the rest. So the character also made sense in a way.
‘Greater Elephant’ is seeing a staggered release—it has already been screened in Pune. How did that go?
We tried to see if we could get a per city release. If we do a multi-city thing, it gets us a lot in terms of PR (public relations). We started off with Pune, and we want to release the film in Bangalore, Delhi and Bombay (Mumbai). PVR had a free slot in Mumbai.
The Pune experience wasn’t very good. The movie was supposed to play from Friday-Tuesday, but it got two extra days. We got 30% attendance for the first three days. In any case, getting a film out itself is a big thing for a film-maker. In Mumbai, Untitled had 40% attendance for one week.
Are you working on a new film?
I am trying to work out a science fiction film set in a dystopic future. It’s called Heartless Ramesh. I will do it the way I know best.