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Monday, July 18, 2016

How I Made The Leap From Reviewing To Filmmaking

Murtaza Ali Khan
A Still from Death Road
I have been blogging about cinema for years. The beauty about being a commentator is that every now and then you get overcome by a burning desire to actually join the action. The likes of François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, B. R. Chopra are great examples of film critics who went on to become highly successful filmmakers. I must confess that at least for the last couple of years I have been contemplating making a short film. I have been constantly talking to my filmmaker friends, seeking their advice and guidance with the hope of getting some clarity about the moviemaking process. But for some reason I kept on delaying the matter. Perhaps I was intimidated.

The inception
After months of procrastination I finally succeeded in convincing myself on New Year's Eve. I made a resolution to shoot my first short film the same year. The mind is such a powerhouse. Once the mind is made up, things automatically begin to happen. Now that I was absolutely certain that I would finally make a short film of my own, I had to decide what it would be about. I wanted to go for something with a strong message, but I was spoilt for choice. I could have made a film on women empowerment or farmer suicides or any of the social evils prevailing in our society.
The theme
After ruminating over dozen of ideas, I opted to make an anti-smoking film. It was a personal call. It is an issue I feel strongly about: I was very close to my maternal uncle, a chain-smoker. I closely witnessed how incessant smoking plagued his life and ultimately consumed him. So, I became determined to make a film about the evils of smoking.
My partner in crime is a friend from my college days, Nikhil Raman, who comes from a sales background. It is well-documented, anecdotally at least, that high-pressure occupations such as sales often feature a disproportionate number of chain-smokers. Having closely seen the perils of smoking, Nikhil too shares my determination to spread awareness about the issue.
Cigarettes contain more than 4000 toxic substances and are nothing less than a slow poison. And compulsive smoking is like embracing death. About 6 million deaths worldwide are caused annually because of smoking. By 2020, the figure is expected to touch 8 million deaths annually. So, after a lot of brainstorming, we decided to choose Death Road as the movie's title.
Treatment of the subject
With the theme and title in place, our biggest challenge was to have a working script ready. It took us a couple of months to sort it out. Both Nikhil and I were keen on making a film that doesn't come across as a documentary as that would have defeated the purpose. We wanted to make something catchy and entertaining that would sustain the interest of smokers and non-smokers alike. The anti-smoking ads that we see on television or before the start of a movie in cinema halls these days are so repulsive that no one can sit through them. They are frightening, but don't encourage people to engage or think about the subject. Everyone, whether a smoker or a non-smoker, just wants these ads to get over quickly. Most people are busy with their cellphones and don't even bother to watch them.
How many people actually quit smoking after watching such ads? More importantly, how many people even think of quitting? The real problem is that if the viewer is not receptive enough, the message is lost. So, we wanted to engage the viewer by offering something that interests him/her right from the onset. We have tried to achieve this by creating interesting characters and writing pithy dialogues. In an endeavour to create relatable characters, we have tried our best to keep them as realistic as possible. We even decided to shoot the film at a real location around Delhi University. But we also were committed to making a film with reasonable cinematic flair. It is for this reason we decided to shoot the film using a single continuous sequence with a handheld camera. In cinematic parlance, it is often referred to as a tracking shot.
Hunt for cast and crew
Once the script was finalized our search for actors began. While working on a shoestring budget -- and that too on your very first project -- you don't really have the luxury to cast established actors. It is also not a very good choice to try and cast established actors when you are making your first short. Firstly, it messes up the budget. Secondly, the established actors are usually busy with multiple projects and so you are under constant pressure to complete the shoot as early as possible. This could make creativity suffer. After all, this is the best time for a budding filmmaker to explore himself/herself to the fullest. This is when you have the luxury to learn as much as you can. So we decided that instead of casting known names, we'd look for actors who are passionate about their craft so that we could all explore the different aspects of the filmmaking process.
Along with the actors, we were also desperately looking for a director of photography (DOP) and an editor. My editor friend, Danny Kurian, who could have doubled up as a DOP was busy with his professional assignments. So we basically were forced to look outside our friend circles. We finally found someone who was willing to work with us, but it meant investing a major part of our budget. Still, we were glad to have an experienced DOP assisting us. I was hopeful that my editor friend would eventually be able to take some time out of his busy schedule and help us out with the editing.
So, our focus shifted to actors. Nikhil and I started frequenting Mandi House. We were hoping to find some decent actors around NSD. We got lucky soon and in a few days finalized our cast of three male and two female actors.
A Still from the shooting of Death Road
The day of the shoot
We had planned to shoot the film in the last week of April but some unforeseen developments pushed our project to May. Our DOP had given us clear instructions to shoot the film in the early hours of the day. So, we all reached the location by 6am (except our DOP!). As we waited we realized, to our shock, that the place was infested by monkeys. In fact, the monkey havoc almost derailed our plans. To make matters worse, it unexpectedly started to rain. Our DOP, meanwhile, informed us that he was stuck somewhere and would be late by about an hour. Everyone started to panic.
Just then, through sheer serendipity, we encountered a certain "Guitar Uncle" who runs "World Against God" -- a community dedicated to developing scientific temper and humanism in India, while eradicating communalism preached in the name of God. He played a couple of songs for us on his guitar which lifted our spirits. Soon, it stopped raining and we got started with our final rehearsals. Fortunately, the rain had also driven away the monkeys.
Soon, our DOP arrived and we began the shoot. The early takes were marred by technical glitches and acting fumbles. Since we were going to shoot it in a single continuous shot, every time there was a mistake we had to restart from the beginning. Gradually, things got better and we were well on course to capturing what we had envisioned. But soon the monkeys returned, and their resolve to stay was strengthened by bystanders offering them bananas. Our shooting was gaining a lot of crowd attention too, and managing the monkeys and the onlookers was a major challenge.
The production department was being single-handedly looked after by our PhD scholar friend, Pankaj Yadav, who just refused to give up. He not only succeeded in managing the crowd but also ensured that the monkey menace was kept under check by constantly asking the people to feed the monkeys away from the shooting spot. Thanks to everyone's commitment and with some help from the divine, the shooting finally got completed.
Walking the Last mile
When my friend Danny learnt that the project had been completed, he promised me to take up the editor's mantle. He took about a week to cut the film. As planned, we finally released it on YouTube on the midnight of 31 May, 2016 i.e. on the occasion of World No Tobacco Day. Someone rightly said: "Where there's a will there's a way."
P.S. Death Road can be watched on YouTube. You too can help us in our fight against smoking by spreading the word.
This article was first published in The Huffington Post.

Murtaza Ali Khan / Author & Editor

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