Gurgaon started off as a project in National Film Development Corporation’s Work In Progress Lab, with Marco Mueller, the renowned director of Rotterdam, Locarno, Venice and Rome film festivals, as the mentor. It was Mueller’s behest that Gurgaon premiered at the first International Film Festival and Awards Macao in December 2016. The noir thriller set in Haryana is about a business family dealing in real estate, and marks the directorial debut of cinematographer Shanker Raman, best known for his camerawork in films like Frozen and Harud . Edited excerpts from a long conversation with Raman at Macao last year…
The film is as much about the place as it is about the people…
We are exploring the theme of modernity; of modernity solving your problems of stability and comfort. When I see any city, any massive endeavour like Gurgaon I wonder if they have left their humanity behind in the process of acquiring or investing in modernity. That’s an eternal debate. I am not saying we shouldn’t be gratified—everyone should have better housing, we should have cleaner streets—but are we losing ourselves in that process. I wanted to explore what is it that makes us human regardless of what we have done. I was interested in exploring the human in the dark side. The idea was also that everyone is anxious and if you repress it then the repressed anxiety will force you to make choices that can be lethal. I was interested in exploring that. The plot and structure were tailored to bring that up.
Have your Delhi roots helped you in exploring this modernity-humanity debate?
I would say yes. It was only when I moved out of Delhi that I realised what life was like in Delhi. Having grown up there one thing I would identify with is the sense of entitlement. And I am not going to narrow it down to male entitlement. It’s common to all of us. It’s prevalent in the choices we make, the conversations we have. It’s important to address it.
For a debut does the milieu you come from lend itself better for the film?
It does but I would consciously choose not to look there. Why look in your backyard? There is nothing really there. Let me find other ways to tell a story. Having said that what I learnt from great filmmakers, the films that spoke truthfully to me were very personal films. They were told as if it was a lived experience. The opportunity in Gurgaon for me was to go back to my own lived experience. I went back to where it all began for me, to see the choices I made and confront them.
It’s not just the Red Fort-India Gate Delhi. There is this representation of the National Capital Region (NCR) which is coming into films. The outskirts subculture…
Honestly I didn’t begin with that. It didn’t begin with being rooted in a place, in such and such area or region. It just began as a story. It was a commissioned project. We were making a thriller. My personal politics is something I seek to understand through my writing process. It’s not as though I begin with that. It’s a grey area. I am not really sure what I stand for and what I don’t. It’s in the writing process that I manage to contextualise it with the politics. Ultimately it’s just a story—a series of events that occur. But what light are we seeing it in?
Rooting the film in NCR came during the making of the film. There is a certain prevalent notion about a place. Like a consensus or agreement. They have a set response to it and I observed that. There’s obviously something deeply missing for people in this place. What might have been part of an original promise. You are building a city, pitching it to the people and they are buying the pitch but have you really kept the promise? You lay a foundation and build on top of it. As you are building there are these fault-lines that appear. In order to hide you build on top of it. You have a whole edifice that is shaky but you can’t fix it because the whole structure will collapse. To narrow it down I would say that I chose this place because people had a point of view about it.
There is a strong commentary on materialism—money can’t buy you everything…
We are talking of random construction, land grabbing—that we are building this city for the greater good so don’t question our methods. It is pretty remorseless. How do you take on this power? Real estate is unstoppable really, it’s growing. You can see its impact on people and their lives. Someone asked me why there are no cops in the film. I told her don’t we feel that every day. There is law enforcement but you wonder what’s going on. It takes forever to address a matter. Why do people get away with extreme actions? They make up their own rules which I find fascinating. I wanted to make a mainstream film that people could access easily.
The woman is somewhere a pawn, a toy. Do I sense a helplessness/sadness there?
Preeto, the daughter of the builder represents all that is beautiful in life. She has her own fears and insecurities. The sense of someone having done her a favour blocks her. Yet she wants to make a difference. How much can she be pushed for the world to open up for her? What is she willing to risk? For me it’s important in any narrative—what is your protagonist willing to risk? That’s a true hero, someone I root for. I can see unequal relationship even in my own Tam Brahm family. We are raised to believe that it’s normal. I was always bothered by it. But I was interested in breaking through that barrier, a certain resignation in our lives. We won’t admit to it, that we are resigned about it. The characters were designed with that in mind and then see how we can shift things.
There are characters—the younger brother and the younger son—who seem to be the conscience keepers. Are they the ones breaking through the resignation?
Aamir Bashir’s character [the brother] Hooda is carrying a huge burden. I often wonder when I meet people with very hard exterior, what they are dealing with. Why the need to put up this hard front? He wants to give it up but just doesn’t have access to it. He takes a moral stand. He is sworn to protect anyone who is weak or violated. He is the insider with a conscience. I wanted that conscience to have the chance to be redeemed. The younger son is ‘out of sight’, on the periphery—choiceless, afraid all his life but cannot help but listen to his conscience when the time comes. But he has no power. There is the outsider—Anandmurthy—who doesn’t get these people at all but feels compelled to help the daughter. I don’t know if I am that character. I don’t know if I will be able to take them on but to me he is heroic.
But the film has a sense of tragic waste… There is no resolution as such, there seems to be a continuum of violence…
What I see as a continuum is that we don’t work towards building a community that can take them on. I see our silence as a continuum. I don’t see evil as a continuum. There is an unwillingness and fear in taking on.
You also have the mother figure, much mythologised in Hindi cinema…
What the mother represents is a way of taking a stand. She does it because she is compelled to. It was critical and hardest character for me to write. I didn’t want her to be stereotypical. I wanted to leave her with a choice.
Was there a visual style you used in capturing Gurgaon on camera?
I knew I couldn’t shoot the film on my own. The only person I could work with is Vivek Shah [my cinematographer]. He is a perfect mix of image creator and story-teller. I wanted someone who could back me all the way. I wasn’t interested in realism. I wanted to create a brand new palette where you are not able to make sense of who these people are yet you like them. Vivek is the one who proposed we go noir. It contextualises the spaces of the characters, spaces in which they seem to be hiding. They don’t want to be discovered. They want to hide in the darkness. They don’t want to step into the light lest people get to know what they are dealing with. The visual style emerged to highlight that aspect.