The Short Fictional Journey - Part 3

(My foray into the short fiction format)

Shooting of a Short fiction film

Coming to think of it, even a shot thirty second advertisement film is a short fiction film. A not so handsome guy wears a cream and the girl falls for him - this could be the one liner of the story of an advertisement film on a fairness cream. Not that yours truly did not dip his hands into such versions of the short fiction film. An advertisement film on a bindi, a hair shampoo and a greeting card were some attempts that I had done in the initial days of my career in this format. The only 'non-neoliberal' solace that I have right now is that the companies that manufactured these products were not large multinational corporations - they were run by small entrepreneurs.

In 2008, Sameer Mahajan the cameraman of my first fiction feature movie 'Suddha' (The Cleansing Rites) gave me a call saying that he was facilitating the making of a short promotional film that will act as an eye opener for the World Military Games that was to be held in Hyderabad. He needed someone to direct the film. George Thomas, the producer he was regularly working with had entrusted him with this job. The film was about a kid who gets bullied by his rival in the run up to a school running race. As the race progresses the bully trips, only to be helped by the sympathetic underdog who not only wins the race but also the bully's friendship. The narrative worked out in the film was complimenting the theme of the World Military Games - 'Friendship Through Sports'.

Friendship Through Sports

Unfortunately there is no 'authorship' of the French  'Nouvelle Vague' kind for such promotional films also called 'promos'. Most times, there is no scope for even credits to be rolled out after the film. Such films have no names to them as they serve a specific purpose for a specific organization. The film I made just had a working title - 'World Military Games Promo'. As is the norm with such promos, well lit shots were edited in a rapid pace; and an overpowering music underlined the visuals and the emotion that the characters underwent. These are necessary formal film-language 'tropes' - so to say - conventionally used in such kinds of films. Just to give an idea, another example of  'formal trope' in films would be say that an art house movie should be very slow pace or dimly lit. 

So, within a span of four minutes of screen time, what transpired in the film was the children's entry onto the race ground, their preparation for the race, the bully troubling the underdog, the girl showing sympathy to the underdog, the thrill of the race, the tripping of the bully, the underdog giving the bully a helping hand, the underdog winning the race, the two boys breaking the ice between them and the underdog getting the trophy - all these crammed in four minutes. An advertisement film would take about thirty seconds to depict this timeline. A promotional film which is not that fast moving has more chances of being rejected by the client who has commissioned it.

I will now dwell on two more examples of short fiction films, in which the form of the film is directly determined by the intention of the people who are asking you to make it, by providing you the money. Imo Singh is a film school fellow traveler. In 2006, he was producing a couple of short fiction films for a business group that runs a chain of huge malls. The malls were conducting acting workshops for children during their summer vacations, the end of which would be culminated into short fiction films whose story would have to be set within the malls where the workshops took place. The actors of these films were to be picked from the participants of these workshops. I was asked to make a film in a Mall in Bengaluru, the result was a fifteen minutes film called 'Babe Se Date' ( A Date with a Babe). 

Babe Se Date

After being foolishly chased around in a mall, a young boy finally has his ice cream date with a girl schoolmate and wins a bet that he had waged with his elder friends. With the winning money, he buys a much longed gift to his recently handicapped younger brother - this was the narrative in 'Babe Se Date'. Throughout the film the young boy behaves in a manner that puts some doubts on his actual intentions. On an apparent level, he does not come out in a good light - he is flirtatious, indulges 'vices' like betting, people doubt if he into drugs etc.., until in the end he gets redemption in the eyes of the audience when it is revealed that he has been the deliberate 'bad boy' in the mall for a particular purpose, the intentions of which were noble.

'Babe Se Date' had a normal believable story that could have happen in a upper middle class milieu, the twists only comes in the end. The temporal structure followed the cause and effect dramatic narrative pattern - one event leading to another, till finally reaching to a climax. The question the audience experiences in the film is whether the boy will have his ice cream date with his girl or not. Once this is resolved in the climax, then come the twists that explains the film. The fact that the boy's ice cream date is actually a bet is the first twist. The second and the crucial twist is the fact that the bet was waged because the boy had to help his handicapped brother. A certain degree of normalcy in formal  techniques that were being used, was the underlining factor in this film. As far as possible, the camera and the edit pattern was unobtrusive. There were no extreme angles, the pace of the film did not overtly call an attention to itself. Every thematic and technical decisions lead into the normal noble intention of the protagonist and the feeling he had for his brother. If the kid's intentions are normal, by extension his existence in the mall too would be so. 

A mall is a place where people aspire to consume, they could buy if they could. It is also a place where people meet, even if they can't consume. I guess, any mall management would be happy to propagate and encourage the concept of a mall as a social space. If people pour in into malls even for a social purpose, consumption would naturally follow. The mall films portrayed the mall as a social space. The films were in a sense, indirect marketing that targeted kids - all these, now it seems, in retrospect. In 2015 Imo Singh came back to me again. This time he was making seven mall films all over India. He asked me to direct one of the two that he was planning in Mumbai. The film was a thirteen minutes one called 'Tiku Tiku Director'.

The acting workshop for children at the Mall in which I was to make the film, culminated in a day long workshop with actor and director Amole Gupte. The management of the mall wanted to document Amole's workshop. Imo had probably managed to convince them that if they were to do so, it would be a part of the film that would be made on the mall - which meant that that particular mall film would have to incorporate actuality footage of Amole's workshop as well as the scripted fiction portion that was to be shot with the workshop children. It was tricky, and who else was entrusted with this job of this amalgamation but yours truly?

Tiku Tiku Director (The Fragile Director)

'Tiku Tiku Director' (The Fragile Director) dealt with three ambitious children fed up of being constantly rejected in screen tests by a renowned film director. They hatch a deadly plan to gain the attention of the director and a role in his films. Yet again, the story format was in the cause-effect dramatic narrative mode, one thing leading to the other that rigidly led into the climax. The children plan the murder of the director when he comes to the mall to conduct an acting workshop for the children. The director gets the scare of his life in the process - only to realize in the end that the knives that the children were using were dummy ones, meant only for effect. That was the twist of the short film. The film begins with the famous director rejecting some of the kids during a screen test, by the end of the film he decides that he is never going to take a screen test of any kid in the future. That was the second twist. The mall - it would seem from the film - is also a place where people realize their mistake, or to put is aptly they are made to realize their mistakes.

The music used in the film was a bit loud and overt, the camera angles went beyond the normal eye level. The pace of the film had to be fast. We shot portions of Amole's workshop with a two camera set up. Although most of them were candid, there were a few sequences in the workshop that were planned - they formed the link between the documentary footage and the fiction portion. Based on what we got during the workshop, we tweaked the fiction script and after a day, shot it. In the film the real film director (ie. Amole Gupte) is interchanged with the fictitious one at regular intervals. The fictitious director himself is a small kid acting as an adult. The three kids too are initially shown as adults who sport grey hair. As per their plan, they remove their wigs and make up to 'become' children and enter into the mall apparently disguised. They register themselves in the workshop and participate in it to execute the said 'murder'. Well, a mall is also a place where a kid can aspire to become an adult - so it seems.

I was fortunate to be working in this film with two of the coolest technicians that I have ever come across - sound person Mohandas VP and editor Hemanti Sarkar. Malay Ray, took time off from his busy DI set up to shoot the film. After the completion of the film, Imo Singh called me yet again to make me an offer that I HAD to refuse. It was an offer to be in a comity that selects films for a film festival that is run by the government. In return, he wanted me not to find fault and criticize the people in the government in every which way that was possible. I am not sure in what capacity he was making me this offer or putting forth a condition that any self respecting creative person would refuse. I will leave it at this, as yet again, it is a potential subject matter for another short fiction film that I might plan in the future. I am yet to hear from Imo after that phone conversation. My guess is that he would be working on the film screenplay writing book that he was so meticulously planning over the years.

In between these two mall films were the two films that I made at the Film & TV Institute of India where I was asked to conduct short film making workshops for the TV direction students. The first was made in 2011 and is called 'Mistress and Mister' - about eight and a half minutes in length. A businessman who is in debt decides to purge many of his mistresses by involving them in a eliminating quiz competition, the moderator of which is his secretary. None of the ladies win the quiz as it is finally revealed that the secretary herself is a businesswoman who has financially bailed out the man. She had fixed the contest to the desired result, so that her relationship with the man be intact.

Mistress and Mister

The story was inspired by a news item at appeared on the internet about a Chinese businessman who went through a similar crisis. The format of the film is partly in the TV quiz show; clothed in the dramatic narrative structure. 'Who among the girls is going to win the quiz and retain her relationship with the man?', was the focus of this structure. The music selected for the film too supplemented this suspense. After and before every quiz questions that were asked or answered, characters looked at each other in anticipation - screen time was expanded here. To bring out the absurdity of the situation, the questions that the businessman asks his mistresses were as absurd as say blurting out the correct spelling of 'champagne' or guessing the favorite sexual positions of the man from all the positions mentioned in the ancient treatise 'Kamasutra'. The revelation that the secretary herself is the all controlling businesswoman comes in the fag end of the film. At what point you would want to reveal the key information is crucial in a film, more so in a short film.

The TV direction students of the 2011 batched worked on the execution of this film. Some recent graduates horned the camera and sound work. Two of the students of the batch who were studying sound - Aakash Kulkarni and Nirukt Dave - composed the haunting but melodious music used in the film. I hope they continue to nurture their passion for music composition, along being sound recording professionals. It was an experience working with my super senior Bijaya Jena, her contribution to the characterization of the role she that she was playing was immense. A minor action here, a physical gesture  there many times gives an entire new dimension to the character that is being portrayed. In that sense, Biyaja was a professional. Apart from her, the film had my long time actor friend from my 'Gotala' days Niraj Sah; and two Mumbai based actresses Reema Das and Seema Bora Roy.

Two years later, in 2013, I was asked to conduct a similar short fiction film workshop. There was a tiny news item about a thief in Tamil Nadu who got arrested for sneaking into many newlywed couple's rooms, during their first night for the purpose of stealing the wedding gold jewelry. What did he watch inside the room is anyone's guess. Finding it very funny, I wrote a screenplay. It had a man entering a posh hotel room from its balcony. He calls up the reception from his mobile, posing as the uncle of the bride who is to spend her first night in the very same hotel room. He asks for some exotic dishes and some milk that have to be sent into the room when the newly married couple check in. Soon enough, the couple come into the room and the man hides. The food arrives and when the couple go into the bathroom for a joint bath the man spikes the milk. The couple go unconscious after having the milk. The man makes good with the jewelry but not after finishing off the sumptuous meal that he had ordered for the couple. The screenplay was named 'The Fetish', later the film was called 'Khana Khazaana' (Food and Treasure). Unfortunately, FTII has misplaced the copy of this film, so I don't have it.

Resh Lamba in Khana Khazaana

But as one can see from the screenplay, what is happening on screen is an event - that of a theft, if I may so, in a non dramatic fashion. From the first sequence itself, it is clear that the man is there to steal. There is no suspense of the 'will he steal or will he not' kind. The fun is in the quirkiness of the thief - of him watching the couple and enjoying the meal meant for them before taking off with the bounty. Charu, the FTII film editing student assigned to edit the film, suggested that we start the film with the couple entering the room and reveal the thief only when the couple go into the bathroom to freshen up. Once we see the thief, we could go to a flashback to see how he had entered the hotel room from the balcony, ordered food, etc... We then could come back to the present to see him spike the milk and the rest would follow. Though some of the direction students as well as Ravi Dawala, the faculty in charge, were apprehensive of this shuffling which they thought was unnecessary, I thought we should give it a shot. By doing so, we are starting the film from the point of view of the couple. One would think that the film is about the couple. But then once we see the man, the point of view changes. It is now a film about the thief. The shift in the placement of the sequences did not dramatically alter the narrative structure  or style of the film, but gave another aspect to it.

All these creative decisions were possible because by and large FTII has a tradition of nurturing the freedom of the director and the filming team. Such freedom could be rare outside of FTII, unless of course if you are your own producer. I was the executive producer for a short film called 'Double Life' that I made for Films Division in 2018. They wanted a short documentary film on how double roles are being made in films. I pitched in for a fiction short film - on a boy who wants to be in two places in real life, at the same time. They liked the pitch and the screenplay; and thus 'Double Life' got made. Films Division put forth a condition that the film will have to explain in an enhanced way about the techniques used in the making of double roles in films.

So. I incorporated an informative device that is quite common in TV documentaries. The boy gets to be in two places at the same time in real life, but realizes in the end that it is a dream. After this happens in the film, the character who helps the boy be in the two places at the same time, becomes an anchor of sorts, looks into the camera and explains three aspects of the techniques used in the making of double roles in film - appropriately we cut into sequences that were already shown before as demonstrations of these techniques. And as always as a twist in the tale, after the anchoring is over, the character goes back into becoming the fictional character that he was and lets the boy be in two places at one time; and this time it is not a dream.

Such kind of formal liberties are easier to be implemented and come naturally in the short film format. In a longer film, since the scale and the stakes are huge, people are hesitant to experiment. So, in that sense the short fiction film is highly satisfactory in nature, in creative terms. The journey of my short fiction film making has been the journey from being independent to being dependent on the needs of the producer. People might also like call such a shift as 'professionalism'. A film might be short, but it needs resources to be made. One can't make a short film and 'sell' it because there are no outlets to be sold to. You could make a longer fiction film and try selling it into the well established exhibition outlets that are available. The short fiction films have to be commissioned. It is natural that those who commission these short fiction films would have their own reasons to do so and thus an agenda to pursue. If your agenda meets theirs, well and fine. Otherwise it is a tough life being an independent short fiction film maker, I would say anywhere in the world.

Nevertheless, with digital technology becoming affordable and thus democratized, one sees more and more short fiction films on the internet; many times originating from the remote areas of the country. That is a very positive sign. But are they self sufficient? Do they recover their money enough for the filmmaker so that he could venture into another short fiction film? I doubt it; although there of course could be the odd exception. What is probably needed is a systematic and comprehensive streamlining of the short fiction film eco-system in the country - the kind of work The National Film Board of Canada does, where short films - fiction, documentary and animations are made because they have to be made and for no other reasons. Films made because they ought to be made. That nurtures independent talent and free responsible voices. But will Films Division, National Film Corporation of India, the various Film Academies and other similar bodies in India take heed and make the short fiction film the bride or the groom, instead of the bridesmaid or the best man that they now are?  

If they do so that would be the real twist in the end of the tale and O.Henry then would be really resting in peace within his grave. 


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