The stories of big cities have been told to the point of saturation: Avinash Arun

You may not know the name, but if you're interested in what new Indian filmmaking looks like, you'll want to know his work.

Avinash Arun is the newest face in the circle of emerging Indian filmmakers whose local sensibilities are bringing them global acclaim. Winner of the Crystal Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and the National Award for Best Film in Marathi, Killa - Arun's directorial debut - is making waves from Bombay to Berlin.

An FTII alumnus, Arun's coming-of-age drama tells the story of a young boy's experience with stability and impermanence in his ever-shifting world. Heavily derived from his own childhood, Arun conjures a breathtaking visual narrative centered around the magnificent monsoon of the Konkan region.

We sat down with the filmmaker to talk about Killa, his cinematography for Masaan, and his hope for Indian cinema.

SS How did Killa happen? What was your life stage when it came to you?
AA The plot developed when I was at FTII. I had some images and memories from my childhood years spent in the Konkan. I tried to weave together memories of my childhood, friendships etc and slowly, a narrative developed.

When I graduated from FTII and started assisting in Bombay, I met my present producers and narrated the story that they, luckily, liked. We wrote the script in just two months and were shooting in three months' time. We shot for only about 30 days, spread over five months in four cities. I wanted to capture the perfect light and seasonal changes.

SS In this age of in-your-face cinema, how did you evolve your quiet cinematic language?

AA I assisted (Marathi film director) Umesh Kulkarni and started working in cinema at the age of 16. Having spent almost ten years of my life at FTII, the influences I gathered there have shaped my work most. I was assisting FTII students on their shoots while still in high school, and waiting to join the institute myself.

Cinematic influences include filmmakers such as Ingmar Bergman, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Wong Kar Wai, Michael Haneke, Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Hrishikesh Mukherjee and yes, Guru Dutt saab.

SS Is it just this film's tone that is this quiet and nostalgic, or do you think this will be your signature style?

AA This is indeed my language. This is how I think, feel and see. This is my gaze, I'm quite aware of it. The challenge for every filmmaker is how to grow with your work and push your cinematic form. As a cinematographer and filmmaker, I've shot films like Masaan, which is completely different from Killa. Even the visual language, the setting, the story is completely different. In every film, the filmmaker's gaze is key. The rest of the cast and crew try to see the way the filmmaker does, to take it forward in a coherent way.

Masaan, for which Arun was Director of Photography

SS Killa draws considerably from your personal experience, which is natural for a filmmaker's first feature. For your next film though, do you think you will go beyond your own memory and experiences?

AA I'm working on a film right now that is again based on a childhood experience. I'm trying to make a fantasy story out of it. Again, children are a very integral part of it, but on the level of form and treatment, it's considerably different from Killa.

SS In Killa, you show children swearing. Was there trouble with the Censor Board?

AA Well, the film won the Crystal Bear at the Berlinale in the Children's Films section - and our Censor Board gave the film a U/A certificate instead of a U certificate. There's one cuss word they've asked us to mute.

Blanket judgement on what's good or bad doesn't work, and the Censor Board lacks this sensibility

No filmmaker in the world would be okay with such a thing. The Censor Board is an organisation led by societal standards dating back to the 1960s. It still follows the rules and discretions of an outdated society. Frankly, they're treading a path in the opposite direction from filmmakers.

If a cuss word is used in a movie about children, it's important to contextualise the curiosity of a prepubescent child that leads him or her to use these words and explore their meanings. In my film, no one is giving gaalis to anybody. It's certainly not abuse for the sake of it. Blanket judgment on what's good or bad doesn't work, and the Censor Board lacks this sensibility.

SS Chaitanya Tamahe's Court got serious acclaim, and so has Killa. Is this part of a larger revival in Marathi cinema?

AA I give credit to both filmmakers and the Maharashtrian audience for this 'revival'. A new breed of Marathi filmmakers is certainly emerging. But the bigger credit goes to the audience - the Marathi audience is very open to new, different ideas.

Maharashtra has a strong history of regional cinema, as do Bengal and Kerala for instance; they've always been driven by their own distinct content and style. It's easier for a producer to invest in a realistic Marathi film because they're quite assured that the audience will watch it. In fact, such films should be made in all vernacular languages.

These films are also slowly becoming the face of Indian cinema abroad. Court, for instance, did brilliantly at festivals around the globe.

Even so, I wouldn't call this a trend. Trends are short-lived. I hope this new phase in Marathi cinema sustains. And not just Marathi; Indian cinema should welcome this change in the audience's desire to watch films with different sensibilities.

It's easier for producers to invest in a realistic Marathi film because they're assured the audience will watch it

SS Three of your films are set to release soon, all based in small-town India. Is this deliberate? How do you read this phenomenon?

AA This has happened before, too. But today there is, I think, a breed of Indian filmmakers who are revisiting their own stories and their people and influences instead of adopting foreign influences. The big cities continue to be full of stories, but they've been told over and over to the point of saturation.

Smaller towns, however, are changing rapidly and witnessing newer social dynamics owing to the IT boom, availability of newer technology and products. A new generation of filmmakers is emerging from these cities.

Once, I was on a recce in a tribal village in the interiors of Maharashtra. There was a lone hut in the village with a television antenna sticking out of the roof. Right next to it was a stable where an elderly couple were sitting and watching TV - and they were watching MTV Roadies! That totally threw me off-guard; I didn't know whether to laugh or to welcome it.

Either way, It's a testament to how rapidly things are changing in the hinterland. And this is what we filmmakers try to dissect and portray through our perspective. It's quite exciting.

SS Can the closed circle of big production houses and mainstream commercial cinema be broken by this new breed of filmmakers from different backgrounds?

AA Yes of course. I don't understand the value of making films that won't last beyond the first three days. Where is the longevity? Cinema is not just entertainment or commerce.

Today, European cinema is losing the market to Hollywood. If you look at the disproportionate business done by Avengers and Jurassic Park in India recently, it's entirely possible that our industry might face the same threat soon.

The idea is to bring longevity and vision into our stories. And to be native in our voice, which will make us unique. Running after immediate success and box-office returns will eventually dent the soul and identity of Indian cinema.

SS You've won serious acclaim for this film - including a National Award. But not a single theatre in the national capital is showing Killa. Why do you think that's so?

AA It's the market's call, ultimately. I'm elated with the way Killa has been marketed and distributed. We're getting a good response from around the country. Hopefully it will eventually get a pan-India release as well.

SS What's next for you?

AA I've done cinematography for two upcoming films - Masaan, which releases in July, and Drishyam, starring Ajay Devgn and Tabu, also coming soon. Drishyam is a Bollywood film and I'm excited about that too. There is increasing scope in Bollywood today. Big production houses like Yash Raj are pushing boundaries with movies like Dam Laga Ke Haisha and Titli.

It's a good time for filmmakers like me.

Soumya Shankar

Soumya Shankar @shankarmya