Bajrangi Bhaijaan may have generated all the hysteria in the last week or so, but it's Neeraj Ghaywan for whom the applause won't stop.
It started at Cannes where he received a standing ovation when his film Masaan was screened. It continued when the film won two prestigious Cannes awards - a FIPRESCI, International Jury of Film Critics prize and a Promising Future prize in the Un Certain Regard section. And it's being echoed in movie halls and screenings around the country since its release on Friday.
Having trained with Anurag Kashyap, Neeraj - a Maharashtrian who was born and brought up in Hyderabad - has made a superbly nuanced film on the realities and struggles of present-day Benares - split between the paradoxes of modernism and tradition.
He's neither the first nor will he be the last to make Benares a centerpiece of his film - a legion of artists, filmmakers, poets and photographers have thronged the city and sought inspiration and stories from the town over the centuries.
Catch spoke to Neeraj a day before the film's release about his film, his vision, and his personal vision of Benares that steers clear of sadhus, snake-charmers and corpse-burning ghats.
Varun Grover, my scriptwriter, also wanted to pay tribute to Hindi literature through this film. Masaan is our tribute to Bashir Bhadr, Dushyant Kumar and Akbar Allahabadi. In fact, the film opens with the lines of Brij Narayana Chakbast.
There is one tribute that we couldn't use in the film. It's the book Deewar Mein Khirki Rehti Thi (The Window Resided In the Wall) by Vinod Kumar Shukla, which is actually Varun and my favourite book. Masaan will make you feel like you're in a Hindi novella - possibly in a VK Shukla novel. But for the sake of a pure narrative, we've derived heavily from reality itself. It's a straight, honest-to-the-gut narrative.
SS: Is there a Benares connection? Why Benares?
Magic is the closest word I can associate with the city. It's home for me now. I'll be heading to Benares to screen the film soon. I'm looking forward to it, it's like a homecoming.
SS: You've taken on the socio-political reality of today's Benares, and in the process have unraveled the city from within. Was that deliberate?
That's typical of the kind of films I draw inspiration from; they talk about a certain class - the middle class or even lower classes - and their moral or existential crises.
SS: So Benares, the city, is not the muse?
Locals and line producers on the set would come and say "You've been shooting for so long, why don't you show the temple once?" But that wasn't my intent. Even when we do show the ghats, they are central to the narrative. We didn't intend to - and haven't - shown Benares' rich culture. There are no pan-eating people sitting on the ghats playing cards, neither will you see depictions of thandai, holi etc.
SS: Your team has a host of outsiders. How difficult or easy was it to shoot in Benares?
Even the government was supportive. The DMs and ADMs gave us permissions to shoot on the ghats and offered protection.
The shoot itself was challenging, physically draining. It was very hot and occasionally quite humid to boot. We were recreating the Manikarnika and Harishchandra ghats, with the funeral pyres and other paraphernalia, which was both stressful and a little scary for the actors. Extended hours of shooting and minimal light etc made it difficult. We also recreated a ghat elsewhere for shooting the underwater sequences. The warmth of the locals kept us going.
SS: Were there locals in your cast and crew? How difficult was it for the city to accept you?
Varun and I didn't want to be those backpacking, dictaphone-using Bombay filmmakers who become too cool for the place where they're setting their film. The thing about Benares is: it will not welcome you till you surrender yourself, which is what we did.
I started speaking in Bhojpuri. And we took time to just immerse ourselves in the city. One day, for instance, we sat in a saree shop and some four-five people came to join. From 10 am that morning till late that evening, we sat there just discussing politics, science, literature, folklore, culture - everything except the film.
That's what Benares is. When we're all madly chasing our mundane everyday pursuits - driving to work, paying bills - these guys really know how to live life. We completely surrendered to the Benarasi way of life - we became them.
SS: You recruited Indian Ocean to do the music, despite Benares' own legendary classical music traditions. The city is known to have produced the stalwarts of Hindustani classical.
I didn't want to give the film an '80s parallel cinema effect or to alienate audiences. Also, there was a certain kind of modernity I wanted to bring into the film. We're talking about small towns in transition.
Indian Ocean fit the bill perfectly - they're a modern band, in the sense that their sound is modern, but their soul is extremely rustic and rooted. They're activists and intelligent people - perfect soulmates for the film.
SS: Six production companies - three Indian and three French - invested in the film. You premiered in Cannes before the home country. Is that the way of all indie films now?
People also don't seem to realise what it takes to take a film to Cannes or anywhere abroad. They think you go to Cannes, they pat your back and you come back successful. But actually, a lot of work goes on there that helps the film find audience. For starters, a huge market opens up annually at Cannes where a film gets buyers. Masaan, for instance, got sold in Italy, Spain, Middle East etc.
Secondly, if I had not gone to Cannes, won these awards, received the standing ovation, I would have had to invest five times the budget of the film to garner the kind of buzz I am now getting.
SS: But one would imagine that after films like Gangs of Wasseypur and Lunchbox, it would be easier to make such films in India.
Lunchbox did kind of change things, and it was easier to make Masaan. But overall, change will take time. This year, though has been encouraging - lots of script-driven films are doing well.
SS: Stories of small towns seem to be taking precedence over big, overarching metropolitan narratives in Hindi cinema currently. Do you observe this pattern? Is Masaan trying to do this as well?
Also, in Hindi cinema, there has been a trend of looking at smaller cities with a satirising or mocking gaze. It tends towards objectification. The real message is 'look, here's how small townspeople live and here's how funny they are.'
We wanted to show the story from an inward-looking point of view. With Masaan, the story came first and that led us to the small town. We went there, did a lot of research and set this story from the Benarasi point of view, not catering to a typical Bombay, Bollywood perspective of how Benaras ought to be.
SS: But your Benarasi too has aspirations of moving towards the big cities.
The people of Benares are on the middle road. One way is headed towards modernity - they're seen as an intellectual capital, loads of BPOs are coming up, markets are opening, social media is creeping in and so on. The other way still battles with age-old caste prejudices, dubious morality etc.
The strict lines between urban spaces and small towns are blurring and not many people are noticing the rapidity with which this is happening.
SS: And finally - how did the standing ovation and awards at Cannes feel when you were standing there and experiencing them?
I was stunned because I got the same reactions from Cannes as I used to get during my edit screenings here. At Cannes, after the film was shown and before the credits rolled, I had a moment of fear that maybe this film is too rooted and would alienate a Western audience.
But once the applause started, it went on and on. The phone of the person shooting the video ran out of battery! Actually, the real ovation started after that - they started clapping to cheers of Bravo! over and over. It was overwhelming but also reassured me that people connect with basic emotions very well.