"Don’t Be Afraid To Try Anything" - Devashish Makhija On What Drives Him & His Love For Short Films!

By Arun Fulara. Posted on January 19, 2016

I first read about Devashish Makhija a few years back, when I came across a newspaper article on his debut feature film, Oonga. An interesting topic for a first feature, I thought. A brave one too. That he'd assisted Anurag Kashyap on Black Friday (a film I loved) & written the script for his, as-yet-unreleased feature film, Doga, made him a person of interest. The fact that he's also written short stories & is a published author of popular children's books, added to the aura. His Wikipedia page introduces him as an "Indian filmmaker, screenwriter, graphic artist, fiction writer and poet", a man of many talents, someone I had to know more of.

I ran into him at Mumbai Film Festival last year & had a quick small chat. It was a delight to meet someone like him, humble & rooted. We separated, with the promise to have a longer, more meaningful conversation on his short films at some later date. So here we are.

Last year was a busy year for Makhija. He made 4 short films, along side hawking his bag full of scripts to producers in Mumbai. Mumbai is a city full of filmmakers, yet very few of them have shown any serious interest in the short format till now. That is a travesty, given that so much amazing work happens internationally in the space. It is a medium that has its own grammar & even senior, established filmmakers continue to make shorts.

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Makhija on the sets of his debut film 'Oonga' - Pic courtesy Ravi Kachhawa

Makhija is one of the few filmmakers in India who appreciates the shorter format for what it has to offer. And he is intent on utilising it to the max. Short films keep me alive, he says. He uses the shorter format to get those stories out, that otherwise, would've been left unsaid. A creative mind cannot be kept quiet. But in the face of rejections & lost chances, it can turn cynical. In Makhija's case, short films seem to be an antidote to that.

He talks at length on his short films, why he makes them, what they've taught him & ends with some wise words of advice for young filmmakers.

From assisting in feature films to making Oonga, and writing short stories & getting them published, when did you fall upon short films as a medium of expression? Where does it fit in?

All of these have coexisted all the while that I’ve been trying to tell stories. I decided early on that if I want to tell stories I won’t limit myself to a particular medium. The fight to make feature films is a long and arduous one. (I call it a ‘fight’ because there are so many variables that need to align for a feature to get made that on good days if feels like some kind of a war that the director has signed up for; and on bad days, well, it feels like a war we’re waging with bows & arrows against a battle-tank enemy) It's easy to lose energy or hope, or both.

This fire is a fickle one. Hose it down for long enough and sometimes it might never burn again. I’ve seen too many of my peers from years ago either give up on the feature film fight, or get waylaid by advertising, television and the like. Not that there’s anything wrong in either of those, but I’m talking about folk who had it in them to create landmark cinema, most of which the world will now never see.

Creating short stories, children’s books, poetry, graphic art, video art, short films helped keep my fire alive. To see a story you’ve told emerge into the world is the most hopeful thing for a storyteller. And all of these other media require far less time and effort than a feature film. That is the primary reason I dabble in them all. So I can keep myself from losing hope in the larger fight… the one to make my feature film(s).

At this point you might ask me about Oonga. Yes, that formally counts as my first feature, although it never released in theatres.

But as is the case with some first-time features, not everything went my way during the making of it. It could have been a far far better film than the one that emerged. So it doesn’t count. I’m yet to make ‘my’ first feature film. The burst of short films over 2015 was my first big step towards reclaiming – and announcing – my voice as a filmmaker.

How do you decide what stories fit the format and which don’t?

I don’t decide. A combination of Circumstances and Opportunities and Instinct decides that for me. And this process changes from story to story.

In the case of El’ayichi, it was material I culled from a TV series I had developed in 2007-08 when I was with YashRaj. It was to be the flagship TV show for the erstwhile YashRaj TV. The animation film I was making for YRF-Disney got shelved, so I walked away from them taking this TV series with me. That show was a quirky comedy about a woman who’s dead husband hasn’t left yet and is making her daily life as miserable as he did when he was alive. I was looking for ways to turn this idea into a feature film. But when TTT called me in October 2014 to make their first Talkie, I went through my material, discovered that some of the scenes from this story would make a cracker short film, and sat down and wrote it in a matter of hours.

Agli Baar emerged of its own accord from years of researching, reading about, and witnessing the heartbreaking politics of slum rehabilitation in Bombay. I think the characters of this film had lived inside my heart and head for much longer than I knew. Because when I decided to turn this material into a short it came together in a surprisingly uncontrolled way. I didn’t write a script till merely days before the shoot.

For nearly a month I narrated it to people the way I ‘felt’ it inside of me. It was a first for me. I always ‘write’ a film down in detail before I share it with anyone. But here I was narrating it like a bedtime story to everyone from the TTT guys to my cast and crew, almost afraid to write it down lest it become too inorganic. Agli Baar to me is less of a story, and more of a life experience being shared with the viewer, urgently, almost in real time.

Alternatively Rahim Murge pe mat ro came to birth as a prose-poem written in first person. And Rajat and I decided to turn it into a film almost as is.

It's exciting how there are no rules to this process, at least for me. The idea and the intent dictate everything. And every new idea comes with its own directives and road map. And I try and listen to what it tries to say to me. The process of exploration and discovery this brings is the most joyful part of filmmaking / storytelling.

You are one of the most prolific short filmmakers we know of. Last year, you made 3(?) short films. Tell us about this phase of your career? How has it helped you?

4 actually. Taandav releases later this month. And ‘Abs nt’ will do a round of festivals before Pocket Films releases it online. Short films have brought me back into the game. I’ve had 8 years of shelved projects, from my YRF-Disney animation film to several other scripts I began pre-production on before they got shelved, to numerous other films that I’ve written for other filmmakers from Anurag Kashyap to MF Husain. I’ve got six ready screenplays floating about right now.

A couple of them look like they might materialize. But until they do how does one make hope float? I am very disinclined to make ad films or TV shows. So when the chance to make a short film popped up I grabbed it with both hands. I spent a lot of my own money on El’ayichi because I was getting a chance to ‘shoot’ on my own terms after so many years. The experience was so satisfying that I was hooked. I didn’t realize that I will manage to make three more films before the year is out.

2015 has shown me that if you care for the things you believe in they will care for you right back. This past year I have fought not only to tell the stories I want to tell, but also to tell them in the way I want to tell them, and then fought really hard to keep them alive in the public domain, by relentlessly sending them to festivals and contests (which is an exhausting process by itself). I discovered that if I don’t care for my work enough to fight to keep it alive, no one else is going to, because I care for them more than anyone else ever will.

This year – and these four films – have shown me that the making of a film does not end at the ‘making’ alone anymore. That is but less than half the fight. The tougher, less fun, but more necessary part comes right after the film is made. To help the film find its feet and to help it walk into the world, and then train it to run. It's easier said than done. And can be joyless labour on a good day. But it's necessary. If you cease to care for your film, your film will cease to care for you.

What have you learnt about the format? Many consider it a step on their way to making feature films, how do you approach it?

I have a lot of respect for the format. It is not a stepping stone to anything. It is a destination unto itself. Just like a short story is not a stepping stone to a novel. And a 100 metre dash is not a stepping stone to a marathon… you see how ridiculous that sounded? Using shorts to train for a feature sounds as ridiculous to me. It is a very challenging and very unique medium. Not every great feature filmmaker can make a great short film, and vice versa. Although it requires the same ‘technical’ skills, the storytelling skills shorts require are very different from those a feature need.

For starters, in a short you don’t have the liberty of character establishment. You need to get into the thick of the action almost as soon as the film begins.

(Now, I’m speaking only for myself, and the narrative shorts I make. The same may not apply to non-narrative shorts. The same may not even apply to another filmmaker who makes narrative shorts. These are my personal epiphanies. Not to be treated as the ‘truth’.)

Also, in a short a story cannot ‘end’ in a conventional way. Closing the loop in a short is almost impossible given how little time we’ve spent with the characters. It might be important then to choose very carefully the ‘portion’ of the characters’ journey we want to make the short about. And find the most interesting way to ‘end’ the film, yet not ‘end’ the story. This is one of the biggest challenges I face (and enjoy) in a short film.

Given that audiences have no expectations from a short film (unlike feature films, which are almost always burdened by audience expectation) a lot of experimentation with structure is not only allowed for by the audience, but celebrated. The same audience that may be thrown off by unconventional narrative structure in a three hour film, might be in fact seeking it in a short film. Perhaps it has something to do with them being less invested in a short too – time-wise as well as money-wise.

The other thing this allows for then is a longer-term relationship with the short, as opposed to a feature. A short could be like a favourite song that you can play again and again. A feature demands much more time and attention and investment to provide this kind of a relationship with the viewer. So I consciously approach a short in a way that the narrative doesn’t close its loop by the end. Questions stay unanswered. Characters stay partially undiscovered. The story feels like it could go on. As a result I’ve had people tell me they watched the film fifteen times! That’s something that might never happen with my feature.

Last couple of years have seen the format gain visibility & widespread acceptance. Bigger names are making & acting in short films. Where do you think the medium is headed?

Unless one of two things happens, this could be just a bubble that will burst as soon and as suddenly as it formed. Either, one, a fully functional method to make a viewer pay (whatever little) to watch a short is discovered and implemented online… or, two, commerce is taken out of the equation completely and short films are looked on as an artistic endeavor, and treated that way too. You might ask then, what does that entail? The first person to have to take that responsibility then would be the filmmaker.

We must learn to make money elsewhere, and we must desire to make a short badly enough to put aside money to make it with. If enough of us fight for our artistic integrity and try and weed the commerce out of the equation then the platforms for short films online will also start thinking and strategizing along those lines. Right now we’re in this no man’s land between wanting to make money off them, and not having a clue how to.

Bigger names – from directors to actors – make short films ONLY because of the artistic freedom it allows them. If that is the major driving force for all of us, then why are we seeking to dilute this solitary reason by constantly having discourse around the commerce of it? It is good to be paid for one’s art, I agree. But the minute we’re told what we must make, it ceases to be artistic, and becomes more of the same : a producer saying ‘you can have my money, but on the condition that…’

So far I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the medium only because I’ve been allowed complete artistic freedom. And those that don’t want to give it to me, I’m not interested in making anything with them. Because not only will I make something ‘they’ want me to make, I wont make any money in the process, AND (worst of all) I have to make my talented cast and crew slave for nearly free. In the last three months alone I’ve been in dozens of meetings with so-called ‘digital’ departments of the large studios and production houses where they want ‘cutting edge’ short film content, but have a long list of things I ‘cannot’ make/do. I exit those meetings so fast it appears as if the building might have been on fire.

What needs to happen for a ‘short film industry’ to develop in the country? As a filmmaker, what do you think is lacking to propel the space on to bigger things?

There we go. That’s the exact word I’ve been trying to warn against… ‘industry’. For anything to become an ‘industry’ it needs to crack its monetization strategy. I’d rather short films don’t do that. Keep it an artistic pursuit for as long as possible. But then the director has to train to produce himself as well. And try and not exploit the talent he/she employs for the film. My films too were made for next to nothing. And it kills me to make the best talent work for free. I’m fighting (that word again) to do other work that will bring me some money so I can pay my team something.

Because if I seek bigger budgets from producers it’ll come with the usual caveats… I wont be allowed to be as ‘surreal’ as Ela’yichi or as ‘political’ as Agli Baar or as ‘gory’ as Rahim Murge Pe Mat Ro. What is lacking right now – and what we urgently need more of – is the passion to make short films on the directors’ own terms. Only the filmmakers themselves can spearhead this space (I would like to not use the term ‘industry’). And if it doesn’t serve us the way we want it to, only the filmmakers will be to blame.

Coming to your short films, each of them have a different flavour. From ‘Agli Baar’ to ‘Rahim Murge Par Mat Ro’ to ‘El’ayichi’, you’ve experimented with the format. Is that because of the freedom the short format affords?

There is the freedom of experimenting with ‘form’ of course because so little money is at stake in a short film. But more than that there is the freedom to experiment with ‘content’. The kinds of stories that these three short films are, inspired the ‘form’ of each. I always allow the content and intent of a story to dictate its form. I am very careful to not thrust a cinematic treatment on a script.

If you listen closely, every story / idea / script / character will tell you how it / he / she needs to be shot. These are also stories that surprised me when I came up with them. I admit that with each of these three films when I had that initial idea I remember shitting a big brick wondering if it would work at all? But as I built the films – from idea to character to script to shoot to edit – I gradually discovered their ‘form’s.

Now THIS is a liberty that I myself as a filmmaker might be scared to give myself on a feature. There is so much money and resources at stake from the first step that I might try and be very very certain of every step before I take it. That might curb my courage to experiment with total abandon. And if it does I may not even realize it. But on a short film I feel much lighter – free of the weight of monetary responsibility – and that always brings a certain spring to my steps, which translates into braver decisions perhaps; some of which are blind shots in the dark, that sometimes pay rich dividends. Eg. the Dodo in El’ayichi… I might never have given in to the urge to put it in a feature, but this was a short. No one had any expectations of it, including me. So I just went for it. And it turned out quite alright.

In a world where filmmakers, esp short film makers, keep cribbing about lack of money (and rightly so), with films like ‘Agli Baar’ & ‘Rahim...’ you’ve turned lack of budgets into an advantage and used the constraints to create films that deploy a different way of storytelling. Have you reconciled to that? And do you find that liberating?

Neither have I reconciled to it, nor do I find it liberating. Like I’ve said before I allow the content, intent and resources at my disposal to dictate the ‘form’ of the film, sometimes as early as the scripting stage (as in the case of Agli Baar, I worked the shooting style into the screenplay). It all boils down to an individual’s (in this case mine) intent to make a film. Now there’s no one out there waiting for my film. The world may not be richer or poorer by the presence of absence of my film in it. I am very aware of the (mostly) selfish artistic need for me to make a particular film.

So I do not consider cribbing about the lack of money as justified. There are way more important things in this world that need money than ‘my’ film. Adivasis need to be paid the right compensation for the land that is wrested from them for mining. Primary health care needs much more money than is allotted to it in every five year plan. The public distribution system, primary education, water sanitation, cancer research, even maintenance of public parks – all these are suffering today from the lack of money. ‘My’ film is the least of the world’s troubles.

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Makhija on the sets of 'Agli Baar' - Pic courtesy Arun Kale

Some stories cannot be told with a paucity of funds. Some can. When I’m provided a certain set of resources (eg. TTT giving me a flat 50,000 for both my Talkies) I sit down and see how many resources I can add to the mix (eg. the extra money I put from my diminished bank balance; the talented people I can request to come on board without charging me anything etc) and only then do I go about building the film… with the pieces at my disposal. I partly work backwards from the resources at hand.

My next short Taandav is a rather large film compared to the shorts we see around us here. The budget therefore was suitably much much larger than all my previous short films put together. If I didn’t have that budget available I wouldn’t have written the script that I did.

You got Nimrat in El’ayichi & now Taandav has Manoj Bajpai. How do you convince actors with busy schedules to work in short films? Has it become easier now?

I’ll be very honest here. The reason I even considered making short films is to escape the soul-crushing trap of having to seek out, manage and pander to ‘stars’. To get a decent budget for a feature often we’re forced to attach a ‘known’ name to the ‘project’. He/she may not be the best actor for the part but having him/her on board ensures that at least the film will get made. And for the longest time I’ve tried to fight that system with my features. Perhaps that’s the reason my features aren’t getting made? Who knows.

In the case of my shorts, I didn’t approach Nimrat because she’s a ‘name’. She’s been a dear friend for nearly a decade now. And we’ve always wanted to work together. I wrote this script, sent it to her to read, and she called back in 4 minutes and said she’d do it. Manoj and I on the other hand have been trying to find funding for my feature for a year and a half now. Somewhere in the middle he was so restless to make something good, he asked if I had an idea for a short film. And I said I have 40 ideas for him to pick from. I narrated Taandav, and he said right away that he’d do it.

So both times the actors happened to the films organically. If it was left to me I would rather not have a ‘known’ name in my short if it entails availability hassles and creative dissonances with what it is that I’m trying to create. In the case of Nimrat and Manoj (and also Piyush Mishra in Rahim…) they surrendered to the requirements of the film without question. They were a delight to work with because they treated what we were trying to make as a piece of artistic expression and not as a product that needs to be marketable.

So I wouldn’t say it's easier to get a busy known actor for a short. All I’d say is that the ones I worked with didn’t let their busy-ness and known-ness get in the way of creating our films with me.

You watch a lot of short films as well. What are some of the films that have really impressed you recently?

Actually I don’t. I watch very little cinema – short or long. And very very little of the little that I watch really moves me. I am impressed though mostly by filmmakers who try to explore the medium beyond the tried and tested. Of course there are those who competently do more of what has been done before. But (and it’s a purely subjective opinion again) if the boundaries aren’t being pushed what’s the point of adding to the immense clutter that’s already out there? There are some exciting short films to be discovered at FutureShorts, Filminute, at this wonderful site/blog ShortFilmWindow run by Arati Kadav and Zain Matcheswala. Their endeavor to give short films a sustained platform in india is very timely, and impressive.

The works of which other Indian short filmmakers do you enjoy?

Amit Dutta. Umesh Kulkarni. Vasan Bala. Shlok Sharma. All of these chaps push the boundaries of narrative as well as form. There are many others, but so many of those filmmakers would rather be making features than shorts. Short films are the poorer for it.

Is there a formula for making a ‘good’ short film?


What advice would you give to young short filmmakers out there?

Work within your resources.

Keep the short short. Not like you should. But you’ll only be helping yourself achieve more given that the resources are always in limited supply. And shorts teach you the discipline of brevity. Which will only make your features better and sharper, if, unlike me, you’re using shorts as a stepping stone to your feature.

Don’t be afraid to try anything. We’ve run out of excuses in these digital times. Cellphones shoot. And laptops edit. What else do you need? Your own wile.

Lastly, I wish short filmmakers weren’t only ‘young’. I wish the older people, the senior filmmakers, everyone would treat this medium completely independent of the trappings of feature length films. In which case all prior advice is null and void. Because if the experienced filmmakers made short films the bar of quality will go up many notches automatically.

Tell us a bit about your feature film. You’ve been working on getting it off the ground for a while now. At what stage is it?

I’m trying to get six features off the ground simultaneously. I never give up on any of my films. They’ve all been in some stage of being green-lit in the past. My stories aren’t easy for a producer to ‘box’ and hence ‘market’. Those that aren’t experimental with the narrative are socio-political. Or they’re both. So it's always going to be challenging for me to find backing for them. For my part I work extra hard to rewrite and reconfigure my scripts constantly to bring their budgets down for interested producers.

It helps a producer make a decision to back such a film if the money being pumped into it can be kept within certain limits. I hate being unreasonable, only because I’m fully aware that even though this is MY vision and my expression and my selfish artistic needs, but it's SOMEONE ELSE’s money, and I owe them for it. Not only do I try to keep the budgets at a bare minimum, I try and use the resources very very responsibly.

Three of those six films are in various stages of talks with prospective producers. Hopefully one of them goes on the floors soon. In the meantime there’s always more short films. I hope I can keep making them till I die.

Cover pic: Courtesy Arijit Datta


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