Neeraj Ghaywan & Varun Grover On Making Masaan

By Yash Thakur. Posted on July 15, 2015

A little less than two weeks away from Masaan's release, Neeraj Ghaywan and Varun Grover sit lazily in the garden of Phantom's office, addressing the media as it comes and goes. The duo look content, with Varun sipping away on his coffee and Neeraj smiling warmly at journalists who await him. Deservedly so, for they've achieved with their debut film what very few have managed to achieve in their entire careers. Masaan earned love and acclaim at Cannes this year, along with a couple of jury awards.

We caught up with the young duo to try and understand what really went behind writing the award winning film.

Q. Let’s start with Cannes. Tell us about the experience.

Neeraj - The experience at Cannes for the film was, like you said, life changing. I had a few inhibitions that since the film is so rooted, culturally speaking, will they be able to grasp the narrative? But after the credits started rolling, people started clapping and it turned into a roar. I suddenly blanked out and started crying. It was a cry of closure. The journey that Varun and me started 2 years back had finally come to an end. The moment was very special, more than winning the awards.

And the awards followeed. It might sound clichéd that I genuinely felt more happy that it was our country that won the award. We’ve been tracking Cannes for years now and the fact that an Indian film, our film, won this after 26 years was a bigger honor.

Personally, I’m not getting attached to the euphoria of it. I’m getting myself engrossed in work and I can’t wait to move onto another film.

Varun - It was surprising, the kind of response we got at Cannes. For me, it was always an Indian film going to Cannes, instead of a festival film now getting a release in India. It has songs; even though the French producers told us to remove the songs. They said it won’t appeal to the European sensibilities. But we didn’t budge. There is no festival bait in our film. Even after all this they loved our film which was what surprised me. It was a big victory for us and for the film.

Other than that, I too was really happy that an Indian film was winning these accolades and awards because at the end of the day, though we don’t believe in boundaries, there is something known as Indian cinema which is very distinct from other kinds of cinema that we know and we made something from that category. It’s a big win for Indian cinema.

Q. Tell us about the script.

Neeraj - The way Varun has written it, it is very lucid. This is because we both are big fans of everyday dialogues. It is more of conversations. The actors had the complete freedom to take the skeleton and move on, though it was written so well that most actors have spoken the same thing. Some of the lines were in the local dialect (Kashika) so we were helped by local journalists from Banaras. Whenever I met the cast and the crew, and I told them, “here’s the script, we will start only if it interests you.” People came on board because of the energy that Varun’s script brought, not because they were our friends or that Phantom was involved. The script was very well researched and that worked really well in our favor. It is one of the things that I have had to unlearn after working with Kashyap. He is a genius who come's on the set and writes three scenes, and cans them too, all in a span of 15 minutes. I’m not as talented as he is, so I have to put more effort in my planning.

Q. When you started with the script, what were you thinking of?

Varun - I feel that thinking of the audience when you are writing a film is the worst way to write it, even if it is a commercial film. I have just finished writing an out-and-out comedy, but even then I never thought that I should add something that would appeal the audience. One should write what would please him/herself first. The story, characters, all should have a natural flow, without ever thinking of making it ‘massy’ or even classy. What makes you laugh or cry ideally should also make the viewer laugh and cry, if you’re true, or observant enough.

Neeraj - Our characters have been borrowed from reality, so it becomes imperative to stick to the reality. It was never about ‘what the festival programmers think, or ‘what would the audience think?’ It was always about ‘what would Devi think? What would Deepak do?’ Hence since we had grounded ourselves, done so much research, our world was so full.


On the sets of Masaan

Q. Talk about process of your collaboration. Where did the idea originate and how did the script evolve?

Neeraj - I had a faint idea; a friend of mine told me about the Ghats, way long back, when I was in my corporate life. He told me how they burn bodies, in a macabre fashion, day in-day out. It got me thinking that how one could go through doing it without feeling anything for it. How could one appreciate life when one is surrounded by the dead all the time? There I concocted a short story. I went on to quit my job and became an Assistant Director (AD) on Gangs of Wasseypur. I wrote about 20-30 pages there and then I realized that it was looking horrible. I wasn’t a writer and if I was trying to approach it from a closed, intrinsic view of a milieu, it had to be with someone from within. And I thought, “Who better than Varun?”

Varun and I go a long way back. The reason that our collaboration is so great and our friendship is so strong is because we come from the same middle class background. We have a similar value systems. If I ever came up with a shitty idea, Varun wouldn’t hesitate to tell me that it is a shitty idea. We are that comfortable. For us, the film was above us. By the end of Wasseypur we had a skeleton of the story.

Q. Talk to us about the characters. How did you formulate them?

Varun - Neeraj’s initial short story idea was about this lower caste boy and upper caste girl falling in love. It was set in Benaras so we started exploring more characters there. I told Neeraj that his idea would get wasted in a short film. We needed more stories, more characters so we just went ahead and started roaming the space, spending time there; the city and the moralities of this city’s youth.

We came up with the character of Devi, who gets involved in a sex scandal and how she deals with. She fit right in because of the space, the conflicts, and the small town existential angst. There is a false belief (that if they were anywhere else but here things would be better), that exists in all these characters. The film is about this belief and the space that is keeping them bound there. That was the thread we stuck to. Most of them come from our trip to Benaras, where we explored and met people or real life facts.

Neeraj - Imagination also has its limitations. They say truth is stranger than fiction. There was so much imagination in reality itself that we just had to bring that in front of the camera. That research trip we did really opened up our perspective as to how can we widen the scope of the characters.

Q. Where does this conviction come from, to stick to the characters? How much of this conviction is fueled by the people you surround/work yourself with?

Neeraj- I would say some part of it definitely comes from Anurag Kashyap’s mentorship and how we observe his characters. Secondly I think when we started we never thought about when the film will get made. I remember when we started out, we just wanted to arrive at a great thing. There was no exterior pressure or someone telling us that your film will get stuck at this point. That is where the most amount of honesty comes in. Both of us are very much in love with Banaras and for us to return to that felt like we were returning to our roots. The conviction came from the happiness.

Varun - Partly, the conviction came from the familiarity of the place. Whatever we were writing we knew that it was true. The dramatic elements and other formulas were visible by themselves. We then put the script in an informal script lab, with Vikramaditya (Motwane) and lots of other people we respect, Navdeep Singh, Sudip Sharma, Abhishek Chaubey and Nandita Dutt, Akshat Verma; they all were there. They read the script, it was also the first time we shared the script to others, and they gave a very good feedback. It was actually the first standing ovation that the film got. It was our second or third draft, but that gave us great confidence.

The other factor obviously is Anurag Kashyap. The first film that I worked on as a lyricist was Gangs of Wasseypur. There was That Girl in Yellow Boots, but I hardly interacted with AK then. It’s like if you get confidence and support at the initial stages, like a child does, then he/she remains confident throughout the rest of their lives. Even though I was a newcomer, he put complete faith in me and I think that confidence I can carry around for at least the next 10 years.

Q. The script went to Mahindra Sundance. Talk to us about your experience at the lab.

Neeraj - With regard to the lab, it was an enriching experience for me personally. We didn’t do major changes in the script following that. We were almost close to the final draft by then. Over there, each mentor spends more than half a day with you, and they go in detail. I remember this one mentor, who was (Steven) Spielberg’s writer. When she came, the title then was Ud Jayega. She googled the title, (Kumar Gandharv’s song), translated it by herself, and then drew stick figures on every page, of every action. She went on to write the subtext to every scene. It was that extensive. As a director, it helped me see the film more clearly. Sadly, Varun couldn’t be a part of it, so I recorded all our conversations (at the lab) and then we took the opinions that were useful for the film.

Q. The music and the lyrics evoke a lot of earthy, rustic feeling. Talk to us about your music, which adds to your storytelling.

Varun - When we wrote the script itself we had added the songs. I love writing montage sequences, which ultimately means that you either put a song there or insert music. I wrote so many montages that there could be at least 7 songs in the film (laughs). Ultimately, three were chosen. Out of all the films that I have written songs for, this was the most difficult. Earlier there was no pressure that I have to do something different. I guess when it is your film, there's a tad bit more pressure.

Neeraj - Also, Wasseypur was a very external film; in the sense, it had socio-political themes, it was documenting a time. Here it is very internal.

Varun - With Wasseypur, I could take it anywhere. Here, since we knew the characters so intimately, that we had an idea of the tonality, it had to match the situations. We didn’t want it to be ordinary. In the process, we wasted quite a bit of time, but finally we did get it right.

The opening lines of ‘Tu Kisi Rail Se’ are from a Dushyant Kumar love poem I had heard many years back at a wedding. The lines are actually pretty cheesy, and sweet too, if you hear them closely.

Mann Kasturi was an equally difficult song. Neeraj had a template, dummy song, (a Coke Studio Pakistan song) during the shoot and it was so deeply embedded in our heads that we had to match it to that level. It was a tough call, since the song was one of the best songs to come out of Coke Studio. I realized I couldn’t pull it off so we went to Nazeer Akbarabadi’s Banjaranama, which is one of the greatest long form poetry ever written. The poem is about death, and since (one of) the subject of the film is also death, it fit in perfectly. We gave that to Indian Ocean and they composed it. They have done a fantastic job.

Neeraj - I might sound pompous while saying this, but this is arguably Varun’s best work. Also, the choice of Indian Ocean was pretty simple; since we were fans of them since our college days. They have the perfect balance; they are modern, at the same time also rooted.

Q. You come from an Anurag Kashyap school of filmmaking. How do you stand out, carve out your own independent voice?

Neeraj - It has been a very interesting journey for me. A lot of credit goes to Jaideep Varma (director). He had seen Shor, my first short film and was very moved by it and he invited me (and Varun) over. He told me a very important thing: Passion is finite.

It never occurred to me. I was just bubbling with passion, and he had told me that passion dissolves over time. But his words stuck with me. I realized how much ever you AD, subconsciously the mentor rubs off you. The individual voice would have been suppressed, or the streak would’ve have been colored. I had actually said yes to assisting on Bombay Velvet, but after two days, I backed out. I told Anurag that I need to pursue my film and if I don’t make it now, it’d never get made. He was very glad and supportive. It’s a tough film for a first time filmmaker and I was advised against it but I told myself that if nothing, at least I’ll learn from my mistakes. It was a very conscious call.


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