Breath of fresh air
From theatre to filmmaking is a big jump. But it's paid off for Sandeep Sawant as his debut venture "Shwaas" won the National Award for Best Film. He tells GOWRI RAMNARAYAN how he took the plunge.
Inspired by a true life story ... a scene from "Shwaas".
He had no film school training, no apprenticeship on the floor. Ten years of writing/directing experimental plays in Marathi had been punctuated by scriptwriting for television, a few documentaries and corporate films. However, 36-year-old Sandeep Sawant's debut feature "Shwaas" won the Swarna Kamal, for Best Film (2003). The film has also won some 30 awards from different organisations, including the State Award for Best Film.
The venture was inspired by Madhavi Gharpure's story, based on the experience of Dr. Shailesh Puntambekar. Sawant went to Pune and watched the surgeon, who relived the incident of 12 years ago. The narrator's changing expressions became the starting point.
Village farmer (Arun Nalawade) brings grandson Paarsha to the town doctor only to learn that the child is a one-in-a-million victim of the rare retinoblastoma. The operation will save his life but leave him blind. With social worker Asawari's (Amruta Subhash) sympathetic assistance, the tottering grandfather steadies himself, and supports the child through the ordeal.
In a remarkably conceived scene, the doctor (Sandeep Kulkarni) is forced to accept responsibility for explaining to the child that he is to lose his eyes. We go through the hospital rounds, waiting for doctors, certificates, tests, scans, results. We watch the child's tantrums when the operation is postponed. Suddenly, the grandfather absconds from the hospital, taking the child on a pleasure trip through park, museum, fair, temple, showing him the sights he will never see again. Panic in the ward over the missing patient bursts into comedy, as everyone disclaims responsibility, and newshounds sniff around hoping for scandal. The enraged doctor finally understands what prompted grandpa's "irresponsible" disappearance. The rustic grandfather's moving simplicity is contrasted with the urbane doctor's nuanced subtlety.
The quiet end has Paarsha's boat approaching the village shore, his mother's sorrowful face awaiting the son's homecoming. The boy's dark glasses loom above his beaming smile.
Power of silence
Excellent performances by the whole team stand out, especially as the camera shuns artifice and sentimentality. The child's unselfconscious spontaneity is an achievement in itself. True, some flashbacks follow routine tracks in contrasting past joys with present tragedy, and the music does not work with the mood, but the script knows the power of silence, and of still life.
With little advertisement and no hype, "Shwaas" has been running to packed houses for over 100 days in Mumbai and Pune, and is scheduled for release in smaller towns. At Third Eye, Mumbai's Asian Film Festival (August 2004), Sandeep Sawant accepted felicitations. After the event, a sort of subdued glee come through as he talked about the work accomplished, on a budget of Rs. 60 lakhs, raised by seven friends, with his unquenchable conviction. Excerpts:
WHY did you want to make a film at all when you were doing well in the theatre?
Though it was not telecast, directing an episode from a popular novel kindled my interest in filmmaking. My processes of thinking and work discipline come from the theatre. I loved it, but at a certain point I began to wonder if it was the right medium for the things I wanted to express.
Undercurrents of experience
I'm talking about delicate, minute, subtle undercurrents of experience. I go to art galleries and gaze at the paintings that fascinate me by some glimmer of expression. That's the sort of thing I want to capture.
Did you think you could paint such fleeting expressions with the camera?
Yes. Camera, sound, costume, art, music, character so many colours and shades to work with. They come together and a film is made. You need judgement, also perception and observation. Self-study has been my method. I arrive at what I want through reflection.
But you need more than intuition to make a film. How did you learn the craft?
I've watched many films. I listen to all kinds of music, from Ashwini Bhide Deshpande and Pandit Jasraj to western music, especially hard-to-come-by violin solos. I read a lot. Not just fiction but history, geography, biology, physics, and my own subject psychology. I read Marathi poetry.
I wander a lot. I look at everything, observe keenly. I analyse why I like what I do, and spend more time in figuring out why I don't like certain things.
Those ruminations set up a chain of interlinked ideas. I think all this is important for film making. Technique is a simple matter compared to them.
Why did you risk making a film in Marathi, confining yourself to a small uncertain market?
Most people opposed the idea. Why not Hindi, they said. But the film's soul, landscape, people and culture belong to Marathi. Can't get that texture in any other language. Also, there is a need for good films in Marathi. My homework before the actual shooting was long and thorough. My actors were professionals from the Marathi stage. I insisted that they give me time for discussion, training and rehearsal.
I took actors and technical crew through my research process. They had to follow the doctor in clinic, ward and operation theatre, and in costume too. The child's training was in my making friends with him. Now he listens more to me than to his parents!
Distribution must have been a major problem.
I talked to filmmakers old and new, understood the flaws and weaknesses in the situation, the lack of infrastructure. I listed 20-30 points for my marketing strategy and decided we'd distribute the film ourselves.
Word of mouth
You won't see any "Shwaas" poster in Mumbai or Pune. As soon as the first print was ready I held three to four previews, confident that word-of-mouth publicity by 1,000 viewers would motivate 10,000 people to go to the film. I believed that any small story, if told well, and in simple terms, would definitely draw audiences. But instead of 25 prints, we released five. Now we have seven. There will be more. This is how Marathi films can be distributed.
What was the most interesting response?
The most common response is the most interesting. Once the film starts, people stop talking. After the film, they can't talk about it. We'll call you later they say.
Your wife designed the costumes. Did you pay her?
(Guffawing) Not just costumes, she was with me from production to subtitling, ready to listen and discuss. Her contribution was tremendous. We have come very close on this journey.
What was your gut reaction to the national award?
So much running around on that day. Next morning I got up and thought, what a responsibility!
(Slips into Marathi, has to be dragged back into English) I'm not afraid (smiling) but I know I have to start from zero again.
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