Neeraj Ghaywan: The maker and his creations

Neeraj Ghaywan receiving memento from art and culture secretary, Daulat Hawaladar. ESG vice-chairman Rajendra Talak is also seen. Pic by Hemant Parab

Seldom have you get a chance to re-live your favourite film with none other than the maker of that film itself. The 2015 Hindi film ‘Masaan’ directed by Neeraj Ghaywan is one such film and I got this chance of watching this film with him at the opening of the film club of ESG (Entertainment Society of Goa), Cinephile on April 6, 2017. The ESG is the nodal agency in the organisation of the International Film Festival of India (IFF), which is held in Goa in the month of November.

‘Masaan’ is one such movie (which speaks about the lives of people from Varanasi) that you can watch many times and still it will able to move you, to bring that lump in your throat and pain in your heart. The pain, anxiety, the sense of loss and also a pinch of happiness of each of these characters is brilliantly portrayed in this film.
In an interaction with the audience after the screening, Neeraj confessed that he hates to watch his work, as he finds lot of loopholes in his craft. It is difficult to digest when he says that a film like ‘Masaan’ has flaws and needs to re-worked.
Neeraj who is brought up in Hyderabad is actually a Marathi boy who felt immense sense of connect when he visited the holy city of Varanasi. He made multiple trips to this place, explored the narrow lanes of this city and shared a drink with the locals. He also stressed on the point that more than place his idea is to focus on the people—how they speak, dress, eat, etc, all this which is well shown in his movie. Neeraj who co-wrote the screenplay along with Varun Grover, also made a conscious choice to not to make his characters caricatures. “When we speak about small towns we want to show them in a certain way and not like people from urban areas. Some people were shocked to see that our characters use facebook. We need to understand that lines between cities and small towns are blurring,” said Neeraj during the interaction.
He also made one pertinent point that cinema is representation of the time it is made. That’s why it is important to have contemporary settings and issues in the cinema.
Neeraj also narrated about a sub-plot of the movie, which many were unaware. It revolved around Deepak’s brother and his affair with French tourist. The brother eventually sells off their ancestral property and elopes with the tourist. The makers had to cut this part as Neeraj says was taking the narrative of the movie in a different direction.
The scene where Deepak throws the ring of Shaalu in the river is related to it. As the initial narrative was that Deepak can’t decide what to do—should he sell off that ring to bring back their ancestral property or keep it as the last memory of Shaalu? And then he throws that ring in the river.
When asked what he learnt from this movie-making experience, he narrated an incident which he experienced during the last scene of the movie that involved a boat ride. After the shoot when Neeraj was taking a boat ride back he realized that the characters like Devi, Deepak, Shaalu and Pathak may be existing somewhere in Varanasi and through this movie he has lived these characters and it is the most satisfying experience and which no other job can provide.

The interaction with Neeraj was not over yet. The ESG organised a special “Meet The Director” programme with Neeraj which was anchored by film critic and curator or Cinephile, Sachin Chatte, next day on April 8 at ESG itself. The interaction was to explore more about the work of Neeraj as a filmmaker. They screened two of his short-films and also two commercials which he recently directed. The Vicks commercial advertisement which he recently made that speaks about the beautiful relationship between mother and an adopted daughter. The mother here is a transgender. It has already received more than 12 million views on social media. Neeraj elaborates that after watching this commercial many people told him that it helped them in changing the pre-conceived notion about transgenders. For him this is great news. He also stated that his main idea is to give voice to the voiceless, underprivileged and showing their humane side. It is evident in the ‘Masaan’ movie also as it speaks about the Dom community of Varanasi (they are considered outcastes and mostly engage in cremation of dead bodies at the ghats).

His short films, ‘Shor’ and ‘The Epiphany’ reflect on the core theme which is common in all his works. His narrative is mainly based on love, loss and death or the near-death experience. When asked about it he expressed that when someone comes across death or near-death situation (as it is shown in his short films), the real side of an individual comes out. It is sans ego and arrogance. However, he further narrated a personal experience of seeing his grandmother dying literally in his arms. “I have experienced death quite closely. My grandmother was schizophrenic and I was quite attached to her. I used spend lot of time with her, even when my parents had lost all hopes. I had a feeling that she will be fine. But, it didn’t help and one fine day she died in my arms,” expressed Neeraj.
Neeraj made these two short-films when he was assisting filmmaker Anurag Kashyap for Gangs of Wasseypur. He also shared that Anurag is his mentor and it is because of him that he entered the world of filmmaking.

Neeraj narrated quite a long journey of an engineer turned filmmaker. He like any other middle-class boy thought of doing MBA after his engineering. It was here while studying MBA he came across FTII Professor Samar Nakhate, as they had a lecture on movie production. He was the lone student who was interested in this lecture and was drawn towards this subject. He always showed his interest in audio-visuals as he did many videos in his student days and also “art-house videos” for corporates when he was part of corporate life.
He then also started for now debunked blog ‘passion for cinema.’ Many filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee were part of this blog. Neeraj used to write movie reviews for this blog. He then became one of the editors of the site and it was here that he came across Anurag.
“My exposure to cinema was watching parallel Indian cinema by Shyam Benegal, Satyajit Ray on Doordarshan. It was not because I was interested in them but my sisters and all used to watch them,” says Neeraj further adding that his ideal movie watching experience was watching Fight Club movie with glass of beer. But, it did changed after writing for a blog and then meeting in person filmmakers like Anurag and Vishal Bhardwaj.
It was a meeting of all the site editors at Anurag’s home in Mumbai where he himself cooked a meal for them. At that time Neeraj met Vishal Bharadwaj who praised him for his review on his movie, ‘Kaminey.’ Neeraj describes it as a magical night to share a space with such filmmakers. Their conversation lasted till 6 in the morning. But, then he realized that he has to go back to his corporate life.
But, after that day he realized that he has to go to Mumbai and start working in film related jobs. He then moved to Mumbai and joined a start-up which was in the business of promoting Bollywood stars and their websites. This job was a far cry from his dream job of filmmaking. He felt frustrated and had no clear idea what to do next.
But, one call from Anurag changed the course of his life. Anurag during his interaction with Neeraj sensed that everything is not ok with him. He then asked Neeraj to assist him on Gangs of Wasseypur. For Neeraj ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’ was a whole new learning experience. It was a physically and mentally tiring venture and at the end of the month he was paid Rs 14,000, which was 1/8th of his corporate salary. This made him realize the ground reality. But, he devoted himself totally for cinema. He not only worked in almost all the departments of this movie but also in post-production.
Amidst all this, he even made the short-film, ‘Shor’ which was part of the ‘Shorts’ movie. When Anurag watched this film he hugged Neeraj for five minutes. And as they say the rest is history. Neeraj then made ‘Masaan’.
On a concluding part when asked about his next venture he expressed that he is quite blank and is not thinking anything about it right now.

You can also read the interview with Neeraj Ghaywan when he was in Goa during IFFI 2016 here.


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