Art Works Blog

First Person with filmmaker Vikramaditya Motwane

Washington, DC

Vikramaditya Motwane. Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Indian filmmaker Vikramaditya Motwane is one of ten directors participating in Film Forward, a partnership project of the Sundance Institute and the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. The project presents outstanding narrative and documentary films to audiences, many of them underserved, in the U.S. and abroad. Through Film Forward, moviegoers have connected with the filmmakers themselves during post-film talkbacks, roundtables, and workshops in places as diverse as Wushen, China, Nashville, Tennessee, and the Chippewa Reservation in Northern Michigan. We spoke with Motwane when he was in Washington, DC, in May with his fellow filmmakers for a one-day, multi-venue screening of all 10 of the participating films. Here’s his first-person account of training to be a filmmaker, and how it felt to make his first feature film, Udaan.

In India what an assistant director would do is that you’d be with the director from the very beginning of the film. You’d be involved with the writing process, you’d be involved with the pre-production process, with music sittings, costume design, sittings with the art director, and then you’d be there through the entire shooting, you’d be there through all of the post production, all the way into the lab.

And so I got to work with a director, Sanjay Bhansali, who is one of the biggest directors in the industry in Bombay right now, and I got to work with him very closely on his two films. The first time around it was like going to film school. It’s two and a half years at a very low salary. You work 16 hours a day, seven days a week for two and a half years. It’s very very intense work. That was like the best possible film school that I could go to, and I got paid for it.

And that film was actually very interesting because we shot that film on 35mm, and we actually edited the film on a Steenbeck…which is a flatbed editing machine you use with film. Today everybody uses either the Avid or Final Cut Pro where you shoot a negative, you scan the negative, and then you take it to the [editing software], and then you bring it back to film afterwards. The Steenbeck is when you actually take all your negatives and you print it and then you splice it together and you have an entire film, a physical film that you have to cut and splice and tape and all those things. It’s great for understanding the technicality of film, of what exactly 24 frames a second is, what exactly a reel of film is, how it comes together. Because I got to work with [Bhansali] so closely I ended up seeing a lot of filmmaking, not just the fact of how a film is shot, but [the] work goes into a film right in the beginning, how much detail goes in. And Sanjay Bhansali is famous for his attention to detail and his preparation every single time he makes a film.

When I made my own film, it was daunting the first time around, but I guess you have to just go with your instinct and fight for what you think is right. I realize the big baptism for me as a director was understanding that sometimes you can’t always be the good guy when you’re shooting a film, that sometimes you have to be the bad guy. Sometimes you have to manipulate people to do certain things that you wouldn’t normally do the first time around. It makes you feel a little bit dirty but you realize—and if the people realize that you’re doing it for a certain reason—then it’s okay, it’s forgiven. So I found that I had to sometimes sort of really lay actors one against the other, kind of tell one guy to say his line early or interrupt somebody else. Or I had to have Ronit who plays the father [in Udaan] slap Rohan [the character’s son]one line early so that I would actually get a genuine reaction. Sometimes you just have to really dig deep and sometimes you don’t have good days. Sometimes the day is just going completely wrong where nothing seems to be working.

I got to make exactly the film I wanted to make. I had no interference from any producer. So this is the one film maybe where I can stay as pure. I mean I hope I’m not too indulgent. I think there’s a difference between being purist and being indulgent. I’ve kept the film at the pace that I wanted to, and it’s fantastic that I had no pressure to actually do anything I didn’t want to.

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