Made in Bollywood
Director of "Navins of Bollywood", Naren Mojidra shares his thoughts about working with Navin.
Interviewer: Elka Sinha
How did you get to know Navin and direct Navins of Bollywood?
Navin came to Bombay looking to make an audio-visual installation work. He met quite a few filmmakers but none of them could understand what he was looking for. Most thought he was trying to make a music video to promote himself! When he met me, he told me clearly this was a work meant to be shown in an art gallery, in conjunction with his Navin Party project. I took it as a challenge — it was an abstract concept which had to be translated to a visual form using a typical Bollywood format. This was something I wouldn’t come across everyday working in this industry.
How much faith did you have in this project?
I knew right from the beginning that this film was not going to be exhibited in the conventional way. There weren’t going to be audiences watching this film in cinema halls or even on television. The audience would be gallery visitors who may or may not give their full attention to the work. I knew the approach had to be different. So we decided to make a loop of the film playing repeatedly. The audience would be enthralled by the novelty of it the first time round, try to piece together what is going on the second time round and finally get the complete “message” in the third viewing. I made sure the film had what we here call “repeat value.”
But the film is quite complicated—lots of action, twists in the tale, music and dances… what genre of film is it? Certainly not a music video, is it?
No, I told him early on that so much couldn’t be packed into a single-song music video. In fact, when I narrated the story to the music director he was thoroughly confused! Rahul Seth, the lyrics writer, first had to write the lyrics to express different emotions, situations, and events in the film. Then I asked the music director to compose pieces depending on the situation. We ended up with the five songs which you hear in the film. Navin calls it a “musical short film,” and I totally agree. It’s a film whose story is told through music and songs.
Ok, one can discern a narrative—but why is it juxtaposed with shots of a typical Bollywood billboard painting? Who is this “Navin” painter?
I wanted to show Navin at work. He is after all a painter, an artist. So right at the beginning we thought of incorporating this process in the film. Navin wanted the “painting” to have a Bollywood theme. And what better model than our traditional Bollywood film poster - those ubiquitous billboards once found all over the city until new technology did them in. This art form has completely died out in the cities. We were lucky to get in touch with one of the few remaining senior painters. He is featured as the painter “Navin” in the film. In a way this became the publicity poster for the film. The only difference being that the painting itself was actually featured in the film. The documentary clips of the making of this painting in the studio worked well throughout the film as transition shots between sequences. This is a very interesting element, in that I feel there is a connection with Navin’s earlier works. The billboard is always displayed in every exhibition, no matter how distant. It becomes a film installation rather than merely a film poster.
Whose idea was it to make Navin Rawanchaikul feature in his own film?
It was Navin’s idea right from the beginning to act in the film. He has featured himself in his comic books and other media, so this was not going to be any different.
Was it difficult to direct him?
Not at all. Navin was a delight to work with. He had a clear idea of what the film was about and was also present in the scriptwriting process. He was thoroughly prepared. But once he stepped in front of the camera, I took the reins. I asked him if he trusted me completely. From then on it was a matter of smooth execution. I told him to relax and be himself. He turned out to be an excellent performer because he understood the technique and grasped his cues immediately. That was very helpful because I could then concentrate on the other aspects of the production.
How was the script developed?
Navin and I and Tyler, our associate producer and co-scriptwriter, collaborated closely on the script. Navin’s only stipulation was that there should be a linear story for easy accessibility by an international audience. We went about creating deliberate cliché Bollywood characters and situations to go with the theme. We timed the scenes and it all came to a healthy 10 minute running time.
Your shooting approach was gorilla style — hidden cameras, no permits, rushing about from one Bombay location to the next.
I believe in realistic storytelling, which means real people and settings. In order to catch that natural spontaneity, one has to make sure the subject is not aware of a camera. A hidden camera - in some places literally a small hole in the bag - was ideal. It was like watching “candid camera” on television. Also an audience connects better with reality than fantasy. You get quicker audience empathy this way. With fantasy you always tend to alienate them. Finally, we were working on a tight budget, so normally you need to constantly improvise within your environment. I think it’s a great experiment in realism.
In the great Alfred Hitchcock tradition, you appeared in a cameo. Any reason behind that choice?
Well, we were on a small budget so we couldn’t afford a good actor to play the Mahaprabhu character! (laughs) Actually we couldn’t find the appropriate actor and so I took a screen test and passed! I enjoyed playing that bit especially since I got to wear a green dhoti instead of the white and saffron ones normally worn by our spiritual gurus. It was my “subversive” dig at the establishment, much like this entire film project was for Navin.
So you and Navin agreed on everything - creatively and even politically! Perfect collaboration!
Oh, Navin and I did have minor disagreements during the shoot. I remember one had to do with the costumes. But I would say 90% of the time we were on the same track. I would always ask him if he had faith in what I was doing. That would mellow him down! (laugh)
Great, finally tell me what kind of feedback you have had so far.
I haven’t been able to go to the places Navin has been exhibiting his work. But he says people have really enjoyed the film. When I showed it to some people here in India, the reaction was mostly to the effect that things move far too quickly for them to grasp what is happening. Others have also said too much is crammed into a span of 10 minutes. But I actually feel that is the film’s charm as you would want to watch it again after the first time in order to decipher the whole story.
(Published in Navin’s Sala)