‘Distributors only want a star’

Director Ashvin Kumar talks about his latest thriller 'The Forest'
Being nominated for an Oscar is like being knighted. Oscar-nominated becomes a courteous prefix to one’s name. So when Ashvin Kumar was nominated for one in 2005 for his film ‘Little Terrorist’, he was on a different high. Anyone would be. But he went through a humbling experience when he completed his very next film- a man-eater based thriller called ‘The Forest’. While the film was shot with an international crew, it had an Indian setting. But for some reason he didn’t find a buyer for 5 years. Now that the film is finally releasing, the director is relieved and claims to have learnt a lot in the period that he waited for the film to reach the screens. He admits that he had, at several points, come to believe that the film would never release. He talks to Kunal Guha about the ideology behind his craft and why Indian distributors, despite the evolution of Indian cinema, continue to evaluate films through a rigid metric and fail to see a film for its true merit.
A still from 'The Forest'
What was the core idea behind making ‘The Forest’?
I have always been traveling to the many forests in India right from when I was as a kid and my parents always wanted me to see animals in their natural habitat. So when I thought about making a thriller, it seemed like the ideal setting. Then I wanted to explore man’s interference with nature and how nature fights back.

Do you personally enjoy thrillers or movies that bring one to the edge of the seat?
I can’t watch horror films, they scare me a lot. But I do enjoy thrillers. My favourites would be all the Alfred Hitchcock classics and among recent films- ‘Panic Room’ was one that was a pure thriller. Then I love thrillers based on human drama like ‘Knife in the Water’ and there are so many of them.
A still from the film 'The Forest'
While there isn’t a formula to make a perfect thriller, what are the elements that need to go into one?
There’s only one element that applies to all thrillers. The audience must want to ask that one question and if they don’t ask that one basic question then you’ve failed as a filmmaker. The audience must want to ask from moment to moment, second to second, scene to scene- what’s going to happen next. The job of the filmmaker is to keep the audience engaged and make them ask that question constantly.

Which are your favourite thrillers based on man-eaters?

I don’t know many to say that I like them. I am not saying this because I’ve made this film. But I am saying that because I don’t think any film has successfully translated the phenomenon of a man-eater on the big screen. Many documentaries have done it but not films. My film ensures that it keeps you at the edge of your seat.
A still from the film 'The Forest'
Do you think any myths about filmmaking were shattered while working on this project?
The very fact that my film didn’t release for five years completely changed how I looked at films and what I wanted to do in filmmaking. For the first film I made, I was nominated for an Oscar and that’s a huge high. And then I got to make a film of this scale which is ambitious to begin with. My career had just taken off and when I got to know that no one in Bombay wanted to release it for several years, I had to disassociate myself with the film completely and resign myself to the fact that it may never release. I had to do that to move on. I had to tell myself that all the hard work and money and pain and love that had been put into it had to go and that was the most painful thing to reconcile with.

Did you ever consider going back to the film and trying to figure out a different pitch to sell it?
Oh, we did all that. What you’re going to see in cinemas now is a much re-edited version. We dubbed it in Hindi and did quite a bit of other things. All that introspection about ‘I’m never going to cut anything’ and then looking at it again and saying, ‘let me re-cut it to make it more effective’.
Ashvin Kumar on the sets of his thriller 'The Forest'
Were there parts that you loved that had to go?
I think what happened was, when I came back to it, it was very obvious what had to go. I am an editor myself and have edited all my films except one and I am very ruthless with my material. There were parts that we spent a lot of time filming but that doesn’t mean that it has to be in the film. What is going to be in the film is what is going to move the story forward. Again, coming back to the audience wanting to ask ‘what’s going to happen next’ is essential. If the audience begins to look around and check their blackberries, then you’ve lost them. So you need to cut out all that and keep the scenes that you need to move the story forward. Actually, this is a very good lesson in writing screenplays as well. Now, in hindsight, I am able to write screenplays which are far leaner, much less obvious, visual and have much more to do with the audience’s ability to join the dots rather than manually feed them with information. There are only a few moments which are needed. And the choice of those moments is very particular as you need to predict what the audience wants to see about a particular character.
A still from the film 'The Forest'

What were the challenges in working with your film’s lead star- the man-eater?
We didn’t work with a real man-eater. We did work with two leopards who were trained. We shot their parts in Thailand and when we were filming, Animal Planet did two episodes about the experience of shooting with leopards and they did capture most of our obvious challenges. The first thing that one notices is that leopards do pretty much whatever they want to do and you have to arrange your shots at the spur of the moment. We had already filmed a lot of shots in India and we had to get the leopard to match what we had shot. But the leopard’s movements were unpredictable, it was a big challenge to structure the reverse shots with the leopard and to make them look convincing when you merge them. So that happened with a lot of planning and homework. I had to give a lot of allowance when I was writing the script and composing my shots for the leopard. If he’s on the roof and I wanted him to walk down a certain angle, if he didn’t do that and walked down another angle, I would still have to work around it. I had to give a large benefit of doubt to the leopard. We also had other production challenges like we were shooting in really low temperatures and certain cast members were required to be soaked in a liquid that we used to show blood in the film, throughout the day. So it was quite difficult for them to brave that. Then obviously I had to achieve my vision within several restrictions since I didn’t have a huge budget which became a big challenge as well.
Director Ashvin Kumar on the sets of his film 'The Forest'

So the leopard was like a co-writer in the film?
Yes. And then he did things that I wanted to include. There are times when animals do something really wonderful and then you wonder if you can use it and how can you use it. He was improvising and I had to write my screenplay around him- which is exactly what you do in a documentary film, by the way.

Since you have a background in documentaries as well, what are the joys and challenges of making fiction, compared to non-fiction films?
In a documentary film, you have a rough idea of what you want and you go out there and shoot ‘reality’ and then you string it to a story which is a particular story to you. You sometimes create situations in which the characters can draw certain things out of. But other than that you cannot influence too much as you want the reality. Your role then becomes just being in the right position with your camera in the right angle to shoot when things happen in front of the camera. In feature films, you sit down and write the story and then you go out to find locations and then shoot. I can’t write a script but I can write a rough scenario and then see how it goes. So my next challenge to come out of my comfort zone is to write movies which are not tightly scripted so that we can create lots of scope of improvisation.

Based on your experience of trying to distribute this film for around 5 years, what are the elements that distributors in India are skeptical about what are the things that they look for in a project?
We all know this. Distributors want stars. The film has a star, the film gets distributed. My film neither has star nor does it have songs, nor is it made in Hindi (even though we’ve dubbed it now). This is the standard story in India. Today what happens is that distributors don’t have the ability to look at a movie and back it and say that- this will really work. They look at a movie and say, ‘Isme na star hain, na gaane hai’ so it’s an ‘off-beat’ film’. Any film that doesn’t fall into those strict parameters becomes an offbeat film. And while such films have worked well in recent times for their low budget and their strong story content,  the industry continues to go for what is popular rather than for something that is content-driven. The other problem is that even if they bring in a film which is ‘content-driven’ they still can’t look at it in a positive way. The audience wants something fresh and new every time but the distributor wants something that is old and tried and tested and that is the biggest problem. They want to do something that has done very well in the past but then the audience has already seen that and they don’t want to see the same thing again. And the distributors are willing to try something new only if there’s a star involved. “Star hain toh kuch naya bhi try karenge toh chal jayega!’

Since you have stubbornly retained your mantra for filmmaking even while braving hardships, what does filmmaking mean to you today?
It’s about putting yourself out there. It’s about challenging yourself. For me, filmmaking is a very different pursuit. It’s about living with the fear of falling flat on your face. It’s about going ahead and doing it and then coming out and saying, ‘Yeah man, I did that and even if it didn’t work, you should be able to say that you did it’.

You might also like:
Nandana in thriller

The Forest finally makes it

SRK tags Jaffrey

Check out the trailer of Ashvin Kumar’s ‘The Forest’