A conversation with Andhadhun director Sriram Raghavan about his diploma film, which explores the idea of news “coming alive” when an athlete featured on the front page of a newspaper falls for a model-pretty tennis player featured on the last page. He has to cross through various newspaper headline-hurdles to get to the girl.
‘The Eight Column Affair’ is one of the best illustrations of the race-against-time concept I’ve seen. Because a newspaper literally “expires” at the end of the day and a new edition takes its place. So our hero’s “race against time” becomes literal. I had no idea Shiv Subramaniam had acted in something so long ago. It was fun to see him as the athlete.
The last semester at FTII, we had to do our diploma films. We had to draw a lot, and it turned out I had to shoot first. I had to think of a story and screenplay in a month. I used to sit at the FTII library, reading. I came upon an interview where Wendy Toye — a dancer, stage and film director — spoke about her ambition of doing a stage musical set in a newspaper. I used to dabble in journalism a bit, and that set me off. The front-page photo and the last-page photo wanting to meet, and what happens in between…
What is that Georges Franju quote in the beginning? “It needs only a little imagination for our most habitual actions to become charged with a disquieting significance…”
I’d seen Franju’s movie Eyes Without a Face and loved it. I had read this quote in an interview . I thought it’s a nice, cool thing to put at the beginning of my film, and it also supported the crazy concept of ours. Those days I was just discovering French cinema and was completely enamoured by the French New Wave and all that.
What exactly were the New Wave influences?
I think it’s a ragtag kind of thing. Truffaut, Chabrol, Rohmer and Godard… We were watching the New Wave films 25 years later, but they were still so fresh and liberating in terms of how they used cinema grammar and told stories that didn’t conform to any set Hollywood pattern. While at the Institute, one was influenced by everything one saw. It was a whole lot of conscious and subconscious stuff. There is one sequence with Nana Patekar attacking the hero with a knife. I remember having seen Godard’s Bande à part and that’s got one of the crooks doing this same thing. So I thought this might be something cool.
The Nana Patekar stretch is brilliant. Until then, you have this very 80s kind of… synth kind of music, you know? The Louis Banks kind of music. And then, suddenly, you have this wonderful old-Hindi-cinema-style score swelling up.
Oh yeah, I love that BG! In fact, I told Bishwadeep Chatterjee, my sound recordist, that I wanted this type of score, with lots of instruments. We didn’t have the budget to do it ourselves. If I remember right, another batch mate, Anuj Mathur, got it from a Bombay studio. Today, it’s all available online but at that time, it wasn’t easy. It’s a typical Bollywood background score and perfectly fit my scene.
The film is in black-and-white. Is that simply because the newspaper is in black-and-white?
As students, we get the option of shooting in black-and-white or colour. For me, of course, because it was a newspaper, black-and-white was the only choice. Everything was limited. It was almost like ration! It’s a half-hour film, and we got about 12-15 shifts to shoot it. Our actors’ budget was something like 800 rupees. For props, about 400 rupees. It was all in hundreds, not even in thousands!
I didn’t give my professor a full script. It was more like a string of sequences interspersed with the lead character running to find the girl. There were more than 30-40 locations, and my professor said it’s impossible to pull off. Do something else. I said, “Look sir, I mean I’m not asking for more money, you know?” Finally we pulled it off because I had a fantastic team. Not just my batchmates, even juniors came and worked on the film. There was a lot of goodwill somehow. Everybody contributed in their own way, not in terms of money but in terms of effort.
There’s this war sequence that would have been impossible to do. My production girl Sophie was an editing junior and had worked with Prahlad Kakkar on ads. She was highly resourceful. She fixed a meeting with an Army top cat in Pune and asked him how he could help us. It turned out that they were doing a war exercise for soldiers, and we could shoot that. We wanted our character to run helter-skelter in a few shots. They helped us and took care of our safety. We got a few things like that almost on a plate. Everyone knows the FTII in Pune so people are mostly helpful. It was quite a huge film at that time and quite difficult to pull off.
There’s a lot of 80s nostalgia. There’s a simple pan where, at a newspaper stand, I saw so many magazines I’d forgotten about, like Imprint, Sunday and Current…
Absolutely! And those days you couldn’t afford to buy everything, so you kind of bought one magazine and browsed through 2-3 others until the guy shooed you off.
The other major coup you managed for anybody who lived through the 80s is to get Shyamoli Varma, who was like the supermodel of the time.
She happened to be in Pune by chance. I said, “It’s only a couple of hours and we’ll shoot on Main street, very close to where you live…” She played along. Even the female lead, Rachel Reuben, was a big model. I told her the story. She said: “I’ve never played tennis. Why don’t you make me the swimming champ? I’m very good at swimming!” And like a fool I was like, “No, no, I should not change my script.” I said, “No, you have to play tennis,” and she did that very badly. I should’ve made her a swimming champ.
Nana Patekar was beginning to make himself felt as an actor. How did you nab him? Another big name in the film is Rajkumar Hirani (who’s the editor)…
Hirani is my batch mate. We were a unit. Nana Patekar happened because Shiv was writing Parinda, which had Nana in it. He had come to Pune for some function and Shiv happened to be in Pune with us, so he said let’s go and meet him. I met him and he asked us to come to Bombay. He said, “I’ll give you two hours in the morning before I go for my shoot.” So we went to Bombay and shot that scene in his building.
I love the touch where the Shiv character always holds on to that cup he’s won, whatever the situation.
The character was holding that cup because that’s his thing. He’d won it, and it was just pride that he would not let go of it. This film was my first lesson in how to deal with actors. I remember one scene had complicated night lighting. It went on for hours. We had to rehearse a vehicle to come and stop at a point. And Shiv was waiting. And then once everything was ready, I turned to him and said, “We are ready. Just run from this point to that point.” He said “Is this how you deal with actors?” He was very upset. I said I’m so sorry, because I was treating the actor like a prop.
After you finished shooting, what was your first takeaway? Because before this, your knowledge was all theoretical, right? What were the things you realised you had to work on?
We had a great time doing it, but we had no idea of what a shoot entails. Eventually, the film was sort of ready and though we were very happy with it, we were not sure how people would react. Saeed Mirza was our external examiner. He saw the film, and when he came out, he had a nice big smile, and showed me two thumbs up. I was happy because before joining the FTII, I had asked him if it would be worth it. And then, the film won the National Award for Best Short Fiction Film. It was the first film to win that award, as the category had been instituted just that year. At that time, I had no idea the National Award was such a big thing.
When was the last time you looked at ‘The Eight Column Affair’?
Palador brought out DVDs with classic foreign films, and they usually attached an award-winning short with it. My film was on two DVDS, with Breathless and a Wong Kar-wai film. I was in great company with all these great filmmakers. I saw it then.
I think your film belongs there, simply because it’s so unique. It’s nothing like the short films of the time. It’s action-packed. It takes a very simple concept and then just runs with it, literally!
I used to watch all the FTII diploma films made earlier, and barring a few, I found most of them extremely slow-paced and often boring. So I wanted to do something that’s fast-paced and fun. And at that time, apparently, this was the fastest movie, with more than 400 cuts, which was a record of sorts – though it’s probably slow by today’s standards. People have asked me why I didn’t expand it to a feature. I did give it some thought but didn’t come up with any fantastic way to do it. But yes, it can be exciting. Unfortunately newspapers have also changed a lot. I mean, now we have three pages of ads and half a page in the beginning. It won’t be so easy.