[A version of this profile appeared in the Sunday Business Standard. Earlier posts on The Hunt here, here and here]
When I first see him, Anup Kurian is standing on a large rock near a cliff-edge, eyes red from lack of sleep, waiting for the sun to cast just the right shadow. Possibly he isn’t in the mood for smart-aleck quips, but this is not an opportunity to pass up. “Dr Livingstone, I presume,” I say, holding out my hand – it’s been a long climb up a desolate mountain road near Kurian’s family house in Vagamon, Kerala, and there’s something surreal about stumbling out of foliage at 5.30 in the morning to find a film crew shooting here, of all places.
There are two reasons why “The Hunt” – the working title for Kurian’s second feature as a writer-director – is being filmed entirely on what is, for him, home ground. The first is that Vagamon is a beautiful, pristine location, perfectly suited to the character-driven script about a middle-aged recluse growing potent marijuana in a forest retreat. The second is that “The Hunt” is being made on a budget of only around Rs 40 lakh, much lower than even non-mainstream Bollywood movies.
That’s still a step up from Kurian’s first feature Manasarovar, which cost Rs 11 lakh to make in 2004, got good notices at the London Film Festival but then suffered from poor distribution and never really found an audience. “We lost a lot of money while releasing that movie,” says Kurian, “One thing they don’t teach you in film school is distribution – you learn it the hard way!” This time around he has more reason for optimism; with Naseeruddin Shah playing the lead role, “The Hunt” is assured of basic visibility.
Kurian has been obsessed with movies and cameras for as long as he can remember – he moonlighted as a wedding photographer during his school and college days and later did a production course at the Films and Television Institute of India (FTII) – but he isn’t what you’d call a “full-time” director. After FTII, he spent a few years working in San Francisco as a software programmer, and simultaneously began writing scripts. (“You need logic to do coding, though it’s a bit different from the logic you need to write a screenplay,” he jokes.) His IT projects have helped fund his movie-making: “I like to produce my own films.”
In one sense, making a low-budget film is easier in the Internet age. Kurian’s unit - most of whom worked on Manasarovar too - live and work in places as far-flung as Kottayam, Mumbai and the US, but this didn’t matter, for most of the early brainstorming was done online, on Skype, Google Talk and email. “Our pre-production communication costs were close to zero,” he says, “There was no need for face-to-face meetings, everyone was working simultaneously on their own projects in the comfort of their homes or offices, and we all got together only when the film actually had to roll. I wouldn’t have been able to make a movie on this scale 15 years ago.”
The actual shooting is trickier. Costs have to be carefully accounted for each day (getting 40 cans of film from Kodak for a marked-down price of Rs 5,000 each was a minor triumph), little compromises are made, tempers tend to fray easily. Artificial lights aren’t available for the last few days of shooting, which means keeping fingers crossed that the clouds stay away. Other hitches flow from shooting in a small, homely location where it becomes difficult to separate the personal from the professional. Many people in the area know Kurian and his family well, and they expect to be involved with the film. A real-life local policeman, who has been requested to bring along his jeep for a short scene in Vagamon town, is under the impression that he will get to play a small role as well – to act with Naseeruddin Shah! – and no doubt he’s spread the news among his friends and relatives. So when he sees an actor in a policeman’s costume he gets miffed, turns his jeep around and departs. Result: shot scrapped altogether. To put it mildly, this isn’t the sort of thing that could happen on a Karan Johar production.
A situation like this threatens to mess up a tight schedule: the crew is already on location and every shift is precious. But just as Kurian is about to announce packup, he gets a call from Vipin Sharma, who is playing a small part in the film. Sharma is in a jeep on his way up to the guesthouse in Vagamon – his first scene is being shot the next day – so Kurian does some last-minute rescheduling and tells him to come directly to the town area. When he arrives, the actor is hustled into his costume and the unit manages to take a brief but important shot that had originally been scheduled for another day. Such are the exigencies of a low-budget shoot.
It’s a wonder that Kurian manages to keep a smile on his face through most of this, but then, as he puts it, “I have to be the cool and composed guy on the set. If I lose it, nothing will get done.” He even manages to say humorous things in the tone of a Zen master. “I have a theory,” he says, straight-facedly, pausing for effect, “that any good film needs an elephant in it. You need to fill the screen to hold the viewer’s attention, and what better than an elephant. Unless, of course, you have Mohan Lal!” But even elephants are costly beasts, and the one being used for a single scene in “The Hunt” will set the film back by Rs 10,000 a day.
However, there are areas where he doesn’t brook compromises. When the script was being finalised, some of his advisers suggested alterations to make characters’ motivations more strongly defined and to give the story a fixed arc – even a twist near the end. But Kurian stuck to his guns. “I’m allergic to plots,” he says nonchalantly, and you understand what he means when you watch Manasarovar, a film that isn’t concerned so much with the resolution of a narrative as with mood, character development and creating a sense of unknowable connections between different types of people. “The moment someone tells me that the script should follow a tried-and-tested template, I lose interest.”
Kurian has spent many happy years in Vagamon, going back to his childhood, and when he tells me that he wanted to “write a story that would encompass all of this locale – the cave, the rocks, the stream – because Vagamon has been in my consciousness for 25 years”, I picture him taking long walks in the area around his house, pen and paper in hand, stopping every now and again to make notes for the script: wouldn’t this be a nice spot to shoot a quiet scene between Colonel and his dog? Perhaps the hitman could use that boulder for a hiding place?
This is an idyllic image, but Kurian is equally driven by a practical desire to show that a genuinely small movie can work. “A lot of goodwill has gone into this film,” he says, “Sacrifices were made, most of the cast and crew worked on something like pro-bono terms in return for a share of whatever profit the film may make. So when a film like this does well, it sets an example. Word gets around that small, independent producers can be trusted, and more people become willing to risk doing such films.”
We’re interrupted by the DOP shouting “Clear the field!” Gathering his lungi around him, Kurian bends down to remove large pieces of paper and polythene bags from the ground. Then he moves out of the “field” himself, yells “Action!” and the camera rolls.