As Unda (Bullets), a human drama set in India’s red corridor, directed by Khalid Rahman and starring Mammootty, is set to become one of the biggest critical and commercial successes of 2019, screenwriter Harshad talks to Silverscreen.in about the making of the film, its political undertone and his career as an indie filmmaker.
Five years ago, Harshad and his friends made a feature film, Dayom 12, an indie thriller with a cast comprising of lesser-known actors. The film, unsurprisingly, didn’t make it to many mainstream screening centres, and had to settle for niche venues organised by various cinephiles’ collectives and Kochi Muziris Biennale. Looking back at that experience, Harshad says, without the slightest bitterness in his voice, “I don’t blame anyone or the system. In a weekend when five movies release in theatres, people will naturally prefer to watch films of actors they know of. That is how public mindsets work. My film didn’t have anything that would draw an average viewer into the theatre.”
The 45 year old artist-writer from Kozhikode started making movies as early as 2008. He made a short film, Peace Process, shot completely on a handi-cam, about a cat that becomes a stand-in for the country’s alarming political scenario. In 2010, he made Yellow Glass, yet another short film with a strong political subtext, which won an award at the 4th National Short Film Festival, and the All Indian Short Film and Documentary Festival, Thiruvananthapuram.
Although his films are characterized by a definite unconventional narrative style, Harshad says it’s not cinema that drives him, but ideas. “I see cinema as a medium for my thoughts. I always wanted to do a mainstream film, that communicates with the masses. I was never interested in making an offbeat arthouse film. My short films came out at a time when social media wasn’t as popular as it is now, yet the films got noticed by the public. I have been a part of the mainstream Malayalam film industry from then.”
Muhsin Parari, the director-writer behind films such as KL10-Pathu, Sudani From Nigeria and Virus (co-screenwriter), wrote the dialogues of his Dayom 12. Parari and Zakhariya (director of Sudani From Nigeria) were among the many film enthusiasts who gathered regularly in a house in Kozhikode, now known as Kanakalaya Bungalow, rented out by Harshad and his friend Rajesh Ravi four years ago. The films – short films, music videos like Native Bappa, and feature films –that the house’s inmates have produced so far, have been subtly breaking the mould of Malayalam mainstream cinema’s Islamophobia and its rampant misrepresentation of marginal communities, while winning hearts at the box-office.
When Unda is running successfully at all releasing centres and garnering highly positive critical reviews, Harshad remembers the time he struggled to make his voice heard. When I ask him of his next projects, he smiles, “I am on a break now, thoroughly enjoying every moment of this success. I deserve this.”
Khalid Rahman, the director of Unda, found the idea for the plot of the film in a two-column news item from 2014, about a bunch of policemen from Kerala on election duty in Chhattisgarh, an area where Maoist activity was rampant. The cops, the report said, couldn’t get out of their camp since they weren’t allotted enough ammunition. Rahman found the photograph along with the news report haunting – a bunch of cops crammed into a tiny room like sardines, sleeping on the floor holding their rifles close to their chest. In 2016, Harshad joined Rahman in fleshing out the thread and writing the screenplay.
The duo always knew that they needed Mammootty to lead the film. “We knew a film of this scale, spread on a big canvas, couldn’t happen without a star like Mammootty headlining it. There were major risks involved in it,” says Harshad. In 2018, he accompanied Rahman to narrate the story to the superstar. Harshad says they were almost sure that he would agree to join the film. “At that time, filmmaker-producer Anwar Rasheed was involved in the project, as a facilitator and a co-producer. Later, when he felt his own project, Trance, was getting extended, he left our project amicably.” The meeting with Mammootty went smoother than they had imagined. The actor, after listening to the script, said it was a novel subject. In no time, he was in.
The actor was excited to play the role, says Harshad. “On the sets of the film in Chhattisgarh, he was totally Mani sir (his character). That scene where he distributes guavas among the cadre, sitting on the floor of the room – that used to happen on the set everyday. He would buy fruits and other things and distribute it on the set. When he talked, guys would gather around him and listen, like how the junior cops huddle around Mani sir when he narrates stories from the past.”
The film, although set in the country’s red corridor, doesn’t detail the insurgency in the narrative. “The film isn’t about Maoists, but about a group of policemen who are neglected by the system they are a part of. We had to address the subject of insurgency a little because it was part of the setting. More than that, we wanted to talk about the minority community who live around the booth, the chief location of the film, who are caught in this war for no fault of theirs. We created the character Biju Kumar (a cop from Adivasi community) to connect Kerala to Chhattisgarh. The audience in Kerala are able to understand the life of Kunal Chand because they see him through Biju Kumar.”
Before the shoot began, Harshad, Rahman and a small crew travelled to Bastar, to incorporate the details of the space into the screenplay. The armed forces they met there were absolutely welcoming. “They wanted to project this region as tourist-friendly. The officers told us about Chitrakote Falls, a famous waterfalls in the region, and asked us to shoot a song sequence there. They didn’t know what our film was about. One of the officers asked us what the story was. When he told him, he was totally cool about it,” says Harshad. “We wanted to see the camp, to know how it functions. They took us to Asia’s largest camp, showed us the activities in detail – how they use mines and arms.. We used these information in the making of the film.”
Their line manager, Kirendra Yadav, who is a local, helped them find actors from the village. The tribal people in the film, who come to the camp to fetch water, are from the region’s Gond community. Yadav had also worked in Newton, the shooting of which had packed up just a few days before Unda team landed in Bastar.
Rahman was certain that he needed the film’s background score to resemble the region’s indigenous music. A year before the shooting began, they went to Gondegaon with composer Prashant Pillai’s team. They recorded sounds, music, lullabies and instrumental sounds from the villages. Children, youngsters and old men and women sang for them, and played their community’s traditional music instruments.
Although Mani sir is the film’s protagonist, a closer look of the film would reveal that the film proceeds through the perspective of Biju Kumar, a sub-character played by Lukman who was the lead in Dayom 12. The most intense moment in the film is when Biju delivers a gentle, yet searing monologue about passive and aggressive casteism he and his people quietly fight everyday.
I ask Harshad about the absence of fury in this scene. “Biju is an introvert. He reacts violently to Unni (his casteist colleague) in the preceding scene because he cannot take it anymore. On the same day, they come face to face with death, when a mine explodes. On the next day, it is the elections. They all are awaiting an armed attack by the insurgents. Death is hanging in the air, and nothing matters at that point. We were, indeed, confused about how to convey Biju’s state of mind. We didn’t want him to be apologetic. I guess when he says, “I want to be myself, not someone you want me to be”, that is a powerful assertion. He says that in a mild tone, but there is a fire underneath that you can’t ignore.”
The absurd comedy the film culminates in has divided a section of the audience. But Harshad says the team was never once confused about how to end the film. “We wanted to end the film in a fight sequence. At the end, the promised box of ammunition doesn’t arrive, and what follows is the film’s way of laughing at the system. See, we all know that this is how elections are held, especially in the northern belt of the country. Haven’t we seen many videos of fraudulent conducts at polling booths every election season? A policeman, after watching the film, texted me that our portrayal of elections were bang on. ‘Our duty was to stand guard while they did fake voting’, he told me,” says Harshad.
Unda helped Harshad learn the technicalities of filmmaking, and reaffirm his political beliefs. “At the end of the day, this film is about people like Kunal Chand. You come across them in every conflict zone, as the worst affected. You will find them in Kerala too. To set a film like this in Kerala is difficult, but not impossible. Unless the audience here find it relatable, they will not take it seriously.
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