Harshvardhan Kulkarni’s directorial debut Hunterrr gets into the head of a dirty young man. Mandar Ponkshe, a company executive in his mid-thirties, is a “vaasu”: he is permanently sniffing out sexual adventure. Mandar has bedded several women, including his married neighbour Jyotsna. He is on the verge of tying the knot with Trupti, but he remains trapped in previous entanglements.

Mandar, played by Gulshan Devaiah, is one of the most unusual leading men in the movies in recent times. Kulkarni, who wrote the screenplay for Vinil Mathew’s romantic comedy Hasee Toh Phasee last year, has created a character that could either charm or repel viewers, depending on how they view his attempts to satiate his needs. Hunterrr, which opens on March 20, is already being described as a sex comedy on the basis of its trailer. The movie’s themes include both sex and comedy, and the results are partially successful.

Where Kulkarni is most successful is when he turns the spotlight on the kind of man who exists in our midst but remains acknowledged. He could be a father, a boyfriend, a brother or a husband. He could be the life of the party or its wallpaper. Whoever he is, he cannot be wished away, argues Kulkarni. Excerpts from a conversation in which the filmmaker explains his inspiration for Mandar’s character and shares his observations on the Indian middle-class male’s never-ending quest for sexual gratification.

Men on the hunt
Vaasu was the film’s original title. Vaasugiri was and remains a very popular term – it comes from “vaas lena” [to sniff]. It refers to guys who sit around at tea stalls or on kattas (low walls) their whole lives spotting women, mostly older women. It is like these fantasy novels you read in which there is a husband who works in some other place and you end up eyeing his wife and getting her. That is all these guys are into. It obsesses them, and when you are growing up, you look up to such guys from a low angle.

Such guys come across as safe bets, but you realise later on that they are something else. They come across as under-confident, but they are also the guys who achieve the things that you fantasise so much about so much when you are growing up. These men are not stalkers. They are not necessarily people you feel afraid of. They won’t look women directly in the eye, but they have different way of eying women.

There are too many of such men that I have grown up in school, in colonies, in college. I come from a boys’ school, where 90 per cent of the guys would be scared to talk to guys. The remaining 10% would end up telling girls, hi, can I be friends with you? They would instantly become heroes!

Then I went to engineering college [Maharashtra Institute of Technology in Pune], where there were fewer women. In my petrochemical engineering department, there were two women. It was very difficult approaching a girl and trying to talk to her or be her friend.

Of course, things change when you grow up , but some of these guys are still using such phrases as dating and under-dating, as in settling for whoever they get, and the litmus test, as in, is the woman giving you a vibe or not?

Let’s never talk about sex
The complication is that you are living in a society that is not very open. You can talk about things within your friend circle, but you can’t discuss your desires openly, your skill set, as it were. There is this dishonesty somewhere that you are hiding. Somewhere you have conned yourself that there is no right and wrong, you have your own theories and you follow them.

This state is a result of repression and social conditioning. It is also probably a kind of exploration. Of course, this is waning among young people today.

There are too many things that made me feel that I should make a film like Hunterrr, which begins in the nineties. There were these outstanding sex surveys in magazines like India Today and Outlook. There was the uproar when the Tamil actress Khushboo made a statement that there was nothing wrong with live-in relationships. There were the judgmental public debates about morality.

Jyotsna [played by Sai Tamhankar] is a real character from my life – I am the old man who is her neighbour and spies on her and Mandar. This woman is still with her husband despite having had extra-marital relationships, so what was that all about? The middle class that is the most morally correct has a different set of rules when it comes to their own lives.

Even after getting married, do we really talk about sex openly? If the magazines did their sex surveys today, the answer would still be that we don’t communicate easily about sex.

People have reacted to Hunterrr’s trailer as though it is a sex comedy like Grand Masti or Kyaa Kool Hain Hum. It’s not a sex comedy or a bold picture. I like to think of the film as a sugar-coated coming of age film.

The film is anecdotal, it has plot points and a character sketch, but I was aiming for a novelistic structure, which you can shut and read later. The idea, just like in Hasee Toh Phasee, was to create characters that you could possibly judge, but you should at least empathise with. If you met a character like Mandar, you might want to keep your distance from him, but what if he was your childhood friend? Audiences should know the character so well that they can at least relate to him and after that, they are free to judge. Otherwise, everything is black and white, a stereotype – all vaasus are bad. But this would be a pointless exercise.

Under the influence
I was mostly fed on popular cinema. I started watching films alone when I was in the sixth standard. I watched everything expect the A-rated movies, because I was too probably scared. But there were these adult films on television on Friday nights that my father and brother allowed me to watch. Many of them were actually arthouse films, and some were beautifully shot and looked distinctly different from commercial cinema.

What also encouraged me to become a filmmaker was that at some point, the Doordarshan television channel showed Indian classics. I watched the films of Sohrab Modi, Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt and Chetan Anand every day. It was like a film festival.

Hunterrr’s journey started really long ago. When I started thinking about it, I was scared that I was going to be writing a porn film. But even after I graduated from the Film and Television Institute of India in 1997, the idea kept coming back to me.

I made my father, GV Kulkarni, who is a Kannada writer and a poet, read the script. I shared my fears with him. He started recounting anecdotes from his own youth, and started talking about his friends and my uncle. I said, ugh, stop right now, because I am going to started looking at them differently.

My father told me that it was always going to be tough, so I shouldn’t be scared of saying what I wanted to say. I was worried about my housing society, whether the Parent-Teacher Association would let me back in. I got over these fears when my father told me that he didn’t have a problem with the script.

Finding Mandar Ponkshe
Gulshan Devaiah made the role human. When I wrote the film, I never thought of the casting. Even for Hasee Toh Phasee, the characters were based on people I have lived with and been friends with. I knew I was always looking for a face similar to the guys I had grown up with.

I was looking to cast someone like Amol Palekar – the guy who is not attractive, who is nondescript and doesn’t stand out, the type you see standing in a queue for a bus. Gulshan Devaiah is actually tall and good-looking in real life. But I thought he was an interesting character. I had first seen him in Sunil Shanbag’s play S*x M*rality and Cens*rship. When he read the script, I hadn’t told him about the Amol Palekar thing. He didn’t tell me whether he liked it or not, but asked if he could play the role like Palekar. He was the only guy who got it.

Trupti [played by Radhika Apte] was the most difficult character, since the others were taken somewhat from real-life experiences. Her whole track was imaginary ‒ this is what I wanted it to be. That’s probably why it is so idealised.

Many of these guys I observed got into arranged marriages. Most of them never ended up meeting women. When you look at women as sexual objects and you can’t have friendships, an arranged marriage becomes the only way out.

My friends will know which bits in the movie are taken from my life and theirs. Mandar is inspired by too many vaasus.

Harshvardhan Kulkarni, courtesy Phantom Films