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How Deepa Mehta made a film on the Delhi gang rape with nine actors and unlimited imagination

‘Anatomy of Violence’ uses footage from a preparatory workshop to revisits the lives of the six rapists and their families.

Deepa Mehta’s most recent film, based on the gang rape in Delhi in 2012, is nothing like her previous features, including the elements trilogy and Midnight’s Children. Anatomy of Violence is also nothing like documentaries about the crime, notably Leslee Udwin’s India’s Daughter. The 93-minute experiment attempts to understand the social and sexual milieu that lead to sex crimes through an unusual approach that is part acting workshop and part dramatisation. Drawing on improvisational sessions conducted by Mehta and Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry in Chandigarh and Delhi, Anatomy of Violence re-imagines the lives of the victim and the six rapists and their families. Mehta’s anger at the brutality of the crime does not blind her to the circumstances that produced the rapists – and many others like them. The male actors act out the brutalisation and dehumanisation that follow years of poverty, sexual abuse, familial violence, gender segregation, and the absence of male role models. Shot mostly with a hand-held camera, and featuring fearless performances from the actors, which include Vansh Bharadwaj and Seema Biswas, Anatomy of Violence makes for often harrowing but also unexpectedly moving viewing. Mehta reveals the process behind the making of one of the more unusual titles to be programmed by the Mumbai Film Festival (October 20-27).

Three years ago I got a call from Celine Rattray and Trudie Styler of Maven Pictures asking me to direct a film about the gang rape incident in Delhi. A film focused on the victim. Known for films that exhibited a strong social conscience, they wanted to produce it.

We talked about it for hours and they were intrigued by my idea about shifting the focus of the film from the victim to that of the rapists. I was in Delhi when this horrific incident took place and since then, I have been curious about what made or turned these men into brutal animals. Long and short, Hamilton/Mehta and Maven Pictures decided to get together informally on this project.

Back in Toronto, we hired Molly McGlynn to do research focused primarily on the six rapists and their families. The screenplay I decided (emulating Mike Leigh and Michael Winterbottom) would evolve out of an organic collaboration with a group of actors enacting the lives of the rapists up to the point where they lure the young girl into the bus. The context would be given to the actors and what would evolve from the improvised scenes would be recorded, transcribed and form the basis for a screenplay. The working title of the project was Looking for Fun – a reply attributed to one of the rapists when asked by the cops why the gang of six took a school bus to roam the city.

Play
‘Anatomy of Violence’.

At this point, I reached out to the eminent theatre director Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry, who works out of Chandigarh. Neelam is not only a good friend but has also facilitated and lead a number of workshops for four of my films. Essentially these workshops took the script of the film and prepped the actors to explore the characters they were going to be playing.

For Looking for Fun, I needed more than a prep workshop. I wanted a collaborator who would also help identify the actors playing not only the rapists but also other characters in supporting roles. Neelam was a perfect for my partner in crime role. Eclectic, adventurous and experienced in the milieu I wanted to explore. With a bit of luck, a workshop for a Bombay film she was committed to fell through, and her next theatrical production did not begin for over a month, so we were on.

Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry.
Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry.

As this exercise was supposed to result in a screenplay that would be filmed at a later date with other mainstream character actors, what we needed were intelligent, imaginative and fearless trained actors who were willing to be a part of the exercise. Neelam put forth names of her long term theatre actors and students and also those affiliated with her Theatre Group, The Company. We did an informal casting call and chose the six guys who would be the main characters and a few other students and members of her troupe. It made sense to conduct the “develop the screenplay” workshop in Chandigarh, where Neelam is based and has a home theatre behind her home.

I flew to Chandigarh with Maithili and Tia Bhatia from Toronto. Maithili, who had graduated from film school in Toronto, was adept at using a Canon DSLR. Her job was to record the action that unfolded before us using a wide lens on a tripod and then transcribe the action into words with the help of Neelam’s long-term actress, Raman. Tia was a young actor who had just finished a stint at the Lee Strasburg Institute in New York and wanted to be a part of this collaborative improvisational process.

Neelam and I talked to the nine actors present and gave them the context and the breakdown of the scenes. Six guys, loosely based on the real rapists, six lives more or less imagined.

Neelam was her usual fantastic self and we formulated the scenes we wanted the actors to enact. 1. Something from their childhood. 2. The most traumatic moment in their lives. 3. The relationship with their family. 4. What they did for a living. And 5. how they first met and became friends.

These scenes would take them to the brutal incident (which I never intended to show) and then to the aftermath.

Janki.
Janki.

So a “scene” was thought out by an actor, facilitated by other actors, rehearsed and performed for us. Maithili filmed this from a safe distance, with no camera movement just recording the action as it unfolded. Neelam and I commented on the work. Tweaked it, and made suggestions. The actors would take the input and perform again. The idea was that each of the six actors would get an opportunity to perform their own segments until we were all satisfied.

By the end of day one, I had a sort of an epiphany. It had a lot to do with the utter brilliance of what was unfolding before my eyes. The originality, the tone, the gestures, the heartbreak left both Neelam and I gobsmacked, to say the least. This was all inventive work by these young actors drawing on the most essential but sadly rare tool of our trade – an original imagination.

Contrary to all plans, I found myself directing the camera and happily Maithili was relieved to roll up her sleeves, get rid of the tripod and start following camera directions. I wanted desperately to capture the rawness of what was being enacted. A home movie kind of a look. An immediacy that reflected the fractured lives of the six men and the utter desolation of their being. An adage that was bandied about often was that as opposed to theatre, in cinema, “Less is More.” With a now travelling camera, sometimes really close and personal, there was no room for histrionics. The actors had moved from stage into the world. The discipline had changed. We found locations to shoot on the run and engaged the assistance of people on the streets whenever necessary. A cinema vérité approach.

as Chandu.
as Chandu.

We shot for 18 days. About 8,000 hours of film. Some of the scenes were desultory and bizarre but generally they left us open-mouthed. David and I had put our own money into the project. Maven and an investor were willing to put up a minimum amount but only after approval of a finished screenplay. Until then, we were on our own, paying for the actors, travel, food lodging, and modest salaries and the expense of taking over Neelam’s house and theatre troupe (I am sure to this day that she didn’t get an iota of what she probably spent). I hired another camera person because it became obvious that we needed to cover the action from different angles. Gary helped augment the footage by Maithili. Fearless, he jumped on to trains and scooters at the drop of a hat.

Closing shop in Chandigarh after three weeks was hugely emotional. Saying goodbye to the actors with whom I was quite besotted and slightly in awe of by this point but also leaving Neelam. She had been invaluable on all fronts. In fact she was like this genial, tough, demanding and totally generous compatriot in these largely uncharted waters while I, on the other hand, was being propelled entirely by instinct. And so we moved on to the next phase.

Delhi was basically focused on Janki and Ankur. This was one phase of the filming which was less improvised and more guided. I had a more precise idea as to how I wanted the glimpses into Janki’s life to be contrapuntal with the scenes I had already shot in Chandigarh. I wanted to feel the normality of her life living with her family, her home, her mom, her friends, her work, her boyfriend, her ambition and her desire to give back to her family and society for the sacrifices made on her behalf. In the middle of the Janki shoot, I began to imagine where the film might end. I felt a scene with Bittu in jail was essential. Somehow we needed to see into the headspace of the rapists while incarcerated and I thought that a final interview with Bittu in jail would do this.

Jagga hopped a bus from Chandigarh. I offered to show him the interview done by Leslee Udwin in India’s Daughter, but he refused. Instead, as with the other scenes, we shot with him in Chandigarh. He channeled his character, and putting Bittu through his phases became the rapist.

I have never felt so chilled and simultaneously so sad in my entire life. The lack of remorse in his characterisation of Bittu exhibited was heartbreaking and scary. The deadness of it all was like a punch in the gut. I guess I felt, as a member of a society that had led to his very existence, somehow complicit in the entire sordid affair.

Suresh.
Suresh.

The next step was Toronto. Looking at the footage that we had shot, it became obvious that there was no way I wanted to complete the screenplay and then shoot a film in the traditional manner. In some way, it seemed contradictory to the rawness of the story to hire actors, rehearse scenes, prep locations, prepare costumes and primp the characters with hair and makeup. Something felt very wrong about this. I already had the film somewhere lurking within the 8,000 hours. I was convinced that some judicious editing would result in 90 minutes that hung together as a narrative. Well, that 90 minutes took six months of digging, maneuvering and just plain elbow grease to edit and make cohesive.

Another month of sound editing and colour correcting and sound mixing. Salar, our post supervisor, worked 24/7 to bring it all together as did our editor, Darby. Sadly the potential investor in New York did not understand my obduracy in not wanting to reshoot the film with proper lighting, makeup, hair, real kids, composed music and of course “known” Bollywood actors. and she decided to bow out. Understandable – Looking for Fun had morphed into Anatomy of Violence.

However painful, neither David nor I regret the decision we took in remaining true to the special spirit of the project and the hope that the viewer would be brought closer to the brutality and inhumanity which inhabits our world. Our aspirations are far more ambitious than simply creating a piece of art for others to either eschew or admire. Our hopes are that the film might have enough impact on enough people to become a tool which stimulates both dialogue and concrete actions assisting in leading us to the re-invention of society so as to generate and promote a gentler and more humane world.

I am ready for change. It’s been a long time coming.

Deepa Mehta.
Deepa Mehta.
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