A new film by Govind Nihalani 13 years after Dev (2004) should have been cause for celebration, but his new film Ti Ani Itar – his first in Marathi – slipped into the cinemas with barely a murmur.

For Ti Ani Itar (She And The Others), Nihalani has once again picked a play, Lights Out (1984) by Manjula Padmanabhan, whose sci-fi play Harvest (1997) had inspired his Deham (2001). “I have been thinking about this film for a long time, ever since I read the play,” Nihalani told Scroll.in. “I feel that today, this kind of subject will be fairly sympathetically accepted. And Marathi audiences are more receptive to new content than viewers of any other language.”

Padmanabhan’s play is about a party in a middle class home that disturbed by a young girl’s heart-rending screams from an under-construction building across the street, as she is raped by a group of men. It is revealed during the conversations between the hosts and guests that this is a regular occurrence, and they have learnt to draw the curtains and ignore the sounds. They all admit that something should be done about it, but nobody has the courage to lodge a police complaint.

Ti and Itar (2017).

Nihalani got Shanta Gokhale to adapt the play into Marathi, and cast some fine actors. He then shot the film in 13 days on the sound stage of Rajkamal Studio (where he also has his office). The play is mostly set in the apartment of Naina (Sonali Kulkarni) and Aniruddha (Subodh Bhave) and their two children, but the outside is brought in when their party mood is disrupted by the screams. Their domestic help Rinku (Suman Patel) from Jharkhand claims the girl is speaking her language, and is traumatised by the thought that it could be her next. Finally, it is Janki, a journalist in the group (Amruta Subhash) who breaks the wall of fear and apathy.

“I wanted to rehearse with the actors, but there was no time,” Nihalani said. “So what I did was that I gave the original English play and the Marathi version to them to read and then told them to put aside both and improvise the scenes and dialogue. The result was a wonderful mix of the written lines and the actors’ own thoughts and experiences from their lives.”

Nihalani said he “acted as a referee” to decide what bits to retain and what to alter. “They knew the essence of the scenes, and I would tell them what was required to be achieved in each scene and they contributed to it,” he said. “Then I got an assistant to write down what they had come up with and that became the script. And I shot with sync sound, so that the intensity of the emotions is retained.”

It helped that the actors – mostly from a theatre background – knew each other well. That ease and camaraderie came across well on screen. “The way the actors relate to the characters and to each other, is very important to create the text for a film,” Nihalani said. “Because a film is not just spoken word; I wanted spontaneity too, and this experiment enabled me achieve that. The actors caught the sur of the text beautifully.”

Subodh Bhave in ‘Ti Ani Itar’. Image credit: Ouranos Creatives.

Setting the play in an apartment brings out the claustrophobia felt by Naina. She is a singer – the launch of her album is the occasion for the party – and the fact that she is living within the vicinity of evil disturbs her mentally and affects her voice. However, neither Naina nor anyone else in the building wants to get involved.

“The fear of being drawn into police matters is obvious, what I found compelling about the play is far deeper,” Nihalani said. “It forced me to define to myself what the main issue was. Living in a cosmopolitan metropolis has its own compulsions, its environmental and social problems that we have to negotiate. The film is essentially about the sense of responsibility. The conflict between the guilt one feels at not getting involved with the fear of the implications that it could have on your physical existence and that of your family. There are no easy solutions, it is about the various shades and nuances we are forced to take decisions about and then come to making a choice. We live between these two levels of guilt and fear, because even if we want to be responsible citizens, we know that honesty is not the highest virtue in our society.”

The movie examines the “path of rationalisation”, he added. “Then some people take a step to do something, and you feel relieved, but also feel threatened,” he said. “The real choice comes now – do you offer support to that person or do you quietly withdraw. For me, it is a triangle between responsibility as a citizen, responsibility as a human being and the situation of society – how do you negotiate that?”

The film does not pass judgment against those who choose not to confront the situation, those who draw the curtains and shut out what they do not want to see or hear. But it does not let them completely off the hook either. When Aniruddha describes in graphic detail what he saw, his friends are shocked and that is perhaps what pushes Janki to take action and pulls the rest into the circle of fire too. As the tagline of the film says, “Silence is not an option.”

Nihalani is slightly annoyed at criticism that the film looks like a play. “The technology of the medium today allows you to be above all this,” he argued. “How do you derive these definitions? If there are more words it is theatre, if there are less words it is film? You have to break the tyranny of such definitions in your art.”

Before Nihalani started work on Ti and Itar, he had been hard at work on an animation film, titled Fly Kamlu Fly, and it is almost complete now. He also plans more films in Marathi because he believes that Marathi cinema is in a good space. “Language never comes alone, it comes along with a culture, and this culture has a lot of vigour,” he said.

Marathi star Sachin Pilgaonkar makes a special appearance in the movie as himself; not as the actor but as the Urdu poet Sachin Shafaq (his pen name means twilight). “It is not commonly known that he writes poetry in Urdu,” Nihanali revealed. “He has never published, and this is the first time one of his poems has been sung in a film. So we decided to call Naina’s album Rooh-e-Shafaq.”