Amit Kumar’s Monsoon Shootout has been bursting into view since 2013.
Kumar formed the story idea when he was student of the Film and Television Institute of India in the late 1990s. He nearly made Monsoon Shootout with a British producer in the early 2000s. But it was only in 2011 that the project finally got underway with an Indian producer. Four years after the crime thriller was completed, it will finally be out in theatres on December 15.
The waiting has only burnished the sheen of the neo-noir film as the fortunes of its cast have risen in the interim. Nawazuddin Siddiqui is now one of Hindi cinema’s alt-stars; Vijay Varma, who was to have made his debut with the movie, is familiar to audiences from the 2016 legal drama Pink; Geetanjali Thapa, for whom Monsoon Shootout was an early film, has had three releases since; theatre actor Neeraj Kabi is also wider known than before.
Kumar, who, at 47, is probably among the oldest debutant directors around, will believe that Monsoon Shootout has reached journey’s end only when he sees it for himself. “There have been lots of false hopes,” he said. “Tell me the day after the release that you have watched it in a theatre and I will accept that it is finally out.”
The movie’s fate is uncannily linked with its subject: the elastic nature of time and the relative nature of truth and morality. The tricksy plot is filled with what-if possibilities, and hinges on the ability of audiences to entertain different outcomes for a common set of events and characters.
Some elements are constant across the scenarios: rookie police officer Adi (Varma) points a gun at ruthless gangster Shiva (Siddiqui) in a rain-drenched alleyway in a slum in Mumbai while his college sweetheart Anu (Thapa) waits for him. Each of the three chapters ends differently, and the self-reflexive movie is less about a cops-and-gangsters story than about the craft of writing a screenplay and shuffling the progression of characters.
Kumar had wanted to make Monsoon Shootout as a short film when he was studying direction at FTII. “I had this idea of a guy with a gun in the rain,” said Kumar, who graduated in 1997. “The typical FTII response was, from where will you get a rain machine?”
Kumar moved on, assisting British filmmaker Asif Kapadia on his celebrated period film The Warrior (2001) and directing his own acclaimed short film The Bypass (2003). The praise showered on The Bypass, a brutal thriller set in Rajasthan and starring Irrfan and Siddiqui, encouraged Kumar to kickstart what turned out to be a very long journey into development hell or heaven, depending on which way you look at it.
The Bypass was screened at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and Kapadia, among others, egged on Kumar to expand his short film into a feature. Since The Bypass had partly been funded by the UK Film Council, Kumar pitched the Monsoon Shootout idea to the co-production body. He snagged a budget of two million pounds with the rider that British talent would be involved with the production.
So far, so good, but the twists began to pile up. The UK Film Council shut down in 2011, leaving Kumar without a backer.
“Everybody said, so sad, Amit, but I said it was a new path,” the director said. “We redid the budget and made the film an international co-production.” Sikhya Entertainment headed by Guneet Monga, is one of the movie’s producers.
Monsoon Shootout was shot by Rajeev Ravi (who has since gone on to make his own films) in 2011 and edited in 2012. It might have been screened that year at the Toronto International Film Festival if Kumar had been satisfied with the edit and the background music, but he wasn’t. “I didn’t want to rush it,” he said.
A new editor was hired, and since the original background composer, Dario Marianelli, wasn’t available any more, Gingger Shankar was recruited with Guneet Monga’s help.
Monsoon Shootout was selected for the Midnight Screenings section at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013, and a theatrical release in India seemed imminent. Instead, the movie travelled to film festivals around the world while negotiating a respectable release back home – a process that has taken four years.
“We always knew it would be released, and there were always things that potential distributors loved, but it took Guneet quite a few months to line up things,” Kumar said. “In 2015, we had the chance to release the movie on 10-15 screens, but we always knew it had a bigger reach.”
Amit Kumar sounds remarkably sanguine about a delay that has the potential to cause illness of the physical and mental variety. “People might say I am Zen-like, but sometimes I am nowhere around Zen – I have two kids,” he explained. “When I co-write with my wife, Anupama Minz, there is no Zen there either. My approach to life is that I am a witness and not a driver of things. I do my work but I don’t fret that things are working out. It has never bogged me down or made me feel frustrated. I keep my angst for the movies. Sometimes, things do happen and some days, you thank god they didn’t.”
The publicity campaign for Monsoon Shootout, for instance, has been smoothened by Siddiqui’s lately acquired stardom on the back of the box office success of Kick (2014) and Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015).
“I had known Nawaz since The Bypass, and when he told me that he used elements of his character from that film in Gangs of Wasseypur, I thought we would make the Monsoon Shootout character more humourous,” Kumar said. Siddiqui’s Shiva views the carnage he leaves in his wake with a wicked grin. The actor initially wanted to play the lead role. “I thought he was going to cry when he realised he was being cast for Shiva,” Kumar said. “I told him, I can see evil in your eyes, I am sorry, but I can’t help it.”
Sikkimese actress Geetanjali Thapa signed up for Monsooon Shootout around the same time that she was cast in Kamal KM’s indie debut ID. “We loved her, and I remember Asif Kapadia saying she is so beautiful, but people here said, you should have got somebody more beautiful,” Kumar recalled.
Vijay Varma, an FTII acting graduate, was cast on the suggestion of Reema Borah, who was an associate director on Monsoon Shootout and has since gone on to make the widely acclaimed Assamese move Village Rockstars. “When I looked into Vijay’s eyes, I knew I had found the guy I was looking for, but I tortured the guy for one or two years by making him do 50-60 auditions,” Kumar said.
The actor has been incredibly patient about the movie’s fate, perhaps imbibing some of the wait-and-watch philosophy of its filmmaker. “Vijay never ate my head, though he would call every now and then to ask about the release,” Kumar said. “It was a very important film for him, and my reply always was, wait.”
How has Kumar paid the bills over the years? “I have been lucky – I have never been so broke that I cannot pay school fees,” he said. “I could have been doing stuff for commercial banners, but I didn’t want to take up anything just for money. There has always been something or the other, like I wrote a series, Sher Singh Rana, for Big Synergy Productions, I did a commercial. The key is trusting your talent and knowing that things will work if you follow your path.”
Kumar was raised in Delhi and spent some of his formative years in Botswana and Zambia, where his father worked during the mid-1970s. In the 1990s, he enrolled in a screenplay-writing contest organised by the National Film Development Corporation and later joined FTII to study direction. In between, Kumar also acquired a degree in hotel management.
A script about the relative nature of truth, Ashwathama the Elephant Is Dead, secured his enrolment at the film institute. “The institute prepared for me to take it easy – the deadlines were not so hard,” he said about the film school’s influence on his professional approach. “Perhaps the institute helps us to create what we create because we need that kind of time and patience.”
The philosophy that characterises Monsoon Shootout – truth can be seen in different ways – also drives Kumar’s working process. “I tend to approach things from different angles, since I believe that there is no one definite way of doing something,” he said. “I am also very indecisive in daily life, though not when I am directing. Which cheese should I buy? The organic one? The one that has more salt?”
The act of constantly turning things over in the name of creativity can be thrilling as well as terrifying. “Writing the film was a funny combination of fun and complicated,” Kumar recalled. “I enjoyed playing with the dialogue. It was fun extrapolating that this one thing could happen somewhere else. The torture was that you spent three months writing something and then you got a new idea and had to change the other two chapters. You thought you had finished the draft, and then it all fell apart.”
The completed script was finally filmed in December 2011, but Kumar always knew that it had to have the monsoon, which lasts from July through September in Mumbai, as the backdrop. “The monsoon is symbolic – here is the guy is standing still, but his mind is running, like the rain itself,” he said. “You get soaked in the Bombay rains even with a raincoat or an umbrella, just like you get drenched in corruption. Whatever you do, your ideals get twisted in some way.”
The locations that lent the film its flavour include FTII living quarters converted into a brothel, the Sassoon docks in Colaba in Mumbai, and a crucial suburban railway line. “The main location is the railway line, which I found through Google Maps,” Kumar said. “I wanted an open piece of land with a wall running alongside the railway line. Fortunately, we found the location in Matunga West, built our set there, and filled it with water.”
The rain in the movie has emerged out of water tanks rather than the clouds in the sky. “It is all artificial, since we were shooting in December,” Kumar said. “Continuity and lighting are difficult to shoot in the rain. I made sure we had the budget for rain machines.”
Kumar’s next project carries over ideas of time travel and dreaming up alternate realities. He is working on an Amazon Prime Video series with supernatural elements with his wife, Anupama Minz. Kumar will also direct the first season, which will have between eight and ten episodes. He also has a World War II story idea for a feature.
“Once I made The Bypass, everything else seemed like a bonus – oh wow, I am having fun, oh wow, I am going to Cannes,” he said. “There is a reason for why things are happening right now, but I will make the connection later. Right now, I am just thrilled to be a witness.”