Marathi cinema

How Marathi film ‘Raakshas’ was born from Dnyanesh Zoting’s memories of the jungle

Starring Sai Tamhankar, Sharad Kelkar and Rutuja Deshpande, the fantasy thriller will be released on February 23.

The trailer of Dnyanesh Zoting’s upcoming Marathi movie Raakshas includes glimpses of an ominous jungle, a monster that will be awakened through a magical book, and death. Starring Sharad Kelkar, Sai Tamhankar and Rujuta Deshpande, Raakshas has been in the making for over three years, and will finally be out on February 23.

Zoting’s directorial debut has been mostly shot in the Dangs. Raakshas was one of seven screenplays selected at the 2015 Drishyam-Sundance Screenwriters Lab. After a stint in theatre, Zoting assisted the Marathi filmmakers Paresh Mokashi and Satish Manwar before becoming a writer and director. Raakshas stems from Zoting’s childhood memories of jungle lore. The movie isn’t a horror film but a fantasy thriller, he told Scroll.in: “The word ‘raakshas’ has a metaphorical meaning here and it is correlated to the ‘raakshas’ character from folklore.”

How did the story of ‘Raakshas’ come to you?
The first six years of my life were spent in jungles. My parents were school teachers in the tribal village of Taked, located at the foothills of Maharashtra’s Igatpuri peak. My childhood was spent among stories, folklore and fantasy. I thought of stories all the time, and I believed them to be true.

After my father died, we had to move to Aurangabad, but my head and heart remained in the jungle. I remembered the stories my mother told me, particularly one about a tiger that frequently visited the area where we lived. I went back to the place and to my shock, there was no jungle, but only hotels and resorts. I asked the people there about the tigers. They said they had never seen tigers or leopards.

So I began wondering – did I imagine too much? Was it always like this or has it become like this? And I missed my father as well. All of this came together while writing Raakshas.

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Raakshas.

There has been a long gap between the script going to the Sundance laboratory in 2015 and the movie’s release.
The long gap was organically required. This film does not have a linear, realistic narrative. There are two parallel tracks – one set in a fantasy world and another involving the child and the mother. To derive such a structure organically with respect to a Marathi context took some time.

I would frequently visit the areas that inspired the film, return and write dialogues. I learned the language of the tribals to write their characters and dialogues as well. A lot of time was spent on research and rewriting. The film went through several drafts. In fact, it was my second or third draft that went to Sundance. The insights I learned about dialogue writing, screenwriting, the different approaches towards a plot or a scene shook me up.

Financing such films is difficult. The moment the industry knows that your film has gone to Sundance, they look at it as a festival film. But I thought that this genre would be appealing to audiences. So I shot a video synopsis, kind of like a pitching trailer, in the locations where I expected the film to be shot. My producers immediately came on board.

Then there are logistical difficulties, like getting permission to shoot in forests – 95 per cent of Raakshas has been shot outdoors – and getting stars like Sai Tamhankar and Sharad Kelkar to act in the film.

A good thing was that both Sai and Sharad were really into the project, not just as actors. From planning to publicity to promotions, they were involved.

How difficult was it to direct a child in your first movie?
A child can have her ups and downs without warning, just like nature can when we are shooting outdoors. Rutuja had a very difficult role. She had to climb a tree, cross a river, do some trekking, among other things. You have to understand what a child’s mood is at a given point and not pressurise her by telling her that we are shooting a film. You have to keep her geniality and innocence intact. You cannot make her nervous. It needs some trickery, and it is hard. But it was an enjoyable experience. Getting her to perform well in turn pumped energy into us.

We found Rutuja after numerous auditions conducted across Pune and Mumbai. For this character, I wanted a city girl, and Rutuja is from Mumbai. We went to a lot of schools, did workshops, and I personally went around auditioning girls.

Rutuja Deshpande in Raakshas. Image credit: Navalakha Arts and Holy Basil Productions.
Rutuja Deshpande in Raakshas. Image credit: Navalakha Arts and Holy Basil Productions.

You also wrote the script for Samit Kakkad’s ‘Half Ticket’, the remake of ‘Kaakka Muttai’, which revolves entirely around children.
During Sundance, Vivek Kajaria got attached to the Raakshas project. While we were working on new drafts of the screenplay, Vivek got acquainted with Samit Kakkad. Samit was doing a remake of Kaakaa Muttai and he wanted me to write it. So we did it but in our way. We made the script very rooted in Mumbai and we also changed the climax. Tanmayee Deo, with whom I wrote my short films as well as Raakshas, was the executive producer of Half Ticket. It was a great experience.

How did you become a filmmaker?
After my father’s death, I moved to Aurangabad, and soon after, I enrolled in a children’s theatre workshop. That was my introduction to Marathi theatre and literature. After finishing my 11th and 12th doing science, I moved to Pune to study at Pune University’s Centre of Performing Arts, where my guru was Satish Alekar. He was head of the department.

Those three years were really blessed for me. At that I time, I could either go into professional theatre or films. I frequently attended film screenings conducted by Samar Nakhate. I was exposed to world cinema through the Pune International Film Festival, which had just begun. I met filmmakers like Paresh Mokashi and Umesh Kulkarni who were doing powerful stuff in Marathi cinema. They inspired me to make films. I sat for the Film and Television Institute of India’s entrance exam for the direction department. I was not selected.

So I went and studied mass communication at Pune University, where I wrote and directed two short films. Their success, especially the first one’s at film festivals, gave me confirmation that filmmaking is the place to be in.

Any particular filmmakers that you admire?
Before coming to Pune and attending the international film festival there, I had not been exposed to world cinema. But even in my childhood, I remember my mother taking me to watch Mani Ratnam’s films, and I loved how he dealt with interpersonal relationships with a political backdrop. Every time I watched his films, I got the sense that there was something different about them.

Later, when I began watching world cinema, I loved Costa-Gavras’s films because of how he spoke about political issues. I like films that are political – not films that are about politicians but political in terms of their outlook or stand. That is what I have tried to do in my short films as well.

Dnyanesh Zoting.
Dnyanesh Zoting.
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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.