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.