In Aadish Keluskar’s Jaoon Kahan Bata Ae Dil, a Mumbai couple meets for an after-work date. Over the course of many hours, they take a long walk along the Marine Drive promenade, catch a meal at a restaurant, watch a movie, repair to a lodge, and finally return home.

Anybody expecting a local riff on the Hollywood film Before Sunrise has to only wait for the moment when the unnamed characters open their mouths. Keluskar’s screenplay is brimming with word bombs rather than sweet nothings. The couple spar over their definition of love (sentimental as opposed to cynical), relationship status (to marry or not) and political preferences (Narendra Modi or Rahul Gandhi).

Until mid-point, the movie still appears to be an offbeat romance rooted in local realities and with an acute sense of how a middle-class couple in Mumbai might behave in the real world. But Keluskar is only warming up. The tensions between the lovers get thornier and more twisted and increasingly uncomfortable to watch. Misogyny spreads to every corner of the screen and when the violence erupts, it is shocking but foregone. Keluskar reserves his trump card for the very last frame, which takes the film into a new direction.

Jaoon Kahan Bata Ae Dil is among the Indian titles selected for the India Gold competition section at the Mumbai Film Festival (October 25-November 1). The movie has the potential to sharply divide viewers, which is mission accomplished for the 31-year-old director. “I can’t imagine what the festival audiences are going to feel,” he told Scroll.in. “I hope they are jolted.”

As far as Keluskar is concerned, he has actually made a regular relationships movie, one whose characters voice their thoughts on everyday realities, such as the falling rupee and the rising price of fuel, the lack of real choice during elections, and the inability to have a meaningful sexual relationship.”I find it to be a very normal movie – it’s the mainstream romantic films that are surreal and abnormal,” Keluskar said.

Khushboo Upadhyay and Rohit Kokate in Jaoon Kahan Bata Ae Dil (2018). Courtesy Humaramovie.
Khushboo Upadhyay and Rohit Kokate in Jaoon Kahan Bata Ae Dil (2018). Courtesy Humaramovie.

This sly explanation, however, doesn’t account for the latter portions of the film, which stars Khushboo Upadhyay and Rohit Kokate. Men such as the movie’s Travis Bickle-like protagonist do walk in our midst, as do women who resemble the heroine. The bruising encounters that the woman has with the man could either be an honest or a cross-eyed reflection of real-life anxieties. A couple walking along Marine Drive might trade pleasantries rather than put-downs, but Keluskar is more interested in yanking the lid off the idealised depiction of contemporary relationships and the present state of affairs in India.

“The things human minds desire, if they are not in a nourishing environment, they eventually lead to the disruption of the idea and the human mind,” he said. “It happens on the personal level and on a bigger level too. I was trying to put a microscopic perspective on a romantic context. Even when we get what we want, we don’t want what we get, and we remain confused.”

The tinkering with genre begins with the title, which continues with the tradition of frothy Bollywood romances that are named after classic Hindi film songs. Jaoon Kahan Bata Ae Dil is a slow-moving and heaving track sung by Mukesh for the 1959 melodrama Chhoti Bahen. Keluskar had heard a song on the radio that reminded him of the Chhoti Bahen tune. He could have gone with the title he had originally picked, which is another reference to a classic Hind film song from Gharonda (1977), Do Deewane Sheher Mein. But he felt that the second option fit the “confused state of human minds since the beginning of civilisation”.

The English title for the movie on the internet listing site Imdb.com most closely reflects its nihilistic themes: Lovefucked. “We picked this English title was because we had to come up with something, and I couldn’t think of an equivalent English song,” Keluskar explained.

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Jaoon Kahan Bata Ae Dil (2018).

The title isn’t the only element that creates false expectations of providing an update on screen romance, instead of taking a jackhammer to relationship dramas as it eventually does. Keluskar’s borderline arthouse exploitation movie has been shot by Amey V Chavan with a handheld camera, and is composed of several long takes that reveal the shifting dynamics between the characters. The long takes don’t just allow the lead actors to display their complete immersion in their roles. Untrammelled by editing cuts and directorial intervention, the scenes ratchet up the discomfort and bring the movie to the brink of horror, but they also underline the artifice involved in the image-making.

“A long take was a symbol of realism when it became popular, but we also know that long takes are surreal and reveals their artifice in the end,” Keluskar said. “I wanted verisimilitude but also a level of artificialness, like life itself.”

Khushboo Upadhyay and Rohit Kokate in Jaoon Kahan Bata Ae Dil (2018). Courtesy Humaramovie.
Khushboo Upadhyay and Rohit Kokate in Jaoon Kahan Bata Ae Dil (2018). Courtesy Humaramovie.

This isn’t the first time Keluskar has used long takes. They are also evident in his directorial debut, the experimental film Kaul A Calling. Shot in 2013 but released in 2015, Kaul was premiered at the Mumbai Film Festival. The Marathi-language production, starring Rohit Kokate, explores a man’s descent into insanity, and has earned its reputation as a cult film that marked whoever watched it.

Kaul came to Keluskar as “an attack”, as did his second feature. A Bachelor of Mass Media graduate, Keluskar enrolled in 2009 in the direction course at the Film and Television Institute of India, but he dropped out in the third year. He had already started making short films, and didn’t have the patience to complete his course. “I had too much energy, and I didn’t want to wait to graduate,” he said. “I told my school teacher mother, either send me to an asylum or finance me.”

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Kaul A Calling (2015).

His “typical middle-class upbringing” (his father is the poet Mahesh Keluskar) was among the provocations for Jaoon Kahan Bata Ae Dil. The movie includes original Hindi film classic songs from the 1940s and ’50s, which hark back to a time with greater innocence and promise than the fraught present. “Most of my family members had this Nehruvian-era romanticism, which I found contradictory,” Keluskar said. “You grew up in an idealistic environment and then you saw that things around you were not what they were supposed to be.”

The apathy and misanthropy expressed by the profanity-spouting male character in Jaoon Kahan Bata Ae Dil is a testament to how far we have come from the promise of freedom from colonial rule. “The independence movement didn’t reach the grassroots, we are still feudal and patriarchal, and are still trying to come to terms with a lot of things, including democracy,’ Keluskar said. “What are men and women supposed make of their freedom?”

The lead character might be “chauvinistic and misanthropic”, but on occasion, he “make sense too”, the writer-director pointed out. “We relate to him but are also repulsed by him. I am expecting questions on the lines of, why is your film so chauvinistic? The film isn’t, but the character might be.”

The film’s disturbing vision is expressed through words that later inspire dark deeds. Some of the verbal volleys are breathtaking in their cruelty and morbidity. (A typical exchange: “I love you, and that is why I tolerate you.” “I would behave differently if there was someone else in my life.”)

Keluskar said he welcomed the challenges posed by talk-heavy movies. “I really wanted a conversational film,” he said. “I know that cinema is a visual medium, but when I watch Aaron Sorkin’s films. I get the same experience as I do from a Jia Zhangke film.”

Aadish Keluskar.
Aadish Keluskar.

The screenplay left little room for improvisation, both to retain the “gutter poetry” and the rhythm of the dialogue and ensure that the shoot went off smoothly. “If one has to pull off improvisation, one has to be in character for two-three months, and nobody has that kind of time,” Keluskar said. Jaoon Kahan Bata Ae Dil was written in February and shot in May.

“When you are shooting in public spaces, you might just get one take and run off before the police arrive,” Keluskar added. “The actors had the pressure of having to remember the lines, the fear of the police arriving, and the temperature – it was 39 degrees at the time. We did a line-by-line analysis of the screenplay separately with both actors to keep the curiosity alive. I also got them to rehearse the scenes together. We had to make sure the scenes were in focus, and that the actors didn’t bump into one another. It was, of course, easier in the interior scene, but it was so violent that I could not make the actors do it over and over again.”

Keluskar cast the lead parts only after the screenplay was finished. “I didn’t have the actors in mind, and I didn’t know anybody who could play the woman, not only because of the graphic scenes, but also because of the focus that had to be given to the character,” he said. “I asked my wife for suggestions. She asked Khushboo Upadhyay, who is a batch junior to me at the film institute, whether she knew anybody. Khushboo said, why can’t I do it?”

Even before narrating the screenplay, Keluskar warned Upadhyay that the movie had a graphic sex scene. “She said, that sounds fine to me,” he recalled. “The only word she felt was out of character in the script was ‘bullshit’.”

Although Keluskar had worked with Rohit Kokate in Kaul, he wasn’t the immediate choice for the new project. “Rohit gave a terrible audition, and so we started looking for other actors,” Keluskar said. “But nobody was getting the gutter poetry right. Rohit sent me a second audition, and he cracked it. In real life, he is the polar opposite of his character.”

The movie has been funded by Humaramovie, the production company founded by Preety Ali, Vinay Mishra and Pallavi Rohatgi. Keluskar’s short films I Love You Too, Zero By Zero and An Encounter have been produced by Humaramovie, and he turned to the company for his second feature too.

“I knew the film would not get a theatrical release,” Keluskar said. “I knew Vinay Mishra, and I told him that if he didn’t give me the budget, I would still make the film anyway, but I wouldn’t go to any other producer. He took 15-20 minutes to decide.”

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Zero By Zero (2015).

Jaoon Bata Kahan Ae Dil amplifies the misogyny explored in Keluskar’s short films, but that is only one of the points of view in the narrative. “The male character sends out mixed signals – I do believe that all of us are a combination of paradoxical things,” Keluskar said. “I don’t think anybody can follow any kind of ideology and belief without any contradictions. I wanted to come face to face with all of this. The kind of things we have been fed over the years, especially by television, creates a strong notion that this is how cinema is supposed to be. In real life, it might be different, but it cannot be so on the screen.” You can get a couple imagined in the heaven of the movies, or one forged in the hell of earth.