Autohead director Rohit Mittal released his latest project directly on YouTube with minimum fuss on Monday. Megalapolis is set in a dystopian version of Mumbai, where killers lurk in the shadows and young men and women find themselves in thrall to an ideology that propagates “harmony through total destruction”.

Among the characters is 18-year-old Maaran, who has moved to Mumbai from Satara to look for Kamal, the murderer of his parents. Kamal has a cult following among young men and women who declare that Mumbai has become “hot and crowded” and needs to be cleansed. These homegrown Travis Bickles pour out their feelings directly to the camera. A disembodied voiceover, thoughts expressed through whispers, and industrial sounds combine with fragmented images to create an experience that aims to throw off viewers.

Shweta Basu Prasad in Megalapolis (2019). Courtesy Stalker Films.

What are viewers expected to feel, exactly? Mittal chooses the elliptical route, refusing to confirm or deny the significance of the name of the all-powerful Kamal. Mittal also doesn’t commit to a position on the youthful characters who are both disaffected and interested, wanting to be involved as well as easily manipulated.

The 32-year-old filmmaker said he wanted to do things “without questioning them”. Megalapolis, which Mittal has also produced and edited, is loosely based on Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky’s nineteenth-century allegory Demons. Although the novel refers to events in Russia in the mid-1800s, its larger truths about the nature of nihilism apply to the Indian present, Mittal said.

“I love Demons as a novel – the ideas and ideologies it tries to analyse and the characters,” Mittal said. “It can be set anywhere actually because that’s the universality of the story. The novel is still quite relevant because it talks about extremism, not necessarily only nihilism. We live in a very extremist society today more than ever – Left, Right, Centre. We have all become extremists. That’s dangerous.”

Megalapolis (2019). Courtesy Stalker Films.

The cast includes Shweta Basu Prasad, Arjun Radhakrishnan and Sumeet Thakur. Mumbai is the “central character” of Megalapolis, Mittal said. “The post-apocalyptic nature of the city goes well with the nihilistic nature of the novel,” he said. “I used the book as a tool to interpret Bombay, my love-hate relationship with it. I was bored of seeing Bombay in films the way they show it.”

Apart from Autohead, the 2016 mockumentary about a filmmaking team pursuing an autorickshaw driver, Mittal has short films to his credit, including Roop Ki Rani (2018), about the encounter between a thief and the daughter of his intended victim. Alongside Megalapolis, Mittal has wrapped up Popcity, which he describes as a “noir comedy” that is set in Mumbai and is about “people who want to be the best”.

Megalapolis is neither a feature nor a short film – at a crisp 55 minutes, it is somewhere in between. “There was no script, only a rough story,” Mittal explained. “It was more like stream-of-consciousness filmmaking, painting. I went with the flow. The film took its own shape. Maybe it could have been four hours or 20 minutes. At this point, this length feels right.” Since the film was made with meagre funds, it has released for free on YouTube. “It’s an experiment,” Mittal said. “It should reach more people without much difficulty.”

Megalapolis (2019).