IN SEARCH OF MEANING
At 36 Umesh Vinayak Kulkarni is easily Marathi cinema’s finest contemporary director. Unlike others still resting on their debut successes, he has already helmed three critically acclaimed films––two of them commercial hits––won a National Award for Best Director for Deool this year, taken his work to various international festivals and turned creative producer for two films including Nikhil Mahajan’s forthcoming noir thriller, Pune 52. Kulkarni spoke to Film Impressions about his cinematic influences, social consciousness, penchant for satire and deep-rooted compassion for his environment.
Do you recall the first time you felt an immediate connection with a film?
I was 17 when I watched Kurosawa's Rashomon at the NFAI’s Saturday film club. It was raining that evening and I was drenched when I entered the auditorium. But something about that film shook me up. Later I watched Abbas Kiarostami’s Where Is The Friend’s Home? There’s a shot at the end where the teacher is checking the students’ notebooks and the boy who has finished his friend’s homework after spending the previous evening looking for his house, hands it over to him. In that notebook is the flower that he had given his friend and we just get a momentary glimpse of it. That was a magical experience. I almost became invisible.
That’s interesting because there’s a scene in Vihir where the older of the two boys, Nachiket, tries to become ‘invisible’. Was that autobiographical in some ways?
Vihir was based on an autobiographical incident. The idea was in my head for several years. It’s an exploration of an innocent mind when it has its first brush with death. That’s the superficial concept. But the real theme is about human existence, the sense of belonging to a society and how much understanding is possible between two human beings. Nachiket’s questions are autobiographical. But his character is surreal––he is on the road to enlightenment and hence a little unnatural.
I never ran away from home or felt like it either. But I did want to know what death is. I am more like Sameer. Nachiket’s preoccupation with metaphysical concepts such as dissolving into the environment are perhaps a manifestation of our collaborative quest.
Your debut film Valu was about a free spirit that society tries to tame. In Deool, the protagonist is a simpleton who unwittingly propels his village towards mindless prosperity. Is there a common thread that binds these outsiders, including Nachiket?
I am fascinated with how the innocent mind is being conditioned by society to conform. They grab each and every person and shake the freedom and individuality out of him. In our films (Girish Kulkarni and I have worked together on all three projects) there is no villain. It’s always a system created by society which is a negative influence. Every human being is unique. How tragic it is to fit them all into a mould or a scheme because society needs to exist and people need to fall in line for that to happen.
I don’t make films to tell something, but to learn and understand something. It’s more an exploration for my own sake––to see where I am as a human being and my connection with my environment. I’m trying to examine my relationship with society and the meaning of life, both as an individual and as a society.
Was satire a conscious choice of genre for both films?
The satire and humour comes from Girish. I always felt that the kind of humour we are shown in Indian cinema is not funny. I couldn’t relate to it, so I decided to stop criticising and try to do something I’d like. It was a reaction to our inability to relate to films of the time.
Were you concerned about Deool running into trouble because of its theme of commercialisation of religion?
We were not ridiculing an individual in Deool. We are a part of this society. We felt we should express what we feel and since we weren’t challenging anyone’s faith, we decided to go ahead. We thought our film was honest and that would see it through although we did get a threat the day before the release. But we weren’t judgmental about anyone or any ideology. We were not being disrespectful.
Do you think the space for artistic expression is shrinking in our society?
We have become so touchy as a nation that we can’t name a film Billoo Barber because some caste gets offended. Ours is a hypocritical society––not of individuals, but of a group. When a group of individuals come together––as representatives of caste, group, ideology––they become a force of disruption.
(Continued in Part 2)