Director-writer duo Umesh Kulkarni and Girish Kulkarni, who have won high praise for films like Valu, Deool and Vihir,are back with yet another Marathi release, Highway – Ek Selfie Aarpar. The film also marks the debut of many Bollywood artistes to the world of Marathi cinema. The talented duo talks about their upcoming release and about following their hearts.
Box Office India (BOI): Tell us about your collaboration. How did you decide to work together?
Umesh Kulkarni (UK): We belong to Pune, where we were doing theatre together. After that, I joined the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). After I completed my course, Girish and I decided to make our kind of films, films, which we would like to see. At the time, Marathi cinema was not going through a good phase. It was a spontaneous decision to make a film. So Girish wrote a script and we struggled to find a producer for one and a half years. Atul Kulkarni was playing the main lead but for a very long time, we couldn’t find a producer. Finally, we decided to produce it ourselves.
We didn’t want anyone to interfere and we wanted to make the film our way. Finally, we collected what we could from relatives and friends, and made our first film, Valu. Fortunately, it was taken up by Subhash Ghai’s Mukta Arts and they promoted it very well. We went to many international film festivals where our film got a very good response. So the journey started with Valu. After that, we made Vihir and Deool. Our idea is to tell stories we believe in.
BOI: Umesh went to FTII but how did you train yourself in filmmaking, Girish?
Girish Kulkarni (GK): We were enjoying theatre and I was writing, directing and acting. One day, Umesh simply told us he was going to FTII. For us, it was a haunted place. Nobody ever dared to go in to find out what was happening behind that gate! We just knew that people behind the gate had long hair and beards and that they were supposedly geniuses. But once Umesh went inside, leaving all that baggage outside the gate, we started meeting inside the institute.
We started studying his curriculum, taking interest in what he was watching and also his projects. It was like a new toy. We were introduced to World Cinema and the technicalities of filmmaking. That’s how it all started and we decided to make our own film. Simultaneously, there was a director duo called Sumitra Bhave and Sunil Sukthankar, whose films were very relatable and were embraced by the audience also. So we knew the time was right, when people were accepting different kinds of films. Then it just happened… instead of writing a play, I started writing a screenplay.
BOI: Both of you were familiar with writing, directing and acting but what about production?
UK: We find that difficult even today, so we always have a co-producer. But we decided to turn producer because we realised that if we wanted to make our kind of cinema, we needed to produce it too. When someone else wears that hat, demands and cuts keep increasing. We had watched World Cinema, so we knew what kind of cinema we aspired to make. We knew how we needed to shoot it, we knew how many days we needed to edit. But after our first film, many people backed us. There were many offers and people stood by us. Our second film was produced by Amitabh Bachchan.
BOI: How did Highway start?
UK: When I was looking for producers for Valu, I had to travel from Pune to Mumbai every now and then. Even if I could remotely sense that someone wanted to produce the film, I would reach them the very next morning. I used to travel back and forth in share taxis. When you start your journey, you know nothing anything about your co-passenger but by the time the journey is over, you kind of know what is happening in your co-passengers’ lives. It was an eye-opener and an insight into what was happening around us, what kind of people there are and how they think. So this ‘highway’ worked as a metaphor for my next story.
We make films we have been thinking about for several years. We never come up with an idea and try to write a script in a month and plan to release the film in the next six months. With every idea, I have to pursue Girish to get into the idea and convince him about the story. Many a time, ideas are mere premises, something I am looking for, but even I don’t know exactly what I am looking for. Then he offers his experience and perspective, and we pool our ideas, which is a very interesting but exhausting process but an enlightening one. After Valu, we did Vihir, Deool and two films which we produced, and then we got an exact narrative for Highway and we started working on it.
BOI: Umesh, you have also cast Huma Qureshi in the film. She is a known face in mainstream Hindi cinema. Tell us about the casting process.
UK: In this film, we have around 30 characters. Each character is very unique so we have to be sure nothing overlaps with the others. While Girish was writing the character of a television actress, we had Huma in mind even though we were sceptical about whether she would accept the offer. But she did. I had also watched Qissa and was blown away by Tisca’s (Chopra) performance. She too features in our film. We also have Renuka Shahane. We didn’t choose these actresses because they are from the Hindi film industry but because they are outstanding actors. I would say we are very lucky.
BOI: You just said there are 30 characters in your film. How difficult was it to sketch each one of them?
GK: It was very difficult. They are different personalities and you have to get into their story. They might have just five lines but we have to justify those five lines. So, as writers, we had to sketch the entire person. The challenge was not just about creating these new characters, we also had the burden of the earlier characters which we had created and we couldn’t let it look repetitive. Valu had 25 characters, Vihir had 15 and Deool had 30 characters. We couldn’t go back for reference or repeat those characters.
Thankfully, there are so many actors today that we found new faces every time. I get into those characters, think like them and then create those characters. It’s just that they don’t get created in a day. It takes time, days, months, and sometimes even years. You’re not at all sure about how it will pan out. In fact, so many times while drafting a film, all our fears come to the fore. But after going through all this, we finally make a film.
BOI: Highway is a journey film. Was it easy to shoot?
UK: It was funnily exciting. This is the first film we were shooting on a digital camera. Up until our last film, we had a proper set-up but we had to move with the times and go digital. I was thinking ‘what is the best film to shoot on a digital camera’, and then Highway happened. We had several cars inside which we were shooting. A car meant for five people sometimes had eight people inside!
GK: I play an NRI in the film. So, there I was, delivering my lines, and the poor light boy was sitting between my legs. While delivering my lines, I would occasionally kick him and then feel guilty. You are performing but you also say ‘sorry’. It was a very funny experience. But we had detailed workshops where we would rehearse intensely, keeping the car dimensions in mind. That made the work easy on location.
BOI: Umesh, every director wants to cater to the largest possible audience. As a result, after a few regional hits, people usually move to Hindi cinema. What is keeping you from directing a Hindi film?
UK: Reaching out to more and more people is definitely an interesting idea. But reaching deep within one person is more challenging. So we focus on making realistic films and making sure we get our investment back so that we can make more films. But there are definitely some stories which can’t be made in Marathi, we need to make them in Hindi. As we go forward, we will make a Hindi film too. But I don’t see that as my next step because I want to make films that I like, stories which I want to tell. I don’t know whether that’s right or wrong but that’s how I think.
GK: In Hindi films, budgets are very high, so recovery is not always fruitful. Then budgets start overpowering your film. Of course, Hindi cinema too is changing and it is more rooted and realistic these days. Masaan will be releasing alongside our film so we are glad that stories like these are being told. We have started telling Indian stories. Earlier, it was about Raj, Simran and Rahul. Now there is demand for original stories.
UK: Also, even though we make films in Marathi, we cater to all audiences. That’s why Killa and Fandry are highly appreciated by everyone. Language should not be a barrier. In the South, we should have Marathi and Bengali films releasing. Similarly, a Tamil or Telugu film should release in Gujarat and Maharashtra. We have to break that barrier.
BOI: So many of your films have been to festivals. Is that a conscious decision?
UK: No, not at all. When we are writing, we are not at all concerned about what festivals we will send it to. We get invites from festivals, people these days keep tabs on what you are making. If we plan things first and then make films, we will never achieve what we want. And all our films have been very different from our previous ones.
BOI: How has the Marathi audience changed over the years?
GK: They have changed a lot and they come to multiplexes to watch Marathi films. The meaning of entertainment has changed and the audience is ready to spend to watch a good film. But we face problems from exhibitors, who remove our shows, saying that no tickets have been sold even though I have visited cinemas and seen house-full shows but they still show losses in their books. Either that or they assign regional films morning shows, which are barely patronised. During Valu, we had people who had visited the cinema after 10 years. They had simply stopped coming to cinemas but they came to watch Valu. So times have changed and the audience does come to watch a good film.
A film like Killa is really bringing movie-goers to cinemas. Definitely, there is a huge change. The movie was made with `1 crore and now it’s earning `12 crore. So look at the return on investment. To increase business, we need more cinemas in small towns. When the population is 10 crore, we reach out to barely 2 crore because the films only release only in main cities like Nashik, Mumbai, Aurangabad and Kolhapur. They don’t release in small towns.