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Director Uday Bhandarkar talks about his soon-to-release Marathi debut film Vees Mhanje Vees, its journey across six years, NFDC deciding to back the film, and working with kids who were far more experienced than he was in terms of work profile

How was Vees Mhanje Vees conceived and what is the film all about?

This film was written way back in 2009-10. At that point, it was only a storyline. I basically have an advertising background, so I love working with kids especially because they are so spontaneous and natural in front of the camera. It is a little difficult to handle them but it is also fun.

I was keen on making a film based on kids, regardless of the language. I came across an article in a newspaper which said that all rural schools must have a student count of at least 20, and that if the number dipped to less than 20, the school would be shut down. After that, I read another article which asked what would happen to the teachers of these schools if they closed.

I thought this could be the basic crux of our film, so we started developing the story, followed by the characters. The story follows a man who builds a school in his village but takes ill. Hence his daughter, an engineering student, comes back to the village to take care of the school. But the school doesn’t have 20 students. What follows is this woman’s journey along with her students.

How did NFDC come on board?

I was looking for producers but wasn’t successful. Some said it wasn’t commercially viable while others suggested that I turn the subject into a serial. Them a friend of mine told me that NFDC was looking for some regional projects, especially Marathi, and that I should apply. I did and soon forgot about it. Six months later, I got an email from them, saying that my script had been approved for production. I was surprised and wanted to know what their selection process was as I was sure they must have got a lot of film scripts. They told me it wasn’t they who had read my script but that it went to six writers. The selection takes place on the basis of their feedback. Considering that we were shooting at 38 locations with 20 kids, juggling their school time and exams, it took six to eight months of pre-production.

How did the casting come about?

We had 300 kids auditioning for the roles and this had to be handled very delicately. Then we had to cast for the girl and we needed someone who looked urban but also fit into a rural setting. Next, we had to cast for the role of her father and her uncle. It was a very difficult exercise as the roles are not very substantial. We couldn’t approach Sachin Khedekar for the father’s role as it was a very small compared to the rest of the cast. I had seen Nalawade (Arun, actor) in Shwaas but I was not sure whether he would say ‘yes’ to my film.

Today, I am speaking confidently in English but, at that time, I couldn’t even narrate the script to him in Marathi as I was very nervous. I was making a fool of myself and my chief AD was having a good laugh but Arun agreed to be part of the film. We had the cast in place and then we had to scout for a good DoP. My line producer suggested Avinash Arun, who was just a fresher from FTII back then, and he asked me to check out his reel work. I was highly impressed by this film calledMonsoon Moods, which had no music or dialogue but had sound effects and visuals.

Are there any songs in the film?

There are three songs in the film; one is in lip sync, where the kids are painting the entire building of the school although they have just one small room and it is all fun and games. This is the song that has been released. There are two other songs which are more background score – one is about this little boy who leaves at the crack of dawn but reaches school late. Where does he go? He goes to the fields, to the forest, he goes here and there and offers silly excuses when he reaches school. No one would ever believe his excuses. His song is called the Gamru song. We thought of a title song but the lyrics didn’t work out.  We didn’t want to have a title song just for the sake of it.

You had been planning to make this film since 2009. It’s 2016 now and the Marathi industry has grown a lot in terms of the box office and the way films are marketed. With so much changing since 2009, was there anything that you changed in your film?

No, I don’t think any changes were required because the situation has not changed, the mandate of having 20 kids in a school or it shutting down has not changed, and the mindset of people in villages has not changed. We still have huge illiteracy in rural areas, so nothing there has changed either. No, there was no need to change the script. Nor does the film look dated because the characters still exist. There was really no reason for us to rethink or reconsider anything.

Are you planning on sending your film to any film festivals?

I have a very little control over this because I am not the producer. I was hoping that it would go to various festivals but it did get Avinash Arun a state award for Best Cinematographer, while I was nominated for Best Director. The film was also nominated for Best Film but it didn’t win.

Despite the fact that Marathi cinema is growing by leaps and bounds, especially with recent hits like Natsamrat and Sairat, is it still a struggle to release a film in the regional space?

You have mentioned Sairat and Natsamrat and these two films have a certain background that made them work. I don’t mean to take away anything from the making of the film but when you have Nana Patekar in a film, a director like Mahesh Manjrekar, and a subject like Natsamrat which has done more than 1,000 shows as a play, you can’t possible go wrong.

Then you have Sairat, which also comes from the big package of Fandry being made by Nagraj Manjule and backed by Zee. So, as I said, I am not taking anything away from these films but, at the same time, the content has certainly become a very important factor for this film. Content is still king as far as Marathi films go. When you compare Vees Mhanje Vees to any of the other films that release now, I think we are very strong on content.

Creatively, how satisfied are you now that the film is complete?

We had seen the film in bits and pieces but on the day of the trailer and audio launch, we held a screening for the cast and crew and I saw the film on the big screen. It was overwhelming, to say the least. I was wondering whether I had really pulled this off. Everyone who has watched the film says it has some great moments. They said there were moments when they had a lump in their throat.

The kids and everyone else performed so beautifully, so it was fun. We didn’t have to brief the kids, we would all sit and have breakfast together. Funnily enough, it was my debut film and Avinash’s too but some of the kids had already done seven films, some had done four films, there was one boy who had played the young Yeshwantrao Chavan. So they were like veterans and we were trying to direct them and they were like, yes, let’s do it! It was that good.

Was it intimidating working with these kids?

No it wasn’t. We have handled kids many times before in advertising. Also, they were not the oversmart type; they knew what they had to do and they were doing it very simply because they had done this before or they knew how to get it done this time. So it wasn’t like haan mujhe aata hai tum kya baat kar rahe ho. They did not have attitude and I think that helped.

What’s next for you?

I really don’t know, it depends on how things pan out after the release of this film. I have a couple of ideas and story lines.

In Hindi?

Yes, there are some things in Hindi too and some in Marathi. Of course, the Hindi ones can’t be done in Marathi because they require higher budgets and also the audience needs to be much wider, so there are some plans afoot.

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