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Litmus Test

The team of the film Setters – director Ashwini Chaudhary and actors Aftab Shivdasani, Pavan Raj Malhotra, Ishita Dutta and Sonnalli Seygall – talk to Bhakti Mehta and Titas Chowdhury about their upcoming film, working as a team and the issue they have raised with this story

Bhakti Mehta (BM): You are returning to film direction after a break. What was it about this concept that inspired you to direct?

Ashwini Chaudhary (AC): It was not like I was waiting for a script or anything. It just happened that I did not get into direction for the last seven years. There were a lot of scripts that came to me but as a director, there are some stories that excite you, that force you to helm them. For Setters, it was not so much a script as an idea that came to me. After my first film Dhoop, I ventured into films that were full-on commercial. But this was a story of my roots, which is my strength, and I therefore found it intriguing.

Basically, it is like coming back to my roots after my first films like Dhoop and Laddo. Setters is in the realistic space. There is also an important issue that we tackle in this film and that was exciting for me. Given the kind of times we live in, the society we live in, there are certain things that are important but we ignore.

Education and employment are two of the most important issues that we should focus on as a society. But even the election manifestos haven’t prioritised these issues. In India, we have the biggest population of youngsters and their future depends on education and employment. And when I got a subject that dealt with these issues, I thought we should attempt to make a film on them.

BM: It must have been a task to get so many people together for this film.

AC: This film does not follow the formula of one hero and one heroine. The subject of education and employment and the mafia it deals with is a huge operation, a huge network. There are a lot of people involved in this scenario, people who have their own set of specialisations.

First, the script demanded an ensemble cast and, second, since this is a realistic film, a thriller with a lot of entertainment, we needed a group of capable actors. We have 18 actors in the film and yes, it is not easy to get so many actors like these together for one film. It was a long battle to get it all together but when you have the right content, the right script, I think bahut kam paison mein bahut achche actors mil jaate hain.

(Everybody Laughs)

Sonnalli Seygall (SS): Well, thank you so much for that! (Laughs)

BM: Coming to the cast, what was it about you characters that prompted each one of you to take it up?

Aftab Shivdasani (AS): When I met Ashwiniji for the film, he narrated four lines to me and I was sold on it. The issue we are talking about in this film is very strong and it is something that I have never done before. When I heard the entire narration and read the script, I could not put it down. The script is really that good with a tight screenplay. I was very happy to get an opportunity to play a character like this, in a space that I have not ventured into before.

When I eventually met Ashwiniji, I grabbed this opportunity and told him I would love to play a part like this. I didn’t have to think twice. The technicalities came in later but, creatively, as an actor, there wasn’t an iota of doubt about me being a part of this film.

Pavan Raj Malhotra (PRM): I had made up my mind since Dhoop that I wanted to work with him. We spoke about working together earlier too but it did not pan out. So, this time, when I saw that he was working on something very interesting where I could have a fabulous part, I pounced on it. In the first 10 minutes of our first meeting, I had decided that I would be a part of this film.

I am very happy with this film. The final product is also very important. You can have an idea, a story, but there are a lot of other things involved. A filmmaker has to expertly translate all that on screen. And my director has done that.

If you have the right content, the right team and the right cast, half your work is done. The other half is up to the director, to bring that vision to the big screen. If you have watched Ashiwniji’s earlier films like Dhoop and Laddo, you will understand that this director knows what he is doing.

Ishita Dutta (ID): I met Ashwini sir and he narrated the film to me briefly. When I got to know the idea of the film, I was very clear right from the start that I wanted to be a part of this if he wanted me to. I liked my character, which is very different from what I have done so far. The roles I have played before have been of a shy, girl-next-door kind but in this film I call myself a little gundi.

She is a part of the Setters team by default but she has her own setting going on in the film. And, of course, like they said, the entire script and the story is very strong and thrilling. Also, every second is informative, kuch hota rehta hai. As an actor, I always want to be proud of the films I am associated with and this is one of them.

SS: The first thing was that I have never done a serious film, I have only been associated with comedy. Personally, I love thrillers, I think it is a very exciting genre. The script, of course, is important. But for me, the vibe I get from the director is also important because I need a director who is super-confident, someone who knows what he is doing, who is passionate and has knowledge of the subject. He has to be, like, this is the film, this is the content, and I am making it in this way.

So when I met Ashwini sir in a formal meeting, I was wowed, I was blown away by his confidence and passion regarding the project. That was a huge plus for me. Then, of course, when I read the script, I found it was really very good. I usually read scripts with breaks. I read a part then I take a coffee break or I go for a stroll and then resume reading. But with this script, I could not put it down. It was a no-brainer for me.

Titas Chowdhury (TC): When you have such a huge cast with so many characters, do you all feed off each other’s energies while performing?

PRM: As an actor, one has to understand that with a subject, especially like this one, the idea of overshadowing each other does not arise. If there are four characters in a scene and all of them stick to their parts, it will turn out well. Each one has to stick to their character. Only then will the scene work, which in turn will make the story work and the film work. As far as him bringing in so many actors together, I shouldn’t worry about the importance of my part because when I have a director like him, who is a thinking director, I have to believe that he has faith in me as an actor.

AS: Taking a leaf out of Pawanji’s book and taking it forward, I want to say, yes, we all feed off each other’s energies. If the character works, the story works and, as he said, the film eventually works. It all trickles down. The bunch of actors who are a part of this film are extremely incredible at their work and they all know their characters, their roles, and what they need to do. As a result, the director trusts the actors to bring his vision to the big screen. You do that without crossing any lines or stepping on anyone’s toes.

All the actors together had a certain responsibility and all of us have tried to do our best to contribute to Ashwiniji’s vision of Setters. So, yes, we did feed off each other’s energies but in a positive way. I learnt a lot working with actors like Pawanji, Shreyas (Talpade), Ishita, Sonnalli and everyone else.

BM: This film was not shot on a film set. Were there any logistic issues that you faced, especially while shooting in crowded areas?

AC: Given the kind of film it is, sets weren’t required. We shot in places like Delhi, Benaras, Jaipur and a few others. Most of the film is shot at authentic locations. We went to places like Chawri Bazaar, Pahargunj, Nizamuddin, airports, railway stations, etc. Several of these places were very crowded, like the stations or the ghats in Benaras. In the last few years, it has become easier to obtain permissions to shoot at local places, especially in Uttar Pradesh. Nowadays, Delhi too has become a very comfortable place to shoot in terms of permissions. When you have a great team, in terms of cast and crew, things automatically become easier. Our DoP, Santosh Thundiyil is a very senior technician and our production designer Wasiq Khan was very good at handling the demands of the film. In addition, when you get actors who are excited about the film, the content and their characters, it is a smooth ride. There were times when we spontaneously decided to shoot at some places. Then we had to do a guerilla shoot. In fact, there was one instance when we went to shoot at Ramleela with Sonnalli, where there were 15,000 people.

SS: Oh yes! That was an altogether different kind of experience!

AC: Yes, we had to shoot there without any permission. But the plus point is that wherever you shoot, you have the support of your actors. And if the actors are willing to do this, it is okay to shoot in the middle of thousands of people. That calls for a high level of commitment from everyone.

TC: Sonnalli and Ishita, when you play strong parts in what used to be considered a hero-oriented film, is it a deliberate step to break the stereotype?

ID: I think it depends on the script. If the script is written in a way where the girls, the actresses have scope to perform, to bring out a certain aspect of the narrative, then it is great. Like Sonnalli said earlier, the length of the role doesn’t matter but it has to be important. It needs to make a significant contribution to the narrative. That is the job of the script. If we keep getting scripts like these, we will perform accordingly.

SS: I want to say that there have been thrillers with women in the centre like Kahaani. It varies from one script to another. And, in fact, it is a delight that Setters is about Apurva and Aditya, where Shreyas (Talpade) is playing the setter and Aftab is playing the cop. It has very strong roles for us. And these roles are strong because they were written that way. It is fantastic to be a part of a time where the script is treated as all-important.

TC: Ashwini sir, how do you balance the realism in the film you spoke about with entertainment?

AC: In life, you find a lot of your characters in the people around you. The word ‘setters’ comes from ‘setting’, the mafia in this game. People use this lingo, this word in North India. So, when you make a realistic film, you have to keep these authentic elements in mind. In all my 50 years, I have never met anyone who doesn’t like to laugh, who doesn’t have a sense of humour. It’s the same with the characters in our film.

If Pawan bhai plays a mafia lord, he can also have some colour to his personality. If Sonnalli plays a cop, she would have characteristics like that. Since we have so many characters in the film, there were so many possibilities for me as a director and Siraj Ahmed as a writer to give different shades to all the parts. When you make a thriller, it doesn’t mean the audience will be okay with twists and turns only, they also need other kinds of entertainment, some relief, as well. You need some lighter moments. These elements also further distinguish one character from another.

PRM: There might be 20 heroes and heroines in the film, but there is only one villain, and that is me. (Laughs)

TC: What can the audience look forward to seeing with Setters on May 3?

AC: This film does not attempt to send a message. I don’t think the job of cinema is to send a message. Message dena Baba Ramdev type logon ka kaam hai. (Everybody laughs). Our job is to raise questions. Setters does just that.

PRM: Any film that leaves you with question marks regarding the subject and that forces you to think about it after you step out of the theatre, is a good film. When people discuss the film, it means we have achieved our objective.

ID: I suggest that the audience watch this film multiple times, and with friends and family. It is very interesting and I think people will enjoy it thoroughly.

SS: People who like good content should watch this film. I keep hearing that good films are not made any more but now that there is Setters, everyone should watch it and talk about it.

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