Director Geetu Mohandas is in the thick of what she calls "madness" in Mumbai. Her Moothon is having a premiere in the city on Thursday, having just finished screenings at the Mumbai Academy of the Moving Image (MAMI) and Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). It will hit theatres in India on November 8.
"It's a mess, but it's a nice mess!" she quips. Speaking about the reception that Moothon received at the two prestigious film festivals, Geetu says, "It was nice to see different opinions, different crowds, it was received very warmly. We got a platform for the film in an international space and then immediately after that, it was the opening film in MAMI. It was fabulous."
One is curious to know how she picks the places where she sets her stories. While Liar's Dice was set in a small village near the Chinese border and Delhi, Moothon is set in Lakshadweep and Mumbai.
"Maybe because I'm not very rooted myself. I've always been an expat kid and I lived abroad. I don't have a particular place to call as my home. I think of myself as a child of the world and I travel where my imagination takes me. I find my home, setting and characters there. If I'd been born and brought up in a certain space in my life, I wouldn't have this 'nativity' issue. I know it can be a big minus but I'm trying to make it my plus. Even Malayalam literature, I read only translated works and so much is lost in translation - those are the things I've really missed out on because I never studied or grew up here," she says.
Geetu as Tinnu in En Bommukutty Ammavukku
Though Geetu has acted in Tamil and Malayalam films as a child actor (she's the cherubic, doe-eyed Tinnu from En Bommukutty Ammavukku), she grew up mostly in Malaysia and Canada.
"The language is never a criteria. While writing the story, you think of the spaces where you're going to set it in because of what it demands. Moothon demanded a sense of isolation, beauty in a serene space and I couldn't find that kind of a setting anywhere else. That's why I chose Lakshadweep because I wanted a contrast between a small island versus a big city, the underbelly in Mumbai. I wanted the contrast in terms of setting, soundscape, language politics, even the visual narrative," she says.
Geetu doesn't think about logistics when she writes, something her stint at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab taught her. It's what's given her the freedom to come up with stories set in Chitkul (where the team shot in minus degrees for Liar's Dice) and Mumbai's busy Kamathipura.
"Once I finished writing Moothon, I thought it's going to be very difficult to shoot in spaces like Kamathipura but I was surprised because the people were so welcoming. We shot with a small camera. We had no lights or generator and many didn't know that we were actually shooting. We placed the actors in real locations, they'd mouth the dialogues and we'd get out of there," she recalls.
Geetu and her leading man in Moothon, Nivin Pauly, live in the same apartment complex and she would often discuss the film with him as she was writing it. It may come as a surprise for the audience to see Nivin, who's known for playing the loverboy in many Malayalam films, swearing in Hindi in a Mumbai slum, but did Geetu always envision him in the role?
Laughing, Geetu says, "I can't tell you who I thought of initially because that would be very unfair. The actor didn't respond the way I wanted him to! But I'm so happy with how it's turned out with Nivin playing it and now I can't imagine anyone else being this character. What he gave me, I don't think any other actor would have given me - he completely surrendered himself to the film. He said he wants to unlearn everything and start from scratch. Generally actors and especially Nivin is so used to working in commercial films with his friends. He has that sense of comfort zone, he knows his image. He was like a fish out of water in my set initially because it was completely different - the crew, the ambience, everything. It was not star driven, there was no caravan. All of us were getting down and working hard. But I was pleasantly surprised by his response and he exceeded my expectations. I think he found the character in him," she says.
Geetu with the cast of Moothon
Casting Sobhita Dhulipala was easy - Geetu says the Made in Heaven actor cast herself!
"Anurag (Kashyap) was the one who suggested her to me because she'd worked in Raman Raghav 2.0. I said okay, let me look at her work. But she got my number from somewhere and started bombarding me with texts saying 'let me audition'. And before I knew it, she was wearing outfits and going and standing in Kamathipura, sending screenshots saying 'I'm this character, I'm Rosie!' And I just got so amused and excited that an actor was so dedicated to do all that. I thought there should be something in her. I did like her performance in Raman Raghav but it was completely different from my approach and what I wanted from Rosie in Moothon. But it was a wonderful experience to discover her in the film," says Geetu.
Indian cinema does not have a great track record when it comes to representing tribal groups on screen; they're typically either exoticised or denigrated. For making Moothon, Geetu travelled several times to the Lakshadweep islands to spend time with the people there. The visits weren't easy for Geetu and her team. They had to be mindful of the climatic conditions, figure out the numerous details required for shooting, and also abide by the government restrictions in place.
"What we got the most from the people was love. They're so far removed from the rest of us. They don't have their own film industry or music. They have their own little world and it's so beautiful. The women especially are so powerful and progressive. I wanted to translate all that to the screen. We're not trying to sell Indian exotica here - you stay real and true," she says.
As with her first two films - the short Kelkunnundo and Liar's Dice - Geetu's husband, acclaimed cinematographer and director Rajeev Ravi, is the DoP for Moothon.
"Clearly there's a camaraderie between us and that's the reason why as professionals we work together. And I want to work with the best team. I honestly feel he's the best, so why would I work with anyone else?" she asks, with a laugh.
The team at Lakshadweep
A few early reviews of Moothon are out by critics who watched the film in the festival circuit. Is Geetu happy with the responses?
"Once your labour of love is done, you need to be receptive to all kinds of comments and love. My film has a certain sense of ambiguity and that's there in my first film as well. There will be a lot of questions and talk raised. And that's fine. When it's a personal expression, it has to be judged. I'm happy with the overall responses and honestly, none of it takes anything away from how much we enjoyed the process of making Moothon. Those things are secondary to us...with every film, you have to cut the umbilical cord at some point," she says wisely.
The ambiguity that Geetu mentions is something she finds naturally in her work. "I write something, I shoot something else and I edit something else. I don't stick to the script like it's the Bible. It's a very organic process and it has to keep evolving. You just have to go with the flow...I always return to the first draft. It may be very different but I want to make sure that the emotion that I wanted to convey is still there. That's the only thing I look at after the final edit," she says.
A vocal member of the Women in Cinema Collective, Geetu feels that the change happening in the kind of films being made in the industry is an important one.
"It doesn't matter how much we discuss, it matters who implements it. And the change is inevitable and important. We now have a space where there are so many emerging voices, women filmmakers coming to the forefront. I always feel that whenever a woman touches a work of art, there is a different (though not necessarily better) perspective. And we need that kind of collaboration. This is happening not only in films made by women but also the men. It's more content-driven than star-driven...even the stars now are moving towards films that tell stories, good cinema. There's more awareness about cinema in the global platform. I feel the youngsters now are all very ambitious in a beautiful way. They know how to position themselves. They're hungry; there's a want for content," she says.
So, what's Geetu's next going to be? And in which language? All that she will reveal for now is that it's going to be a multi-starrer!