How can you focus on original material and shoot quickly?
To preface the following article, I should state upfront that I’m an independent filmmaker who directs exclusively from his own original material. This, of course, has its advantages and disadvantages, but I truly believe my ability to work fast—and on lower budgets—is made possible by my mad love for the scripting process, where anything and everything is possible… which is equally tempered by my personal involvement as a producer on my projects.
I always had a love for literature, which evolved into a passion for cinema as a storytelling medium. I taught myself scriptwriting by reading loads, watching a helluva lot of films, and by actually sitting myself down in self-imposed isolation and writing.
I started writing scripts early on, but I was forced to pick up budgeting/scheduling at the very outset of my independent filmmaking career since nobody else was willing to produce my work. And I was lucky enough to learn basic production skills from Swamy, a veteran film industry production executive and one of the producers on my film KRIYA. He also worked with me on my debut short THE TIGHTROPE WALKER, which premiered at Venice in 2000 when I was 23 years old.
I would like to add here (especially since I’m writing for NFS) that I never went to film school, but graduated from the school of hard knocks by assisting a filmmaker after college and subsequently deep-diving into DIY moviemaking at the age of 22. This was back in the day when 35mm was the norm.
In fact, THE TIGHTROPE WALKER was shot on 2 cans of 2-year-old, twice fog-tested Kodak 35mm balance raw stock! It seems a lifetime ago…
Development and Pre-Production
While KRIYA took only 10 nights to shoot, it had been 10 long years since my last feature, SOUL OF SAND, premiered at TIFF 2010, and I was itching to sink my teeth into a new film. One of my projects, TRAAS (aka THE PROFANE), had been selected for some very prestigious co-production markets, including HAF, Locarno Open Doors, and Bifan It Project (where it won 2 awards for post-production in Korea), but I was unable to raise domestic coin in spite of having British and Korean partners on board. I had to put THE PROFANE on the backburner.
After flogging numerous projects (3 at last count) with varying degrees of success, only to eventually be turned down, I felt compelled to go for broke and make a film within extremely limited means. This meant placing the proverbial cart before the horse and forcing myself to come up with a script that ideally required a single location and a skeletal unit.
KRIYA was just that—a stripped-down, single location recreation of a waking nightmare with an intimate ensemble of talented actors and a fiercely committed, remarkable crew. The principle challenge, while scripting, was letting my imagination run wild while simultaneously keeping logistical compulsions in mind.
The moment the script was locked and I had a broad handle on how much money was in the kitty, we began casting, a good 3 to 4 months before pre-production even began. I already had my male lead, Noble Luke, but the remaining ensemble was carefully handpicked with the help of my incredible casting director, Pranav Brara.
The biggest challenge during pre-production was securing our location. Given that KRIYA unfolds almost entirely in an old, dark gothic mansion, it was imperative the location was cinematic, apt, and affordable! My location manager Nagar found the perfect place—a 150-year-old colonial-era mansion designed by a British architect during the days of the Raj, replete with turrets, arches, pillars, and chandeliers—and it seemed to be falling within our budget, provided the shoot days were severely curtailed.
However, like with most things, it was too good to be true. The mansion housed 2 joint families who had a long-running property feud. While one family was willing to play ball, the other family was simply refusing to cooperate.
With barely one month to go before the shoot, my 1st AD and I embarked on a frenetic location-hunting spree and were literally tearing our hair out in frustration. Property dealers led us on many a wild goose chase, while some locations were simply unaffordable, and many of them were mired in disputes. I was on the verge of postponing the shoot and losing a chunk of money… and even walked away from a standing offer when I began suspecting one homeowner’s intentions.
Nagar, meanwhile, had constantly been cajoling and pushing the original homeowners to agree and, miraculously, with barely 2 weeks to go before principal photography and no location in hand, they went for it. Much to my dismay, the house would remain occupied throughout the shoot, I was informed. But after much debate and discussion, I decided to take the plunge and go ahead with our shoot as planned. It was now or never.
Truth be told, my partners and I plunged into principal photography on KRIYA with only just enough money to finish the shooting—in 10 nights flat—and do a basic rough cut. This is where conviction, self-belief, and whatnot come into play. So my advice, for what it’s worth, is to go shoot your film if you have the wherewithal to do so and really believe in your vision. Get it in the can, and the rest will follow! Post-production is a controlled, manageable process, whereas shooting is super risky.
Once the script was penned, everything came together remarkably fast. True to my indie filmmaking roots, I dipped into the satellite sales proceeds for SOUL OF SAND and, with the unflinching support of my long-time friend and producing partner Swamy, secured the backing of one of India’s foremost equipment vendors - Accord Equips Pvt. Limited. Tejash Shah, the promoter of Accord Equips, was known to Swamy and graciously consented to not only provide us the equipment but to invest in KRIYA as well. This would never have been possible had I not been willing to go for broke myself.
Honestly, in my experience, when making atypical personal films, it helps if the director has personal skin in the game (God helps those who help themselves, etc.). Trust me; there are enough people out there who are willing to take a bet on a film. But they are more likely to wager on your film if you are personally invested in it to some degree.
KRIYA was shot on 2 Canon EOS C300 MK II cameras with Zeiss CP3 block lenses. Given that the bulk of the action took place at night in a single bungalow, my 2 amazing DOP’s Karan Thapliyal and Lakshman Anand, pre-rigged the lighting for each individual room allowing for a 2-cam setup and a seamless turnaround from scene to scene, room to room. By the time the cameras rolled, the cast was already super-comfortable with their lines, and we were good to go.
I was extremely fortunate to have a deeply committed cast and crew on KRIYA, who loved the script and ran with it. My 1st AD, whom we fondly call ND, ran a very tight ship, and the unit acclimatized to the demands placed on them almost immediately. It really helps to be surrounded by like-minded people who are on the same page as you and are willing to go along for the ride with you.
We managed to complete the shoot in an unbelievable 10 nights... on schedule and went only a tad over budget. This turnaround placed incredible demands on the unit but, at the end of the day, also served to imbue a horror-arthouse hybrid like KRIYA with a sense of urgency, claustrophobia, and unparalleled intensity which, I believe, would not have been possible otherwise.
Post-Production and Premiere
We had put together just enough to shoot KRIYA sans compromise, which is exactly what we did. The rest, we optimistically believed, would follow…
The very first person I had shared the KRIYA script with was my mate Pete Tombs, a British film historian, producer, and genius behind the unique Mondo Macabro home video label. Pete and his amazing producing partner Andy Starke were known to me from the time of SOUL OF SAND, and THE PROFANE was to have been made in collaboration with them. I innately shared Pete and Andy’s peculiar taste in cinema and admired the incredible work they have been making, like POSSESSOR, KILL LIST, THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY, and IN FABRIC.
After completing an initial edit on Adobe Premiere Pro, I shared the rough cut of the film with Pete and Andy, and, as luck would have it, they loved what they saw and were extremely generous with their creative input. Long story short, Mondo Macabro stepped on board KRIYA as co-producer, enabling a dream post-production workflow with the most gifted British artists and technicians, including Jim Williams, the composer responsible for the scores to KILL LIST, RAW, and POSSESSOR, and Martin Pavey. Andy meticulously commandeered this entire process with unbelievable tenacity and precision, orchestrating multiple variables across two continents.
The edit, ADR, sound editing, and DI (Da Vinci resolve) for KRIYA was done in Delhi, while the score, mixing, and VFX were all done in the UK. Once again, I was supported through the post workflow by a very committed team of young and dedicated technicians (KRIYA was their maiden feature film) comprising my editor Rwikjit Roy, my sound designer Debangshu and my colorist Divya Kehr. They stood by me through thick and thin and really internalized my vision for KRIYA, giving it their best.
Our carefully laid out plans for a festival run seemed to have been dashed when the pandemic broke. I was on the verge of reaching out directly to OTT streamers or aggregators for distribution, when Fantasia’s Co-Director Mitch Davis got back to me, saying he loved KRIYA and wanted it to be one of the key films, in competition, at Fantasia 2020. The catch was that it was to be a virtual festival.
I must confess I didn’t bat an eyelid and jumped at Mitch’s offer—firstly because of his self-professed love for KRIYA and my sincere belief that Fantasia was a perfect home to launch the picture, and secondly because I feared there would be a huge glut of titles at the other end of the pandemic, whenever that happened! Like with the shoot, I decided to bite the bullet and have lived to tell this tale…
I am very proud of the singular world we created on a hope and a prayer. Films like KRIYA rarely, if ever, get made (especially in the Indian landscape) and dare I say I feel the 10-year wait was well worth it. But as far as shooting a feature in 10 nights is concerned, I hope I’m never forced to do that again!