Power Of Storytelling In Human-Canine Connections

In cinema, an industry where the monopoly has always remained with large production companies and certain families, screenwriter and director Sandeep Mohan is drawing audiences by the droves in his own inimitable style. With five feature length films to his name to date, which he has written and directed, he is shattering the misconception that independent films are a thing of the past. He speaks to Indica Pitures on his writing process and his film Nirmal Anand ki Puppy, which won the Audience Choice in Indica Film Fest 2020 and the DCSAFF Film Festival Award for Best Script.

As a storyteller, how do you feel the film benefits from having the writer and director be one person? Does it bring a sense of cohesiveness? 

Well, all I can say is that it works well for me.

All the 5 films that I have made till now right from Love Wrinkle-free, Hola Venky, Shreelancer, Nirmal Anand ki Puppy and Danny Goes Aum have been written by me. I guess I don't know any other way of making a film than spending months pondering over a script that has evolved from deep within me.

Also, I feel relaxed while scripting because I know I will be the one directing it too. Otherwise you have this constant thought at the back of your mind that you have to sell/impress someone else who will be directing it, and hence one can end up second guessing about the merits or demerits of the idea.This is not good for the film. The only person that I have to impress while scripting is me, the filmmaker within me. Also, all the quirks and details that matter to me which goes into the script remain till the end of the film. If someone else is directing my script, then they might not understand the value of these quirks and details in the overall context of the film. So yes, to answer your question, it helps. It is nice for the audience to know that there is very little filtering happening in emotions from the author of the film to the completed film - personally that is what I am going for. This is the challenge and the reason that I make films too. It is a beautiful feeling to be able to communicate what is in my heart to a stranger somewhere in the audience. Difficult to explain in words, but then words cannot explain everything right? The reason I have to resort to creating a film to express myself better…

The film centres around a family and their life after they lose their pet. Conversely, how did you feel your life changed after Hermione entered it? What is the importance of a muse for a storyteller and artist? 

In a big city, be it Mumbai or any other city in the world, people are longing for actual ‘connections’. I feel it is easier to make deeper connections with animals than with humans nowadays because humans are extremely busy. No one has time for themselves, forget each other! Technology has made it much more complicated too. Personally, I’ve never understood ‘busy’ people. I look at them with amusement most of the time.

I like the calmness of the pets - they are always happy to see you I think. They make time for you from their ‘busy dog or cat life’. In big cities, where families get to meet properly only over the weekends, I was making a case for having Pets to make us all feel much better connected as families. Hermione, my own pet, came into our life after my daughter insisted on getting a pet and convinced my wife - so I had very little choice. But after she came into our life, I got very attached to her. I can talk to Hermione about my dreams and my weird ideas about life - she listens to me attentively I feel. Also her being there keeps me in a pleasant mood since pets are always up to something that makes you look at life a little lightly. I have always been the fun loving guy but the challenges that I face making my kind of films were slowly turning me into some kind of a serious guy. Hermione helps keep me in good spirits mostly, and reminds me that my light-hearted playful approach to life is what has got me till here, so why change.

As for a muse, well, honestly, I don’t know whether she was a muse or a co-creator. I know artists talk about having muses, but for me, if I can put myself in a pleasant mood, I don’t need any external motivations or muses/people. I can very well live in the pleasant imaginary cocoon that I have created to inhabit, write and create from that zone. Sometimes I feel that the Cities where I set the story in, for instance Goa in case of the new film ‘Danny Goes Aum’ - they can be some sort of an inspiration for me. I don’t like to put too much importance on a human muse because then you are giving away too much of your creative power to an external source. If you cannot be your own muse, I would say, go get a Pet and enjoy your creative process. This did help me with creating Nirmal Anand ki Puppy for sure.

The process of writing is often lonely. How did you feel it change while writing this script with Hermione at your side? 

Writing is definitely a lonely process, but something I really love. I am a bit of an introvert who can be an extrovert for an hour a month!

It is a love-hate relationship with loneliness - I want it and I don't want it, but mostly I want it since then I can concentrate on the ideas floating in my heart and make sense of them. Also I stay far away from the hustle and bustle of the film industry, so very less to zero socialising for me. The only outlet is to play badminton for a couple of hours every second day because I like it. Otherwise, my life revolves around going to a Cafe near my house which is my Office of sorts. Here I order my regular Green Tea and try to concentrate and ideate. Once I get tired, I go for a walk watching people go about their life, and then I go back home, do a bit of Yoga or meditate or go play badminton. I am always working on some script or an idea. Always. Being in the ideating space is a habit, I try to stay there - keeps me in a curious space.

Getting attached to someone deeply comes with its own pains as we all would know. Despite trying to live a reasonably detached existence, I was finding myself attached to the world of Hermione and dogs. The fact that dogs cannot speak like human beings added to my curiosity about them. The mystery. Also as a filmmaker, I make films about my immediate concerns, so one day I was thinking as to what would happen if you suddenly took this dog away from my life. Felt painful for me, just the thought. Made me uncomfortable. As a Writer, I need to go into uncomfortable zones to come up with new perspectives on life. The story of Nirmal Anand ki Puppy evolved from somewhere there. Of course the film is not my life story, it is a story about the kind of people and families I used to see in and around the Powai area in Mumbai. This is an area which can represent the new kind of urban India - with lots of people from the corporate world living here, being able to afford a lot of things which their parents couldn’t have when they were growing up - big apartments in sky-rise buildings, cars, pets etc. There is a new found confidence in this area. And naturally, the more material comforts happen, there is also a sense of sadness i felt in this area. As a filmmaker, I really wanted to explore it. I don’t live in this area, but i do visit a cafe here to write and explore…

Coming home from this cafe after ideating and writing the day’s quota of script, I used to find the family asleep since it would be quite late in the night. It is nice to see them all peacefully asleep. So I would tip toe my way into the house not wanting to disturb anyone in the house, but Hermione would still know it, and come and give me a nice welcome. As if she knew what I have been struggling with the whole day, trying to write something good. Then I would spend some time with her quietly, talking about what I wrote that day and she would stare at me like how dogs look at not-very-logical human beings. This turned out to be a productive creative process for me - to be able to talk my rough ideas out, verbalise them. So yes, I find ways to keep the process interesting or let’s say exciting. Writing can be lonely, but the onus is on me to keep myself stimulated. And yes, for Nirmal Anand ki Puppy, I have shared my screenplay writing credits with Hermione for all the patient listening hours that she offered me. Sort of like a Script Consultant/Therapist.

Through the movie, the emphasis is on subtlety to convey emotions. How do you as an independent filmmaker feel about the movie industry on this front? Are movies moving towards having larger budgets and less subtlety? 

If something can be said without saying it, it is nicer right? As it is, there is so much noise pollution out there. Maybe also the reason that I stick to my independent approach to making films. Because in the mainstream space, a lot of people get involved in the process, and they do get extremely panicky with this subtle thing. They worry that the audience would not understand some of these, but I have always trusted my audience because I feel I know them closely. I believe that they are way more smarter than what these people are willing to give them credit for. I write and direct for a person like me - a normal guy who operates out of a Cafe in Mumbai, who travels around India and at times to different parts of the world for Film Festivals, someone whose friends are mostly normal people from the corporate or the sporting world, someone who prefers to walk or take a rickshaw or local trains, someone who is in touch with the real world out there.

Yes, a lot of filmmakers who were earlier proponents of a different approach to filmmaking than the mainstream decided to give it all up, and joined hands with the very families that controlled the mainstream industry here. Now they are all one big and loud happy Bollywood family with the families still having the final word. This monopoly corporation of sorts have absolute control of the kind of films that will come out of here. They will decide what will get made, what will sell, what will get talked about as good film or bad. Their friends in the entertainment media space would ensure that whatever these people make gets the attention. They are feted for mostly mediocre films - some get celebrated more because they make something 10% better than these mainstream junk.

For me, I feel bad because they are keeping the bar very low when you compare it to global standards. The lack of competition will make anyone lazy. Same is the case here as these people are resorting to easier ways of making films - pick up remake rights and make a film. But how can competition or experimentation occur when these very people make sure that one cannot sustain oneself here if you follow a path different than theirs. Also, the money that they make is also getting bigger with Talent Agencies coming on board, so with it, they are getting scared of experimenting - why do something new when the old is making you and your cronies rich. With all this comes inflated egos and the belief that they own the film industry here forgetting that anyone can actually make films. But I am sure that this won’t last for too long. In every other sphere in India, you can see innovation - start-ups and young people working hard on interesting ideas to break out into the global marketspace. Create something of value that can stand out as unique and smart globally. But only in the

mainstream Indian film industry, do you see this kind of a ‘mediocre’ approach and aversion to innovation and experimentation. If someone experiments, they are looked down on as arty and discouraged. When did arty become a bad word in the world of arts? Yet the eternal optimist that I am, am still hopeful that this will change eventually since the audience is changing. Also, we have a lot of talent here who will eventually see through this and break out.

As for me, to be honest, I have been following my heart and doing what I wanted right from the first film - never followed any of these people much. Yes, hence I am not very popular with them, but that is fine. I am just glad that I managed to write and direct five feature films despite this system. As long as I keep my inner-voice intact, work very hard on my scripts and am disciplined towards my filmmaking process, I can stay away from the noise of these ‘experts’ and ‘monopoly structures’ and make a few more films before I die. I am always optimistic. Loudness cannot sustain itself for too long!

While shooting an independent film, do you find there is a deeper connection between the cast and crew? What are the advantages?

I am sure it is different for each filmmaker. For me, I do not outsource casting to anybody else. Nor do I conduct auditions for actors. I invite some people who are in my mind from previous interactions in life and we talk over tea in some cafe closer to my place. Sometimes I record on my phone or camera when they are talking about their life and other things. I put them at ease and then decide whether they fit the character in the script.

It is a lovely feeling to be able to give an opportunity to these talented individuals who are mostly ignored by the mainstream or relegated to smaller roles in bigger films. As for crew members, it is easier since I pretty much work with the same crew most of the time, and share a close bond.

For me, the most important thing I look for is talent, mutual respect for each other and their readiness to come with me on an adventure that I have envisioned. During the process of making a film, we are like one small family living through the ordeals of the filmmaking process together. But once the film is done, we all move on to other things in life naturally. Yet we all maintain a certain level of friendship when we get to meet. For me, sometimes the issue is that these actors remain etched in my mind as the characters from my film, and hence I try to keep a distance from them once the film is done. This way I can move on to imagining newer characters for my next film. Having said that, I am super proud of all the actors and crew members who started off with me in various films and are doing good work in the industry now. I always wish them the best in my heart even if I am not very good at keeping in touch with them. My introverted nature takes over once the film is done and then I prefer to spend time with myself and my quiet Cafe lifestyle. Those who know me understand this and leave me alone.

Video Excerpt of the Interview