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February 04, 2018

The Bigger Picture: Amit Masurkar Talks About His Craft And His Award-Winning Movie

Text by Huzan Tata

Fresh from the success of the much-acclaimed Newton (2017), the director chats with us about the art of film-making and what he loves most about it

“Definitely not giving interviews!” he laughs when asked what he loves about being a part of the Indian film industry. Amit Masurkar, who started off in the media world as a writer for The Great Indian Comedy Show on television, soon graduated to making films with the offbeat slacker comedy Sulemani Keeda. But it’s with his latest release Newton — India’s official entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars that unfortunately dropped out of the race last month — that movie buffs sat up and took notice of his work. It made the rounds of film festivals the world over and grabbed several awards along the way, telling the industry that here’s a promising new name to watch out for. Currently penning his next film with co-writer Aastha Tiku, Masurkar talks to Verve about his craft and his award-winning movie.

Did you grow up on a diet of movies? What prompted you to make the switch from engineering to filmmaking?
I did watch movies while growing up, but not the way I did when I was in college. That’s when I started taking a serious look at films. There wasn’t a defining moment as such when I decided to take up filmmaking; it was something that just happened over a period of time. I found the world of storytelling interesting, so I tried to get into theatre and work for my college magazine. There was actually no plan. I was on vacation and happened to attend the Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF), where I saw some wonderful films and met filmmakers and film students…that’s when I realised it wouldn’t be that difficult a switch. It was an impulsive decision.

You began by writing for TV, eventually graduating to films. What challenges did you face?
I started writing sketch comedy for television, where the scripts are ideally two-to-three pages long, and full of punch lines. The kind of sketches I was writing were very topical, and my thinking was tuned to writing these. I would scan the newspapers every morning and come up with ideas for three different sketches just from reading the headlines. That’s how the other writers and I would jam — we’d also watch other sketch comedies. When I switched to movies, it was initially difficult for me to get out of that mindset while writing, as movies have a longer medium of storytelling. The writing style, too, is different. I had to stop thinking in capsules of two minutes and start looking at the bigger picture — structuring a film, getting into the characters’ minds, underlining the themes. I started looking at them with a different eye. I had to unlearn what I knew from writing sketches, and start from scratch.

Newton released to great critical acclaim. Did you anticipate the public reaction and its success?
The whole production team was very clear that we were making Newton for a mass audience. If you look at the film, it’s completely in Hindi — the kind that’s commonly spoken in smaller towns. The character Newton too is from a small town, and he goes into the jungles to conduct elections. We were positive that it would be received well in the country’s heartlands. When it did the rounds of film festivals, everyone termed it a niche film aimed at a multiplex audience. But when we released it commercially, we saw that all kinds of audiences liked it — it was quite appreciated in cities like Mumbai and New Delhi, and also in towns like Gorakhpur and Kondagaon.

What was on your mind when the plagiarism controversy broke out after Newton was selected as India’s entry for the Oscars?
Honestly, during the time, we were busy with other things because the film was in the theatres. It had already done extremely well on the festival circuit and had gone to the same places that the Iranian film Secret Ballot (2001) had been screened. It was only when the Oscar announcement was made that this was turned into an issue by the Indian media. All through our festival journey of over nine months through six continents, I had never heard of any comparisons being made by any foreign critic. So I was confident that this controversy wasn’t going to affect the movie. Both the producer and director of Secret Ballot watched Newton and said the right thing — that ours was an original piece of work.

What was the experience of working with acclaimed actors like Rajkummar Rao and Pankaj Tripathi like?
All the actors were cast because they suited their parts more than anything else. They were honest in their performances — that was half the battle won. As someone has said in the past, direction is 90 per cent casting. That’s absolutely true. You just have to cast right and wait for the magic to happen.

What part of the film-making process do you enjoy most?
I actually feel most satisfied when I’m editing. You see everything coming together. You see your mistakes and learn how to salvage them. You see different takes together and remember why you took certain decisions. And you can try out different music pieces.

What’s the one thing you would like to change about the Indian film industry?
I wish there were more saleable actors — a huge pool of actors whose films would do really well. Right now, this list of actors is quite short as compared to Hollywood. So, what this means is that the audience, too, should be open to watching new people and different subjects.

What kind of movies do you enjoy watching?
I like to watch films that surprise me. If I’m watching a movie and can predict the next scene — tropes and cliches — it’s boring. I like content that is progressive, that shocks and that shows me new worlds.

What’s on your bucket list, professionally?
I want to keep telling stories I enjoy. A film takes one or two years of your life, so they better be spent well, making something you believe in. I don’t like to limit myself to a genre or budget. Above all, the story needs to surprise me and be challenging.

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