Exploring sociocultural themes in the interiors of central India through an absurdist comedy is how first-time director Yashowardhan Mishra says he envisioned "Kathal: A Jackfruit Mystery", his feature debut.
At the centre of "Kathal" is Mahima Basor, played by Sanya Malhotra, a quick-on-her-feet cop from a lower caste on a mission to find two premium-quality jackfruits that go missing from a local politician's garden.
Mishra, who studied literature and mass media at Mumbai's Mithibai College of Arts, said he was committed to shining a light on deeper issues of the society with "a light-hearted satire". He is also known for his Nashik-set short film "Mandi".
"A lot of 'Kathal' has been about unlearning and recognising my privileges as an upper caste man... We had to depict the realities of the world because making a film in itself is a privilege for me. If I can use that privilege to tell stories of the people who are not so privileged, I would (think I) have used my privilege in a more fruitful way," the debutant told PTI in an interview.
"We wanted to have that level of alienation because the tone of the film is so absurdist. A lot of things are so far-fetched, they are unbelievable. But they are the derivative of basically what we have seen around us. So, it's pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle with a lot of sociocultural dynamics of that part of the world," he added.
The Mumbai-based filmmaker co-wrote the movie with his father, two-time National Award winner Ashok Mishra, who worked with veteran director Shyam Benegal on "Welcome to Sajjanpur".
"I was quite aware of that part of the world. I thought that for my first film, I should explore a story from there," said Mishra, born to parents belonging to Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh.
He said "Kathal" is a derivative of the research the team did in Bundelkhand, a hilly region divided between the states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. While the film is set in the fictional town of Moba, the police force depicted is the UP Police, he added.
"The police force that we are depicting here is essentially UP Police but we didn't want to specifically locate it in a real place."
Having a stellar ensemble cast including Malhotra, Vijay Raaz, Rajpal Yadav, Anant Joshi, Neha Saraf, Govind Pandey and Shashi Ranjan was a cherry on top.
"We wanted to investigate all kinds of dynamics as much as we could while keeping the spirit of the story alive, using those intrapersonal dynamics that people have.
"Only the actors can bring those dynamics to life. It's those little things that they do which tell more than what is written in text. I had the chance to work with such fantastic actors who understand the world as well as I do," he added.
The on-screen portrayal of the police force is often all about glorified masculinity and through his film, the director said he wanted to break those "preconceived notions".
"It is sometimes scary also that they are these ruthless people. That is a little bit of a generalisation. We met cops who were so to speak 'softer' than the image we see on screen, (cops) who were more feminine, who expressed themselves rather than just talking about their systems and their work, (cops) who let us do it their lives," he added.
To create Malhotra's Mahima, Mishra said he and his co-writer father had to keep "checking our male gaze".
"Mahima is not perfect, but she's smart. She has a knack for dealing with situations using brains rather than brawn. So, we wanted to portray the police force as people who are just like us. One of the lady cops told us, 'We hate the fact that the civilian society is scared of us. If you're making a film, please ensure that we don't look scary'," he added.
When they met many women police officers for research on "Kathal", the filmmaker said he realised they approach every situation with "a lot of empathy and a balanced outlook".
"They are not quick to render judgement on their cases. They are not so frivolous. Sometimes the male officers in the police force tend to have their male gaze at approaching things.
"We wanted to be really close to the research that we were trying to follow and we met so many different kinds of police officers. We brought them all together to get a kind of a bouquet and create this character of Mahima."
Having Malhotra, whose work he admired right from her debut days of "Dangal" to "Pagglait", was another highlight.
"Even in 'Pataakha', her comic timing, her understanding of the lingo, of the place was amazing. She can really shape shift between characters. Producer Guneet Monga suggested we meet Sanya. When I discussed the film with her, the story evoked a lot of empathy in her... That was the game changer," he added.
Produced by Sikhya Entertainment and Balaji Telefilms Ltd, "Kathal" will start streaming on Netflix from May 19.