Vikramaditya Motwane, who shot to fame with his debut film Udaan, is back with an urban survival drama Trapped, starring Rajkummar Rao. He speaks with Outlook about the film, his journey as a writer, producer, director, and on other interesting aspects of cinema. Excerpts…
How did Trapped happen?
It’s actually not my idea. A writer called Amit Joshi cold-emailed me and I thought it was quite unique that no one had thought of urban survival drama in a city with high rises and all. When I mailed asking if he had a screenplay he disappeared and then two months later there was a screenplay in my inbox. Everything fell into place with this movie. The screenplay came out of the cold, Rajkummar happened to be free and I was working on something else which didn’t happen. So, suddenly I had the time to shoot, got my location by a stroke of luck, and we just jumped into it. We had found a cluster of buildings in Powai. But one of the assistant directors was walking about in Prabhadevi and he found this vacant building, took pictures. It was amazing to find 30 storeys of a building in Prabhadevi overlooking all of Mumbai - just a stroke of luck.
Is the film very claustrophobic?
It’s actually not very claustrophobic. It is a survival thriller. Yes, it is about a guy stuck in a flat without food or water but it is also a funny film at some level. Beyond a certain point you have to see humour in a situation like that. My brief was that you have to be serious for the first 30 minutes and then break all that. What else do you do? It’s not like you enjoy his misery and you want him to get out but new things are introduced, making it more difficult. Like in Martian, Matt Damon starts to joke about his situation. I wasn’t going for claustrophobia. I was trying to make an accessible film, this could happen to anybody –it is a quirky, character-based survival drama.
Did you think of films like 127 hours or Cast Away?
Not really. I don’t think anyone has made an urban survival drama like this. I remember thinking when I saw the idea: ‘Why hasn’t anyone made this before?’ It is so in your face and yet never done. In a place like Mumbai, or China or even the US – they have done guy-stuck-on-an-island, between rocks, or in a coffin… this is very interesting. I have seen all these films but at no point did we reference them. This was such a solid idea that we thought let’s not do the normal tropes and create something on our own.
How much did you prepare Rajkummar Rao for this role?
He is a powerhouse of talent. We did not prepare him much because the idea was to throw a guy into a situation like that. We thought that we should not prepare him for the situation mentally. We just got him inside. He was prepared from the point of view of ‘eat only so much’ etc. No one is prepared for a situation like that in real life.
This sounds like adventure-reality television.
Yeah, exactly. Like a potential ‘Bigg Boss’. This is that. How long can you survive being stuck with only rats and cockroaches for company...
How do you go about making the choices of actors for your films – Ranveer Singh and Sonakshi for Lootera was unconventional in terms of the casting
It is the material really. At end of the day stars are also actors, and they enjoy the process. I remember telling them it is going to be hard- shooting in Kolkata, Dalhousie but eventually you will enjoy it eventually. They totally enjoyed the process and so did I.
Even in the commercial space, the kind of films Salman Khan, Shahrukh Khan and Akshay Kumar are doing. Aamir Khan has been doing for a long time – they are taking subjects that are not overtly-simple, they are films with layers. And their being in the film makes it accessible to a wider audience, like Raju Hirani’s films.
As a producer, do you think things are getting better for cinema with studios and corporatisation or that more formulaic film is being made.
Yes and no. Today, you can make pretty much anything as long it is in the right budget bracket. Look at Marathi Cinema – not just Sairat – the success of films like Court, Killa (shows that) these guys are going out and making these films and that there is an audience for it which doesn’t care about the stars. Hindi films like Neerja, Kapoor and Sons, Jolly LLB or even an Airlift are working. This is of course a good sign but at the same time the cost of distribution is very high. Very few films get more than two weeks to make a mark at the Box Office. Unless your film is really good, it is difficult for films to survive.
Isn’t the cost factor at play with overall movie-going experience becoming quite expensive, especially over weekends?
Yeah and because of that the audience has become more demanding in terms of what they want to spend their money on. Last year they spent their money on Jungle Book. It’s a movie that you can’t watch anywhere but a theatre. The same with Dangal. For example, Dr.Strange with Benedict Cumberbatch did a business of Rs. 25 crore without any marketing. That is a big sign. While you know that there is audience that is looking for interesting stuff, they also want to get their dime for the buck. But yes, smaller films are not going to get enough time at the screens. We need to see if variable pricing can work. The average audience is going to think ‘if I am spending 300 bucks plus-parking-plus-popcorn, then should I see an indie film, or the best Hollywood extravaganza that I can?’ I know what I would do; I’d rather see a John Wick than see a Trapped and that is a bit scary. We need to figure out a way so that indie films should have a guaranteed run or variable pricing. It’s cool that Netflix, Amazon make sure that these films have longer shelf life. Lot of experiments are going on.
How do festivals help these films?
MAMI was a great place for Trapped (It premiered there). One, you want to let go of the film and secondly you know that the audience are all cinema lovers. It was great place to gauge reactions to the film. Personally, it felt correct because this is a film about Mumbai and MAMI is THE festival of the city. Festivals are fantastic places to create some buzz for your film or even to make some deals around your films, basically, get people to watch and buy your film. It is good for the release and also selection at festivals helps build the reputation of young filmmakers.
What comes naturally to you - writing, editing, producing or directing?
The only thing that comes naturally to me is editing. I enjoy editing the most. I have done more editing than anything else. Writing is an entire world of possibilities whereas shooting, editing is like ‘dude this it’ – ab banao. It is extremely challenging. Trapped has been a difficult film – you want to pace the film in such way that audience doesn’t get bored but it can’t be so fast that the audience does not “feel” the story. I had to find a balance. I can’t be indulgent, can’t be like it just happened and no one felt it.
Doesn’t the intermission spoil this kind of a film?
It kills it. We are trying hard to not have intermission in this film. It does kill it. When you step out and then come back (from the intermission) you are like ‘oh he is still there, poor guy’.
It’s been long since you started with Sanjay Leela Bhansali. How has the journey been?
It’s been 20 years since I started working with Sanjay Leela Bhansali in January 1997. People say you made it young but I have been working for a long time. I learnt that you need to have patience but I also learnt that you need to have a solid foundation in every aspect of filmmaking. You have to be proficient in every department – on the sets, in the editing studio. Sanjay let me do so much in the two films that I worked with him; I have to thank him for that. It’s been long, difficult and frustrating at times. I wanted to make Udaan from 2004; it got made in 2010. I am glad it didn’t happen then, it wouldn’t have got the same release.
Your next is a super-hero film titled Bhavesh Joshi?
It is a coming-of-age vigilante drama. I think it is a fun film but I can’t tell you more. He can’t fly. It’s not that kind of super-hero film. Let the trailer come out; it will surprise you.
What do you think about the trend of making films based on real-life events and sports biopics? Is the depiction too positive?
Sports biopics are the order of the day. They are official. We are not allowed to make films without permissions. The wonderful thing about making a film in the US is that you can make a film on anyone and the constitution protects you. Here, any biopic is made is made with the permission of the person, which means you can’t be critical of that person. There are great stories that could be possibly made but the constitution doesn’t allow you to. People can file a case and there will be a stay order blah blah - which is ironic because they are old archaic British laws that they are just using against you. You can’t make a film on Gandhi family; can’t make films on anybody. They are all interesting stories, fantastic stories.