The protagonists in my films will inevitably be women: Konstantin Bojanov

The Bulgarian filmmaker talks about making his first Hindi film 'The Shameless', set to compete at Cannes
A still from the movie 'The Shameless'
A still from the movie 'The Shameless'

In one of the best years for India at the Cannes Film Festival, Payal Kapadia’s 'All We Imagine As Light' features in the Competition section alongside the works of icons like Francis Ford Coppola, Paolo Sorrentino, Sean Baker, and Yorgos Lanthimos, among others.

British-Asian filmmaker Sandhya Suri’s debut feature 'Santosh' competes in the Un Certain Regard section. As does Bulgarian filmmaker Konstantin Bojanov’s third feature film—after 'Ave and Light Thereafter'—and his foray into Hindi cinema, 'The Shameless'. Shot in Nepal, the film features Indian actors Anasuya Sengupta, Mita Vashisht, Tanmay Dhanania and Rohit Kokate in key roles. CE caught up with Bojanov to know more about the film that he describes as a noir thriller.

Excerpts:

A Bulgarian filmmaker making an Indian film. How did it all come about?

I can only describe the entire process as utter insanity. My relationship with India goes back 20 years. I first began the project 14 years ago as a documentary based on William Dalrymple’s 'Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India'. At the time I was planning to cross reference four stories loosely inspired by the book. One of them was about a devadasi from Karnataka. The other three were about a Jain nun, a Hindu idol maker from Tamil Nadu, and a Theyyam dancer in Kerala.

In 2014, we began shooting the devadasi story. Two weeks into it, I decided to put aside the documentary project and develop a fictional story inspired from it. I would describe it as a noir thriller. My goal was never to make a social drama or a realistic film. I’m not a realistic filmmaker. This is more of a fable. I also wondered if it would be too presumptuous and stupid on my part to venture into a realistic drama given that I’m familiar with the culture only tangentially and I don’t speak the language. So, the screenplay took a very long time to develop.

At the core of the film is a young woman, Nadira, who kills a police superintendent in a brothel on Delhi’s GB Road and flees the scene. She travels north to a fictional city where she takes shelter in a community of sex workers and assumes the Hindu name Renuka. It’s a very insular community that operates by its own rigid rules. She falls in love with a girl who should have long joined the line of work, but she had an accident as a kid, so everyone in the family and neighbourhood thinks that something has gone wrong with her. She uses that as a cover, as a protection from getting into the family work.

I truly believe that stories are to be shared, and I am opposed to the kind of cultural xenophobia where stories are seen as belonging to a particular culture. I think stories connect us. For that reason, my emphasis is primarily on the universal aspects of the relationships and the dynamics in the story. It might surprise you that in terms of structure, the biggest inspiration for me was 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest'. The form where an outsider, who is in a tough spot decides to enter an insular community. It is about joining or confronting the system. Also, Renuka, the protagonist, is someone I love, someone I can relate to. I don’t understand men that well. The protagonists in my films will inevitably be women. Even in my personal life most of my friends have been women

Is it because women are easier to get along with?

It’s easier for me to relate to women and to their feelings than men. I’ve never been one of those men who hang out with guys and do guys kind of things. It’s just not me. I’m now preparing a very unusual heist thriller with a female protagonist.

You said that the screenplay took a long time to develop…

The biggest challenge was that I wrote this screenplay in English. Throughout the process of developing the script, I had multiple advisors. The film is in Hindi, and it is set in a fictional city in North India. I intentionally wanted to keep the Hindi more generic and not region-specific because once you get into the vernacular of a region, unless you get it right, it gets very of difficult to deal with the situation. I can’t even remember how many people I tried to work on the dialogue.

I met Anurag Kashyap when I was developing the documentary. We met in Cannes for 10 minutes and he invited me over. On my very first visit to Mumbai, I stayed at his place. So, he has been a tremendous help through the years with contacts and few of the people that were involved with the film came through him.

Where is the cast and crew of the film from? Why was it shot in Nepal?

We made the film on a shoestring budget. The lead cast is Indian but for the secondary parts, I cast some Nepali actors. That was a very difficult task. Hindi was not their first language. Their acting style was not what I wanted. I looked for weeks for non-actors. But they would not show up. Most of the characters are women, and their husbands or their family had to agree. Ultimately, I’m very happy with the secondary cast. But it was a challenge. Our budget was way too low to get a reliable, experienced line producer to shoot the film in India. We used Kathmandu basically as a set.

You have well-known Indian actors in the lead—Mita Vashisht, Tanmay Dhanania, Rohit Kokate…

I had a fantastic, dedicated lead cast. Rohit Kokate was a pleasure. I saw him in the film 'Lovefucked' (original title 'Jaaoon Kahan Bata Ae Dil') on Netflix and cast him based on the complexity of the sociopathic, sadistic character that he plays. In our film he is an aspiring politician.

I’ve known Tanmay for a very long time because of my filmmaker friends in Kolkata. They move in a small group. But the most unusual casting choice, not for me but for someone looking at the project from outside, is Anasuya Sengupta, the actor who plays the protagonist Renuka. The casting went on for more than eight months in Mumbai. Several very well-known Indian female actors from independent cinema were interested. But I kept looking at pictures of this woman on Facebook. She’s an artist and a production designer and I approached her through the Kolkata group of filmmakers. I could see the character in her, and it’s not just the looks, but the attitude. She was incredibly surprised; it took her a month to respond. By then I had already cast Tanmay and didn’t know they were sharing a house in Goa till I saw him partnering in her audition tapes. Mita was great to work with. She made the film extremely interesting in terms of the dynamics.

There is an element of travel in your films...

Every single film that I have made so far is about escape, including this film. That is the overarching theme—escape from circumstances, escape from oneself. My background is in art. I made art for many years, and I had to put that on hold for some time. I miss it terribly, but I had to focus on film. My first feature documentary, Invisible, was about a group of young people addicted to heavy drugs, mostly heroin. Bulgaria was flooded with heroin in the early 2000s. That was also a form of escape. It was not a social documentary but more of an existential view of their lives and giving them a platform to talk about the world that surrounds them. In Ave the characters are on the road, in Light Thereafter a young boy on the spectrum goes in search of his idol. In 'The Shameless', there is a woman who is on the run after committing a murder, someone who was trafficked to Sonagachi in Kolkata. She managed to escape, ended up in prison, came out and had to support herself again. In my next one the protagonist tries to escape through robbing an art museum.

So many countries—Bulgaria, France, Switzerland, Taiwan, India, Nepal—seem to have come together to make this film. Is that the way filmmaking will thrive presently and, in the future?

It’s a low budget film. We had to piece together funding from so many different small funding bodies and sources. It ended up being a core production between four different countries. I was quite surprised during Berlinale, where among the films that I saw as well as read about in the catalogue, there were very few in just one single language. It’s because we coexist with people from different cultures. In India, if a film is commercially viable, it can get financed in a matter of days and the investment can be recovered in one single weekend. In Europe, you don’t get equity investment. You must usually go through this lengthy process of applications. And you can’t imagine how many funding bodies looked at a project like this one, directed by a Bulgarian, that takes place in India, has no European elements, is in Hindi, about a love relationship between two women.

Your debut feature Ave was in Critics’ Week in 2011, now The Shameless. What makes Cannes special?

The exposure. When you compare it to the other A list festivals, it has a very consistent track of great selections. In recent times—may be long overdue—more diversity, more women, more directors from different cultures. There’s also the element of festivity that I shy away from. I look forward to seeing people, some of them may have films there, some I know very well. I look forward to the experience of meeting people more than the red carpet. I hate to be in front of the camera.

Is it too early to ask about the plans to screen the film in India?

I know that there is a deal that’s now being finalised with an Indian producer who stepped in the post-production stage. They are taking India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh rights. I don’t know who they are, but I know that they have seen the film and love it.

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