The dream was always cinema: Mrityunjay Devvrat

The dream was always cinema: Mrityunjay Devvrat

Prerna SM Jain

Mrityunjay Devvrat is a filmmaker who received international acclaim for his first commercial movie, ‘Children of War’ (2014). The film is based on the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. The film is also known as ‘The Bastard Child’ (the name was censored). The film shows three emotional stories that reflect the times in Bangladesh during the war. These stories run parallel and intertwine towards the end.
The movie stars Raima Sen, Tillotama Shome, Indraniel Sengupta, Faroque Sheikh, Pavan Malhotra, Shatrunjay Devvrat, Riddhi Sen, Rucha Inamdar, and Victor Banerjee. As an outsider, Devvrat faced several challenges in making this film.
Devvrat’s journey from advertisement and documentary filmmaking to a commercial film that won 48 international awards is a truly intriguing one. In a conversation with Prerna SM Jain, the adventurous director spoke about it.

How did your tryst with filmmaking begin?
As a child I was enamored by cinema. My parents were designers who studied at NID. I was from the science stream and they wanted me to pursue engineering or become a doctor, like most Indian parents wish. The deal that I had with my father at the time was that if I could get into an engineering college, I didn’t need to go to one. I was not keen on it and at same time a course came about from Northumbria University (UK) in Film Studies and Media Marketing. My mother and I thought that to be a good outlet for my creativity, so essentially that is how it began. Cinema is actually like poetry, like when you see a particular director’s leanings towards a colour scheme to depict a scene and mood. I started falling in love with cinema a long time ago. I was also in several other forms of art such as music and sound. I played the violin. I loved visual arts. I remember reading the book, ‘Agony and Ecstasy’, on Michelangelo which was very inspiring. My family has also been lovers of art and music. So, cinema has been an amalgamation of all these, of everything coming together as you get to tell various stories and live a lot of different lives. It has been a fantastic journey.
I have been working since the age of 16. I was doing window designing for showrooms like ‘Libas’, ‘Diwan Saheb’ or ‘Raymond’ for 1,500 rupees. I went on to start my own advertising and media marketing firm. During that time, I happened to meet Sudha Gopalakrishnan, who was the Head of National Ministry of Manuscripts at that time. They were doing an exhibition of various texts that were preserved on palm leaves and wanted me to document them. That’s where the documentary making started. I made another one on Ustad Vilayat Khan and later on several others, but the dream was always cinema.

How did you come upon the idea of making ‘Children of War’?
My parents had got some work with the designer Sandra Rhodes and had to move to Bangladesh. The project was to develop handicrafts in Bangladesh. In the second year of their marriage, I was born there, learnt a bit of Bangla, and returned to Delhi when I was 6 years old. Later, I was reconnecting with a few people who were back in Bangladesh. Those people told me about the Shahbag Square Movement that was just picking up. It was a huge protest where every evening people would gather together to light candles in a peaceful protest, which demanded that the Razakars be punished. I was very moved by that and I am also very fond of international politics. I read a memoir by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman that had a very compelling story and there were very few books (which are mostly banned) on this subject. It is shocking to see that in a period of just two months, as many as 200-300 thousand rapes took place. We did our research by talking to survivors, some of whom were in Calcutta. We also spoke with friends who were there. This film was the first of its kind which made it even more compelling for me.

How was the process and major obstacles in making this film?
If I were to make a movie on Hitler or a Nazi based film, it would be very different as people would be already aware of the story. No matter who comes in the cinema hall, they have a basic idea. Here, though, the questions were new: How did it start? What was the movement? What really happened? Even the subplots — the Indian army’s contributions, for instance; some army veterans told me that we didn’t show their side of the story but all we said to them was, ‘Sorry, our focus is only on the emotions of the Bangladeshi Bengalis and the dilemmas they faced.’
Also, I never moved to Mumbai and made the film from Delhi. I had already collected a certain amount of funds. We also went to family, friends and various other people for money. Thankfully, we were able to pay them all back. One of the movie’s well received songs – ‘Andheron mein dhundte hain’ was composed and sung by my friend. My brother took part in the film in one of the scenes. I was 28 years old when I made the film. I had only made ad films before that. The real nitty gritty is what I learnt in the postproduction. The idealistic view of ‘Oh I will make a great film; people will come and watch it while eating popcorn’ goes away. But even in marketing I never used the uncut rape scenes for publicity, in spite of people asking me to, as it was against my ethics. In the middle of the shoot, we kept needing more money. My wife (Soumya Joshi Devvrart) was our producer. She connected us to several people. Anil Thadani really understood where the film was coming from. He was really nice and he helped when we approached him. The actors were really accommodating. They gave me more dates than mentioned in the contract. Also, while shooting, I am very old-school. The film has zero dubbing. The night shots were shot at night and the day shots were shot in the day. This means that the shoot gets extended and this process takes time. So, it was a massive effort by everyone.

What was the reception? Some people say that it was too violent.
Yes, some people say that, but how do I tell you what happened in 9 months within a span of 2 and a half hours? What was happening in Dhaka, Chittagong and other areas was too violent. Also, people don’t know about the things that took place. I have to show the violence to you so that you feel sick of it. So, when someone says that, I feel very happy because we achieved exactly what we wanted – to show the violence that was inflicted on the Bengalis at that time.
A lot of papers carried reviews of our film. We won 48 international awards. People wrote to the House of Commons, the US Congress, and the United Nations. Ryszard Czarnecki, who is now the vice president of the European Council, wrote an article which asked everyone in the European Parliament to watch the film. Hansal Mehta presented our movie. But the best feeling was when the survivors called and thanked us. That was truly touching. An old lady, who was a survivor and was tied to a tree, also called me. A child called me to tell that his grandfather wanted to go back to his country after watching this film. So, more than the awards, this was the greater achievement.

‘Children of War’ was your only commercial film. Are you working on or planning to make any new film right now?
I have several ideas and scripts. But the way I came to Children of War was a shock. To have to manage funding and other things became a derailment of creativity. Especially when you are doing something for the first time and have to face things like nepotism and various other things, it becomes a whole different ball game. There are times you start questioning why you are doing the whole thing in the first place. It is like when you see that even though your product is better, other ones are getting better returns. But that was not the only thing. My wife and I had two lovely babies, in 2015 and then in 2017. That takes a lot of our time and I want her to be involved as she has been a very important part of my film. My mother and bother have also played a very active part in my movie. I was offered some films, I know I can’t be choosy when I am starting off, but my heart was not in it. We do have plans. I have scripts in progress and I had been working on documentaries for thinktanks. But now I have been actively working on finding the right people to gel with to work on another film.

How has the Covid-19 crisis impacted the film industry?
People with work in the postproduction phase are still fine but newcomers will struggle a lot. A lot of new rules have come about. When I speak with my friends in Mumbai, they tell me how difficult it is. How do you get truckloads of objects and sanitise such large quantities for use? Another issue I feel is that this might be the death of cinema halls. People will move on to what they can watch at home, with a cigarette on the side, with a drink in their hand. It has also become much cheaper now, much better than the driving costs, the parking fees, and the whole issue of facing the pandemic. Cinema industry will have to relook at itself. Maybe with this, I guess that films will have lesser earnings, lesser budgets and better films. Currently, although the rules are necessary, they are not workable to make films with.

How have you utilised your time during this lockdown?
My work usually takes place at night as it involves clients abroad. I have picked up the violin again and I play it for many hours. I have been reading, spending time with my children in what I call ‘Papa ki Pathshala’. I have also been sketching and cooking. I have been updating my camera skills, studying methods of cinematography in detail. This is something that you cannot do when you are making a movie. It needs to be done beforehand. In the end, you go back to the thing you fell in love with in the first place – that is, watching films!

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