Un/Cultured: Scenes From A Caveman’s Tale

One day I decided to film one of our guards, Ramesh Ji—the ji here is an honorific—who is from Madhya Pradesh. From outside, the guardroom is a confined place—a voluntary prison. As I stepped inside the room, I expected the monotony of waiting, the slow passing of moments to dull me. But I was wrong. As I listened to the Birha enactment of an oral tale in a dialect of Hindi that was playing on his mobile phone, slowly, the complex and subtle knots of his world revealed themselves to me.

As I breathed and immersed myself in the human dynamics of the oral tale, I realized the world that Ramesh Ji inhabits is an old one, passed down from the times when our ancestors lived in a cave no different than this room, in form of oral tales, oral history, folk songs, in languages that have evolved or disappeared, in a language that is losing its relevance in the global English village.

Now the way I look at Ramesh Ji or his people’s way of storytelling has changed: a man without his people’s stories is poor and deserves pity; the man who knows his people’s origins and history is always rich. I no longer think he lives in a prison—his room is a doorway to a cultured world, just as yours or mine. These stories are our roots, our common heritage on the blue and green dots of a planet. (more…)

10 Lessons from the Success of S.S. Rajamouli’s Baahubali for Indian Filmmakers

S.S. Rajamouli’s epic blockbuster Baahubali has energized and inspired a whole new generation of young, emerging and established filmmakers in India and beyond. These are ten lessons for those of you who want to think big and strong, and make your own Baahubali:

1. Make your film in your own language.

You don’t need to make a film in Hindi to win big. Yes, you can make your film in your own language, for your own people. We can always dub later or deploy subtitles, and still reach the maximum number of audiences not only in India but around the world.

2. Work on your visuals. Minimize dialog.

Baahubali relies on memorable visual spectacles – not witty or punchy dialogs. And it makes sense. If you are making a film in your own language, please do us, who don’t speak your language a favor, by telling the story through moving pictures i.e. visual storytelling.

3. Spill blood. Build suspense, and end with an intrigue.

In one of his interviews, the Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman said that he builds his films with a mood—whether happiness, sadness, a sense of defeat or loneliness—which he wants to capture. The whole movie then is an exercise to arrive to the exact emotional state where the audience could experience that mood again.

In an epic movie like Baahubali, we see different moods for different scenes, but the overall theme of the hero’s quest overwhelms them all. We want to know why the hero’s family is facing a crisis. We want to know whether, when and how the hero returns to face his enemies. The first film starts with killings, and ends with the same—the hero kills people without a moment of hesitation or regret. Which brings me to my next point.

4. Don’t overthink your story or narrative arc.

Keep it simple. Follow the simple three-act structure: beginning, middle and end, with some lazy flash backs thrown in between. That’s it.

You can’t make a movie like Baahubali if you start bothering about how to reinvent the wheel or breaking new ground, or lose your sleep over deep, philosophical or academic questions or issues like whether this is the hero that people deserve. Is this hero a man of conscience, or a man so blinded by love or lust that he will do anything for the wants and needs of his woman?

5. Make sure people can count on you to deliver.

Go out of the box, each time, to create a massive blockbuster. Even though I hadn’t seen S. S. Rajamouli films before Baahubali—I don’t get to see many movies these days—I had heard about him from many friends.

If you dream to make a movie that’s big and global, your work begins now! Every film, whether short or long, every script, is a step toward that most-anticipated event in the history of cinema which you dream to create. Be professional and careful in how you handle your career. Rome wasn’t built in a day; your brand, and reputation is no different. If people can count on you to deliver, you can get your Baahubali made.

6. Focus on your story—don’t focus on the market trends.

Be aware of the trend, but slave for your story and vision. Pursue a great story, not money or celebrity. That’s what S.S. Rajamouli always did: he has always been a good storyteller.

7. Show business sense and economic maturity. Filmmaking is fucking expensive.

The total budget for Baahubali, the beginning and conclusion, was above 400 crores. The producers said they didn’t make enough money on the first film, and are hoping to cash in on the success of the second movie, and the Baahubali franchise.

Think about the high stakes, how many people’s livelihoods depend on you, and on  this project that will keep you and them employed for years, and for the producers you will keep in business. If you want to make a Baahubali, you gotta man up and embrace the realities and limitations of working in the film industry—you can’t do it alone. Don’t fuck it up in the name of god of art or something, or whosoever the fuck is your idea of the ultimate filmmaker.

8. Find friends; connect with people.

Get your name out there now by finding and connecting with the right people. So how do you find the right people? It’s very simple. Don’t waste time around people who have neither time, nor a word of advice or encouragement for you or your projects; find people who inspire you, who fuel your energy, and help you move forward whether by their words of encouragement, free lunch or freelance gigs. And the same rule applies to you: hone your skills, collaborate, contribute to other people’s projects. Help them turn their vision into reality, and hopefully they will see you as a reliable comrade, and come to your rescue in your times of need.

9. Don’t forget movie making is a slow and arduous process.

Baahubali took five years, probably more, to materialize from concept to execution. I’ve known really talented people who have given years to a project. To survive the long period of isolation, where now and then you feel like you are wasting your life, where absolutely nothing happens, to manage and control the pain, the angst and anxieties of the creative business, you need close family and friends. So don’t push them way. It’s time to leave your cave, join a healthy collective, make comrades, and go for that big hunt of your life that people are going to remember till the end of our times.

10. Become a great person, and not just a great or successful filmmaker.

You watch S.S. Rajamouli’s film like Eega or Baahubali, and you know it’d be an honor to meet him in person! The way he handles his characters’ emotions and conflicts with care and patience, tells us a lot about him, I think, as a person. You watch his interviews and you cannot not like him.

I’ll be honest—I can complain about many technical and story aspects of Baahubali  and his other films. But I don’t think it’ll do us any good. I like his stories—there was a time when I couldn’t stop complaining about every story. These days, I judge films from the standard the filmmakers have set for themselves than my own.

I hope Baahubali will do some good in the world—it’s already done a lot of good by inspiring a whole new generation to think big and epic. But it’s only when we start working toward becoming a better person, I think, that we start finally contributing to the society, country or the world in meaningful ways, and the universe conspires to assist you.

I have always believed in the luck of hard work. And the hardest work is to keep working on yourself, your thinking and actions; unlearning what you’ve learnt, and be willing to learn again. Don’t forget a great movie is the result of your never-ending creative tussles, memorable experiences, and hard-earned, life-affirming insights.

That’s it from me. What are other lessons or insights that you could think of from S.S. Rajamouli’s Baahubali? Please feel free to let us know in the comments below, here or on Youtube, or tweet them to me @salik.

Need help with your short, ad, corporate, feature films or web series? I’m available for consulting, planning and development, screenwriting, production, editing and direction: salik.shah@gmail[dot]com.

All the best!

Instructions for Astronauts

Become a space traveler, star trekker and adventurer for a few minutes!

“Instructions for Astronauts” appears in April 2017 issue of Mithila Review, an international science fiction and fantasy magazine. Written by Michael Janairo in nine parts, it’s about our destiny—humanity’s epic journey through time and space. What is this form? Is it art, poetry, film? You decide, please!

You can buy Mithila Review‘s April issue from Amazon or Weightless Books.

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McDonald’s vs Kamadhenu — Debkumar Chakrabarti

Kolkata-based artist and professor Debkumar Chakrabarti on how he sees Indian capitalism:

“McDonald’s stands as a representative of global capitalism… and Kamadhenu was a [miraculous] cow. Whatever you want, it’ll give it to you. That is to me some sort of representative of the Indian type of capitalism. [In my art,] I try to show that a synthesis is taking place between them. Whatever we get is obtained from the tussle between the two.”

Visual Arts Gallery, India Habitat Center
September 25, 2016