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Looking back at the work Anushka Sharma and Karnesh Ssharma have produced —NH10, Pari, Phillauri, Paatal Lok — shows that they definitely don’t have an appetite for the run-of-the-mill stories. Bulbbul, their latest thriller offering, fits right in with their unique taste. A story of a woman challenging patriarchy, it is definitely an interesting ride told like a fairytale, which is beautifully shot and manages to keep you on the edge. A Netflix Original film, Bulbbul should be on your watchlist if you don’t mind gore and a little bloodshed.
We connected with Bulbbul’s director, Anvita Dutt and one half of Clean Slate Films, Karnesh Ssharma, to know more about the film and the stories which the production house gravitates towards. Excerpts follow:
Do you remember where you guys first met and how Clean Slate Films decided to back Bulbbul?
Karnesh Ssharma: Anvita and I actually met 12-13 years back, in an attic at a common friend’s place. Around that time, I was not producing films and Anushka (Sharma) had not started Clean Slate Films. We met there and talked about everything other than films. We found common ground in astronomy and celestial navigation. I was in the Merchant Navy back then. Some time later, Anvita asked me to read a script she had written because I love reading, and that film was Bulbbul. Many years later, when Anushka and I started producing films, I went back to Anvita and said, ‘that story of yours really stayed with us, and we would like to produce it if you would like us to.’ So, that's how it started. Anushka read it, loved it, and so it began.
Anvita Dutt: I had actually never thought of becoming a director till I wrote Bulbbul. Bulbbul changed my life. It brought a new dream to me, and once the dream actualised, once I started working on the film as a director, I realised that this is what I'm going to do for the rest of my life. That, this is the dream now and it's my calling. During everything that I've done in the past, I was actually in training to become a director.
So Anvita, what was the inspiration behind the story?
AD: I'm a huge fantasy reader. I love fantasy stories and I was fascinated by the grandmothers’ tales, when they always tell you about that haunted house down the end of the road, that woman that walks the streets at night or that tree that you should never sleep under. I love those cautionary tales and Baba Yaga, the Russian version of the Chudail, was the first story I ever read. I was five years old when I read a Baba Yaga story. I think I was always just fascinated by this entire space of folklore, myths and fables. So, when I sat down to write, it organically became what it is. I first wrote two pages, then almost a year later, I wrote the entire script. Initially, I wrote it just for myself, and then, as Karnesh said, he came along and everything changed.
Did the script evolve in all these years?
AD: Very soon after writing the script, Karnesh read it and loved it. Again, this was much before he had started producing films. Then I went back to my career as a writer and a lyricist, but I had tasted blood with Bulbbul. I continued writing and developing stories for myself, on the side. I never touched the script, but I used to think about it a lot — this is what the colours would be, this is what the moonlight will look like, this is what the clothes will look like, this is where the story will move. I kept thinking of such details and once Netflix came on board and the film got the green signal, then I wrote multiple drafts to just polish it. I think it was what, 11 drafts, right Karnesh?
KS: 12 actually.
AD: So, well, after 11 came 11.1, 11.2, and so on. I kept polishing the script, hoping that it becomes the best version of itself. A lot of work went into it then, but for the initial eight, nine years, it was on the back burner, just brewing.
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The film is an extremely interesting ride plus it’s beautifully shot. Every frame is like a painting. Could you tell me a little about the conversations you had with your cinematographer, Siddharth Diwan before and while shooting the film?
AD: The initial conversations were about the look and feel of the film, when we started off. One great thing about Siddharth Diwan is that he’s a storyteller, not just a Director Of Photography. Visually, nothing was done just for the sake of it. Just to make it look beautiful or of a certain depth — which it needs to because it's a fairytale — but everything was to do with the storytelling. So even the moonlight being a certain colour is because of something that happens in the story. Another conversation was that it needs to look like a Raja Ravi Varma painting. Then, it needs to be lit like a Caravaggio painting and that the moonlight will have a certain colour. That was the starting point. Then of course, we went ahead and built on it. People like Meenal (Aggarwal), the production designer, Veera (Kapur Ee), the costume designer, Red Chillies VFX — everybody who came in contributed to that vision.
Karnesh, you and Anushka have produced four films now plus a crime-thriller that did exceedingly well very recently. To what degree do you or Anushka get involved in the stories you back?
KS: The culture in our company has always been to be very involved. I think filmmaking process is a constantly evolving process. It is a process which also requires tough decisions to be taken at various points. Whether you are in pre-production, whether you're shooting or whether you're in post-edit. The atmosphere we have at Clean Slate Films is that of equal participation. But of course, it is a story and it is a vision of the director. So, we like to facilitate that. However, if at a point we do feel that certain things which were intended are not coming across, we do give our point of view.
Is there a message you’re trying to communicate through the films that you choose to produce? In other words, what would you like Clean Slate Films to be known for?
KS: The expectation is always of a fresh story, of an engaging story. That's about it. There's no other message we want to communicate. We're not trying to be different. We are trying to tell stories in the best way we can and the stories which we like. There is no agenda in trying to tell a particular kind of story or a genre of stories. I think it is just a constant endeavour to tell engaging stories.
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Coming back to Bulbbul. Avnita, what do you want the audience to take away from the film?
AD: First and foremost, I want them to take away the fact that it is a fun story, a great fable. Secondly, the inherent message, which is gently coded into the film, the fact that women need to, at some point in life, stand up for themselves and say that they will not be a reflection of other people's idea but just be who they are. However hard it is for other people to accept it — I think that is true empowerment, where you accept yourself. We talk about being accepted by the others but don't accept ourselves, for who we are. So, first of all, you need to just accept yourself and be comfortable in your own skin. The second thing is of course that, if you impose your will on a woman, there will be a price to pay.
Lastly, how are you guys coping with the pandemic and the restrictions it has brought on us?
KS: To be very honest, I think we've been fortunate enough that we have the resources to stay home, safe and to be healthy. Also, this time has reinstated my faith in people a little bit more because I see a lot of people who are going out of their way to help other people — that has been positive. I also learned to be a little more relaxed with oneself, not have the pressure of wanting to do something in these difficult times. I think it works differently for different people, but personally, I've not taken any pressure to do anything different. I've just kind of been relaxed and also been aware that we have done whatever we could, in our capacity.
AD: I felt a sense of gratitude. The realisation -- how blessed I am, how blessed we are that we have our emotional and financial wellbeing taken care of because these two things are the collateral damage of the pandemic. It's not the staying at home and washing your hands. It's the financial strain and emotional strain it has put on people. I have also learnt to reach out and want to tell everyone to do so when in need. That is very important.
Karnesh Ssharma & Anvita Dutt
Text Hansika Lohani Mehtani