As Manav Kaul changes gears with “Hansa”, he tells us what he has in mind and metaphors

Happiness is a tricky word. Many find it outside, some look for it within. When we go to a tourist spot we invariably soak bliss but what about the people who inhabit that place? Noted theatre director, poet and painter Manav Kaul is playing with this pursuit for happiness in his maiden cinematic venture “Hansa”. He doesn’t want to describe happiness so that he doesn’t have to deal with unhappiness. Releasing on December 28, the film made waves on the festival circuit when it bagged both the critics’ prize as well as audience award at the Osian’s Film Festival in New Delhi early this year.

“I have been going to this Sheetla village in Uttarakhand since 2006. Over the years I realised that the kind of relief we get going to the mountains the people living there don’t experience it and it can be seen on their faces. After two-three days, I used to forget the Himalayas and started looking at people’s faces.” His favourite past time is observing kids going to and coming from the school. Images of two kids stayed with him. “One was that of a girl from a shepherd family who used to take his goats into the jungle and she would take two books with her. I started following her and in the process I realised the happiness one gets by doing nothing. The second was that of a boy called Hansa who helped me in exploring the area.” Over a period he developed a story with two parallel tracks. “The girl Cheeku is looking for her father who one day just walked away from home. It is usual in many households in the mountains. Things have come to a pass that if she doesn’t find him, the crooked local landlord will usurp her house. Meanwhile, unaware of all this, her younger brother Hansa is fighting his own personal battle. He has stolen the local bully’s lucky five rupee coin and gets into all sorts of situations in trying to return the coin. The two parallel tracks merge towards the open ended climax. “You can draw your own meanings. I don’t believe in telling people what is real and what is not, what is right and what is wrong.”

Of course, true to his theatre lineage, Manav, whose theatre group Aranya has produced critically acclaimed plays like “Shakkar Ke Paanch Daane” and “Peele Scooterwala Aadmi”, has sprinkled his tale with metaphors. Like a red ball, which brings smile on the faces of the brother-sister duo. “In the beginning the siblings are seen playing with the red ball and it gets stuck in a tree. They try a lot to bring it down but don’t succeed and move on with life. Time and again we could see the ball stuck in the tree but when it finally rolls down on its own it has no value for the kids. In a way, the red ball stands for happiness. Sometimes when you have it you no longer need it.” He connects it to the plight of Hansa in the film. “He wants to return the lucky coin. He used to hide it in his mouth and when he goes to return it he accidentally ingests it. Now he wants to tell the bully that it is in his stomach but the big boy doesn’t believe it and the coin is no longer of use to Hansa either. It is inside him but he can’t do anything with it. It is like happiness again.”

Manav sees his foray into cinema as an extension of his theatre. Often when film critics find the treatment of a scene loud and melodramatic, they term it is theatrical. Manav understands the requirements of the cinematic medium. “My theatre has always been experimental. I understand the importance of silence and I am consciously trying to move away from words on stage. I did it with ‘Lal Pencil’ and it was well received. In fact, I no longer write scenes. I write the synopsis of the play and then let the scenes evolve on stage.” His writing is rooted in literature and Manav says he always incorporates visual imagery in his plays and that reflects in “Hansa” as well where he has captured the roughness of the Himalayas.

Affordable technology made his task easier and Manav admits cinema could well be the medium to experiment with new ideas. “The space is small right now but it is going to increasing as we start to tap intelligent audience.” He says, with digital technology you no longer have to be concerned about the cost of raw stock. “I started with 12,000 rupees. Still, I had to be careful about the boarding and lodging cost of the cast and crew. After a 10-day workshop we finished the shoot in 17 days.” He picked the lead characters from the village and is helped out by theatre veterans like Kumud Mishra — a regular feature in Manav’s plays — and Sudhir Pandey, who have considerable experience in cinema as well. “Kumud not only agreed to play a small part but also handled the production.” It is his reputation as a theatre director that made like-minded people join the project without charging any money. “Somebody offered to send trolleys, somebody lent the lens. It sounds simple but I had to make around 1000 calls.”

Manav says he is not asking for supporting the film. “We are not handicapped people and I am not answerable to a producer. If you are looking for an alternative for ‘Dabangg 2’, you can watch ‘Hansa’. I don’t get how a person dressed in a suit comes out of the car and starts shooting indiscriminately. We don’t do it nor do we break into a dance routine at every moment of happiness and this is the kind of cinema that is going global. People abroad believe Indians are like this. Are we okay with this image?” he asks. “We have had a very narrow definition of entertainment. You also feel entertained when you get the feeling of emptiness while reading ‘The Outsider’ of Albert Camus,” he continues.

“And it is not that there is no audience looking for an option and there is no other story to be told. My kind of theatre has proved it. Otherwise, I would not have been able to survive in Mumbai for a decade. There is a void and I am filling that space. If I was not there somebody else would have been in my place. It is another matter that I am still living in a one-room accommodation,” the 37-year-old breaks into a laughter. “Not everyone likes this kind of life. Not everyone has that kind of urge. That’s why I don’t advise youngsters to delve into writing original plays in Hindi.” But Hindi is big these days? “It is, but the publishers don’t print Hindi plays saying that nobody reads them. I put my plays on the blog and they are being performed in different parts of the country but I don’t get anything in return because I am told by theatre groups they are barely managing to make the ends meet.”

Manav is now working on his second film called “Tathagat”. It is about a monk who left home but after 30 years of prayers he feels that he has not achieved anything. Is he questioning Buddha? “No I am not. He already became Buddha when he got the courage to confront himself,” Manav signs off.