As director Gyan Correa takes the road to the Oscars, he talks about “The Good Road”, the Gujarati film that is making news.
When your film is selected to represent the country at the Academy Awards, it is usually a moment of pride but in director Gyan Correa’s case it has come with a lot of controversy and doubt. Not many, including the media, had heard about the Gujarati film “The Good Road” before it was selected by Film Federation of India’s jury as the country’s entry in Best Foreign Film category at the Oscars. A large section of the industry and the media saw it as a friendly fight between “The Lunch Box” and “Ship of Theseus” with the former as a front runner because of its delicious content and the perceived ability of its producers to market it well for the coveted prize. But the jury led by esteemed filmmaker Goutam Ghose found in “The Good Road”, an outsider suitable to lead the charge to a hitherto unassailable destination for Indian filmmakers.
The debate that followed largely focused on the film that is not selected and not one that is. The social media slowly discovered that “The Good Road” has won the National Award for the best Gujarati film and was in theatres for a week in some cities of the State. Instead of its content, questions are being asked about the filmmaker’s ability to lobby for the film. In the field of aesthetics, practical questions like when most Indians haven’t watched it how can we hope the American jury to watch it, have been put up? Did such issue arise when “Salaam Bombay” made the cut or “Shwaas” was selected?
Correa is a tired man. Talking about the brickbats that his film has received on the social media by the supporters of “The Lunch Box”, Correa says he sees it in a positive way. “For once there was more than one film worthy of getting selected. And as it turns out the main competition was between small independent films. It is a positive sign for our cinema.” He admits Anurag Kashyap, one of the co-producers of “The Lunch Box”, who showed his displeasure, knows much more about films and calls him as one of the catalysts behind the surge of independent cinema. “I can understand the disappointment but when you have subjected yourself to the decision of a jury then you should respect its decision. I agree that at times you feel that you know more than the jury members and it could be true as well but then one should respect the law.” He has spoken to Ritesh and Anurag met him after the controversy erupted. “He told me how he had certain ideas about taking “The Lunch Box” to the Oscars. We are not chuddy buddies but we will remain professional friends.”
As we shift the discussion to the theme, a web of three narratives on state highway 378, Correa says, “I feel our highways are like vascular system of the country where different Indias meet and intersect. And it is not something new, historically, they have been crucial meeting points of different cultures. The intersection point of these many Indias is of specific interest to me. Caste and class conflict is very much a part of our lives. But what about these conflicts at a more personal level, in everyday situations…The highways are not just about exchange of languages, goods and food, it is also about diseases. When I took a break from my advertising work I spent a lot of time on the road interacting with truck drivers along the way. It changed my perception about them,” says Correa, who majored from Bombay University in Economics and Anthropology and began his career by making documentaries on the works of NGOs operating in and around rural Maharashtra.
Produced by National Film Development Corporation (NFDC), the film follows three sets of people. A truck driver, who is planning to die so that his family could claim insurance money, a middle class urban couple looking for their son, who gets accidentally separated from them at a dhaba and in between it is the journey of an 11-year old-year-old girl looking for her grandmother. She gets into a garment dying unit which is a front for child prostitution racket. Soon she is confronted with the same reality that she is running from as Correa organically builds the different worlds we live in, the similar issues that we face against the stark landscape of Kutch.
“It is not just the scenic beauty that attracted me to Kutch,” Correa clarifies. “Apart from the harsh terrain the layering in the culture in terms of music, writing and handicrafts…there is a certain elegance that attracted me towards Kutch. It is not a documentary – the region I shot in is not known for prostitution rackets – but I hope the different layers sneak through the narrative.”
The film quietly shatters the point of view that sees the truck drivers just as agents spreading the HIV. “I found them aware and conscious about the disease and more than that I found them very responsible people. They take our vegetables and other valuable goods from one end to another, spend hours and hours away from homes on the road and in return are paid only a measly amount for their harsh lives. Their trucks are always overloaded and along the way they have to negotiate with corrupt policemen from different States to cross borders.”
Perhaps that is why he chose not to cast an actor in the role of truck driver Pappu. After multiple auditions Correa says he felt, “it is easier to teach some acting to a truck driver through workshops than making an actor inhabit the world of a truck driver. ” Correa finally picked Shamji Dhana Kerasia, a Richard Gere type Kutchi driver. “He has a photogenic face but Kutchis, in general, are very good looking. During the course of shooting he became suspicious about our endeavour and we were also concerned what will happen if he refuses to turn up. Ultimately, things fell in place. The most difficult part, says Correa, was to make Shamji dub his lines in an Ahmedabad studio.
At a time when most filmmakers take the cover of reaching out to more and more audience to make the films in Hindi, Correa’s decision to make “The Good Road” in Gujarati is baffling. “It is a difficult question. Though I feel for conserving the identity of different regions of India because this is what makes us distinct, I don’t want to be taking the huge responsibility of saving the regional identity and the death of a language. It sounds political, which I am not. I will say I went by my gut feeling.”
Correa is emphatic in his praise for his crew particularly sound designer Resul Pookutty and cinematographer Amitabha Singh. He says without them the idea would not have taken a cogent shape. “I have heard that the industry is very kind towards debutants and I felt it while working with these seasoned technicians. Even Sonali Kulkarni (the only known face in his cast) was very helpful while working within constraints.”
After the selection, the focus shifts to making the right people watch the film and that dirty word called lobbying comes into play. Correa understands the magnitude of the task. “Left to myself, I will like to move on to my next film but I know I have a responsibility and we are working on a plan to represent the country in the best possible way.”
Does it include taking support from the Gujarat government? “That is the job of the producer. I thanked Mr Modi, when he tweeted his congratulations because he is the Chief Minister of the State whose film has been selected to represent the country. Let’s show some maturity. There is a section which feels that Congress backed the film because it shows Gujarat in a bad light. I feel India survives because the common man believes in love and compassion. He goes to work every day and gives his heart out to his job. He is in no hurry to become a tycoon or a revolutionary overnight. Had that been the case we would have been rendered to pieces by now.”
As for his next film, Correa says, “I am not prolific. It is not that I don’t work but with me ideas take time to take shape. I cannot be a factory.” It is not for no reason that he made his feature film debut at 42!