Geetu Mohandas’ debut feature film Liar’s Dice has been chosen for competition at the Sundance Film Festival. The actor-director talks about the film that deals with the exploitation of migrant labourers

Making a movie is always a bit of a gamble. For Malayali actor-director Geetu Mohandas it looks like the gamble has paid off. Her debut feature film, Liar’s Dice, has been selected for competition at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival to be held in January in Utah, United States. The film will be featured in the ‘World Cinema Dramatic Competition’ category of the fete, the first Indian film to be selected for the competition after Peepli Live.

Liar’s Dice traces the socio-political situation in the country with regards to migrant labourers and their exploitation, through the tale of spunky Kamala (Geetanjali Thapa of I.D. fame), a young mother from a tribal community in Chitkul, a remote mountain village on the Indo-China border. Kamala and her three-year-old daughter, Manya (debutant Manya Gupta), along with their pet goat, embark on a journey from their village to the deep, dark underbelly of Delhi, in search of her missing husband, a labourer on a construction site in the city. Along the way Kamala meets the gruff Nawazuddin (played by the irrepressible Nawazuddin Siddiqui), an army deserter, who, realising the danger in store for the duo, decides to accompany them on their quest.

Geetu, who is just back from Utah, says that she is thrilled to bits. “The reaction from the international press has been unbelievable. Already, I’ve got requests from 14 or so other festivals across the world to screen the film. After the international premiere of Liar’s Dice at Sundance, which begins on January 14, the film will have its European première at the International Film Festival Rotterdam,” says the actor, who turned director with the acclaimed short film Kelkunnundo? (2009). Geetu’s husband, cinematographer and director Rajeev Ravi, has cranked the camera for Liar’s Dice. Excerpts from an interview with Geetu...

What drew you to the story of Liar’s Dice?

Actually, I started writing Liar’s Dice before I did Kelkunnundo? It’s just that at the time I only had the resources to make a short film. It’s been seven years since I started writing the story and it has evolved so much that I don’t know where the inspiration for it really came from or what sowed the seeds of it in my mind.

Is there any significance to the title?

Liar’s dice is a gambling game that requires players to deceive and also detect their opponent’s deception. Nawazuddin has a hidden agenda and the game is sort of a metaphor in the story. Somewhere down the line Kamala becomes a catalyst in the game that he is playing.

Malayalam cinema has been your comfort zone ever since you debuted as a child artiste in Onnu Muthal Poojyam Vare. Why then did you decide to make your debut film in Hindi, in the wilds of Himachal Pradesh?

First off, language has never been a barrier for me. Liar’s Dice is not a Hindi film per se and Bollywood doesn’t attract me at all. What interested me, though, were the dialects and the culture of the areas that Kamala, Manya and Nawazuddin travel through, particularly that of Chitkul. Here the villagers speak a dialect that is, perhaps, spoken only within a 20 km radius of the village. The story was initially supposed to be set in Rajasthan rather than Himachal. But I felt that life in the border villages of Rajasthan have been done to death on screen. Rajeev was the one who told me to check out Chitkul, a village of some 250 families, which already had a lot of villagers who work as migrant labourers in cities far away. Also, I found the terrain surrounding the village to be lighter and more dynamic than Rajasthan for the tale I had in mind. I wanted to stay true to the setting.

Like Kelkunnundo?, in Liar’s Dice too you seem to have explored issues related to the sense of futility, anger against the system and displacement of the marginalised…

I’ve always been intrigued by the socio-political and government apathy towards migrant labourers. These people, numbering in their millions, are the nameless of India. The one common thing that Indians in all their diversity have is their social value system. Unfortunately, migrant labourers don’t even have that. In Delhi, as she goes from one construction site to another, Kamala soon finds herself lost in the dog eat dog world. She becomes a prey – much like her goat. Although the socio-political conditions are the constant undercurrent in the narration, it is also an unusual love story between two unlikely characters.

How was it working with actors of the calibre of Nawazuddin and Geetanjali?

I cast them because they are very intelligent actors. I am familiar with both actors through Rajeev. He has worked with Nawazuddin on films such as Gangs of Wasseypur. He was one of the producers of I.D., in which Geetanjali played the protagonist. I didn’t give my actors dialogues. I only told them the situation and the scene and asked them to react. They changed the film for me. It was shot in real spaces with real people. The camera and the actors were often hidden among the crowd, so much so that people didn’t know we were filming! Liar’s Dice is as real as you can’t get.