“Anshu, always remember – every film has its own destiny.” The legendary Subhash Ghai had once told his 19-year-old chief assistant director who was an aspiring film actor & a practicing stage artist. Now, having been behind the camera for 4 films and in front of the camera for 6, I can safely second that. What I can also vouch for is: with combined focused energies, you can light up that destined path. Want proof? Presenting the X-perience:
Shot 1 – Take 1 – A Knot-ty affair – June 2013. 10 am.
I get a call from film critic Raja Sen. He had given a flowering review to my debut film (Love Sex aur Dhokha) and had singled out my performance for praise. Reading reviews isn’t my favourite past time but ask any proud actor and they’ll tell you they like a pat on the backs from critics they admire. And Mr. Sen was one such soul for me. Having never met him or spoken to him before this, as I saw his name flash on my phone screen, I instinctively picked up the call and the first thing I said was “Raja, if you ever make a film, I’m doing it”. He laughed. “This is insane. I am making a film. It’s an experiment with 11 directors. It’s a small film. And I want you to do it”. We spoke. He narrated the story. The film in question was called X. It was the journey of a filmmaker called K. He was directing one segment of the story where K is in his mid-twenties. 10 other filmmakers were involved. I was hooked by the very concept. This was the first time I heard of X. And instinctively, I liked it.
After the narration, he very politely added, “Anshuman, there is a caveat. We’ll not see much of you in the film. Because each director is making their segment in a different city with a different actor, the idea is to focus on the women & his relationship with them that has shaped him. So we can’t have 10 different younger versions of K. But I need 2 good actors for my story to come out. And my wish list is you and Huma Qureshi. Also, it’s in English so that reduces my short list further but I would really love it if you can become a part of it. I need a good brave actor.” I thanked him and said it sounds exciting. Please send me the script. And he did.
I believe filmmaking is a director’s medium, unlike theatre which is an actor’s, and if a director has called me to say that he visualises me in a said part and if I like the script, it would be foolish of me as an artist to say no. Whatever the challenges may be. Because eventually, every experience makes you richer as an actor, if you are self-aware that is. In this case, I had to use my voice and body to emote what others might need their face for. I took it up as a challenge to see how this experiment fares. We had three reading sessions between Raja, Huma & me. Ate food from Candies while reading it. And we were good to roll.
On the first day of the shoot, I got into the costume. Makeup was done. And on shot 1, the 3rd-floor apartment at Carter Road, where we were shooting, collapsed. We landed on the second floor. Six of us. I had cut my head open. It was the first time in my life that I got stitches. It was one painful X-perience. The shoot was postponed, indefinitely. X had a bloody beginning. Was this the destiny of this film?
Shot 2 – Take 1 – July 2013. 9 Am.
I get a call from an unknown Delhi number. I answer. It’s filmmaker Hemant Gaba. He directed a wonderful Indie, Shuttlecock Boys. He says, “Anshuman, How’s your head? I am directing one segment in X. K’s 17-year-old version when he’s in class 12th, to be shot at Delhi.” He narrated. And followed it up with, “Quick shoot. Would you be interested in it? Do you have the time? Have you recovered from the accident?” I asked him to send me the script. I liked what I read. And since I was going to play the mid-twenties version for Raja, I thought it’ll be interesting to challenge myself as an actor by gradually maturing my voice in the performance. Again comforting myself by the challenge in front. But I did like the script too. And so, two weeks later, I flew to Delhi and shot with a wonderful crew and co-actor, Pia Bajpai who was K’s first relationship in X – Past Is Present. K was living through me and destiny was guiding us.
Shot 1 – Take 2 – September 2013
The phone rang. As everyone got to their feet after the accident on the first shot, Raja was now going crazy matching dates between Huma, me and Ravi. K Chandran, who’s probably the busiest of us all. He was shooting our segment and I was very kicked about this fact. This time, Raja had booked a studio instead of a flat. It was a ground floor set, not a 3rd-floor apartment. So chances of an accident were minimal. We shot. We survived. And we had fun. And I had lived K at 24 as well. Now K had started fascinating me! And I wanted more… And guess what? Destiny again…
Shot 3 – Take 1 – October 2013
Sudhish Kamath, one of the 11 Directors of X – Past Is Present, called to check how I was doing. He said there is a 20-year-old version of K to be shot in Chennai. Would I be interested? When am I available? I thought about the fact that it’ll be 17-20-24, it’s even better to try my skill on the voice transition. Comforting myself again, I guess. But Sudhish clarified that since I am playing K in three segments now, this segment won’t be just my POV. Honestly, it didn’t matter now. I wanted to see if I can give this character an age graph which I felt it deserved. I was most excited about making K sound progressively older in each segment. He suggested I read the script, as this segment is quite dark. He had already sent me the draft. He also, very patiently, narrated the entire flow of the film to me. To make me understand the structure and how it was intended to come together. I read it and I was blown away. This was a challenging script and I’ll have to confess, the most draining shoot of my life, thus far.
Nalan Kumarasamy, the man behind one of the finest Tamil films of this decade, Soodhukavum was to direct this segment. And the search for a sultry, slightly older girl opposite the 20-year-old K was on. Swara Bhaskar’s name was right on top of Sudhish’s list. But unfortunately, our dates weren’t matching with Nalan Sir’s. I was in the middle of the shoot for Onir’s Chauranga at Bengal and finally decided to call Swara myself. We spoke and hit off instantly. We both knew we had to do it. We planned and squeezed out 4 days in November end when we could fly to Chennai and wrap X – Past Is Present.
It was November end and Chennai’s heat wasn’t kind. Add to that, Swara and I were unwell as we landed at Chennai. Probably the hardest shoot of my life. Intense and draining. But Nalan Kumarasamy and the Chennai crew made it all worthwhile. And finally it was a wrap for X.
Shot 4 – Take 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11 – January to April 2014 – Multiple Edit sessions later.
Each director making his own cut and finally Sreekar Prasad supervised the coming together of 11 segments to tell one story of K, the filmmaker. Finally, the cut made its way through 11 identities to become one entity.
Shot 5 – Take 1. May-June 2014 –The Challenge!
Dubbing is an art in itself. One which you either enjoy as an actor or you don’t. Well, I love it. Dubbing for K has been the most fun process of X for me. I finally got to give it the graph I had thought of all through. As an actor, it was an enriching process. It took me 3 sessions. In addition to the three segments where I play K, Anu Menon and Sandeep Mohan’s segments were pure points of views and they asked me if I could dub their segments – K at 27 and 30 respectively. And I happily obliged. The progressive voice maturity challenge was suddenly becoming the film for me. So here I was, voicing 5 segments of the film and literally playing the younger K. Having grown up watching Rajat Kapoor on stage, I tried to keep his little nuances in mind since he was the face of the older K. And I think I did OK. Till New York City happened…
Shot 6 – Take 1. October 2014
Sudhish called me and said, “Congratulations! X has been selected as the opening night film at the South Asian International Film Festival. You have to be at New York on November 18th.” I was excited to see how people react to our experiment. I was excited to see if I have nailed the voice graph for K. I was excited to be at the premiere of my film at NYC which has been directed by 11 makers. I WAS EXCITED. PERIOD!
November 18th, 2014. Red Carpet Opening Night at SAIFF, New York City.
We had a full house. The film started at 8:15. Ended at 10.10. 90% of the audience applauded, some didn’t, as expected. Then came the magic moment. A group of girls from Nepal, who now live in New York city, came up to me and recited 2 dialogues from my debut film, Love Sex aur Dhokha. It felt good. Then they recited 4 dialogues from my different segments in X. They told me how wonderful the age transition came across even in segments where they didn’t see me and only heard me. They particularly found Sandeep’s segment funny, which I have voiced as the 27-year-old K, and Richa Shukla is the actor opposite me. I am not seen in that segment. But I guess the voice is!
As I thanked them, I knew I had not done ok. I had done a little better. Positive reviews began to come in and then came the big news – we were an Official Selection at the International Film festival Of Kerala 2014. The journey had begun!
So, what began as an experimental film, I ended up working with two of my favourite contemporary female actors – Huma and Swara, I got stitched up, I got to challenge myself as an artist, I got to interact with 11 Directors in 1 film, I made friends for life and most importantly, I X-perienced. Therefore, don’t ever underestimate the power of an Indie X-perience!
I am sometimes misunderstood as an artist because of my competitive streak, but that’s because, deep down, I’m a sportsperson with the urge to learn more and get better. And, the only thing I ever play against is losing. And as a team, we at X – Past Is Present never lost hope. We literally crashed and survived. And survived to tell a tale!
X – Past Is Present had its Indian premiere at Kerala and for those of you who didn’t make it to God’s own country, do not worry, the film is set to release on November 20th, 2015.
“Every film has its own destiny.” Indeed, Mr Ghai. The journey to the theatrical release in India steams ahead!