‘Peddlers’ Director Vasan Bala On Creating A “Ghost Town” Mumbai
Peddlers is the third Indian film to head to Cannes this year and the only one in competition for the Camera d’Or prize (the other two non-competive entries are Miss Lovely and Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur). First-time director Vasan Bala, who made Peddlers with Kashyap’s production house, has previously worked with Kashyap on Dev.D and as an associate director to Michael Winterbottom on Trishna. Peddlers, he says, centres on a “lady on a mission, a man living a lie” and “an aimless drifter” whose lives collide in a ghostly Mumbai. We spoke with Bala, 33, who told us about why he prefers working with Winterbottom, and what exactly Peddlers is all about. Edited excerpts:
How did you get into films?
I was born and brought up in Matunga, which is almost a small town within the city. I did my schooling and then studied Commerce and then Law, jumped into IT, and was basically just floating about. Then finally at 28, I decided to quit it all and joined movies. I first worked on a short film directed by Anurag Kashyap and then Dev.D.
What’s Peddlers about? It’s hard to get the gist of it from the synopsis.
It’s that kind of film. That’s one difficulty we had in finding producers because there’s set rules that ask you to tell them about your film in two lines, or in 10 seconds. I was not equipped to do this. It’s a film where you struggle to cut a trailer, or write a synopsis or make it marketing-friendly. So it helps when people like [producer] Guneet [Monga] or Anurag come into the picture and help people like me who aren’t that socially adaptable.
So what’s the movie about?
We wanted to treat Mumbai like a ghost town. Usually when someone comes here, the first images are of the Gateway of India and Mohammed Ali Road—we wanted to negate all that. Most of us are locked into our own spaces and don’t even see the crowd. Our characters are similar, they don’t see the crowd, so we’ve eliminated all that. We’re following three characters—one drifter, one lady on a mission, and another [who] is living a lie, struggling with his identity—and what [happens] if these three collide? Some collisons have consequences.
How did you manage to shoot a ghost-town Mumbai?
We had a primary character in frame, and everything else we treated with sound. You can’t 100 per cent avoid people in Bombay, so in most spaces we wanted just the primary character and to show the presence of people only through the presence of sound. It’s like sitting in a room alone and you only hear footsteps which scare you.
You raised money for this film via Facebook. Tell us how you did it.
It wasn’t a serious plan that we thought would work. Guneet put a message on Facebook because we weren’t finding anyone to support it. We got a couple of messages back. She sat down with a lawyer and created a structure whereby people could crowdsource it. Now we have seven co-producers and three associate producers.
You’ve worked with both Anurag Kashyap and Michael Winterbottom. What’s something you learned from both of them?
Both are very organic, not control freaks in a way, and extremely control freaky in other ways. I really learned from Michael more than Anurag [who is] pretty much a rock star in the Indian context, and that can be a little distracting and overwhelming at times. Michael doesn’t have that aura and he can be pretty detached and relentless, which I like a little more. I was grateful to work with him. It’s a relentless, objective way to filmmaking, and a state of mind that you carry through from shooting to editing the film.
Is that something you brought to your own direction?
Yeah, completely, there really wasn’t any support as far as the budget was concerned. Every day was what do we have today and accordingly we’d change scenes according to what was available. If you got too emotional or attached, then any change bother you especially when you don’t have a budget for it. So that slight detachment helped in having an objectivity towards the film.
Lastly, what are you packing for Cannes?
I’m hoping to go there and watch a lot of films. I’m told I have to pack a lot of good clothes, my friends are helping me. They want my hair to be cut but I’m not sure I’ll be cooperating.