Charudutt Acharya, writer-director
Around 2003 or 4, I used to write TV serials from a rented 'gala' attached to my ground floor flat in Malad, Mumbai. Broadband cable had recently liberated me from the MTNL dial-up.
One night at around 11ish, I had to email some additional scenes to a unit waiting to shoot it right away. Just as I was about to hit the send button, there was a disconnection. There was no cyber cafe open at that hour. Those days there was no internet on the mobile phone. And my internet provider closed shop at 9 pm. Frustrated, I took a chance and called the operator's office.
A young Maharashtrian girl who ran the outfit, took the call. I told her that she and her boys must attend a funeral the next morning. That of a man who killed himself due to frequent internet disconnection - ME. She scolded me for such inauspicious talk and promptly sent her boys to fix my connection.
The next morning I visited the internet office and for the first time met the girl. I had met the boys before, but the girl I had only spoken to on the phone for over a year. She told me they were in office late the previous night because they had a Chinese Food party in office to celebrate their 1000th connection. The girl (called Sonali), her gang of boys, their crumbling internet service office and the stories of their lives... all came together to form the germ of my script, Sonali Cable.
Further, the experiences of two friends who tried to start a cable internet service and were 'persuaded' by a corporation to not do so, also shaped the story I had begun to write. But I never really developed this story idea, as I was always caught up some or the other writing for hire commitment.
Years later, in 2010, while writing dialogue for Dum Maro Dum, I pitched this story to Rohan Sippy. He liked it and asked me to develop it. Just as I finished the first draft in 2011, the Mumbai Mantra Sundance Screenwriters Lab was announced. I applied with Sonali Cable and was fortunate to be selected.
The lab, in March 2012, was hugely useful. My mentors were highly acclaimed writers like Marcos Bernstein (Central Station), Audrey Wells (Truth about Cats and Dogs), Michael Goldenberg (Harry Potter) and Shekhar Kapur. Each one of them gave me excellent notes and pushed me to think deeper and bolder.
On June 22, 2012, my 42nd birthday, I read a developed draft of Sonali Cable to my producers. It was green lit and we began crewing up. Though I had studied film directing at filmschool (FTII), I had never really directed much due to a nasty accident soon after FTII, which had turned me into full time writer. My DoP, Sudheer Palsane, put my initial anxieties to rest as we methodically worked for days together on arriving at the visual design and shooting style for the script. Soon our production designer Saini Johray joined in and things started to take concrete shape on paper.
Casting took a couple of months. We did start of by pitching the title role of Sonali to a few established female stars. Some of them were quite excited about the part but for things to work out there would be a real long waiting period for dates. And then there was the whole issue of casting the male lead who plays her love interest, which was a good part yes, but not as big a part as Sonali. So we decided to go with relatively newer faces for Sonali and her love interest.
We had intensive auditions and finally we zeroed in on Rhea Chakraborty, a former MTV VJ who had done one Telgu film and her Yashraj film, Mere Dad ki Maruti, was in post-production then. Casting Rhea was entirely on gut feel. She was not a trained actor. She had not done theatre. She was nowhere close to the character of a self-made lower milddle class Marathi-Koli girl with a tough exterior and complex insides. But her audition was spot on and the girl had an insane energy level to work hard.
For a month, Rhea and I rehearsed the entire script in office. Each and every scene was discussed, with me playing all the other characters. Soon the rest of the casting was complete. Thanks to the talents of my casting director Abhishek Pandey and some good luck, we were able to put together an ensemble of some really fine actors. One of them that paid of really well, was casting a TV dance show winner Raghav Juyal in a very 'non dancing' part. He turned out to be a really endearing actor and later during the marketing of the film, was no less than a rock star in every nook and corner of the country.
Official prep started on 1st Jan, 2013. On that day I took a hiatus from my night job of writing dialogue for Crime Patrol and also from my weekend quarter of Old Monk Rum. We kick-started prep with six weeks of intensive workshop with the entire cast. We also shot the rehearsals and edited the footage to get a sense of the scene and performances. During this stage, I wrote the final draft of the script too. It was draft number 15.
After another three months of rather intensive prep, we began shoot in April 2013. We had budgeted and scheduled for a 40 day shoot divided in two schedules. We finished the shoot in 37 days spread over three schedules. This included four songs, one lip-sync and three montage songs. We shot on the Red Epic with sync sound. Our dailies were being assembled parallel to the shoot. After the first schedule where we finished around 60 percent of the shoot, I saw a rough cut my editor Aarif had put together. It was one of the most joyous occasions in my life, to see it all there, almost working!
Thanks to almost clockwork planning by my first AD, Varun Lalvani and later Bala Thevar, there were never any real hiccups except on two occasions where unexpected rain hugely cut into our shooting time. I had to rewrite a scene on the spot and in another instance combine two scenes into one. Thanks to years of TV writing, that was really not a talk ask.
The film was ready by December 2013. The next ten months, have be a crash course in getting a grip on the studio system, marketing, finances, budgets, publicity, what the star system really means, and a whole list of things that I had never bothered to figure out when I worked as a writer only.
Finally, the film releases on 17th October 2014. There is great excitement, yes. There are some butterflies in the stomach, yes. But there is also a sense of modest achievement of having completed a feature film, with in the tight budget, in the mainstream set up. And there have been no inspirations or 'tributes' in this picture. Good, bad, or ugly, everything out there is entirely original. Now, there is a sense of calm when I see the picture. I have lost objectivity yes, but it always works for me, despite its warts and moles. And there is also a quiet confidence very slowly brewing inside me to make my next film with a much firmer foot and easier breathe!
It's been a privilege to get to direct one's own material, and to have been supported, protected and nurtured by my producers and crew, all of who were so much more were experienced than me.
I can't wait now to tackle the next draft of a script I wrote during this waiting period. I can't wait to direct again - it's such a high! But for now, it's Friday the 17th. I intend to go watch the matinee show in a single screen hall. And then head straight to Vijay Palace Bar for a few beers. I think I have more than earned them!