At some point during the production of “Liar’s Dice,” Geethu Mohandas and a small crew that included, among others, her husband, cinematographer Ranjeev Raji (“Gangs of Wasseypur”), a young girl and a goat rode every form of transportation imaginable as they made their way from the snow covered mountains of Chtitkul, a small village near the Indo-Tibet border to the sprawling metropolis of New Dehli. By foot, by bus and by truck, it was quite the logistical challenge just to get the entire production from one place to the next, but to film it all was something else, especially when it came time to shoot on a train.
“We bribed the station master with whatever money we had. He’s like, “Okay, do whatever you want, but don’t make any noise,” laughs Mohandas now. “The moment the train came, we were a crew of maybe five or six people with my actors and a goat and I [told them], ‘You stay in character. You won’t know when I’m filming.” When the train came, I remember my husband saying, ‘Jump!’ We all jumped. Some people jumped in front, some in back. People who jumped in the back knew exactly what they should shoot and people see it now and think these shots were planned. It was just magical, but it also was mad.”
In many ways, the leap was simply a physical manifestation of what Mohandas was already accomplishing with “Liar’s Dice,” an unusually circumspect drama from India about a woman (Geetanjali Thapa) who ventures from her rural home with her daughter (Manya Gupta) in search of her husband, a migrant worker who intended to provide for his family from afar, and is reluctantly aided by a fellow traveler (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) whose own journey remains mysterious. The film is a rare independent production from the country to find worldwide acclaim, a fact acknowledged prominently by its selection as this year’s official entry in the Oscars.
In a place where Bollywood still reigns supreme, Mohandas has carved out an entire career working on the edge of the industry, first appearing as a child actress at the age of five in the film “Onnu Muthal Poojyam Vare,” a product of the more politically-minded Malayalam cinema from the South. That spirit has carried through to “Liar’s Dice,” which considers how easy it is for not just individual people but entire communities and cultures to get lost in a nation of 1.2 billion people largely defined in inscrutable statistics rather than in recognizably human terms. During a recent visit to Los Angeles, Mohandas spoke about the crazy 22-day shoot that unfolds on film as it did in reality, giving her actors room to create the story for themselves and what it’s like to be an independent filmmaker in India.
You’ve said you actually wrote the script for “Liar’s Dice” before making your short film “Are You Listening?,” so did one impact the other in terms of what you may have wanted to learn from the short and what you may have applied to the feature?
The short film is actually something I had to do because I realized that the prerequisite to funding, is to show your previous work. Because I was an actor, I had no previous work [as a director], so I went ahead and did a short film, which spoke about urbanization seen through the eyes of a blind protagonist. It’s not similar, but I thought “Liar’s Dice” is a step up because I am talking about that and globalization in a bigger perspective [with the] displacement of migrant laborers. The short really helped me as a filmmaker because it went to a lot of competitions and won three international awards, so it was a morale booster for me. I was excited that, “Okay, maybe I should try the feature now.”
What is your continuing interest in urbanization?
I feel that it’s not only urbanization. When I talk about “Liar’s Dice” in this era of globalization, whether it’s materialism and the fast life and instant gratification, success is the mantra of India. The poorer people, or the lesser privileged, come to the nation’s attention only as a statistic when a crime or a tragedy happens. They’re the nameless faces of India. They have a price tag attached to them. If you’re injured, you might get 25-50,000 rupees. If you’re dead, you get ₹100,000. That’s the value for a human life in India.
The film talks about a sense of futility. It’s an anger against the system as well. As a citizen of my nation, I feel this is something staring us in the face. We read in the dailies on a day-to-day basis and I really thought somebody needed to tell the story and give this nameless man an identity and a family back home.
Was it easy to find that smaller story that could tell a far larger one?
I didn’t want to make a film which is very preachy because that’s what invariably happens when you hit these political chords, but it was a very conscious decision to create a constant undercurrent where you think about these issues. There is another story which is carried forward about this woman in search of her missing husband. Along the way, she meets this army deserter. Knowing the perils of the journey, he accompanies her. What happens when a man and woman are put in a space together? For me, it was like a very subtle love story [even though the characters don’t have a romantic relationship]. That’s how I’ve thought of it, although that wasn’t the brief given to the actors.
Your lead actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui is able to use his real first name in the film and I’ve read he also got to use his regional slang. Is that something you allowed to make him comfortable?
Yes, because I didn’t give a lot of dialogue. It was a very organic way of making this film. I didn’t give [the actors] an exact idea on how to say what they would say in the scenes. I honestly believed all they should know is the skeleton of the film and then give me what they think is required from the scenes. I like to put them in real space, in real time, amongst real people and wire them up and shoot them anthropologically while we go on this journey together.
The most comfortable way for Nawaz was to speak in the dialect he’s most comfortable in, so I said, “Go for it. Why not?” His backstory was very easy because there was a tinge of mystery behind who he is since the only clue that I gave is from the Indo-Tibetan border patrolling officer card [he carries]. Clearly, he’s from the cantonment [at] the border, but the men there come from all regions, so it was OK for me to say, “Speak in your own dialect from wherever you are.”
How much of a skeleton, or outline, did you have for the story?
I had quite a lot actually because I’d been working on it for quite some time, but I didn’t really share that with my actors. I told them the pitch, like how I wanted the character to be, but then everything was very spontaneous the way we worked. We would find a location, and say “It’s great. Let’s just do the scene here. Let’s see what happens” [rather than] “We have 5 scenes to do today. We have to do this, this, this.” We didn’t have that kind of planning. I don’t like telling stories like that. I want to tell real human stories, something you would have gone through if you were traveling through that terrain. It’s exactly what my crew and I did. The first time that we went from Chitkul, this little quaint village, down to Delhi and the people who I met along the way inspired me. I wrote that, but when I went with the actors, I would meet someone else and I went with that story.
It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a film from India that opened up in the snow. Was it important to set it apart from other depictions of the country right from the start?
Initially, when I wrote the script, I had decided on the deserts of Rajasthan for the travel, then over the course of writing and rewriting, I just realized I’m going to be selling Indian exotica and that’s not my intention. The perception of the West or of Europeans when they think about India is always the desert-clad woman and the angst [of the heat]. The film itself has a neverending journey and the desert would have only brought about more mundaneness whereas the mountains gave the film more life. That’s why I decided to go with Himachal and not with Rajasthan.
You seem to place a premium of letting the landscape into the frame, given the angles you shoot from.
It was important for the people to understand where this woman comes from and as the landscape and the terrain changes, how the attitude of the people change around them. Geography plays a big role in the narration of the film in a very quiet way. That’s one of the reasons why I decided to go back to that quaint space [at the end]. I didn’t want to end the film in the big hustle and bustle of the city. When you see this little village up in the mountain, you’re wondering, “Can she possibly go down? Can she possibly leave that space? How is she going to adjust to the city life?”
That’s also why I decided to shoot in two different [camera] formats as well. The beauty of that space is just so magnificent the only way to see the real beauty is to experience it yourself by being out there, but we shot it on film so that we can have that full, beautiful cinemascope feel. Then once a journey starts and we keep coming down [the mountain to the city], we switch to a digital format, which is a smaller camera and people wouldn’t know that we were filming. When the format changes, the style of filmmaking changes — it’s more handheld.
It was crazy to see every single mode of transportation is used on the journey, whether it’s bus, train, or bike.
The mountain people know their way down. Two or three in the morning, when we were filming, I saw a woman carrying a newborn down the mountain. She knows her way down. These things happen. They know that this time by noon, there will be a truck, which takes people down, and there’s only one truck in a day. It’s something which is very familiar with people in India because these are the modes of transportation there.
Was it difficult to shoot in such remote regions?
We had landslides. We were up in this village and we only shot there for four days, but on the last day, we were told to leave by afternoon because there was a landslide coming down and we had to take a shot in the evening, so there was no way that I could leave earlier. We stayed back. We did that shot and then we left. We saw a mountain of snow in front of us and we had to clear that. The army had to come. There were a lot of challenges along the way. Because we were working in such inhuman climate conditions, it had to be very safe for the little child and the goat. Those were my concerns and also the fact that I was pregnant while filming.
There were times that I would have nose bleeding. [slight laugh] I’m like, “Oh God, what’s happening?”
In general, what is it like to be an independent filmmaker in India where there is such a deeply entrenched studio system?
It’s very difficult. It’s hard enough being an independent filmmaker, then being an Indian woman filmmaker is a tough road as well. But [you make it through] perseverance, sheer hard work and just making sure that you don’t compromise. I did go to a lot of studios [with “Liar’s Dice”] and a lot of production houses. They always had their way of how they wanted to tell “Liar’s Dice.” They said, “Why don’t you bring this actor on board? Why don’t you have some song-and-dance routine to make it more commercial?” They just didn’t understand. They didn’t have a marketing strategy for a film like this. They said, “How are we going to sell this woman, a kid and a lamb on a mountain?”
Now I’m here as the best foreign language representing India. Sometimes you just need to have a vision for these films, a knowledge about world cinema and about the platforms that it could have. I don’t blame them because I think India is just slowly opening up to these things right now, but for my next film, is it going to be just as hard? Maybe not, but it is still hard. To find the theaters to release a film, to get that crowd, you still need certain commercial aspects. I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I’m not going to change the way I want to tell the story ever.
Was it actually through acting you wanted to become a director?
I became an actor by complete default. I was working since I was four and I was a very popular child artist in a regional film in Malayalam, then I discontinued [it until] I came back as a lead actor when I was around 19 and I always wanted to tell stories, but not necessarily be a filmmaker. I used to write a lot, so I was very creative in that space, but slowly, I [realized I] wanted to direct. I was doing okay as an actor, and I acted for over a decade, so when I thought the timing was right, I made the switch and I think that’s the best switch that I’ve done in my life.
Did that perspective shape how you would direct? You give your actors a lot of freedom.
Absolutely. As an actor, I really wished that I would have been given this kind of space and I didn’t get that. I thought it would be very cool to do that for actors because it’s great to inspire them and then see what they give you back, instead of telling them, “This is what you need to do.” After a point, you need to just let them be, tell them this is a space and have rehearsals for the camera so that you know where they’re going. But apart from that, I don’t think you need to confine them because that’s sometimes when the magic happens.
What’s it been like to represent India as their official entry for the Oscars?
When you do a film, you want to do it well. You enjoy the process. You don’t think you’re going to be sitting in LA and doing an interview, so everything else — traveling to festivals, winning all these awards — it was just a validation for all the hard work that we did. But for the last few years, we’ve been seeing a lot of commercial films from India which have represented [the country] with big studios’ backing. This is a true blue independent film and also very political film, which is very current. I feel the issue of migrant laborers is not [limited] to India. It’s happening all over the world. There’s always this person who wants to go to the big city with a big dream and aspirations in life. It’s very universal.