Dipesh Jain: “The idea was that Gali Guliyan will give you a psychological experience”

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It has showcased at film festivals around the world to applause, awards and rave reviews and now Dipesh Jain’s Gali Guliyan (In The Shadows) is coming to London and screening at the prestigious London Indian Film Festival. The director’s feature film debut is a dark and atmospheric psychological thriller that expertly explores the roots of paranoia.

To set the scene: In the walled city of Old Delhi, a reclusive shopkeeper (Manoj Bajpayee) spends his days obsessively watching people through hidden closed circuit cameras. When he overhears a boy being beaten by a man, he begins to frantically search for the child. As he becomes lost in the labyrinthine alleys of the city, his grasp on reality falters, until he eventually stumbles across a shocking truth about a father and an abused son.

Director Dipesh Jain, in a fabulous conversation, talked with Stacey about creating the many-layered Gali Guliyan, the challenges shooting in Old City Delhi, about seeing Manoj Bajpayee become his Khuddoos and so much more!

Gali Guliyan is the name of an old alley in old Delhi. A couple of things inspired me for this film. My grandmom and my granddad from my mom’s side they used to live in Old Delhi and I visited their house as a kid during summer vacations. I always had this fascination for this space, but at the same time my experiences of talking to people over there was that I felt that these people were trapped there. They wanted to get out and they wanted to live outside but for some reason, even my granddad, he wanted to get out but for some reason there was fear that he could never move out of that old city. It is literally a maze. As a kid I got lost walking around in those alleys. I still get lost. These were impressions from my childhood.

Bringing together the story of Gali Guliyan
Right after graduation when I was deciding which story I should make as my debut feature there were two or three things I had in mind. First thing, I didn’t want to do a conventional story. I wanted to do something that was more layered. Maybe a little risky.

The images of this space – the butcher shops and the alleys and the idea of entrapment, that was in my head all the time, but I never had a story. I used to write like 5-6 pages while in film school and immediately after graduating, every year I would write like 10-12 pages, but never like had a concrete story.

I was planning a documentary on child abuse that leads to schizophrenia. The more and more I started to do research, I found out there is an alarming number of kids, around 70-80% of kids, that go through child violence have chances of developing schizophrenia. Right about that time this idea came in my head where these people who have gone through this abuse are literally trapped in that violence – the aftermath of that violence for their entire lives. They want to get out and seek help from professionals, but most people don’t get out and they suffer for all their lives.

So that was this inherent added idea of entrapment. I thought I would do a story of entrapment in the maze of Old Delhi, but that was not enough for me because it was not layered, – physical entrapment was not interesting enough. The moment I added this other layer of being trapped in the mind because of the trauma of the past and the reason you can’t get out is because you are trapped in the mind then everything started to come together.

That is when I came up with this character, which is loosely based on my granddad. A lot of the little stories in the film are stories that I had seen as a kid in the neighborhood. That started to get concrete.

I wanted to tell a story of a man who was completely on a psychological decline, he was ostracized by the society, he was a loner, completely aloof. Then trying to bring out more contrast of this old city that is packed with hundreds of thousands of people but here you have this one man who is completely alone. Why are you alone? Because you are still trapped in your mind. You can’t make normal connections with human beings. That is the behavioral problem that these people go through. They are not well adjusted with society because of this past. So those are many of the things.

When it started to happen, when I started to see the story I literally locked myself in my apartment for four months. I never got out, not even to get food or anything just to see what this entrapment felt like. I then finished a draft after about 4 months. I didn’t allow myself to go online. I wanted to disconnect myself. After a month and half, two months I started to lose it. I don’t know if it is the right process or the wrong process. I just wanted to see where I could go with this and if it made sense to me.

We looked at 1000 to 2000 kids all over India to play the kid that is going through the violence. My casting team went everywhere in India. They were sending me tapes from schools, theater groups and villages just to try and find that boy but I just was never convinced. Then one day, maybe 3-4 weeks, before the shoot I was getting really antsy because we still haven’t found the kid and we were deep, deep into production and this one tape comes in from this child foster facility of a kid and he was telling his story. I immediately knew I have to go meet this kid. So I went to that childcare facility, it is like an orphanage, with the casting people and I started getting on tape his own story. I was literally getting goosebumps, so was my team. It was a very surrealistic moment for us, because that part of the kid that I wrote in the film as fiction – most of it had happened to that kid in his real life. It is a story about this kid who has a violent father and he dreams to escape this old city and make a life of his own. This kid actually had an abusive father and he ran away from his home down South. Took a train and came to Delhi where he slept on the platform for many, many months. He was then picked up by the police and then given to this orphanage. As he was saying these things on the tape, only at that point in time, did I feel like I was ready to shoot because there was a real story right in front of me. I felt confident that okay, I am not just faking it now. It is not just fiction. This is real.

Working with Om Singh
For this part of the story, I actually worked a lot with the kid to kind of tweak the script to fit what he thought was real in his experiences. We had to really make sure, because he was re-living everything; we had to really make sure he was comfortable with it. The first month was just a trust building process with him. Take him out for lunches. Once he started to become comfortable with me and opened up, he even started calling me his elder brother, then he would give his input. So for example, saying this would happen to me, but I would not react like that. There is a scene where the father is brutally beating the kid and I had designed the scene in a particular way where the kid would be crying and the mother is trying to stop the father. He came up to me and said, ‘you know, this would not have happened in my household’. I was like, ’Okay, what happened?’ So he said, ‘when my father beat me up and I used to cry he said, if you cry more I will beat you more. So I had to hold back my tears because I don’t want to get beaten up any more’. So we changed the whole scene.

He was very comfortable and after a point he actually started to enjoy the whole process. He is a superstar. Critics and reviewers when they are watching the film they say he as good if not better than the lead actors. I am very proud and happy for that kid.

The Great Manoj Bajpayee
This casting process is also a fascinating story for me. Yes, it was written for him. See normally what happens in independent films is that you cast the lead first and then use that face to package the film. In our case, Manoj Bajpayee was the last person to get cast. We cast every actor around him, but I was like I want Manoj Bajpayee but I don’t know how to get him. This is such a complex role; I knew that there was only one or two actors that would be able to pull it off. Since it was written for Manoj, I would not give up until he says no, I don’t want to do it. Luckily it happened that a friend of mine connected Manoj and I. She probably said there is a script floating around and you must read this script. He said okay, send it over. The first call I made to him even before he read the script, he said, when do you want to shoot? I said in 6-7 weeks time. He kind of started laughing and said, ‘you know my dates go one year in advance. Why do you think I would have time to do this?’ I don’t know what came over me. I told him very arrogantly, ‘Why don’t you read the script. If you like it then we will talk about dates. Otherwise you are wasting my time and I am wasting yours.’ That foolish, foolish arrogance. I mean I would not say it now knowing what a great human being and what a great person he is, apart from a great actor, but at that point in time I didn’t know him. All I knew was that my script was working and I had written for him! But the moment I hung up the phone I was like Holy Shit, what did I just do? Maybe he got upset and he would not read the script. But he was gracious enough and he read the script. Immediately his manager called me and said when can you fly to Mumbai? This was like on a Friday. I said okay, I can come tomorrow. He said no, no let’s meet on Monday at Manoj’s house.

So when I go and meet him – he already had read the script three or four times. He grilled me for like a good three hours about everything. The story, the character, what he wears, how he speaks, his walk, his shoe size, will he wear leather, he was electrician – so his hands, how do you see his hands. He had given a lot of thought to this character. The director in me was jumping with joy because these were things I thought we would have a conversation about on set and I would tell him. But here is a guy who is literally seeing the exact same character that is in my mind. After that he was happy said, ‘Yes, I am doing the film. I will move my dates for my other films and I will start prep.’

Manoj becomes Khuddoos
I think he moved two films to make a 2-month space for this film. I wanted him to lose weight. I wanted him to go into this process of, again, this mental decline and isolation. He literally started this process of not eating. Then his wife told me that he stopped talking to them. He completely shut everybody out. Even when he arrived in Delhi, nobody knew he was in Delhi shooting. All he did was shoot, go back to his hotel, sleep, and come back. On set nobody was allowed to talk with him except my first AD. He created this mental space where, that even though he was surrounded by so many people on the streets he would be completely internal and cut off.

The first shot of him – did you just sit back and say Oh My God. Okay, this is going to be brilliant?

That reaction actually came when he came from Mumbai to Delhi for costume tests. I could not recognize him. We were already in the middle of the shoot, we had already started, and his section was later on. We shot the kid’s story first. He came in and my costume designer said you have to come and see this. So in the lunch break I went to the costume base and there he was. He was emaciated, his stance was changed, he crouched, he was sitting so unassumingly on a small chair in a corner of a room. He was smoking this cheap cigarette that I had written for his character. He had already become the character. I mean, we had discussed over the phone, what Khuddoos would be – what the character would be, but when I saw him in real life, not on camera in real life, I was like we are in good hands. I don’t have to worry about it. He is completely transformed.

I keep telling I am in a huge debt that I can’t repay him. This could have gone so wrong -this character. He just held it and elevated it. I was jumping every time we did a scene. He used to come up with okay, let’s try one more. After a point on our set, my AD’s and my other departments, got really frustrated because I would not say cut and he would keep doing additional things. So like a scene that was written for a page would even go on for like 2 or 3 minutes. I was just enjoying watching him perform and I would not say cut because maybe I can use it in edit. I don’t know what, but maybe I can use in edit. He would just keep going on and on and on. He would perform another thing and another thing. It was fun to watch.

From the page to screen
This is one script that is actually very close to how it was written. Yeah, we had options in performances, which nuance to choose from – that is what great actors give you. But this is my first film. I don’t know if this happens a lot in a director’s life or filmography where what you write and the way it is executed is almost like 80-90% of what and how I conceived it in my head.

It is not just acting. What gave me goosebumps was that every person in the departments was seeing the exact same film from costume to production design, to edit, to sound, to music – we were completely in sync. Maybe because I had explained the film so much in detail to every department visually and orally. But for example there was a time when the production designer was setting up the set of Khuddoos’ office where he has installed all the closed circuit cameras. I was shooting on a different location. When they called me to check if it was okay for shoot I told my production designer it is as if you took this image out of my head and just put it in real life. This was exactly how I saw it.

It happened in music too. So for the instruments we are going to use, my composer came up with a palette of mallets and wind chimes and bells. I was like how did you hear it? What was in my head – that I am going to use these textural elements and not use a conventional classical violin based score?

Even in the edit. We did something that was, at least I think for me, for the Indian audience that was a little risky because we start the film a little slow. We wanted to connect the audience with the character. Manoj’s character is slow in the beginning and the pace of the film is a little slow, again slow comparatively, but as his search intensifies, his breakdown starts to get momentum, the film starts to pick up pace because that is what we want the audience to experience – his experience. It is not like a conventional cut, cut, cut, cut, edit. We knew it was risky, but we wanted to try it and see if it can have that kind of impact where the film will slowly, slowly creep into under your skin. We wanted to give you that psychological impact. The editor was completely on board with it!

It was a fun experience seeing everybody come on board and all seeing the same film even before it was filmed and even more before it was out for the audience.

Shooting this on location in Delhi.
Everything was shot on location. Everything. It is one of the toughest locations that one can shoot in in India. I can safely say that because we are not a big budget film like a Hollywood 100 million dollar film so our resources were very limited. We were going in the heart of the Old City. I told the crew when they read the script – I don’t want to give the Discovery Channel version of Old Delhi. This is my vision of how I saw it as a kid. I saw this city not from outside in but I saw the city in that internal alley – that inner alley. For me, going out to the outer periphery was a big thing, because I was not allowed as a kid, because there are so many people. So for me the idea is that this space exists on the inner alleys not on the outside. It is literally claustrophobic film because everybody is trapped.

I literally did 2 1/2-3 months of reece myself – location scouting myself. On foot trying to find each and every alley, every nook and corner, even if there is a tea stall or a guy who is ironing the clothes in his stall.

For Manoj’s house, it took awhile to find that apartment because I wanted that apartment to look like a jail – like a penitentiary. It was a house that was closed off for 70 years. We opened it up for our shoot. It had the dust and the cobwebs and you know it was literally falling so we had actually to reinforce the roofs and the flooring so we could move in certain sections of the house. It really was a massive undertaking.

I think it paid off because visually it just gives the sense of how he is trapped starting from the minutious thing of how he was trapped in the house, then in the alley, then in the city and then in his mind – so the many layers of his entrapment.

It was tough. It was a massive undertaking. I think that if I had the information I had now, how much it would take to make this film, I probably would have not done it. But back when I started it, I just thought yeah this could be done. We will do it. You are just seeing the film. Everyone is so pumped and everyone is saying we will manage it. Whatever it takes we will do it. I think in India we are the longest shooting schedule in Old Delhi of like 40 days. Nobody else! Even the biggest production could not manage to go and shoot there and crowd control and all.

Proud about Gali Guliyan
Everything! The whole film I am very proud of. I am really proud of the performances. Manoj’s performance is brilliant and I have found a friend and a partner for other films also. I have worked with a team of technicians that I have worked with for 10 years and I think our bond became really strong. We are working on our next film together. I think if I say in a very humble way, I am really proud of the whole team because I wrote this crazy story, but I would give 80-90% of the credit to them that they executed it. I was just saying hey, push the button- make this edit. (Laughs) or like Action and Cut! At the end of the day these people gave their hearts and souls for this film.

At London Indian Film Festival
We are very excited. It is a UK production; our company is based in the UK. Basically we are saying it is coming back home. We can show it now to Londoners. Already I think the first show is houseful. There is a great excitement about this film. I am very excited that we are showing the film at LIFF. Cary (Sawhney LIFF festival director) has been fantastic. He saw the film a long time back when we were going to Busan and to MAMI and all that. Since then, he said I want to program this film because it will be good for people to see. It is a very different film with a very different story. We are happy we are going to London. I am really excited to see what the reaction is in London.

You have gotten amazing reactions at those earlier festivals and screenings. Especially Mr. Bajpayee’s performance…

I was happy, but honestly I was very surprised that this film did have such universal appeal. We premiered in Korea, they were watching the film with Korean subtitles, we were in Dubai in Arabic, we were the only film in Dubai from India, we have travelled many, many different countries now and the kind of reaction has been stupendous. It has been so positive. People tweet, text me, Facebook message me two or three days after seeing the film saying you know the images are still in my head. I am still thinking about the film. It is actually now starting to creep in more, the more I think about it, which was the idea for the film. It has to give you a psychological experience. It is not an uplifting story where you can stand up and you can feel good about yourself. It should take you down. It should make you think. It is doing that.

It did that in India too. I did some test screenings, one with in India in what we call the elite intellectual watching circles and then I invited to another screening I invited another set of people like Manoj Bajpayee’s make up guy, his driver, other actors, security guys, rickshaw-wallahs and so we had two screening of like a hundred people each packed. I was surprised because they came out crying, because the intellectuals probably were taking from the film the big ideals about entrapment and abuse and the maze. For these people it was just an emotional story about a kid who wanted to get out and how his life was completely ruined. Yes, Manoj Bajpayee’s performance was heartbreaking for them. They have never seen him like this.

Coming Soon
I am already casting my next film. It is called A Stone’s Throw Away. It is set in Kashmir. The leads are American actors. It is a political drama. It is a personal drama set on the background of a political situation. That’s happening. I am also in talks with a couple of production houses that they have books that I would probably get myself attached to those films as a director and a producer. Then in my production company we are working on a series, which we will pitch to Netflix or HBO early next year. We are very excited about this because that is a story based on a real person. That story will bring together India, China and American film industries together. We will have actors from all these big industries working on one series.

Gali Guliyan screens June 22 and the 24th in London, and the 23rd in Birmingham.

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