Making its premiere tonight at the London Indian Film Festival is Shefali Bhusan’s magical musical tale Jugni. The film, set to the rustic beats and full of sound and feeling music by Clinton Cerejo, stars Sugandha Garg, Siddhant Behl, Sadhana Singh, Anuritta K Jha, Samir Sharma, and Chandan S Gill.
Set in the beauty of Punjab, Jugni tells the tale of Vibhavari (Vibs) a young composer from Mumbai. She is in search of Bibi Saroop, the voice that she believes will be the saviour of her new score. She bumps into Bibi’s dashing son Mastana who also has an incredible voice. Vibs records Mastana’s renditions of Punjabi folk songs as well as Bibi Saroop’s song. What happens next? Is it a bittersweet tale or happily ever musically after? You have to watch the film to see! The film is all about dealing with the hardships in life and the search of a place which one can call home; where the firefly is at her brightest.
I was lucky enough to be able to see a screener of the film and I absolutely loved it. Each note was in perfect pitch. But that is for another article.
I was happily able to catch up with the director right before her flight to London to talk about the story, the actors, the incredible music and much more. See what Shefali had to say in this exclusive and in depth conversation on all things Jugni!
What was the spark that began your journey to making Jugni?
I have been close to music all my life. Ever since I was a child I was always close to folk music and it was played a lot in my family. I sang a lot with my mother and cousins. In the year 2000, along with a group of people, I started a project called Beat of India. For that project, we traveled to different parts of the country, to the interiors, to the villages and small towns etc, looking for unexplored folk musicians and talent. We made recordings of them; something like what Vibs does in the film except she was working towards a film – here we were just working towards putting it up on a website. Basically trying to fill the gap between the availability and the love for that kind of music. People might want to hear it, but there is no way that they can get to hear it. We recorded with about 70 to 75 musicians all across north India. We found some very rustic music. On our journeys we came across some very interesting characters. In fact, two of the characters in the film are very loosely based on some of the Punjabi singers that I have met. Mainly a lady called Swarn Nooran and her son called Dilbahar. Interestingly, Swarn Nooran’s granddaughters have become very, very popular in the music industry today – the Nooran sisters. Swarn’s mother was actually a legendary singer called Bibi Nooran. So Swarn Nooran and her son were the inspiration for Bibi Saroop and Mastana.
How long did it take to go from page to screen?
I think I started writing it in 2011 and it finally released in 2016, so maybe 4 years of writing, but not to say I was working on it continuously. It was actually in 2013, me and my 2 partners Manas Malhotra and Karan Grover joined together and that is when it really started to fall into place. By then I had more or less finished writing – you know how it is with writing a script… it never ends. It will continue to go on and on until you actually do say: ‘Okay, fine, finished, closed. I am just going to shoot this script. I am going to finalize the dates and lock it.’ That is the only way you can close a script or else it will just keep going on and on. There is never any end to it. (Laughs) It took a long time in that sense, but the shoot was actually very, very short. We had a schedule of about 35 days; but we had a very quick DOP and a nice cohesive team so we managed to wrap up the schedule in 28 days actually. Which is almost unheard of, especially with a first film. It was very, very good. I was very lucky in my first film to have found a dream team. I mean starting from Clinton Cerejo [music director] to my DOP to my editor to my co producers, it really has just been a dream team absolutely. I have been very lucky.
I loved how Sugandha Garg played Vibhavari and how her character was not what was expected. What was it like working with her to create Vibs?
It was absolutely wonderful. As an actress she brings a lot of nuance, her eyes talk and she brings a lot of layers to her character. The interaction with her was very, very exciting because she already brings it to level seven. Then as a director you want to add more layers because you can already see the possibilities and you try to take it even higher.
It was difficult to convince her initially. In fact, she was rather reluctant in the initial talks that we had. Her concern was why is the audience going to root for her character. My answer to her was that it is not necessary for the audience to root for that character because it is not necessary to be a protagonist that everyone roots for. Even so, because that character is so real if she is true to whatever she is thinking and true to what she is doing, people are going to root for her or at least enough people are going to root for her (laughs) as a protagonist. She asked me to give her an example of a character that is the protagonist of a film who is so grey. I gave her an example of film called Bhumika, starring one of my favorites Smita Patil. It is a film in the 80s and she is playing an actor who is wonderfully grey and wonderfully complex. I love her in the film, everybody loves her and the film is fantastic. I gave Sugandha that example and that is when something clicked into place in her head and that is when she really became enthusiastic. For me, she has done a fabulous job. There is a lot of subtext in her performance and that is the way I wanted it to be.
Mastana played by Siddhant Behl was also amazing. What was it like to work with him and bring this character to life?
He is somebody I have known for a very long time. We came from the same theater group though we were actors in that theater group at different times. I knew him for a long time and we had a comfort level. He is also an associate writer on the film. He brought a lot of stuff to table. However, he was more difficult to work with as a director because he has his own ideas and he wanted to continuously argue about those ideas. To my mind, film is very much a director’s medium. At some point you need to submit to the director otherwise there’s going to be 35 different visions going on. Sometimes I had to be very, very hard (laughs) to kind of get my way with him. He finally did. Because he is an actor who is very, very spontaneous and loves to improvise, which is very good in the theater space but in cinema sometimes you cannot do that because from one angle to another you cannot be doing something different, I think all of that used to restrict him a lot, which I understand. He is a fabulous actor. He has got that X factor, if you know what I mean. There is something about him that when he smiles the screen lights up. He is very, very charming. And audiences by large have just loved him. It has been fabulous.
Sadhana Singh played Bibi Saroop brilliantly; she brought so much strength and depth to the film. I think I read she had acted before in films…
Yes, she had debuted in the film called Nadiya Ke Paar in the 80s I think, which became a big hit. It was her first film and she has known by the name of that character in the film ever since. Then there was a long gap in between. She is a fantastic actor. She is very, very precise, like for example for the dubbing of the film, which is one of the portions I actually hated because I wish I had done sync sound; I didn’t so I had to dub the film. But getting back, at the dubbing she looks at her own take once and she delivers it too the tee, perfectly, absolutely. She is just amazing in terms of precision. And like you rightfully said she brings a lot of depth, there is a lot of subtlety and gentleness and a lot of depth in everything that she does. It was lovely.
Of course we have to talk about the incredible music. I absolutely loved it. How did you and Clinton Cerejo create the sounds of Jugni?
Clinton was sort of an unlikely choice. He comes from a very, very different school of music. When he heard the narration of the film just the excitement in his body language was enough for me to know that this is the right person, he is the person we need for this film. I have had a very, very, very good interaction with him. It has been very, very creative. You know when you just kind of hit it off – things just grow from there. You just build on each other’s ideas and this just leads into something, which creates magic. Music is so close to my own heart and it has been a magical experience working with Clinton. He doesn’t have an ego at all – he is completely open to ideas and suggestions. You know like the ‘Hatt Mullah’ song, the first version that he did of that did not work for me at all. The great thing about the interaction was that he leaves space for you to fight and argue, and talk and discuss and he will keep on trying it until both of us are happy. I think with two creative people that’s the only way it works is that if only one person on the team is happy – it is not quite right. If both people say, yes this is it, that is when it is really all there. So if he isn’t happy with something than I am not happy with it either yet because I know something is still missing. We worked on the ‘Hatt Mullah’ song until we’re both really happy. He’s somebody who really loves challenges. He’s someone who completely gives himself to whatever it is that he has on hand. He loves to immerse himself to the extent that he listened to a lot of music of that genre while he was composing the music for the film. In fact, when he was composing the Qawwali, he listened to a lot of Qawwalis. It is not his genre, it is not music he has grown up listening to, unlike me who has heard a lot more of it so I gave him tons of references. He completely immersed himself into those tracks until he is internalized it completely.
Clinton came up with songs that are not exactly in the zone that it always is in in traditional music and yet it is not so far away that it is still believable. That is what I like the most about it. That it is a different sound and yet it is true to its milieu and true to its context.
Then of course you had some incredible singers on the tracks including Rekha Bhardwaj, Vishal Bhardwaj, AR Rahman, Javed Bashir, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan. What was it like to hear them bring this music to life and how did this happen?
We knew that the music was going to be the USP of the film. We were hoping that since we didn’t have a “star cast”, the music was going to be the way to bring audiences in. So we needed to make the canvas of the music as large as possible. We got the opportunity to work with some of the fantastic musicians and singers and it was unbelievable to me. I think Vishalji has worked so closely with Clinton that he agreed to sing with him and he was so lovely through the recording. I think that when it is about their art and it is about the creative arena it isn’t difficult. You realize that things just flow. Everybody’s on the same page by virtue of the fact that they connect to the art. They just become so much easier. Similarly with Rekhaji. AR Rahman has composed his own track, so Clinton has not done that. I have interacted with Rahman a lot but basically this track was made possible because my partner Karan is someone who has worked closely with AR Rahman. He was very gracious and he kind of gave it as a blessing. That was a different kind of blessing for the film.
You earlier mentioned the ‘Hatt Mullah’ song. I loved the joining of the modern and traditional in that song.
For me, that was the crux of the whole story. That is actually the summation of the story. That was very important for me to get this song right in every way. I had a certain vision for it and the brief to Clinton was that this was really them making love to that song and the end of it should be like an orgasm in music. So in a sense we are not going to show them making love, this is it, they connect musically and that is what we want to see. That was my brief to the actors as well. That song holds a very special place for me. I think it is the film. Now Clinton did the scratch and though it is in Punjabi there was just so much emotion that he brought to it that we did not want to go with another voice. At one point of time he said oh no, no, no I think, you should get somebody who can enunciate better to sing it. I said oh no, no, no I don’t care about the pronunciation I just want that feeling that you’re bringing to this. It has to be you. You have to sing it. People who know Clinton can’t believe that he has done a Punjabi song he can’t speak a word of Punjabi to save his life. (Laughs)
Would you say that that is your favorite song or do you have another favorite song?
‘Hatt Mullah’ was my favorite song all along until he did ‘Bolladiyaan’, the one that Rekhaji has done. In fact, one version of the song was only there in little bits of the film and that has been sung by Neha Kakkar, who did Bibi Saroop’s voice in the film. He wanted to keep it as a song on the album and get Rekhaji to sing it. I said yes, fine go ahead and do whatever you want for that song. One day he called me and said, ‘Hey Shef, I’ve done something with it come and hear it.’ I was just absolutely mesmerized. It’s just so haunting to me. So that has become my favorite one for a while now. Then I had to figure out how I was going to use it in the film so I decided to use it in the background score. You know, everything has its own journey on how it comes together.
Looking back from that first thought about this script to the finished film what are your thoughts?
At the script level it changed a lot, it evolved a lot. I think that the film that I went out to shoot and the film that it has shaped up to be are quite close and that gives me a lot of strength. Now that I’m writing the next script I know that whatever I am visualizing in my head I can translate it and I know the way that is going to happen. That for a writer – for a director is the most empowering feeling. The other thing that it has done is that I know audiences, a lot of them or most of them, relate to it in the way that I intended them to. That again is very empowering. Then you know, well you don’t know because each film is its own monster, but it just does make you feel that yes I know I can take this from paper to a different medium and it will look the certain way that I have in my head or pretty close to that.
Why is it important to bring artists like Mastana and rural music to the forefront of music?
I think it is just so dynamic. As I said earlier there are no avenues to finding this type of music, to hearing it. You know to bring it to people in the form like Coke Studio does or Coke Studio Pakistan especially is doing is wonderful. There are so many artists that if you bring them in their raw form, like we did in the Beat of India project, there are only going to be an X number of listeners. It is very, very niche. If you take it into a form that is accessible and enjoyable by a larger number, I think, that just helps to keep it alive – to keep those artist who are practicing that alive even after they may be gone. I just think it is so important because there is such gorgeous music that is scattered all across India and the world I’m sure. A lot of it is dying. I mean most of the artists that we recorded with the Beat of India project were over 70 and their children were not doing the same thing so a lot of their music is dying with them.
How exciting is it to be screening in London at the London Indian Film Festival?
It is very special because it is the first time I’m taking the film to an audience outside of India. It is even more special because I’m going to be there and I’m going to see the responses and interact with the audience. I think London is a great and I think the London Indian Film festival is a great forum. I am extremely excited! I am really looking forward to it. I have some butterflies in my stomach as well but I think that’s all good.
What are you working on next?
I am working on sort of a biopic of another musician. There is also another script that a colleague is writing for me. If you are going to be in this business you need to have as many scripts as possible in the bank because you don’t know what’s going to get made and how it will see the light of day. Music is something that I will continue to be working on one way or another. Getting back to this biopic, it’s going to be fictionalized so it’s loosely based on a real person – a very, very inspiring musician. So yes, let’s see how that shapes up.
What do you hope audiences will take away with them after seeing Jugni?
I think that they should relate to one of the characters, some of the characters or all of the characters at some moments. It should feel real to them. If it feels like they felt even a certain moment was true and real and it touched their hearts that is enough for me as filmmaker.
If you are not lucky enough to be in London to see this great film at the festival you can also experience it on Netflix! Then be sure to download the album, I know you are going to want to… I did!