Interview with ‘Picasso’ Filmmaker Abhijeet Warang

Abhijeet Warang

Abhijeet Warang’s Picasso explores one of the earliest forms of folk theatre, Dashavatar, in its original format. In the 2019 Indian Marathi-language film, a seventh grade student named Gandharva Pandurag Gawade (Samay Sanjeev Tambe) is selected for the Picasso Arts Scholarship, but his parents from the remote village in the Konkan belt of Maharashtra cannot afford the travel costs. Written and directed by Abhijeet Warang, Picasso examines the relationships between fathers and sons, and how art can heal lives.

Picasso released on Amazon Prime in March 2021. I recently spoke with Warang about the process of making the film.

Dipankar Sarkar: Picasso is a kind of homage to performers, singers and artists involved in folk theatre, Dashavatar, practiced around Maharashtra and Goa. So, how did the idea of the film occur to you?

Abhijeet Warang: I [was] born and brought up in Mumbai, but my origin is from the South Konkan region. In the year 2014, I attended a fair in my village and had witnessed a conflict between a father and son. The son was preparing for the Charter Accountancy entrance exam and was asking for money from his father. But then the father did not have any money and miraculously he performed so well in the folk theatre that he was able to collect the money by night. And by morning, the problem between the father and son was solved. Secondly, I have heard and read a lot about the “Picasso scholarship,” which is given to students around the world but does not happen in India. As part of this scholarship, painters [from] all around the world visit the residence of Picasso, which is a museum. The painters are given full freedom to explore their craft, and they create some beautiful paintings in one year. I happened to attend one such exhibition where these paintings were displayed and had conversations with the renowned painters of the world. So by gimmicking both the events, the Dashavatar performance of that night and the Picasso scholarship, I molded it into the story of the film. That’s how the idea of the film took place.

DS: So what did you do next?

AW: I had then narrated the idea to my producer Shiladitya Bora, along with the referencing and look of the film, and he agreed to produce the film. Then within the span of the next six months, along with my team, we did the pre-production, production and post-production of the film.

DS: So, Platoon One Films came on board from day one?

AW: Yes. When I had narrated the idea to Shiladitya, I had not written a single page of the screenplay. Whatever I told him was everything that I had in my mind. After he had liked the idea, I wrote the complete screenplay of the film in the next five days and presented it to him. The script was written in the Marathi language, so I translated it into English. So, from the very beginning, Platoon One was involved with the film and produced it completely. Later, Amazon Prime streamed it as their first-ever original Marathi film.

More by Dipankar Sarkar: Interview with ‘Irul’ Filmmaker Naseef Yusuf Izuddin

Picasso Movie Film - Amazon Prime

DS: Did you have to get involved in research to bring authenticity to the film?

AW: The members of my mother’s family [have been] part of Dashavatar for the past two to three years. So, I have been watching them since my childhood. Also, I completed my education with post-graduation in theatre arts, and as a part of the syllabus from the first day, students are taught that the folk form of Dashavatar and Yakshagana [are] the first performing art forms of the world. But there is no historical documentation to verify the fact because, during that period, paper was not invented. So, everything was documented on palm-leaf manuscripts, and over the years they got demolished. Dashavatar and Yakshagana flourished together in the regions of South Konkan and North Karnataka, respectively. Both [of these] art forms started in the 12th century, and later Greek theatre, Rome theatre and Passion theatre of Europe were invented. So, regarding the subject of the film, I had researched a lot and [spoke] with a lot of people who had done their doctorate in these subjects.

DS: The story that was depicted in the Dashavatar had a parallel with the story of the father and son.

AW: The soul within the story between the father and son matches with the tale in DashavatarThe character of Mohini is synonymous with a vice that has the potential to damage a person. During such a moment of crisis, the son comes to the rescue of the father. So, this has a parallel to the story that is happening between Pandurag Gawade (Prasad Oak) and his son.

DS: Prasad Oak is an award-winning director and writer. What was the reason to cast him in the role of a tormented soul Pandurang Gawade?

AW: I was working as an assistant in a Marathi film, Nirmalya, where Prasad Oak was playing the role of an actor, and I had observed him closely. When I started writing the screenplay of Picasso, Prasad Oak was always in my imagination. Prasad is also a singer, though in the film he did not sing — it was a playback. He has good knowledge of music. He also has the experience of playing mythological and historical characters in plays and drama. All these qualities were essential for playing the role of Pandurang Gawade. Even during our college days, Prasad and I used to work together in plays, so there has a camaraderie between us for a long time. After finishing the script, I had narrated it to him over the phone at midnight and he readily agreed to work on the film. Later on, he was part of the detailing and research for the character of Pandurang Gawade, and he started observing the real-life characters of the performers, professionally and personally. Then we had a month-long acting workshop before the commencement of the shooting. His performance during the workshop also impressed the producer, and finally Prasad got to play the role in my film.

More by Dipankar Sarkar: Interview with ‘1232 KMS’ Director Vinod Kapri

Picasso Movie Film - Amazon Prime

DS: And how was your experience of working with him as a director?

AW: Since my days of assisting in films, I had a very good experience with Prasad and we vibed well with each other. Now when I am donning the hat of a director, Prasad never interfered with my process of directing him as an actor. He followed my instructions without batting an eyelid. So, Prasad — an award-winning director-actor — always respected and supported my vision, which I think attributes to Prasad’s greatness as an individual as well as a professional.

DS: How important was the location to enhance the viewing experience?

AW: The region in south Konkan, where the film was shot, is my native place. My grandfather had built the school where a few scenes of the film were shot. Even a few scenes [were] also shot inside my own house in the village. The important aspect of the location was to shoot it during the month of a monsoon because when it rains in south Konkan, the natural surroundings look like heaven. The rain also plays an important role in the struggle of the young boy and gives rise to conflict.

DS: So, what was the kind of look you had for the film?

AW: There were two kinds of looks that I wanted for the film. The first one was to shoot the exterior during the rain and achieve a certain look, and the other one was to shoot the folk theatre on Petromax light to give it a yellow palette. I was specific about how day and night shots should vary in their looks. I wanted to keep the visual language simple, and hence we did not use specialized equipment. It was a steady shoot, and the focus of the story was one day and one night in the life of the protagonist. The result that we had achieved with the film [was] appreciated by everyone who had watched the film, and my cinematographer Stanley Mudda [did] a fantastic job in enhancing the visual language of the film.

More by Dipankar Sarkar: Interview with ‘Pagglait’ Filmmaker Umesh Bist

Picasso Movie Film - Amazon Prime

DS: Could you talk about the pace of the film?

AW: The story of the film is linear where the young boy is informed at his school that he has won a scholarship and has to pay an amount by the next day to avail the benefits. At home, his mother is unwell and his father is not at home. So, the boy must find a way. It is a straightforward and uncomplicated narrative approach. During the edit of the film, I had kept this aspect in my mind and wanted the pace neither to be slow or hurried. This was not the kind of film where something thrilling should happen in every other scene.

DS: According to you, who is the protagonist of the film?

AW: Both the father and son [are] the protagonists of the film. The son is the future of the father, and when both of them are together, only then the story will move forward. A lot of people suggested I rewrite scenes where the son would do something dramatic like wearing the costume, apply color on his face and charm the audience to collect money for the scholarship fee. But such suggestions didn’t fit within the structure of my film. The conflict of the film raises from the fact that the father has encouraged the son to chase his dream. Now when the son had reached a milestone and wanted to move ahead in his career, the father is stopping him. So, what could be the reason? The crisis that takes place because of the situation might alter the other day. But this is likely to happen when the characters in the film give it a try. So, the son was there to give inspiration to his father and open his eyes. And the father wanted his son to fulfill his incomplete dreams. So both the characters were interdependent on one another.

DS: How do you perceive the current mode of releasing films directly on the OTT platform?

AW: I am a student of theatre arts, so I would like to make a comparison with the current situation with the fact that when films started releasing in halls, the number of people attending theatre, drama and plays became less. But that did not kill the existence of theatres completely because individuals interested in dramas and plays did watch them. Similarly, the pleasure of watching films in the halls will never vanish. But at the same time, due to the pandemic, films are releasing on the OTT platform, and I consider this as a future medium. Secondly, I have observed that most of the National Award-winning Marathi feature films fail to get a theatrical release, which also includes Picasso. On the 19th of March, 2021, Picasso was released on Amazon Prime, and on March 22, I received the National Award. Within this span of a few days, a lot of people had watched the film, and I remembered replying to around 300 hundred emails from all over the world. If the film had been released theatrically, only a selected group of audiences would have watched the film. But due to the presence of the OTT platform, lots of viewers are watching the film, and even today I am getting calls from unknown people who like it. I think this is one of the boons of the medium.

DS: How do you perceive the present state of Marathi cinema within the global trend of world cinema?

AW: Marathi cinema has always been acclaimed because of its content, unlike most of the films made in Bollywood where the emphasis is on the casting rather than the story. There are very few exceptional Hindi films like Ankhon Dekhi and Newtonwhich have a very niche audience in Bollywood. And I hope that if we channelize our films with good content, Marathi cinema will also achieve a global standard in future.

Dipankar Sarkar is a graduate in film editing from the Film and Television Institute of India and currently based in Mumbai. As a freelancer, he frequently contributes to various Indian publications on cinema-related topics.