Chhatrapal Ninawe’s debut film, Ghaath, explores the challenges and complexities of the fight between the Indian central government and Maoist terrorists who control large tracts of land. Both warriors and the surrounding populace live violent lives and are always in danger of dying. Told from the perspectives of a calculating policeman, a loyal Maoist and a self-centered guerilla, the film’s intertwined stories offer a thought-provoking examination of the human condition in times of conflict.
Ghaath was featured in the Panorama section of the 73rd annual Berlin International Film Festival in 2023. In this conversation, Ninawe speaks about the triptych structure, the visual design and his reason for making a film with trust and betrayal as its central themes.
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Dipankar Sarkar: How did you train yourself to become a filmmaker?
Chhatrapal Ninawe: I am a self-trained filmmaker. After post-graduation, I bought a few filmmaking books and a camera and taught myself filmmaking by making short films.
DS: What made you decide to debut with a film based on the conflict between a police official and Maoist guerrillas?
CN: I wanted to start my filmmaking journey in my ancestral home. My initial idea was to make a film based on jungles and tribals with a story set in the eastern part of Vidarbha, Maharashtra. So, it was not a very conscious decision to make a film about the police and Maoist conflict. It naturally becomes the backdrop of the story.
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DS: Did you engage in any research related to the story to add detail to the film?
CN: Yes, we did extensive research, both primary and secondary. We also took the cast and crew to the conflict zones for workshops and to create references. It added lots of details to the film. It helped us create an authentic and believable world.
DS: How did your collaboration with Vikas Mudaki as a co-writer help you shape the screenplay?
CN: Vikas is a very good friend and came on board as a dialogue writer. He is more proficient in Zadi boli (the eastern Vidarbha dialect of Marathi) than me. He also has a strong connection with rural Vidarbha. He understands the local psyche much better. Also, he is an actor who comes from a theatre background. He used to prepare as an actor for each and every role and add intricacies to the lines. So, he transformed dialogue into powerful emotions. I am fortunate to have a collaborator like Vikas. Also, I should mention Karuna Vishwanath, who is the creative producer of the film. She pushed us to have a tighter and better script.
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DS: Why did you aim to present the story in a non-chronological order and categorize the narrative into three sections: land, water and jungle?
CN: The idea was to follow three characters and study the central theme of trust and betrayal. So, I was more interested in following the characters and studying trust than having a triptych structure and non-chronological order. But it just happened naturally.
Earlier, we had different names for each section. But during location reconnaissance, my cinematographer, Udit, came across the Jal, Zamin, Jungle (Water, Land, Jungle) slogan on a Naxalite banner. He also observed that, visually, we are showing more land in the first section, mostly water in the second and then all the jungle in the third. Thus we decided to rename the section and improvise the screenplay and dialogue to seamlessly merge these three crucial elements for tribal people. Also, the Jal Jungle Zamin slogan is used by governments, politicians, naxalites and tribals in different contexts. So, it adds a strong subtext too.
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DS: In comparison to the three other men in the film, Nagpure (Jitendra Joshi), Raghunath (Milind Shinde) and Falgun (Dhananjay Mandaokar), Perku (Janardan Kadam) lives a simple and self-sustaining life on an island away from civilization, surrounded by lush forests and feeds on whatever nature has to offer. So, is he a kind of metaphor that in a world ripped apart by violence and hunger, one has to find solace and contentment away from human society?
CN: If human society is full of misguided people like Falgun, violently unpredictable people like Raghunath and untrustworthy people like Nagpure, then we better live away from them like Perku.
It could also be a reason for indigenous people living in different parts of the world to prefer no outside contact — like the Andaman tribes, the Jarawas and some Amazonian tribes. They fear betrayal. And the key to peaceful coexistence is trust.
Perku is also symbolic of the last of his tribe and very much inspired by a Tanaru Indian — a Brazilian indigenous person who was the last of his tribe and was living alone and was nicknamed “Man of the Hole.”
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DS: Kusari (Suruchi Adarkar) is a brave and confident tribal woman who refuses to be reduced to an object of desire. What does her character represent in the film?
CN: I wanted to explore how one of the most powerful characters in the lawless jungle deals with the least powerful character. Even though Kusari is brave and confident, she is powerless. She is a young lady, without any fatherly figure, living on the outskirts and dealing with wild animals and human predators on a daily basis. Her character represents all tribal people living under gun laws. And despite being brave, she gets abused frequently.
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DS: How did you work with your actors to build onscreen chemistry?
CN: It is a four-stage process. The first stage is the screenplay and dialogue. Chemistry should exist on paper. The second stage is casting and workshops. We conducted extensive auditions and cast the best possible actors. Then we conducted creative workshops for almost all the actors. We did not rehearse the lines, but took [the cast] into jungles and made them experience the lives of characters as closely as possible, obviously without getting murdered.
The third stage is improvisation on the shoot. We trusted our talented actors, script and workshops and let them improvise. We also constantly evolved the screenplay to account for it.
The fourth and final stage is editing. My editor did a tremendous job of creating fantastic chemistry where none existed. So, it was a team effort. My role was primarily as a moderator and motivator.
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DS: Since the film is non-linear, how was each of the three stories approached during the editing?
CN: Navnita Sen edited the film alone for two months. She also did a linear version, which I didn’t like. We decided to stick to a triptych structure and triple character study, keeping intact both human drama and a thrilling plot.
After that, we did some patchwork. Based on feedback, we edited for another three months. Then, I edited for another five months while Navnita took a break. Then we got into the NFDC WIP lab. We had international mentors like Derek Malcolm, Olivia Stewart, Philippa Campbell and Marco Muller. Our editing mentor was Lizi Gelber. Navnita and Lizi gave the final touches to the film. Finally, I edited out a few minor things just before the Berlinale. We tried to remain as immersive as possible, hold the audience in the moment and yet remain seamlessly flowing. The pacing of each story is based on the natural elements of Zamin, Jal, Jungle. The slow burn was the obvious result of it.
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DS: The visuals in the film are minimalist and capture the essence of tranquility and simplicity in a way that allows the viewer to virtually inhabit the serene beauty of nature. How did you and your cinematographer plan the look of the film?
CN: Ghaath started as a short film which was shot by my DA, Prashant Shende. In India, jungle-based films are usually shot in December or January. But partly due to some circumstances and some experimentation, we realized that shooting jungles in the wrong season (April–May) [during the] golden hours (early mornings and late evenings) creates a unique visual style. We also did extensive reconnaissance and found fantastic locations. So, we accidentally found the look of the film.
The short film becomes a feature film. Udit Khurana, as a cinematographer, came on board. I believe in casting not only the best possible actors but also an excellent crew. Udit was made for Ghaath. He took cinematography to another level. It was no easy task with limited resources and time. Apart from that, we fought regularly and insulted and abused each other on a daily basis.
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DS: At the same time, the sound design of the film is restrained, balanced and blends with dialogue and natural sounds. What role did sound design play in enhancing the viewing experience?
CN: I wanted the film to be immersive. The sound and music was a key part of it. The sound design of the film is by Manoj Goswami. Earlier, we had another person. After the shoot, we could not agree creatively. While the film was in the editing, Manoj came on board. He usually does sound design for big budget films like Bahubali (2015). But when he saw the rough cut, he just wanted to be part of it. It was tremendous work by him. Also, music director Madhur’s rooted and authentic tribal music is an icing on the cake. Together, we tried to create an atmosphere which might evoke certain emotions. People should listen to it in cinema halls in surround sound systems. It is a very detailed and immersive experience, even for the most hardcore audiophiles and jungle lovers.
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DS: How did the participation of Drishyam Films and Platoon One Films as producers facilitate you in the making of the film?
CN: I was struggling and pitching various films for more than 15 years. When Manish Mundra of Drishyam Films saw Ghaath’s pitch video, he immediately, without even listening to the story, came on board. It was a big break for me. I will always be thankful.
To be very frank, it was a mutiny on set. A few of my collaborators did not think I was worthy enough. I do not know if the same thing happens with every first-time director or if it was just me. I am a self-taught filmmaker and come from a different background, so I have my own thought process and methods. The theme of the film was trust and betrayal. And we all felt that strongly on the sets too. I also had issues with some production people. They were also highly disrespectful on many occasions. The limited resources available for Marathi independent films also made the issue worse. Luckily, my actors, my assistants and most of the crew stood strongly behind me. Ultimately, cinema is the director’s medium. Once you are committed to a certain screenplay, there is no other option but to trust the vision. It is the only way.
Shiladitya Bora of Platoon One Films came later, after editing. Had it not been for him, the film would have never come out. So, it is Shiladitya Bora, Ashok Mahapatra, Milapsinh Jadeja, Pranav Chaturvedi, Sanyukta Gupta and Shilpi Agarwal who are all bringing the film to audiences.
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DS: What was your experience of attending the Berlin Film Festival with your film playing in the Panorama section?
CN: Berlinale went out of its way to invite the film twice in three years. They gave life to Ghaath. If that was not enough, they treated me like a king. All four screenings were almost full. The German audience is very direct. A German lady told me that Ghaath was her favorite film of the festival. It was a big compliment. I had beer with German fans until late at night. Also, those who did not like the film were very direct. I loved the Berlinale audience for their straightforwardness and their love of cinema. In that sense, it is very similar to my hometown, Nagpur. Berlinale was also very hectic, with interactions with journalists, audiences, filmmakers and lots of parties. Despite snow, cold and rain, it was like a dream. It is undoubtedly the best day of my life. Thank you, Berlinale, and I love you, German audiences.
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DS: What is your takeaway from the production process that you want to share with budding filmmakers?
CN: Believe in your stories. If they need to be told, then only you and your dogged determination will make that happen. It is no cakewalk. It is very tough to make films in a crony capitalist country like India. We do not value talent. So, it is not only hard work; luck also plays a part. Still, do not give too much importance to luck. The best way to handle uncertainty is through regular creative work. Pain is also a constant companion, but it will hopefully make you a better filmmaker. Ultimately, the journey is more important than the destination. Enjoy and celebrate small moments in the journey without spending money or doing drugs. That will make it bearable. From my personal experience, the tougher the struggle, the sweeter the achievement.
Dipankar Sarkar (@Dipankar_Tezpur) 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.
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