'Udaan': How this 'middle-of-the-road' movie made it to Cannes

'Udaan': How this 'middle-of-the-road' movie made it to Cannes

"Udaan" director Vikramaditya Motwane discusses the importance of commercial Indian films and whether its success at Cannes is a blip, or could signal a wave of future Indian international hits
"Udaan", the complex and tender coming-of-age story of an Indian boy, makes it all the way to Cannes.

The gravity of the honor of his debut film being selected for the Festival de Cannes 2010, and the implication of that selection, dawned on writer-director Vikramaditya Motwane when he saw his name alongside celebrated filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami and Ridley Scott. It was made more significant by the fact that "Udaan" ("to take flight") is the first Indian film since 2003 to make the official festival selection. Motwane confesses that he was so nervous during the screenings that actor Ronit Roy had to remind him to breathe. 

Though the 33-year-old filmmaker underplays it, a Cannes stamp for his tender and complex coming-of-age story is quite a boost. He says, "'Udaan' is a commercial film made for an Indian audience and Cannes is a big bonus. The film was not made for an international audience. The art house stamp can be detrimental because the impression among audiences (and I am part of that audience) is that a festival film will be preachy, boring, long and slow. 'Udaan' is none of these things."

He distinguishes between commercial and non-commercial saying, "Commercial is anything that is engaging in a simple way." He places "Udaan" in the independent film category, the torchbearers for which are Anurag Kashyap (producer of "Udaan"), Dibakar Banerjee and Vishal Bhardwaj. These are multi-skilled filmmakers who can write their own scripts and engineer their own soundtracks on top of directing and producing and who have, over the last decade, created a bedrock of work on which independent cinema for contemporary India can grow. 

Vikramaditya MotwaneDirector Vikramaditya Motwane with lead actor of Udaan, Rajat Bharmecha, at Cannes in May this year. In the larger context of Hindi cinema Motwane says, "'Udaan' is not the first of its kind to be seen on a platform like Cannes. It's the first of its kind in the new generation, post the wave pioneered by director Nagesh Kukunoor ("Hyderabad Blues", "Iqbal")," he explains. "Bollywood is not just about small scale and arty or big, masala movies. There is middle-of-the-road cinema that needs to sustain itself over the next few years; otherwise this will be a blip, rather than a wave, like Mexican, Korean or Argentinean cinema."

He adds that the Indian film industry needs to take film festivals more seriously for that to happen. 

Motwane, who counts Akira Kurosawa, the Coen brothers, Francois Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese, David Fincher and Ken Loach among his influences, wrote his full length feature "Udaan" back in 2003. Filmmaker Anurag Kashyap read it the same year and wagered that no one else would make this film but him.

In 2009, on the back of the success of their collaborative effort "Dev D", Kashyap followed up his promise and produced "Udaan". The film follows Rohan (Rajat Barmecha), who returns home to Jamshedpur after eight years in boarding school to his authoritarian father (Ronit Roy), a steel plant manager. The father discourages Rohan's ambitions of becoming a writer and pushes him towards studying engineering and working part time at the factory. On returning home, Rohan also discovers that he has a half brother he has never met before. The script explores the complexities of the father-son relationship, the pressures of a small town, middle class upbringing and laces these with humor, drama and emotion. 

Rajat BarmechaBoy actor Rajat Barmecha who plays Rohan on the sets of "Udaan". Somewhat like Rohan, Motwane chose to pursue his interest in entertainment instead of joining his father's engineering business. He started working with his mother Dipa De on a TV show, "Teen Talk", aged 17 and was captivated by the world of lights and cameras. "I learnt the craft early and that gave me a great deal of confidence to move into movie-making," he says.

Since then Motwane has worked as an assistant director with acclaimed director Sanjay Leela Bhansali on "Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam" and "Devdas", with Deepa Mehta on "Water" and on Kashyap's "Paanch", besides co-writing the cult hit "Dev D". "But I always wanted to direct. Everything else was a process to get to directing," says the Mumbai boy. The two biggest lessons from helming his own project were learning to deal with actors and knowing when to tell the writer (in this case, himself) to "shut up".

UdaanDays blur into nights, Vikramaditya Motwane on the sets of his first solo feature film."Udaan" is unique in some ways. Motwane says, "It is one of the few films made on teenagers and their issues growing up. Films on teens usually tackle love stories, but I am looking at identity and a time of life we can all identify with through Rohan’s relationship with his friends, father, teachers, and sibling. I think the film should strike a chord. Unlike the 1980s when you cast Anil Kapoor as a student ('Tezaab', 1988) when he was 29, because you needed a star to sell your film, today it is easier to make films with newcomers and make the economics work." 

While he’s still busy putting finishing touches on the marketing of his project which releases in India this week (July 16), the writer-director admits that he is constantly finding fault with his own work, something that will continue till "Udaan" releases, he suspects. And after that? "No idea," he says. "I have a whole bank of scripts, but now the pressure goes up. Do you make another low budget indie film, or you go the Anurag/Dibakar way where they raise their profiles little by little with each film?" 

It's a tricky conundrum that talented, emerging filmmakers in Mumbai will have to face once they've realized their first and biggest dream. The question they never thought they'd be asking: now what? 

Udaan's Facebook page is abuzz with activity in the days leading up to the film's release. Promotional events include a car smash-a-thon on July 14, 6 p.m. at Phoenix Mills, Mumbai for anyone to vent similiar frustrations as the film's protagonist Rohan felt when he smashed his father's car. 

Udita is an entertainment and lifestyle writer and author based in Mumbai.

Read more about Udita Jhunjhunwala