The Midnight Madness programme at TIFF is all about crowd-pleasers, from chilling horror to offbeat comedy. Among this year’s lineup, which includes sequels to ‘Predator’ and ‘Halloween’, is Vasan Bala’s ‘Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota’ (‘The Man Who Feels No Pain’), Bollywood’s first ever entry in the programme. The film marks the debut of Bhagyashree’s son Abhimanyu Dassani as Surya, a young man with the ability to feel no pain, who decides to fight crime along with his childhood best friend Supri, played by former TV actress Radhika Madan. Also starring Mahesh Manjrekar as Surya’s eccentric grandfather and Gulshan Devaiah as Mani, the one-legged karate Master as well as Jimmy, his evil twin, ‘Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota’ is an homage to martial arts films, ‘80s Amitabh Bachchan and a ‘90s childhood all rolled in one, making it the perfect fit for TIFF’s most unconventional programme.
BizAsiaLive.com spoke to writer and director Vasan Bala before the film’s world premiere at TIFF 2018.
You’re the first Indian filmmaker presenting a Bollywood film at TIFF’s Midnight Madness. How did this all come together?
Around the time the film was made, Cameron (Bailey) is usually in India scouting for films, so I had messaged him but he was really busy because all his slots were booked. I had managed to send him a link and I think he read my pitch of the film and straight away sent it to Peter (Kuplowsky), who’s curating Midnight Madness. He thought this was probably a better fit for the film, and I’m so glad. You don’t really design all this, but you wish for it, and it couldn’t have been a better first audience. The world premiere at 11:59PM, it doesn’t get better than this.
This is the debut film for both of your lead actors: Abhimanyu Dassani and Radhika Madan. Was that a challenge for you?
No. I always knew, with the kind of time I needed from them, that it had to be newcomers. Anyone who has a chock-a-block date, it would be so difficult so get them to train and get them to give the time to understand and become these characters. Also, because it’s an action film, figuring in injuries, if there are any, as contingencies. So having newcomers kind of sorts those logistics. The disadvantage is the budget, because with newcomers you have an extremely limited budget. But the joy of discovering them with the film and also knowing that they are these characters and they have no other baggage, that’s kind of thrilling and liberating in a sense. It’s also a luxury, a privilege to cast first-timers and have the opportunity to make your film. I didn’t take it for granted, I had fun with it.
In contrast to the newcomers, you also have very experienced actors like Mahesh Manjrekar and Gulshan Devaiah. What was it like working with them?
I’ve worked with Gulshan before in ‘Peddlers’ (2012) and I’ve known him for a very long time, even before ‘Peddlers’. I always knew the kind of potential he has. Gulshan actually had a busted knee and I went to him with the script and told him, “Gulshan, you shouldn’t be doing this film, but please do the film.”. He agreed and trained with that busted knee, really gave it all. It wasn’t like we had too much money for the film, but he set aside so much time, fully committed. Only a friend, a brother or someone who really believes in you gives in so much. Gulshan does that with every film, he gives his life. And here especially, from torn ligaments to busted bones. He’s amazing, I love him.
Was his knee injury the reason why his character had one leg?
No, that was always written, because I wanted a mythical Karate component. Either he doesn’t have an eye, or one leg, or one hand, because there’s always a myth that’s built around these kind of warriors. That was always in the script.
Most of the roles are very physically challenging. Did you have to use stunt doubles for any scenes?
It’s all Abhimanyu (Dassani), Radhika (Madan) and Gulshan (Devaiah).
How did they train for their roles?
They all trained for more than 6 months exclusively for the film. Then we had a pre-visualisation done in LA, where there were two stuntmen: Eric (Jacobus) and Dennis (Ruel), who came on as action directors. They hadn’t done huge films, but I had seen their short films on YouTube and I was very sure these are the guys who were going to be the action directors on the film. You’re more comfortable with big names, but I knew this film had to be a collaboration with excited people and not really big names.
So, the pre-visualisation happened, then we trained them to the pre-visualisations. There were different styles allotted to different characters. From the basic training, we elevated them to character training. From character training, we elevated them to the choreography that was happening in the film. And then, finally to the film. Through all that they learnt fighting, then they learnt cinematic fighting and they learnt performance through fighting. It’s not just kicks and punches, it’s a performance. It’s acting and reacting. You’re exchanging dialogues, you’re trading blows. We went through a long period of doing all that, which is why I signed newcomers. Otherwise, with an established star, you use body doubles and cheat. You don’t get this rawness, this extremely honest approach to making it. You get more budget, but not enough time to explore the character in a 360 degree fashion. You don’t get them to marinate in the character for such a long time and just get it into their pores.
The film has a very nostalgic feel to it. How did you take something as personal as your own childhood memories and make it universal?
I was in the Sundance lab in 2014 and I met all the filmmakers out there, like Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who made ‘Swiss Army Man’ (2016), Ana Lily Amirpour who made ‘Bad Batch’ (2016) with Jim Carrey. When you meet all these people you realize that there are these amazingly talented people out there, but we all share the same childhood. A great reason for that is Hollywood, because they export their films all around the world. The Chinese export their films all around the world. Growing up, we all have the same references. So I was never really worried about being universal in that sense, but I wanted to make sure the film is really grounded in its reality of it being Bombay. I think the grounding was more of a challenge than it being universal. The more you ground it, the more you make it personal. Everyone has a father, everyone has a mother, even if they don’t, they’ve missed a father or a mother and they know these primal, basic emotions to care for each other, for family, for society. I think those are the things that become universal. If you watch ‘Roma’, Alfonso Cuarón’s film, it’s his childhood. It’s him growing up in Mexico. But why do I relate to it? I relate to the maid, the mother, the father parking the car, the vacations, I relate to everything. I also relate to the martial artist boyfriend that the maid has. It’s so far beyond my world, but when you make it so personal, so grounded and so local that it automatically becomes universal.
I think it’s when we try and make a slick Hollywood film, that’s when we get caught. It shows it’s not from the land. All the great films that you see, if it’s a New York film, it’s a New York film. If it’s a Boston film, it’s a Boston film. If the Coen brothers make a film, it is of that place, which is why it becomes somehow universal. The trick to becoming that is going deep with it. People catch on to a design, that’s what I feel.
You first film ‘Peddlers’ was screened at Cannes in 2012. How much do you think festivals contribute to the fate of the film?
It’s a huge validation, from the modest means that you make your film in, to suddenly sharing space with the greatest of filmmakers. That in itself is like you’re a student in one of the best schools out there. Once it gets there, you enjoy your time being an artist for a week, and then you go back to the grind. There’s nothing much to that. So when I went to Cannes, for a week I felt like an artist. You’re pampered as an artist, then you go back to Bollywood and deal with it. If it happens, it happens. Then it’s up to the sales agents and the producers.
So you leave the film to its fate?
You can’t, but you have to. You have to live with it. But it’s great, because for these 10 days, you actually think you’re an artist. You feel like one, you legitimately own it. You’re just talking movies. I’m not talking about sales, TG (target groups), focus groups, recovery, what screens, which area. This is just about movies, references and inspirations. There’s nothing better than that. And nothing better than being on the world’s biggest stages like TIFF and Cannes. It’s a privilege. You don’t know why you’re there, but you just hope there is a reason that brought you there and be happy about it. I’m so thrilled.
You’ve seen a lot personal milestones, like your daughter growing up, while making this film. What would the success of this film mean to you personally?
That obviously makes it much more emotional and special, but success really helps you make the other film a little more comfortable. That’s about it. Maybe a few days more, maybe a little more money (laughs). The noose around your neck has loosened a bit and a bit of air comes in.
Speaking about your next film, should we expect a sequel?
If it works and makes money for the studio, then suddenly it becomes the thing to do. Obviously, if the universe leads itself into a sequel, but I want to give it a little time and not rush in to explore them as soon. I really want Surya and Supri to age a bit and bring them in a very different context and then see where it goes.
Do you have a different project lined up for now?
I’ve started writing one that I really want to make. And obviously there are other things that come to you, so you decide whether you want to be a filmmaker or a director-on-hire. I’ve been resisting being a director-on-hire for so long and only be a filmmaker, but let’s see. You never know where life takes you.
The TIFF premiere of ‘Mard ko Dard Nahi Hota’ (‘The Man Who Feels No Pain’) will be held this Friday, 14th September in true Midnight Madness fashion, at 11:59PM.