As a country, our notions of romance have always been a little skewed. Sex education is negligible and sex is practically unspoken about, seen as a mode of reproducing at best and not something for pleasure. For an average young Indian, our understanding of sex is from what we see in movies and well, pornography – neither have been the best, even realistic examples of lived realities. In real and reel life, there is a flurry of unabashed blushes and coy conversations when it comes to discussing sex, leaving unanswered questions and distorted expectations in the youth’s minds.
Even if two people want to express their love, where do they go? “Alone time”, as such, is a privilege in our concrete jungles for most of the city’s residents and nowhere is this more apparent than Mumbai, renowned for its lack of space and privacy across all classes.
“You also cannot live in Mumbai and not be curious about the stories of the Marine Drive and Juhu Beach couples who search for that privacy in the most public places,” says Siddartha Jatla, alluding to the same while we discuss his film Love and Shukla. A self-financed, low budget film, it had its world premiere at the prestigious Busan Film Festival and has since travelled the world, being screened at highly coveted festivals such as the Palm Springs International Film Festival, Tallinn Black Nights and Shanghai International Film Festival. The film is also the winner of the NETPAC Award, SIGNIS Award, Director’s Vision Award and Critics Award.
Love and Shukla is a story about love, marriage, family dynamics and a search for privacy in a small one-room chawl in Mumbai. Shukla, the titular character played by Saharsh Kumar Shukla, is a naive auto-rickshaw driver with little knowledge about sex and women. “I’m a Brahmin and we don’t look at Indian women before marriage,” he states to his drinking buddies in the film. When asked how he’s ready then, in this case, for his upcoming wedding night with a bride chosen for him by his mother, he has little to say. His only experience with women, so to speak, comes from the pornography films that he’s watched and informs his friends about – they’re foreign women, not ‘our own’ so it’s morally fine – and the shrine he has made for Sonakshi Sinha inside his rickshaw. Sharing a space with his orthodox parents – an aloof father, overbearing mother and sister who moves back in after her own family troubles, Shukla and his new wife, played by Taneea Rajawat, have no privacy to form a relationship, for sex or even a conversation alone in their home or an overcrowded city that never sleeps.
From the start of the film, you feel for Shukla’s character and throughout you know that his heart is in the right place. He genuinely wants to get to know his wife rather than simply jump into carnal relations. He tries to protect her from his mother’s constant commands, though his best side does not come out when it comes to his sister (Hima Singh), who is perhaps as dominating as their mother, occupying a large space in their small home environment. Although, Singh is perhaps one of the only people in the film who talks openly about sex in a scene with her new sister-in-law.
While Shukla tries to search for space for himself and his wife – a humorous border created out of suitcases at night between them and his parents just doesn’t cut it – we see a lot of family dynamics play out through the rest of the characters. The cramped feeling of claustrophobia, physically and metaphorically, in their home and the city, plays through in Jatla’s tight shots that make you feel as if you’re almost going to accidentally bump into one of the characters.
Kumar Shukla’s expressions and full moon eyes make it hard not to relate to him and his earnest effort at navigating through life no matter the punches. There is a naturalism in the portrayal of the characters and the story that comes through right till the ending, leaving us with a smile on our faces as husband and wife finally manage to break the ice and make a connection while sitting at the beach.
Written, produced and edited by Siddartha Jatla (he also directed and shot Love and Shukla) and Amanda Mooney, Love and Shukla is a story that many of us can relate to on some level. We caught up with Jatla to get some insight into the conceptualisation of the story and the making of a film that had a little-to-no budget, but has managed to steal the hearts of a worldwide audience through festivals and now streaming on Netflix.
Homegrown: Tell us about yourself, where you’re from and your induction into the film industry.
Siddartha Jatla: “My father (Jatla Venkataswami Naidu) is a director and my mother also acted in some of his films. By the time I was 7 or 8, he started taking me on his shoots. He is a true art house director. His full-length feature film Sisira (The Winter) was made in only 29 shots. When he wasn’t shooting, we spent so much time watching films together. Like every kid, I was so captivated by films like ET and Jurassic Park, but he also introduced me to world cinema- directors like Tarkovsky and Zhang Yimou.
I studied at FTII as a cinematographer and also had the chance to attend Busan’s Asian Film Academy.
When I first came to Mumbai, I was making mostly ads and writing my first script. I had made a short film, The Artist, that premiered at Busan, but the process of trying to find a producer and actors who would take a chance on my first feature film was seemingly unending. My partner, Amanda Mooney (we wrote, produced and edited Love and Shukla together) encouraged me to not wait for someone to take a chance on my work and we decided we would make Love and Shukla on our own.”
HG: The film, the story and script – how did you put it together?
SJ: “Amanda and I have always been amused by the ill-informed questions friends would ask about sex and relationships after they lose their inhibitions and reveal their own innocence after a few drinks. To then see those same friends contemplating marriage is such an interesting dilemma.
How does someone with no real experience in relationships suddenly enter into the most important relationship in one’s life? How do they also do that in the context of joint family living where privacy comes at a premium not afforded to most in our city?
You also cannot live in Mumbai and not be curious about the stories of the Marine Drive and Juhu Beach couples who search for that privacy in the most public places.
As we were writing, we spent a lot of talking with these couples, examining the questions our friends asked and speaking with auto-rickshaw drivers in the city. Their stories inspired so much of the film.”
HG: How did you film in such a small space?
SJ: “With the exception of the outsized generosity of our cast, crew and the people who have supported us throughout, our film is nothing but the happenstance story of constraints. We had no budget. Amanda and I self-funded our film. And so, we had only a small camera I used to shoot, a skeleton crew, a little art (by the exceptional Vikram Singh), a room and a rickshaw. We shot as our characters lived - carefully negotiating the mathematics of bodies, belongings and the city outside.
Because our budget was so small, we shot in only 14 days. It was a beautiful disaster, exactly as we hoped.”
HG: How does it feel to have your film now on Netflix, such a huge, popular platform?
SJ: “After the shoot, we spent so much time alone, going through footage, editing in our home, while our cat (Ella, her name is also there in the credits) slept next to us. The process was so personal, I think we were not at all prepared for it to be shown in theatres at festivals and then on Netflix.
It’s surreal for our film to now be on a platform where it’s suddenly searchable in 190 countries, to stand next to filmmakers, films and shows we love.
I have so much respect for the work Netflix is doing to support independent Indian cinema and give filmmakers an audience, even if you begin with nothing more than a little of your own savings and a love story in a one-room chawl.”
HG: What has the reception been like to the film, in India and abroad at festivals? Was anything unexpected?
SJ: “Our film couldn’t have survived without the love we received from festivals and the support of mentors like Ismail Basbeth, John Badalu, Gulbara Tolomushova, Kyoko Dan, Maxine Williamson, Nick Deocampo and Premendra Mazumder. Our festival journey started with Busan International Film Festival and Tallinn Black Nights. I’ll be forever grateful to Kim Young-woo and Tiina Lokk for taking a chance on us. We’ve now shown the film at more than 30 festivals around the world, most recently at Shanghai International Film Festival where there is an insatiable love for Indian films after the success of Dangal.
It was really nice to see that while Love and Shukla explores a distinctly Indian conflict, there were many universal truths about family and relationships that resonated across cultures. There is one line in the film that the mother shouts at Shukla in the climax that always is the biggest laugh in our film. I think everyone, regardless of culture, has at some point had a similar line hurled at them in the heat of a family argument.”
All images are courtesy of Siddhartha Jatla | Love and Shukla.
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