Exploring Film As A Medium With Indian Actor-Director Shardul Bhardwaj

Eeb Allay Ooo
Eeb Allay OooMashable

Delhi-born actor Shardul Bhardwaj made his debut with the 2018 film Bhonsle and went on to be a part of original stories like Eeb Allay Oo, Trial By Fire, Unpaused and Kuttey that came out this year through his versatility and natural charisma. With each project, Shardul continues to push the boundaries of his abilities, leaving a lasting impression on the audience. immersing himself in his characters' emotions and stories, Shardul's dedication to his craft has made him a rising star in the Indian film industry.

The actor spoke to us in an in-depth interview about India's film landscape and his journey through the multiple collaborations his career is studded with.

Tell us about yourself and your journey in the film industry. How did you get into acting? And what's on your list of the greatest 5 films of all time?

In my second year of undergrad I watched A Separation, There Will be Blood, Buena Vista Social Club and Kal 15 August Dukaan Band Rahegi all in a span of two months. I was spellbound. I wanted to be a part of whatever these were. I owe a lot to the public-funded institutions I went to, my teachers like Keval Arora at The Players,Pushpendra Singh at FTII and my peers there. Until I reached Kirori Mal College (DU) and more specifically to THE PLAYERS (KMC’s theatre society) I lived in my American low waist jeans wearing punk rock listening, economically and socially non-diverse bubble. I was doing theatre before KMC in school and in Durga Puja Pandals, I cherish that time too. DU, KMC and The Players provided me with the want to look at my immediate context a lot more. Via theatre and English Literature (my subject in undergrad) I was able to expand the scope of my questions because of a new socially and economically diverse peer group and an environment of critical thinking and a lot of self-doubt in my first year.

Acting became a​ part of the process of trying to make sense of the world around me. 15 August is Prateek Vats’s ( Also from The Players) student short film that won the national award. He and many of my college seniors had gone to study at FTII and NSD and would regularly come back to share what they were learning or had learnt. I had to go to FTII, acting was again just a part of the process, I had fallen in love with cinema. Acting is something I do and I look at it as my preferred department in Cinema, but it's the medium as a whole that I am enamoured by. My favourites keep changing. As of this week I think they would be: Joyland, Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon, Banshees of Inisherin, Salt of the Earth and Closely Watched Trains.

Shardul Bhardwaj
Shardul BhardwajShardul Bhardwaj

Most of your films are out on OTT platforms like Netflix and Prime Video. How do you think Online streaming is changing the film industry and where do you see it heading?

It's all in a period of flux, these are interesting times. I would like to wait a little more before forming any opinions on this topic. Yet one thing that has definitely happened is that the quantity of shows and OTT films has gone up multifold and it has become tougher to make heads turn when the volume is so high. There is a great quantity of things but not much quality.

The Film Companion recently posted an article on ‘The slow death of indie cinema’. Do you think the increase of mainstream movies in film festivals is detrimental to the growth of independent cinema? Or Do you believe there’s space for both?

The truth is that the worth of an Indie film is measured by how many big film festivals it has travelled to. These film festivals are maybe the only exhibition spaces to attract distributors, networks and patronage for Indie filmmakers. On the other hand we Indians chest thump about our stars walking the red carpet and in the process. Our media reports about who wore what and who was praised by whom. In all the press releases these film festivals get coverage. So, I really don't think it's about Indie vs. Popular. It's about the fragility of the existence of Film Festivals in today’s hyper, market-oriented click bait world. All That Breathes won at Cannes last year, a stupendous achievement by any standards but talking about this documentary film is not going to help with the hits and the likes, it's some stars’s clothes that is going to help a film festival remain relevant in an internet conversation.

Although indie films technically mean any film outside the major film studio system and distribution, they have also become a genre in themselves. They have a refreshing realness and absurdity in the way that events unfold in a plot which becomes the main attraction of the film. How, do you think, indie cinema is different in storytelling from formulaic mainstream Bollywood?

When one buys their favourite soft drink one expects the same taste and the same feeling as one had drinking the previous bottle. The trends change and the soft drink companies introduce new flavours and new packaging. With time people start wanting a new trend and that new trend​starts getting mass manufactured. The soft drink has to be FORMULAIC in order to sell. We have to keep in mind that along with the art involved Bollywood is a business too, it has to sell, it has to use FORMULA. The so called indie films with their lower budgets and minimal studio involvement every once in a while produce a gem like Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hun a film so brave and new that you look at it with open mouthed wonder. It mesmerises you, brings about childlike wonder and uplifts the heart. The narrative structure, the cinematography, the sound design and everything in it came together to offer an experience. In the last 5 to 10 years there have been multiple such instances in the pantheon of Indian Independent filmmaking. Despite outrageous difficulties faced by the stakeholders of these films, they have soldiered on and on.

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What is something that you’ve witnessed in the sets relating to processes from directorial style and design to screenwriting and production that makes you fall in love with the art of filmmaking?

As of now I am more interested in a good process than a hit film or a critically acclaimed film, the end product is not what I am after. These processes have varied according to the nature of the film and its makers. So, for example in EEB Prateek could walk that fine line of letting go and yet be in control because one was shooting with monkeys and many other variables that come with a slightly verite sort of shooting. He, Saumyananda Sahi (cinematographer) and Shubham (writer) were gently nudging me to be able to respond to the streets, the people, the monkeys, the weather etc. of New Delhi within the ambit of the script where retakes hardly existed and one was hardly ever out of character because one was hardly ever out of the scene. Anything could be useful, everything was part of the scene.

Sahi and I worked together with Prashant Nair on Trial by Fire too, yet another time when we became a team. We were fleshing out my character as we went along, choreographed action as an extension of character and situation, not as a standalone set piece.

Right after this I was doing Kuttey - a scale I had never experienced was in front of me. Aasman’s presence eased it, we would spend time on the fabric of the clothes, the cut of the jeans etc. This process of selection and deletion of the clothes has often helped me create a mental map of the role of paper.

Nitya Mehra in Unpaused 1 under gruelling and scary situations of a post-Covid lockdown stood fiercely by every decision I took in a scene because we over multiple phone calls had decided on the direction we wanted Rafiq to go into.

I haven't seen a more egalitarian set than​ Suman Ghosh’s set with whom I have done Scavenger of Dreams, it will be out soon. Everyone including Spot boys would sit and brainstorm on a scene, it never led to confusion, it only enriched the scene. These are difficult films to shoot in the sense of their grammar and the locations one shoots at, cinematographer on this project Ravi Kiran Ayyagari was again able to go the whole mile with me or rather me with him. With Sahi and Ravi, it's a dance that one engages in every time the camera rolls.

What is the most important thing that you think an actor must prepare for emotionally apart from the technical training like stunts or dialogues?

I think I am too green and not yet at the evening of my life to be saying WHAT AN ACTOR MUST OR MUST NOT DO. Every actor or artist that I admire seems to be interested in the world. The medium that they have chosen seems to become an extension of the continual satisfaction of their various curiosities. The key is I think to be curious. I want to stay curious and want to have the ability to be surprised, to wonder and to be interested in the world that I live in. In addition, I recently found out that I like looking at the sky, just looking, without wondering about any existentialist or metaphysical crisis. It's pure fun. Miles Davis could be playing in the background and I would have​ kept the book I am reading by my side for company.

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What kind of stories would like to see or be a part of in the future? Anything particular that has been of intrigue to you?

As I said earlier I am too green as yet. I still pinch myself to the surreal nature of my reality where people pay me to do the thing I love the most. This reality often puts me in situations that I in my wildest dreams couldn't have imagined. One such occasion was when Gulzar Saahab, Vishal Ji and Rekha Ji were sitting onstage and I was in the front row. Vishal ji was singing the song Tere Saath from Kuttey. Who would have thought that a day would come when Vishal Ji would compose and sing a song that would be picturised on my face, definitely not me. Hence, I am not looking for any particular kind of story or film. I know what I don't want to do but I wouldn't want to know what I want to do. I have been fortunate enough to do Eeb Allay Ooo and Kuttey, films very varied in form and content. The want is to be able to work with people whom I can sit and have a conversation with rather than run after bigger budgets and films. Good people make good films and of course the word good is subjective.