Friday, November 18, 2016

Auto to the dark side

After attending film school in New York and Los Angeles, Rohit Mittal worked with Roger Corman. If you know your film history, this is a pretty good indication that Mittal knows his. Corman isn’t an obvious choice: he is, and always has been, a B-movie maven, a producer whose recent credits include Dance with a Vampyre and Sharktopus vs. Whalewolf. To want to work with him, you’d have to know that Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme all got their start with Corman.

Later this month, Mittal’s first feature, Autohead, will have its India premiere at the Mumbai Film Festival. The film itself is too self-aware to be Corman-like, but the story of its making is. Mittal started nursing the idea in early 2014, when he was still in Los Angeles. “I had three-four things in mind,” he said. “I wanted to put in a point of view which is kind of destructive. I wanted to do a character study. I like films that are more about the criminal than the crime. I also badly wanted to do something that questions social realist filmmakers, because I hated those kinds of films.”

Instead of pitching the film to investors – which, given how it turned out, might not have been a fruitful exercise anyway – Mittal borrowed money from friends and family. The plan was to collect enough to be able to shoot the film and subsequently find a producer. Apart from Mittal, Deepak Sampat (who plays the central character) and editor Avnendra Upadhyay were new to feature films, while cinematographer Sunny Banerjee had just one unreleased film to his credit. After three months of pre-production – during which, among other things, Sampat learnt to drive an autorickshaw—Mittal shot the film in 15 days in March 2015. After seeing an edit, Amit Verma came on board as producer and the film was completed by July.

Autohead is a strange hybrid: a mockumentary, a grimy street indie, a state of the nation address, a pitch-black comedy and a savage attack on a particular kind of filmmaking. “It disturbs me that in India there are either Bollywood films or films about social issues,” Mittal said. No one in their right mind would mistake Autohead for an issue film, even if it does comment on regional and class divides, sexual repression and the public appetite for unfeeling media voyeurism. We’re shown, via the cameras of a documentary crew, the life of Narayan Srivastav, an auto driver in Mumbai. “No one around me understood why I was special,” he tells a passenger, “but these people did.”

The perverse joy of Autohead is that the film crew following Narayan really doesn’t understand why he’s “special”. It turns out Narayan is unique in the same way Travis Bickle is – uniquely deluded, with a desire to clean up the filth surrounding him but with nothing like the mental stability required to do it right. The parallels with Taxi Driver are easy to spot – a vehicle-for-hire as a metaphor for loneliness, the central character’s fondness for porn, his attachment to an escort – and quite deliberate, though Mittal says that the influence of French serial killer mockumentary Man Bites Dog (a reference that’s popped up in most of the writing about Autohead) has been overestimated.
Autohead was part of the NFDC Film Bazaar last year. Since then, it’s travelled to the Hong Kong International Film Festival and two top genre festivals: BiFan in South Korea and the Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival in Spain.

Those who watch it at the Mumbai Film Festival might be led to wonder whether the lead character was inspired by Auto Shankar, the auto-driving serial killer and basis for Anurag Kashyap’s TV movie Auto Narayan. Mittal told me that this was a coincidence, though he mentioned that he’d enjoyed watching another film in the same series as Kashyap’s: Sriram Raghavan’s unreleased Raman Raghav. Though Mittal saw Raghavan’s film after Autohead was completed, there are some striking similarities – the Mumbai street setting, the all-pervasive amorality, the remorseless of the lead performances (Sampat’s Narayan lands somewhere between Raghubir Yadav’s catatonic portrayal of Raghav and Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s animated take in Kashyap’s 2016 remake).

Six years ago, Mittal was embarking, unhappily, on a career in law. Last week, Autohead played at Stiges alongside talked-about films like Amat Escalante’s The Untamed and Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow. As career gambles go, this one seems to have worked out quite well.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

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