‘I’ve grown up around women, my work is about women’
It’s well past midnight at a printing press in Saki Naka, a neighbourhood in Mumbai’s Andheri East, that sounds more like a family-friendly Japanese restaurant than a bustling business district. In one of the dimly-lit rooms inside, four women are hovering over a man in handcuffs; in that cramped space one can smell anger, fear, desperation, and masoor dal. The women have kidnapped the man in the middle of dinner, and all that’s left to serve him are his just deserts.
It’s day 18 of the shoot of Totta Patakha Item Maal (TPIM), writer and filmmaker Aditya Kripalani’s second film, after his 2017 debut Tikli and Laxmi Bomb (TALB), which told the story of two sex workers in Mumbai who decide to take charge of their business. After visiting festivals in India last year, it won the Best Feature award at the 10th Berlin Independent Film Festival two weeks ago. “I’d bought tickets to go to Berlin, but then I’d started working on this film and the entire cast and crew were available, so we decided to shoot,” says Kripalani. On location, a quick glance informs us that all the heads of department of the film are women, and there are an equal number of men and women working on the floor. “I can’t be a feminist if I don’t believe in equality. I’ve grown up around very strong women and all my work has been about women,” he says
After graduating from the Film and Television Institute in Pune with a screenwriting degree, Kripalani, 36, began working for a film production house, first as a script reader, and worked his way up to become a creative head at iDream Productions, and later, at Percept Picture Company. “All I’ve ever wanted to do is tell stories. So, in 2009, I decided to write a book. Now, because I’m trained in screenwriting, all my works follow a three-act structure, and easily lend themselves to screen adaptations,” says Kripalani, who wrote his first novel, Back Seat, about an out-of-work bar dancer. He followed it up with a sequel, Front Seat, in 2012, and Tikli and Laxmi Bomb in 2015. “People ask me why I write stories about dancers and sex workers. For a long time now, I’ve liked to step out at night and explore the city, and the only women who are in public spaces at that hour, are working girls. I befriended them because they have a different perspective of the world around them. They don’t have much a façade, because they deal with so much reality on a daily basis. I never wanted to write about them in a way that exoticises them. When they’ve got some time to spare, they’re also posting on Facebook and checking the number of likes they get on Instagram,” says Kripalani.
He says that all three of his novels are bestsellers, but it would appear that the mainstream publishing industry is unaware of this. “When all the major publishers rejected my manuscript, I decided to publish Back Seat by myself. My wife and I would stand on Carter Road, and Bandstand, outside restaurants and on the roads, and gradually, we sold 500 copies. Word spread, and we convinced a national distributor to take us on; that’s how the book reached stores, and it took three years for it to become a bestseller,” says Kripalani. His DIY ethic then extended to adapting the novels for the big screen too. “I did try and sell these scripts for three-four years, but nothing worked out. Most writers are paid very little and it was quite depressing for me. So, I decided to make the films myself,” he says.
Back inside the room, the shot has been set up. “TPIM is about four women from various parts of Delhi who accidentally come together when they get into an altercation with a man. They kidnap him because they want him to know what it feels like to live as a woman in India,” says Kripalani, who says he was provoked to make the film after visiting women friends in Delhi, who would constantly worry about getting home safe after 8 pm. “I’ve seen acts of violence at toll booths at night, so it’s not just about women’s safety, it is about all of us,” he says.
The camera is now rolling, and one of the characters lists out what they will do to their captive: dress him up as a woman, record and post the encounter on social media. And then there’s the rape. “I don’t think my films will get a conventional release, but that’s not why I make them. I’d like to work with popular actors, but it won’t work if anybody thinks that they’re bigger than the film. There has been some interest in my work after the win in Berlin, and we’re in talks with some producers and distributors. I’m happy if my films can get a digital platform, but till then the festival circuit works for us,” says Kripalani.