Filmmaker S. Ashwin
S. Ashwin, director of Vrutti. Photo courtesy of the filmmaker

S. Ashwin interview: ’I wanted Vrutti to be a mirror to society, not a soothing balm’

What happens when your family does not let you make friends at will, when your caste determines who you are allowed to play with, and when you are warned that any attempt to bend this rule will be punished in a way that you will not forget for the rest of your life?

S. Ashwin, who directed the Bengali film Dekhchish Ki Amon Bhabe (2015), and worked as an assistant director on Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury’s Hindi film Pink (2016), wanted to explore these questions. When he read news reports about caste-based violence in India that takes various forms such as workplace discrimination, murder and rape, he decided that “feeling disturbed was not enough”.

These inner stirrings pushed him to write, direct and edit the Marathi film Vrutti (2023) which revolves around the friendship between two children — Akku and Viju. Their caste affiliations are not specified in the film but it is clear that they occupy different positions in the caste hierarchy. Their elders want them to stop being friends.

Working with child actors

Akku and Viju are upset about these rules being thrust upon them. They do not care about superficial differences. All they know is that they care deeply about each other. They go behind their parents’ back and set up clandestine meetings. Their plan works for a while but eventually they are caught and reprimanded for being disobedient. One of them is killed.

Vrutti revolves around the friendship between two children — Akku and Viju

How did Ashwin find the child actors to play Akku and Viju? “One day, while I was having lunch with my line producer Anand Naidu, I saw this child at a restaurant sharing a meal with his parents. He was playing with spoons and forks, and making funny faces.” This is how Ashwin found Krushna Thakur, who plays Akku. He asked Anand to speak to Krushna’s parents and invite them for an audition. Things went smoothly, and Krushna was selected.

Also read: Caste bias in IITs: Somnath Waghmare’s docu seeks dignity for Dalit lives

Casting Piyush Thakre in the role of Viju was a more straightforward process. Piyush had previously acted in Baiju Bulli, a short film that Ashwin had worked on in the capacity of an assistant director. Ashwin thought that Piyush would be perfect to play Viju. There is a third child actor in the film — Aditya Pawar — who plays Pakya. It is a minor role. He too was part of Baiju Bulli, so Ashwin was familiar with him. He conducted acting workshops with these three children every weekend for a month. They had to go to school on the other days.

Ashwin says, “Rehearsing scenes with them was fun. We brought them their favourite food, and also played games so that they would not get too bored on the set. Krushna loves to dance, so he used to show us some moves. Piyush and Aditya liked performing rap songs.” Ashwin zeroed in on the adult actors with the help of an open call for auditions that was circulated via social media platforms WhatsApp and Facebook to reach the right people.

‘I want to direct a film in every Indian language’

The news reports about caste-based violence that Ashwin read were mainly from Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra. Since he grew up in Mumbai, he was keen to shoot in Maharashtra itself. Vrutti was shot at Usarni, a village in the Palghar taluka of Thane district in Maharashtra. The actors speak Marathi and Malwani in the film. Most of them have worked either in theatre, films or shows streaming on OTT platforms. Ashwin’s mother tongue is Tamil but that did not make him reconsider the language that the film would use. “I have directed a Bengali film earlier. I want to direct a film in every Indian language,” he says.

Meera Joshi (left) in Vrutti

While working on Vrutti, long-forgotten memories from his childhood came rushing forth. “A classmate of mine was forced to change schools in the seventh grade. His father was unhappy that he was playing with children whose families were not of the same socio-economic standing,” says Ashwin. “When I grew older, I realised that it was discrimination on the basis of caste. I used to think that happened only in villages but it was a case from Mumbai.”

Also read: ‘Caste Pride’ review: Manoj Mitta illuminates caste’s legal odyssey in post-Independent India

Ashwin also recalls instances from his childhood when some women living in his neighbourhood used to forbid their children from playing with the children of domestic workers. He hopes they will watch the film, and realize how toxic and violent casteism is.

The film was made with a budget of Rs 1.2 crore but it was difficult to find distributors. “Soon after we finished the post-production, the COVID-19 pandemic hit us all like a big shock. None of the OTT platforms were willing to buy it. They wanted famous faces.” At that point, Ashwin and the film’s producer Rajashekar S. Iyer decided that it might be a good idea to send the film to festivals since that might help generate interest among film distributors.

‘Filmmaking is an art’ 

Even after winning the Audience Choice Best Feature Film Award at the DC South Asian Film Festival in Washington DC, and being screened at the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne and the International Film Festival of South Asia in Toronto, they were not able to get any distributors on board. Was it because the film deals with caste-based violence, a subject that people from dominant caste backgrounds are not willing to talk about?

Ashwin says, “I don’t know. That is possible. But what people actually told us was that they needed a known face to get audiences excited about the film. They wanted me to change how the film ends.” That was a non-negotiable for Ashwin. He did not want to leave audiences with a happy, feel-good ending. He wanted them to be shaken by the monstrosity that caste-based violence is. “I wanted my film to be a mirror to society, not a soothing balm.”

Meera Joshi and Anurag Worlikar in Vrutti

Eventually, the producer decided to release the film on YouTube. It can be viewed without paying a fee, so Ashwin hopes that it will be watched and shared widely. He was not sure how his parents, who are “quite conservative”, might react after watching Vrutti, but he is glad that they are proud of the film that he has made and cannot stop talking about it. Once upon a time, they wanted him to be an engineer but are now happy about the path that he has chosen.

Ashwin has never felt the need to enrol for a formal course at a film school. He shares, “I learnt by fiddling with a handy cam at home, and making short films for college festivals while I was pursuing a Bachelor of Mass Media course at SIES College in Mumbai.”

Also read: How Kerala activist Rehana Fathima uses her body to battle patriarchy

How did he arrive where he is? “People started liking my work, giving feedback, mentoring me, and offering me work. This is how filmmaking became both my passion and my profession. I learnt writing by reading film scripts that are available online.” He believes that creativity cannot be taught in a formulaic manner because it is unique to each individual.

He says, “If you had chosen to make Vrutti, you would have made it differently. Even with the same script, the same set of actors, and the same locations, each director brings a different vision and a different sensibility. Filmmaking is not simply a technical activity. It is an art.”

Chintan Girish Modi can be reached @chintanwriting on Instagram and Twitter

Read More
Next Story