A couple of months ago I had the chance to watch Vasan Bala's film Peddlers, and those on Twitter would know that my mind was completely blown. Peddlers is a stunningly assured debut, part neo noir part dark drama, and completely engrossing - and it's one of the seven films to be selected for the Cannes critics week.
A true indie, Peddlers was made via crowd funding - close to seven producers pooled in for the project and the Indian rights have been bought by Eros under the Anurag Kashyap Films and Sikhya Entertainment banners. It stars a bunch of very talented newbies - Gulshan Devaiah as a cop, Kriti Malhotra (from Dhobi Ghaat), Murari Kumar (from Gulaal), Sagai Raj (from Videokaaran), Siddharth Mennon (who looks like Andrew Garfield), Nimrat Kaur, Megh Pant, with cameos by director Nishikant Kamat and indie filmmaker Neeraj Ghaywan.
So what IS Peddlers about? As per the synopsis, 'A ghost town, Mumbai, inhabited by millions. A lady on a mission, a man living a lie, an aimless drifter. They collide. Some collisions are of consequence, some not, either ways the city moves on'. You can read an interesting post on the film here.
Vasan has assisted Anurag Kashyap in Dev D, Gulaal and That Girl in Yellow Boots, and has also worked with Michael Winterbottom in Trishna. The Cannes selection of Peddlers was a triumph not just for him but also for Indian indie cinema. Those worried about a wannabe Anurag Kashyap can relax, because Vasan has doled out a very different and unique treatment to both the shooting and writing style and the characters. It's hard to pick something that stands out, because the cast is every bit as good as the direction, cinematography and story.
I had the chance to interview Vasan - he talks about the film's inception, the casting process, his influences and digital cameras. Embedded below is the transcript:
MF: When and how did the idea of Peddlers first come to you?
VB: At the very germ it started with the song "God's gonna cut you down" by Johnny Cash. Around one and a half years ago I wanted to make a music video for the song. Just for kicks. It had a cop chasing a boy and a woman he was in love with. I think over the next six months the music video never happened but the script and the characters and the story took shape.
MF: Gulshan Deviah has done a fantastic job as a grey cop in Peddlers, was he your first choice for the role?
VB: He was the first choice since the inception. In spite of his comic blast in Yellow Boots and the K.C angry rich boy act in Shaitan there was a more sensitive and vulnerable side to him. The idea was to excite him with the grey shades which he loves but thru that retain his vulnerability too. He is a strange mix of aggression, intensity and is a 'Good Boy' in every which ways. Whenever the film had a false start, no producer no money he would send a simple sms "just tell me when we are shooting, I'll be there". No questions on who is producing or the money nothing. Gulshan is a big part of Peddlers and an absolute pillar. Could not have made the film without him. Respect the man.
MF: The rest of the cast is superb as well. Could you tell us about the casting process of Kriti Malhotra, Nishikanth Kamath, Sagai, Nimrat Kaur and others?
VB: For the character of Bilkis I was thinking of a very unaffected and unassuming demeanor with a slight and a very strange intimidating. Also she needed to be pretty in a very unconventional way but frail and vulnerable. Suddenly it seemed too much to ask for..plus a natural actress. A meeting with Kriti gave all the right vibes for the character. She has ambition but it does not show, she is pretty but it grows as you see her more.
For Nishi Sir (Nishikanth Kamath). I can't thank him enough for bailing me out on a day's notice. The actor who was supposed to play the role opted out for some domestic issues. I met Nishi Sir at a restaurant at Yari road and asked him "Sir 2 din mein shoot hai, ek din ka kaam hai, aap karoge" Again no questions asked, nothing. Simple answer "Ok". He was a savior.
Nimrat - I have always been a fan of her stage acts. Did not know if she would be open to do this role. My casting Director Anmol Ahuja convinced her to meet me and give the role a chance. Getting her on the project was Anmol's marketing genius, can't thank him enough.
Sagai's character was added to the script after I saw Videokaraan. It was him or no one else and the character would have been out of the film.
MF: Peddlers is visually intoxicating. Which cameras were used during filming?
VB: We used the Red MX and mixed some 5D too. Siddharth Diwan took it to some other level. He is the future, a very important DoP to be in the Indian and am really hoping in the International context as well. It's his first feature film but it's such a daring call to shoot it the way we did. Can't thank him enough for completely submit to the process and not stick to guidelines and rules. Have worked with him on a couple of short film and he knows most of my future scripts too. We are a team. With him I need to talk or discuss. There is a great connect while working. A lot it unsaid and a lot is achieved. He is brilliant.
MF: A friend recently said 'Anurag Kashyap is the best film school in India'. After seeing your debut film I have to agree with him. How much of AK's influence has gone into Peddlers?
VB: ORGANIC !!! Anyone who is prepared to let go and be a part of evolution can be a student here. An open mind and a will to burn one's finger and ass through one's mistakes is all one needs. It's trial by fire. Anyone who trusts the process can learn some invaluable lessons of filmmaking and life in general from this school.
MF: How is it like working with Anurag Kashyap?
VB: It can be tiring at times. He is such a Rockstar and such a presence, he can be a bit of a distraction for fanboys working as ADs with him. One needs to completely disconnect from him and work only for the film. He does not teach anything as such. It's more an awakening and opening of mind he does, and it comes out of a grueling movie schedule with him. It leaves with a lot of self doubt and questioning. One has to deal with all that alone and in isolation without much help. He puts you in situations and leaves one in the lurch. One definitely comes out stronger and with a definite perspective. He does not breed clones. He certainly breeds individuals.
MF: Seeing as the frames of Peddlers look so good, given a chance to direct a bigger movie, would you go film or digital?
VB: Film would be just so Lovely!! Yes with the budget would definitely go for Film.
MF: Who is doing the music/lyrics for Peddlers? Could you tell us what sort of music it would be? Is there a full blown soundtrack with songs?
VB: The music is by Karan Kulkarni and lyrics by Varun Grover. Since it was Karan's first film the first assurance I gave him was make a dent, a signature don't bother about salability. Put that blame on me. Same was the approach in all departments. Don't fall back on any precedence or out think on anyone as to "what WORKS". Throw the WORKS word out and just flow into it. Having said all that jazz being a big big big Illayaraja fan requested him one song in that zone and he did it brilliantly in his own style. Songs are there but treated more like BG scores.
MF: I personally can't wait to watch the movie on the big screen. When can we expect it to hit theaters?
VB: It's being worked out. Hope soon, very soon. Would be a dream come true to have a show of my first film at Arora Talkies Matunga.