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Filmmaker Interview: 9 Questions with Director Prashant Nair

Prashant Nair, co-founded Avedya, a top Paris-based social media consultancy firm in 2000, but turned to movie making nine years later after taking a film intensive at New York University.
BY Uttara Choudhury |   04-11-2014
Director Prashant Nair and Welsh actor Lee Williams on the sets of "Delhi in a Day."
The Hollywood blockbuster, “The Help” looked at Mississippi white women and their black maids. Now closer to home, Indian attitudes towards their help are being challenged by director Prashant Nair in “Delhi in a Day.”

“The film is a satirical look at the lifestyles of the nouveau-riche in Delhi and how they interact and lord it over their home help,” says 36-year-old Nair who has an engineering degree from Purdue University, in Indiana.

Nair, co-founded Avedya, a successful Paris-headquartered social media consultancy firm in 2000, but turned to movie making nine years later after taking a filmmaking intensive and editing classes at New York University (NYU).

Nair’s well shot first film is a masterly portrayal of Delhi’s baba-log, examining how the haves and the have-nots coexist in Indian homes. It    looks at what happens in the palatial Bhatia family mansion in South Delhi run by a semi-alcoholic cook, an over-excitable butler, two Tamil drivers, a maid and a major domo after a British house-guest suffers a theft. The film is anchored by a lively cast that includes veteran Victor Banerjee, Lillete Dubey, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Anjali Patil and Welsh actor and former Calvin Klein model Lee Williams.

Nair talked to about following his passion for film and the secrets to being a good director.

1. What prompted a trained engineer from Purdue University to start making movies?

It's always been a passion and as Avedya matured into a functioning company with a talented management team it was possible to step away and finally focus on it. I took a filmmaking intensive at NYU and a few editing classes but really learned by making a short film and then, of course, "Delhi in a Day". My latest script "Umrika" was part of the Mumbai Mantra/Sundance Screenwriter's Lab which was also an incredible learning experience in terms of story development and screenwriting.

2. Does being the co-founder of Avedya, which helps companies build relationships with their customers through social networking, leave you with enough time to follow your passion as a filmmaker?

My role at Avedya is no longer operational so I am able to focus on film making almost full-time.

3. Did you write the screenplay for “Delhi in a Day” and are you from that breed of writer-directors that enjoy the ability to turn their script into the exact film they envision?

Yes. I enjoy the writing part enormously. Films never turn out exactly the way you envision they say you make them three times: when you write, when you shoot and when you edit. But it is true that there is enormous satisfaction in being deeply involved in all phases: from the blank page to the finished reel.

4. Would you say that no matter how well the script plays in your head, when the writer steps behind the camera as director, inevitable changes to the screenplay are reluctantly made?

Absolutely! You do the best you can with your screenplay and then be prepared that things can change on the set.

5. What advice do you have for someone wanting to direct films?

I did a small film intensive at NYU where you got to make a short film. Making a film was an education. School doesn’t really prepare you for the reality of the industry or what it’s actually like to prepare a film for a commercial release. It gives you a lot of theory but there is nothing like hands-on experience so you should work for a year or two with an established director on a feature film. It’s great if you get a position as an assistant director. Nowadays with the technology being what it is one can make several films.

There are wonderful books on filmmaking, interviews with directors, seminars and workshops; you can piece together your own degree which may be more effective than going for two or three years to a specific program. Under the basic film school structure you do a bit of everything and then you specialize. You do camera work classes, editing, all of that.

In my case I had come off a 10-12 year career in something completely different. In that sense taking the intensive at NYU was good for me because it gave me the context and the time. The classes were excellent and I spent a few months immersed in reading and watching films, learning as much as I could.

6. What is the secret to being a good director?

Directors know a little about everything from sets to lighting to scrupulously-framed cinematography. The good ones possess a painter's eye and a nose for the dark absurdities of life. Directors have very different styles: some come very prepared and others come and improvise on the spot. Since directors work in such different ways the secret would be knowing which way suits you and what works for you at a basic level. There are a number of skills which are useful; the ability to communicate well, obviously your knowledge of film and music. In the beginning, I think it’s good to be very prepared, later you can take liberties on set. The more you know about the craft of filmmaking the better, but in the end film is a collaborative medium it’s about who you work with, and the relationships that you have with them ultimately result in the quality of the film.

7. Does your film “Delhi in a Day” explore the warts and all relationship between India’s pampered rich and those who pick up after them?

Yes, in fact the film is a satirical look at the lifestyles of the nouveau-riche in Delhi and how they interact with their staff. I wanted to explore the often troubling ways in which the ultra-rich co-exist with those who work for them in their homes. In many cases, even young people in their twenties and teens behave obnoxiously with their help. There’s very little space for dignity and I wanted to portray this in hopes that it will give people a chance to reflect on all this. It’s worrying to see, in so many cases, such a basic lack of courtesy, values and crude class differences.

Delhi In A Day - Official Trailer

8. What compelled you to tell this story?

I've always found the disparity in these upper and upper middle-class households as well as the lack of regulation disturbing. Oftentimes, it borders on abusive. I don't think it’s a question of good or bad, it's just the status quo and people don't really stop to question their behavior. I'm hoping this film will generate some debate around this issue and encourage people to give a little thought to this whole notion of "servants" and their treatment even if it is something that is so engrained in Indian society.

5. Did you use humour to keep the movie entertaining while landing a strong message deftly?

Personally I enjoy it when humor or satire is used to bring attention to serious issues. I find it can have a longer lasting effect in many cases than shock value. While "Delhi in a Day" deals with a serious subject and does have its darker moments, a majority of the film is humorous.

The turning point where things get a little nasty is when Jasper’s money goes missing and the staff is given 24 hours to replace it or face the consequences. Then we start to see the ill effects of the relationship that exists between what is referred to as the servants and the people who live in the house.

9. What are you working on now?

I'm currently working on my second feature film a comedy set in the early 80s about immigration to the US from rural India. It's sort of a satirical look at the "myth" of America. It's called "Umrika".

Uttara Choudhury is Editor, North America for TV 18’s Firstpost news site and a writer for Forbes India. In 1997, she went on the British Chevening Scholarship to study Journalism at the University of Westminster, in London.



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Pratik Panjiar
Uttara, thanks for this interesting interview. It is heartening to see a successful engineer-entrepreneur make a movie on an important and timely subject. In South Asia the way some way people treat their help is downright feudal. This must change. Thank you for "Delhi in a Day."
05 November 2014

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