Cannes 2012: India's Vasan Bala on How 'Peddlers' Reflects the Indie Spirit (Q&A)

Vasan Bala ("Peddlers")

Bala tells THR how Facebook played an important role to kick-start his Critics' Week entry "Peddlers."

Vasan Bala, 33, got serious about working in films when he was 28 and ended up assisting acclaimed Indian filmmaker Anurag Kashyap and then Michael Winterbottom on his latest outing Trishna. Bala's debut film Peddlers screens in the Cannes Critics' Week (May 21). Bala tells THR how Facebook played an important role to kick start his Critics' Week entry Peddlers.

The Hollywood Reporter: How does it feel to have your debut film at Cannes?

Vasan Bala: I think international exposure helps. I think if I now show the film, a lot more people will say that they are liking it. A validation like Cannes gives new wings and new perspectives even to the audience. There is something in the back of the mind that says it's at Cannes so it must be good. It is not easily dismissed and that works to the advantage for such films because they need time to be absorbed.

THR: You assisted directors like Anurag Kashyap and Michael Winterbottom (on Trishna). How aware were you about finding your voice without being influenced by them?

Bala: I think I was more aware of Anurag as he has a super rockstar image now. It's kind of overwhelming to work with him as there is a lot of him on the set. He is a calm and electric presence at the same time. It's more than a director-AD relationship. That's the difference with Michael Winterbottom as he is not overwhelming considering his amazing body of work. His approach on set was quite relentless, dry and detached, which I liked. So when I did my film there would be a lot of Anurag but the whole sense of detachment and objective sense balanced it out.

THR: How did the concept of Peddlers come about?

Bala: It really came from this person I knew - the growing up and witnessing of him. It started off with him and became a coming of age story through this personality. The things that define who you are at a particular stage in your life. It's about innocence being thrust between many guarded souls. The whole idea of innocence lost is taken a little ahead as innocence destroyed. The loss of innocence is treated as destruction so I had to put in extreme characters. There is nothing better in evolution than a man-woman relationship. The boy-to-man-to-devil curve happens through a relationship. That worked like a big catalyst.

THR: You have also said that you wanted to show a massively populated city like Mumbai as a ghost town.

Bala: The idea was to treat Mumbai as a ghost town, because when you think of Mumbai, you think huge crowds so I eliminated that. The characters don't venture out with crowds so you see them only when Mumbai is empty. It's this whole idea of people being locked in. So the film turned the concept of Mumbai on its head. The paths of the three main characters collide with the whole idea being that the city doesn't matter.

THR: You ended up with some crowd-sourcing via Facebook to fund the movie?

Bala: I was pretty restless to make my first film and I had scripts but they required a lot of money. So I started throwing figures at people. I had this idea and I started selling it as a cheap film that we could make. A little bit of emotional blackmailing worked with Guneet Monga (producer at film-maker Anurag Kashyap's banner AKFPL). And she posted a message on Facebook asking for people to fund this project which got some responses. Five people emailed and we told them that it's not a very lucrative film that will go places. It's just an honest film we are trying to make and we are looking at a bare minimum contribution. And that's how we got rolling.

THR: What is your take on the indie scene in India?

Bala: What works for indie cinema is that those who are getting into it are not bound by any rules. The problem is with those who understand the rules and hence get stuck by the rules. There is a naivete amongst us which lets us do things just for the heck of it. We are not saying that we have to go to Cannes. It's really about making any kind of film – maybe it's a bit of foolhardiness and arrogance. Those energies lead us somewhere rather than following any conscious decision to improve things or make a statement. But yes, when you are saying something strong or individualistic, there would be a statement, there would be a signature.

THR: Do you see new opportunities for your kind of cinematic sensibilities since the Indian mainstream is trying to change despite the odds?

Bala: The whole act of rebellion, even if it is not there per se, I mean the whole idea that it even sounds like a rebellion turns me on. There is a subtle aggression. But I must say that if Peddlers was made with more comfort levels, it wouldn't have half the impact it has now. Just the fact that every morning you didn't know if your location would be available. You are shooting and ten feet away my production guy is fighting with the location owner who wants us to vacate right away. There is a certain kind of energy that propels the indie movement.

THR: Another interesting thing with indie films is how they are boosting new talent.

Bala: I think if you make it clear that choosing the actor has to be a very free-flowing decision by the director and not thrust by a producer to look for a marketable face, then it becomes easier. That helped as I could choose anyone, right from the streets to the theatre. I also met some people who came via Facebook. More than auditions, I believed in interacting with the talent. This is not a film bound by a script or character-driven. I wanted the actors to bring something of their own to the project. And I wanted to see if they were aligned with the story. Most of the people had traces of their own characters. I didn't want them to undergo an acting process. So it was more organic. They really came from incredible backgrounds. I mean one guy is a photographer whose father was a porn film-maker. I saw a documentary on him and I called him to ask if he wants to act. He came and he was the most natural thing in the film. There are these surprise elements that raise the bar.

THR: What kind of plans do you have now?

Bala: I have some scripts and am trying to revive how interesting they still are. I would still stick to Guneet and Anurag as they know a lot more about me than others. With the next film it would nice to start afresh with people you know.

THR: How do you feel about visiting Cannes for the first time?

Bala: I am not so much into the glamor because I really see this as the biggest ticket to film school. I would rather meet as many people and watch films and learn. We are trying to get over as many cast and crew members from our film and I am looking forward to celebrating with my team.