Just one feature film old and actor-turned-director Geetu Mohandas is already off to the 2014 Sundance Film Festival in Utah, USA, where her film, Liar’s Dice, is competing in the prestigious World Cinema Dramatic Competition. Mohandas says she literally fell off her chair when she heard the news. “Just the fact that Liar’s Dice was going to Sundance was incredible, let alone the dramatic category,” she says. Liar’s Dice is in competition with the likes of Chilean film To Kill a Man (Alejandro Fernández Almendras), Ethiopian drama Difret (Zeresenay Berhane Mehari) and Argentinian film Lock Charmer (Natalia Smirnoff). But Mohandas is not fazed; she’s just thrilled that the seven years she invested in the film—from scripting to convincing producers she could “sell a film about a woman and a lamb on a mountain” to directing—is finally getting a resounding nod of approval.
Mohandas is no stranger to the arc lights. She’s been tripping over props on film sets ever since she was four years old. She debuted in Malayalam with Onnu Muthal Poojaym Vare (with Mohanlal) while Tamil audiences best remember her as the kid from En Bommukutty Ammavukku. She did five films as a child artiste, before migrating to Canada with her family. The distant shores did not erase her passion for films, but it did mould her into the person she is today. “I am fiercely independent, I speak my mind, and I am opinionated,” says Mohandas, 33, who feels that growing up abroad, making friends (“they are from all over—from an Egyptian to an Italian to an Afghani”), and immersing herself in local theatre moulded her creative side. However, it also meant that when she returned to India to act, the reception wasn’t completely positive. “People wanted to slot me—as a coy girl with chandanam on her forehead, dancing and running around trees. But I got bored,” she says. Though she stepped away from frivolous films with powerful performances in movies like Sesham, Thakarachenda, Kannaki and Naalu Pennungal, Mohandas felt the time had come to move on.
“I’ve been writing since the age of 10—mostly short stories and poems—and I used to give them to everyone on sets to read,” says Mohandas, who studied acting and writers’ craft from Toronto University. “Even as I acted, I was mentally taking notes of all the technicalities involved, readying for the time I turned director. Besides, I love giving orders,” she laughs. Things took a turn in the right direction when she met cinematographer Rajeev Ravi (whom she later married in 2009) on the sets of Sesham. “I met him when I was just 19 and we connected. For the next nine to 10 years, he was the biggest influence in my life. While I had practical knowledge, he had textbook knowledge. He encouraged me to write scripts and I know I became a director faster because he pushed me,” admits Mohandas.
“Geetu was not your typical heroine. While she was friendly and fun on the sets she was also an intellectual, who was knowledgeable about world cinema and could talk about anything. Directing is a revolutionary change and I am thrilled for her.”
—Manoj K Jayan, actor
“I worked with her as a child and then as a teenager. While she was talented, she was also an individualist. She used to show me the stories she had written and talk about the movies that haunted her. I knew even back then that she had a lot of potential beyond just being an actress.”
—A M Fazil, director
Charting her course
The idea for Liar’s Dice came to Mohandas seven years ago, and though she had her script in hand, funding proved to be a big problem. “I would always get asked how old I was and how I could sell a story about migrant labourers. I was so confident, so full of ideas, but there were no takers,” she says, adding that she almost thought of putting her dream on the back-burner and assisting another director to gain experience. “But Rajeev asked me not to, and to just make my film.” So Mohandas scripted a 22-minute short film, invested her own money and directed Kelkkunnundo (Are you listening?). The film about a young blind girl won rave reviews, a National Award for child actor Hasna Aslam, a world premiere at the International Film Festival Rotterdam and three international awards. It also gave her the helping hand she was looking for: Liar’s Dice was chosen as one of 11 scripts from around the world to get the Hubert BALS Fund—a total of 10,000 Euros.
“That opened many doors,” she remembers. Soon Jar Pictures joined the team and Liar’s Dice started rolling. Mohandas had no trouble finalising her lead actors—she had seen Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s work while on the sets of Ravi’s films and Geetanjali Thapa in Ravi’s co-production, ID. Only the little girl’s role needed auditions, which finally gave her Manya Gupta. “I had initially set my film in Rajasthan, but it has been filmed to death. So Rajeev asked me to check out Chitkul in Himachal Pradesh. The terrain was so interesting and I knew I would get ‘real’ performances from the actors when we shot in such a place,” says Mohandas.
Though she had a full script in hand, Mohandas let the actors bring their own interpretation into the scenes and dialogues. “Their contribution was immense. It added depth and a lot of mystery to the film. But I remember Nawazuddin would go on like a train and I would never cut him. It just made the final editing that much more fun,” she laughs. As for her husband’s contribution, she says his biggest gift is that he gives her all the support she needs but at the same time he “allows me to make mistakes.” Mohandas is now in the US, getting ready for her red carpet appearance. And if you think you can glimpse her in a gown, perish the thought. “I am a pyjama and tee kinda girl. So on the red carpet I want to be comfortable. Also, I carry my personality well, so I don’t need a brand to hide behind. I’ll just wear straight trousers, a smart top and no heels,” she says. Next, Liar’s Dice will have its European premiere at the Rotterdam Festival, which begins on January 22. And once she returns home, Mohandas plans to get to work immediately on her next project, another Hindi film that is still taking shape.
- I love to travel and I want to explore India. Wayanad excites me more than Paris
- I’m into big bags, but I don’t go for brands — unless I get them dirt cheap. Like my current DKNY
- I love sunglasses and my favourite is Vogue
- I won’t watch films made from books. In fact, I was depressed when I heard they might be thinking of turning Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies into a film
Starstruck in Spain
I was in Spain for the Valladolid Film Festival. I’d been told the fest would start by 6 pm, but I lost track of time as I explored the quaint town. By the time I got back to the hotel, the entire place had been cordoned off and the stars were leaving for the venue. So I sprinted all the way to the venue in the clothes I was wearing, only to discover it had been cordoned off, too. Fortunately one of the organisers spotted me and asked me to jump over the chains. I did, only to land in front of some policemen, who immediately gave chase. As I ran panic-stricken down the red carpet, a limo pulled up, a man got out, flashed me a big smile, grabbed my hand and just walked down the red carpet with me. The man was Antonio Banderas! I couldn’t stop goggling. I’m sure he thought I was a demented fan. But I didn’t try explaining myself, I just waved at the crowd with him, until we reached the main doors and the organisers whisked me away.
Into the script
Urbanisation and apathy towards migrant labourers have always affected Mohandas. “They are just a statistic when calamity befalls,” she says. Liar’s Dice follows a spunky woman (Geetanjali Thapa) who defies the norms of her village and sets out with her daughter (Manya Gupta) and pet lamb to find her missing husband, who is a labourer in a city. En route they meet an Army deserter (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) who accompanies them. “Shooting was challenging. We shot in winter in this little village bordering Tibet and China, and we faced both landslides and leopards,” says Mohandas, who was pregnant with her daughter Aradhana at the time.
By Surya Praphulla Kumar