Director Rajesh Touchriver is talking in Malayalam into his mobile phone. Stout and compact like a boxer, he has a shaven head with a blood-red scar near the left temple, caused by an accident. His beard is full and his eyes are small, like apertures in a camera, with a playful gleam and radiating a childlike innocence. His ears are small, cheeks fleshy like a ripe Banganapalli mango.
Touchriver is sitting at a table, shirtsleeves folded above the elbow. On the table’s dark-green marble surface there’s a bunch of papers; a brass pot—sometimes a glass—doubles as an ashtray. The room smells of old cigarette smoke and the bamboo chairs are topped by squashed cushions, long sat on while discussing scripts. The wind blows hot through the windows. Outside, the empty lot is littered with debris. Posters—Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Kurosawa’s Ikiru, and others—hang on the wall.
A sheaf of peacock feathers in a brass pot, an altar with a small image of Vinayaka and other deities, and a Buddha sit serene in the crowded, messy space. That’s Touchriver’s office near Maa studios in Manikonda in Hyderabad. It speaks of a kid madly in love with his hobby and passion: films that are authentic and grounded in reality. With Na Bangaru Talli, the 42-year-old auteur connects you with something bigger than yourself.
It’s based on a true story, of a middle-class girl from Rajahmundry in Andhra Pradesh’s East Godavari district. She goes to Hyderabad in search of a job, is kidnapped and sold as a sex slave. Beaten, drugged, brutalised and forced into prostitution, she nevertheless escapes as her father in Hyderabad searches in vain. To her horror, she discovers the father is a pimp.
Touchriver starts with the end—that the girl is trapped—in the beginning. The film proceeds to the whys and hows, up to her present status. The film maintains and amplifies the tension of what happens next, giving the script the thriller treatment.
“It’s a family thriller,” says Touchriver in his reedy voice. “It’s reality, at 24 frames per second. It’s about relationships, about being aware of what’s happening around you.”
He prefers straight-up storytelling. “The story is king,” he says. “You make it simple, not complicated.”
Made in Malayalam (as Ente) and Telugu, and shot in and around Rajahmundry and Hyderabad, the film has ridden a wave of acclaim at international and national film festivals. The Malayalam version released in 2013 and ran for 25 days in 25 theatres in Kerala, although it didn’t make any money.
Certain stories you want to tell the world,” says Sunitha. “People may feel it’s never going to happen to them, but it can happen to anybody, anywhere.
“The story is unique in sex trafficking cases,” says Touchriver’s wife Dr Sunitha Krishnan, who is a co-producer. She runs an NGO called Prajwala India, based in Hyderabad, that rescues girls from sex trafficking. Prajwala has rescued and provided shelter to more than 10,000 girls.
Sunitha listened to the girl’s story at a Prajwala home around 2009, and the story haunted husband and wife. They decided to make a film of it. Sunitha proposed some ground rules: it should be a regular film, a family movie; there should be no nudity; and everything the girl underwent should be visually adapted into the script to make the film “artistically realistic”, Touchriver says. He started working on the script and completed it in 2010.
“Certain stories you want to tell the world,” says Sunitha. “People may feel it’s never going to happen to them, but it does. It can happen to anybody, anywhere, anytime.” It’s a story the couple gave themselves over to. The girl on whom this story is based stayed under Prajwala care for some time. She then went home and later, committed suicide.
They mortgaged their house for ₹60 lakh, and borrowed from Sunitha’s father, brother, friends and relatives, and pooled together ₹2 crore for the film. Senior Andhra police officers gave logistical and other support.
An estimated 1.5 million girls and women are forced into sex slavery, with a trade of $35 billion ( ₹2,10,000 crore) worldwide. Half of them are in Asia. They are smuggled across nations, paraded in bars, conscripted to service men, and pay with a lifetime of degradation. The trade’s tentacles spread across the globe, with sophisticated networks sourcing, kidnapping and forcing women into prostitution.
The couple brings unique insight to the story. Sunitha has worked on the problem long enough to advise governments. Touchriver, after his first film In the Name of Buddha in 2002, made short films and documentaries in various languages on child sexual abuse, HIV/AIDS and human trafficking (for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime). When filming Anamika, a documentary on sex slavery, their team—shooting in red light areas under Kennedy bridge in Mumbai—were in danger of being beaten up. “We don’t know what more they could have done.”
There have been umpteen films on sex trafficking at regional, national and international levels. What distinguishes this from those is the treatment Touchriver gave the script. Na Bangaru Talli is told in a way that keeps you wanting to know what happens next. It’s made so the audience enjoys it “for the heck of enjoying it”.
Touchriver storyboards all his films, scene by scene, using coloured markers and pencils, sketchbooks and whiteboards. It’s natural for him to do that as he’s is a painter and visual artist too.
Script ready, they scouted for producers, an exercise in futility. They finally decided to do it themselves, under their own SunTouch Productions. “Rajesh and I are not the only mad people in the world, there are others too,” says Sunitha. “[We have] absolutely no regrets for producing it ourselves.”
They wanted to name the film Durga, which then became Prathyayam (Trust), which, in turn, became Na Bangaru Talli in Telugu, and Ente (Mine) in Malayalam. They mortgaged their house for ₹60 lakh, and borrowed from Sunitha’s father, brother, friends and relatives, and finally pooled together ₹2 crore for making the film. Senior Andhra police officers gave logistical and other support.
Then they then went about casting. Rajesh had friends at the National School of Drama in Delhi, and he asked them for a “girl-next-door” type. They suggested Anjali Patil and Touchriver selected her.
“I visualised every scene before acting in it, gestures, how I sound, what happened before, what happens now; I read the script many times to feel what the girl went through,” says Anjali. On the sets she would be so absorbed, intense, and sitting somewhere in the corner after shooting the scene that Siddiq, the famous Malayali actor, who plays the father, would yank her out of her brooding and crack jokes to unwind her.
“I’ve done many films but this experience is different,” Siddiq says. “It’s an amazing role.” While shooting, his anonymity in Andhra Pradesh made him comfortable. “This is my first movie in another language,” he says, and he appreciates Anjali, from a Marathi background, for rising above the obvious handicap of acting in the unfamiliar languages of Telugu and Malayalam. For the sake of authenticity, it was shot in places where the real girl was, in brothels where Siddiq acted among real prostitutes.
The role has brought sensitivity to his own fatherhood. “I have a 13-year-old daughter. If such a calamity befell us, where would we be?” says Siddiq. Both agree that working with Touchriver has been a great experience.
Sharreth composed three songs and Shantanu Moitra one, as well as the background score, for which Shantanu won the national award. “The music supports the emotion,” Touchriver says.
Lyricist Garlapati Venkata Raghu Anantharam says writing lyrics for the movie was “a dream debut”. He wrote four songs in three days. Anantharam is a senior officer in the Defence Accounts department in Visakhapatnam. “It’s a different kind of story, all four are situation songs. Touchriver approved all songs in their first versions, and was happy with the good sahithyam.”
“It’s not like romantic songs,” he says. “You need insight into human relationships to write situational songs.”
A song from the movie goes like this:
“As twilight sets
It bids farewell to the dying thoughts
The world is looking at the sky for solace.”
hile helping hands came from different directions during production, there were as many throwing a spanner in the works: unions disrupted shooting, money was stolen, junior artistes created a ruckus. On location, instigated by other film people, villagers wouldn’t sell chickens which were necessary for a sequence of scenes, or rent out homes. Technicians bolted mid-way; the art director crashed out too, and Touchriver had to build the sets himself.
In doing this he was going back to basics. It was set-building that put Touchriver on the road to filmmaking. As a child, he wanted to build sets. “There were forests in my place in Kerala,” he says, “there used be big sets for historical plays and films.” Fascinated by building and creating beauty from scratch, he initially wanted to be an art director. Later, he went into theatre, selecting direction instead of acting, because “you can learn everything about theatre,” and worked as costume designer, set-builder, and other aspects of theatre.
The National School of Drama gave him a lot of exposure. “Our theatre is far behind Western theatre,” he says, in that “conceiving the script itself is different”. Film, he continues, is performance art but “we don’t see it as such”.
We didn’t set out to preach. Our aim is not to shock the audience, not to raise awareness on the issue, nor is it about a story of misery. Our aim is a family thriller that everyone enjoys, and in the end, makes people think.
His friend, A. N. Aditya, a Telugu film director, says they worked together as assistants in 1997-98 for Bavagaru Bagunnara. Aditya worked as assistant to the director and Touchriver as assistant to the art director. “Even then I knew that he had come to be a director, and he wanted to acquire the knowledge of 24 crafts in the film,” says Aditya. The conventional way is to work for some time for a director before graduating as one.
Touchriver wanted to know each aspect of filmmaking. “He wanted to work in every department for one or two years, and gain knowledge,” Aditya recalls. “That’s rare and unique. He wanted to be a master at everything, and he’s achieved that.” Later, when Aditya was directing Manasantha Nuvve, he offered Touchriver the art director’s job.
“It was clear to me then itself that he would be a great filmmaker,” Aditya says. “For my film, one day I showed him a small hillock in Araku, and asked him to build a temple for Anjaneya in three days in a place where there are no trees or vegetation, only rocks. He came up with such a great temple with lots of greenery and trees, great atmosphere. The value of the temple scene in the movie is something great.”
All that knowledge and skill came in handy while making Na Bangaru Talli. Post-production, the film was in trouble. The background score had to be scrapped because the earlier one wasn’t up to scratch. Distributors were not willing to take it to theatres; biggies in the industry appreciated the film, especially after it got awards, but—as is their wont—backed out. Some asked why they hadn’t added an item number, an explicit rape scene, and things like that when the potential for such scenes is great.
The film is more implicit than explicit. A suggestive atmosphere, with cries and haunting background score, informs the scenes. “The scenes are not explicit because they distract from the pain, from the poignancy.” It keeps you at the edge, even as the soul-squeezing continues.
“We didn’t set out to preach. Our aim is not to shock the audience, not to raise awareness on the issue, nor is it about a story of misery. Our aim is to make a family thriller that everyone enjoys like any good movie, and in the end, makes people think,” says Sunitha. “It’s about making people look into themselves, asking ‘am I the part of the problem’.”
Touchriver is not bothered about playing the industry’s public relations crap. It is incongruous with the decidedly non-masala nature of his scripts.
Whoever has seen the film has been affected: at the Beijing film festival, a Chinese man came up to Touchriver and told him, “I thought my daughter is safe, but I feel she is not.” A female Chinese translator said, “I thought I am safe. It can happen to me. I have to be really careful.”
The film creeps into you, Sunitha says. She recounts a young fellow who said he buys girls every week saying: “I never realised my actions would cause so much pain to so many.”
Na Bangaru Talli has won 10 awards, including three national awards this year—best feature film in Telugu, best music for Shantanu Moitra, and special jury mention award for Anjali Patil. In 2013, it won awards at film festivals in Indonesia, the United States, and China.
Even with all the acclaim, Touchriver is grounded. “The Telugu film industry is my mother; this is where I entered the industry,” he says. “That is why I entered the national award categories as a Telugu film.”
When the national awards were presented recently in New Delhi, there was not much of it in the Telugu papers. Telugu channels barely mentioned it. The Telugu cinema industry is almost conspicuous in its indifference. What should have been a celebration, what could have been an inflection point for the industry, notorious for stale storylines and sappy fixes, has been allowed to remain orphaned due to mega cussedness.
Touchriver is not bothered about playing the film industry’s public relations crap. It is incongruous with the decidedly non-masala nature of his scripts. “If stars’ films take that much of publicity to play in theatres, imagine how much is required for these films with only the story as the real star.”
Throughout the day, Touchriver keeps squawking into his mobile, talking and shifting in the chair, making short trips to the editing room, where his pony-tailed sidekick Binesh Nair, assistant director and editor, is editing a film. The brass pot overflows with stubs, fags puffed away to their ends.
he next morning, Touchriver has gone to attend a felicitation in his honour from the Telugu directors’ association. Lennon, who joined him as assistant director last October, switches on In the Name of Buddha on the computer in the editing room. Soft-spoken and wearing a jubba and lungi, he has threads wound around his wrists. His hair is neatly cropped and combed.
Lennon worked as a graphic designer, costume designer, and publicity designer for Malayalam and Tamil movies. A well-wisher introduced him to Touchriver. Lennon and Binesh Nair form Touchriver’s staff, if that’s what you want to call them. They hash over scripts, run errands, edit and do whatever else it takes.
In the Name of Buddha is banned. I don't know why. It’s a story of civilians caught in the conflict, torn between love for their land and the imperative to flee and survive. We had so much raw footage.
Made in 2001 and banned in India, China and Sri Lanka, In the Name of Buddha won many international awards. Touchriver made the film after completing a masters degree in London. As the movie starts playing on the computer screen, music—carrying overtones of suspense and menace—fills the room. In the eerie glow of midnight, the protagonist gingerly makes his way to a boat that’s taking him to Kanyakumari. The budding doctor, a civilian, caught in the military conflict and politics, is seeking asylum in the UK, hence this journey in dead of night. People carrying their possessions, weary and exhausted, lonely and forlorn with loss and despair, trek through the Tamil land in Sri Lanka.
An old woman wails.
“Oh God, if my voice has strength, let it reach you;
Don’t you see blood in our tears;
I lost my son, I lost my husband, now my land
Has the peace of Buddha faded?”
The protagonist reaches London, and is caught by immigration. A woman official interviews him. Then a few flashbacks, punctuated by the protagonist telling the official his story, pan out. He lays out the atrocities of Sri Lankan soldiers.
Scene after scene of atrocity plays on the screen: soldiers taking a tender coconut from a labourer skinning them on a crowbar, drinking from it, and then impaling the man on it; soldiers serially raping a woman, pushing an unplugged grenade between her legs and blowing her and her house up while they run away. One scene has soldiers seeking blessings from the priests before going to the field and worshipping at a giant rock statue of the Buddha, while water mingled with blood cascades down the idol, from a body stuck above the idol’s head.
Frisking, detentions, bodies bobbing in lakes and hanging from trees: no family is untouched by atrocities and death.
A song plays:
“The lost dreams are many
Withered flowers are many
Molested women live as shadows
Sorrow in a teardrop as big as sea
The shores yet far, far away.”
To solve the problem and restore peace, the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) lands in Sri Lanka. Tamils welcome them with garlands and festivities. In a short time, that turns into nightmarish death, an open sesame for backstreet butchery.
The protagonist recounts, “The IPKF is more brutal.”
The soldiers pillage and rape, and devastate the land. The protagonist’s sweetheart is raped, again and again, by IPKF soldiers. The protagonist appeals for peace and non-violence as practised by Gandhi, but killings and counter-killings continue.
The violence overwhelms your consciousness.
“It’s painful, na?”
“Reality is,” replies Lennon and obliges a request to pause the film for some time. When the film comes back on, the death-dance continues. In the end, the immigration official looks at her own Nazi victim number on her hand and grants asylum. In due course, he brings his mother, sweetheart and others to London.
When the film is over, Touchriver returns from the felicitation, carrying a memento. He also teaches filmmaking to Dalit students in a government programme.
As coincidence would have it, Shiju, the lead in Buddha, arrives from Kerala to catch up with his friend Touchriver. Also, he has a role in an upcoming Telugu movie after many years.
They talk shop for some time and Shiju eases into a chair. “In the Name of Buddha is banned. I don’t know why. You see a lot of gore on TV. It’s already more than 10 years. It hasn’t seen the light of the day.”
Recounting the making of that movie, “What we showed is only 30 to 40 per cent of what went on in Sri Lanka. It’s a story of civilians caught in the conflict, torn between love for their land and the imperative to flee and survive. We had so much raw footage.
“India sent a Sikh regiment who didn’t know Tamil language and culture. They couldn’t connect with the suffering. Had a Tamil regiment been sent, they would have understood, they could have solved the problem.”
Touchriver says, “The film is about peace.” Many who saw it understood the problem in a comprehensive way. He remembers Sri Lankan Tamils in Norway—the country has the largest Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora—touching his feet for showing the problem in comprehensively.
Shiju thinks these movies have a different logic of recovering costs. “You know if a normal film is a hit or flop in 150 days—shooting, editing, marketing, distributing and playing in theatres and selling to satellite channels. But for movies where the story is everything, the potential exists outside the market: foreign viewers and diasporas. Just as we watch Korean, Iranian, Siberian films, they watch our films to know our culture, our stories. And the awards season is through the year. If the film wins awards, it gets noticed outside, and people watch. All of that takes one year, and it’s tough on producers to wait that long.”
From Buddha to Na Bangaru Talli—and many short films and documentaries in between—Touchriver has explored the gamut of emotions. In addition, he has taken novices under his wing for all his projects, nurtured them, fine-tuned their work, gave them credit, and they have all made it good now.
Touchriver’s films are visceral rather than cerebral, gut-wrenching and gut-mangling. He has about 20 new scripts in the drawer—mythological, historical, minority and on and on—and is working on them. Shiju says they’re planning a `200 crore historical film soon too.
Day fades into evening. Sunlight slants in the room through the windows but the heat doesn’t let up.
Touchriver treads lightly, despite the accolades and acclaim. Aditya refers to his personal quirks. All of a sudden, Touchriver vanishes for “some months”. Resurfacing, “he comes up with some awards”. For Na Bangaru Talli, too, he vanished. “One fine morning he called me and said the movie won national awards.”
Another thing is “he carries a lot of cargo on him”. In addition to his frame and beard, he wears a waistcoat and bracelets and coloured threads around his wrists. He wears a hat, each time a different one. It’s fitting that the man of many talents, including martial arts, has a collection of about 400 hats. “I buy them wherever I go.”
Then there is the necklace and pendant around his neck. It’s crescent-shaped and made of silver, weathered by the elements and sweat, and caked with dust. “It’s from a Devi temple. A swami put it around my neck,” he says. For him it’s a talisman, beacon, artefact, spiritual charm, lucky mascot, an extension of his body, a solace, and something that he relates to at multiple levels. Much like Rajesh Touchriver is to filmmaking.