Kung Fu And Hustle

Filmmaker Kenny Basumatary talks about the fight to finish Local Kung Fu 2, the state of Assamese cinema and how being an actor-director is always an advantage

Films from Assam don’t really generate a conversation in national media other than the blink and miss appearances of Jahnu Barua’s continuous innings at the National Awards. But a little film, made on a paltry sum of Rs 1 lakh brought a welcome change in 2013. Kenny Basumatary’s Local Kung Fu pocketed extensive coverage not only because it managed to be a sound example of the indie wave, but also because it was a film that was exceedingly different from any other Assamese film. A slapdash mix of action, comedy, and romance, Local Kung Fu was a surprise hit in Assam, making Basumatary’s dream of being a legitimate filmmaker a tangible truth.

For his first film, he took favours from his friends and relatives. But the success of his first film enabled him to make the canvas of the sequel larger with the help of crowdfunding. Local Kung Fu 2 showed remarkable improvement in Basumatary’s craft. A polished look, nonchalant humour, and action sequences that don’t cheat in quick-editing, LKF 2 is droller and better.

We caught up with emerging light of Assamese cinema for a tête-à-tête.

Local Kung Fu came out of nowhere and became a cult classic. Did you expect that kind of response?

We knew that the film would become popular eventually, but we had no idea just how popular. Now it seems like pretty much everyone in Assam under the age of 40 or so has seen the film. The actors get recognized all the time. It’s a great feeling, one which we certainly didn’t expect.

Local Kung Fu’s budget famously contained itself within Rs. 1 lakh. But the sequel went many notches higher. In what ways do both films differ in terms of ideas, and execution? Please elaborate on the struggles and joys of the process.

Since the first film was such a success, I was wary of trying to recycle its elements and making a sequel that might or might not have matched up. A couple of years ago, I wrote a treatment of The Comedy of Errors for a Shakespeare adaptation competition. I didn’t make it to the finals, but friends and family laughed a lot when I narrated the story and scenes to them, so I thought that maybe I finally had something funny enough to match the first film.

I was a one-man crew on the first LKF, handling all the minor positions of director, cameraman, editor etc and the major positions of driver, electrician, occasional cook etc. Our shooting schedule revolved around my friends’ and cousins’ vacations, tuitions, drum classes et al. We shot 100 days (rarely entire days) from October to June, with me coming to Mumbai thrice in between to make a few bucks from small acting gigs. We thought we would shoot the fights in winter, and hence wore jackets and sweaters, but by the time we ended up actually doing the fights, it was May and bloody hot.

Editing the film was another challenge, since my technical knowledge was minimal, and my main teacher was Guru Youtube, apart from occasional advice from friends. There was one particular technical problem which no one seemed to know how to solve. It was several months before I finally found the solution on an online forum, and then it was a simple matter of two mouse clicks. For LKF 2, I had a proper crew. Small, but the right people in the right departments: a cinematographer and his two assistants, one associate director, one 1st AD, two production assistants-cum-lightmen, and the most important person of all – the chaiwala. A good cup of tea at the right time is invaluable in lifting people’s moods and renewing their energy. This time we also hired a few professional actors and paid everyone decently.

The heat was the biggest challenge while making LKF 2. We absolutely had to shoot in July, because our hero Utkal Hazowary is a sports teacher, and July was his vacation time. We had cloudy weather on almost all the days when we had non-action scenes, but whenever we’d have a fight scene, the sun would blaze in full glory. There were a few days we literally woke up at 3.30 am to reach our location and start shooting at 5, and had to stop at 7, because the sun would already have climbed so high that our skimmer couldn’t shade us anymore. Then we’d have to wait till 4 in the evening till the sun dipped enough to let us continue fighting.

The look of both the films offer the feel of cinema-verite and Dogme 95 products. Was the shooting style a conscious aesthetic choice or was it a decision propelled by scanty budget?

The first film I shot myself, and I had to learn everything from scratch, so whatever look has come across is pretty much non-voluntary. In fact, after around 3 weeks of shooting I already realized there were tons of mistakes I’d made in the first few days. There’s one scene I left out entirely because I found the framing terrible when I finally sat down to edit. I wanted to hire a professional cinematographer, but I realized that there was no way I would be able to give him/her a fixed schedule, nor compensate adequately for all those days, so I decided to learn whatever I could and shoot it myself.
LKF 2 I think looks much better and more professional, thanks to the combo of our DoP Suruj Deka and colourist Dhruva J Bordoloi (director of the wonderful Dooronir Nirola Poja, which released on 7th July in Assam).

One of the main protagonist of your film is gay, a rarity in Assamese films. How did that character come about? Has it managed to start a conversation around LGBT narratives in Assamese cinema?

I decided to make his character gay because of the comic possibilities, and realized I could also use the chance to make a few points without being preachy. I don’t know whether we’ve started a conversation or anything. My objective is to get people to be less prejudiced, less hateful. If it succeeds a little on those lines, I’m happy.

The political disorientation and unemployment of the Assamese youth is subtly coated with irreverent humour in characters of Local Kung Fu 2. Comment.

I didn’t have such heavy terminology in mind while creating the characters(laughs). They’re mostly archetypes created to fulfill certain functions in the story. Bekaarladke (Jobless boys) who spend their time and make a few bucks doing goondagardi (hooliganism) – you’ll find them in pretty much any culture in the world, I suppose.

How difficult/easy was to choreograph the fight sequences that form the major portion of the film? Please elaborate.

There’s only one fight, out of the six in the film, that we could say was easy to choreograph. The other fights all had specific objectives within the script, and the final fights had to have definite graphs. For example, in the first fight, we had to establish that my character’s primary fighting style is freestyle wrestling and Utkal’s is striking, so we had to design the fights accordingly, and also leave room to crack a few jokes and set up a few jokes that would pay off later – such as me always grabbing people’s legs to take them down.

I learn Brazilian Jiujitsu as well, but I decided to save it for a later film and stick to wrestling and basic striking. In the final fight, one of my opponents, Simanta, uses Jiujitsu against me, so we had to choreograph the fight in a way that would be true to our respective fighting styles. The fights were mostly choreographed by whoever was fighting. I would make additions and subtractions depending on what we wanted the internal story of the fight to be, and to get a few laughs.

Montu’s (Bhagin) fights were the most challenging. The rest of us are trained in Wing Chun Kung Fu, Taekwondo and Brazilian Jiujitsu, and so we know which techniques can be shot from which angles, but some of Montu’s gymnastics-style kicks required a considerable amount of research to figure out where they could be best captured from. We spend quite a few days figuring out the best camera angles for his moves, keeping two things in mind. One, it had to look great on camera, and two, it had to be safe for both Montu and the guy getting hit. Some of the techniques are of course not at all practical for a real fight, but there’s so much power in them that an accidental hit could easily give someone a concussion. We’re proud that in both our films, no one has suffered any serious injury.

Local Kung Fu 2 made national news when it was withdrawn from theaters in Assam due to the Bahubali phenomenon. How did it impact the prospect of the film?

No point mincing words – it completely destroyed us. Our total box office collections in the one week was approximately Rs. 22 lakh. We’d have probably reached 35-40 lakh and recovered our budget if Bahubali 2: The Conclusion hadn’t bullied its way in and taken all our shows. As of now, we’re still a few lakhs short of recovering our personal investments. If we hadn’t raised money from crowdfunders and sponsors, we’d have been in deep s***.

We knew that Bahubali would take most of the shows. We didn’t think it would take ALL the shows. And postponing our release date wasn’t a practical option either. After us, there was a whole line-up of Assamese films ready for release, and we try not to eat into each other’s business. Then you have to worry about clashing with Half Girlfriend, Tubelight, the rains etc. We’d have had to postpone all the way to August-September. During our crowdfunding campaign, we’d promised to release the film on 19th April if we raised the money. 500+ people contributed and we raised more than the target. If after that, we had postponed the film indefinitely, we’d be breaking our promise. So we decided to stick to our word and go ahead with the April 19th release. Better be thought of as foolhardy than as liars.

Is protectionism the only way to save Assamese cinema?

There are other measures that are also essential, but the way I see it, at least films that are performing well at the box office shouldn’t be bullied out by films with more money power. No one expects a theatre to forcibly show a film being watched by only 10-15 people per show, but a film with healthy numbers shouldn’t be shoved out by films that have more money to burn. When powerhouses like South Korea and France have protectionist policies in place, why not a tiny state like Assam?

What’s your take on the current state of Assamese cinema creatively?

A new wave is forming, I believe. The films that give me hope are Dooronir Nirola Poja, Kothanodi and Bokul.

What according to you are the challenges the Assamese film industry is currently facing, and what can be done to improve the present state?

The number one challenge is lack of cinema halls. We have just 70 or so theatres, out of which barely 15-20 actually provide decent financial returns. The present government has taken initiatives to financially support renovation and reopening of old halls, which is a welcome step. My conversations with people from the Malayalam film industries have led me to believe that we need many miniplexes (on the lines of Gold Cinema) in our state. And if they are constructed with government money, then maybe there should be a reasonable cap on ticket prices so that the common man can frequently take his family to watch films. In Tamil Nadu and Kerala, tickets are capped at maximum 120-100, because of which theatres are almost always 70-80% full. We filmmakers also need to make quality films. Malayalam films have really picked up in the last few years not just because of increasing numbers of theatres, but also because their quality has risen significantly.

What are your cinematic influences?

I’d have to answer that genre-wise. For action, it’s been the films of Jackie Chan, Scott Adkins, Donnie Yen, Tony Jaa. Romantic comedies – Richard Curtis and Jae-Hyung Kwak. And directors I really, really look up to are Bong Joon-Ho, David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, Steven Soderbergh, Danny Boyle, and Steven Spielberg.

Considering you operate out of Mumbai, which is the heart of Bollywood, why did you choose an Assamese film to begin your career?

Simple. It’s impossible to shoot a film cheaply in Mumbai. Srinivas Sunderrajan and Amit Masurkar pulled off minor miracles with The Untitled Kartik Krishnan Project and Sulemani Keeda, but there’s no way to make an action film in Mumbai without spending truckloads of money. Hiring a single school or bungalow costs at least 25,000 a day – and that’s already a quarter of the budget of LKF 1.

Is there a threequel of Local Kung Fu 2 being planned?

Not really. I want to make something else first.

You’re also an actor. Tell us your experience of acting in Hindi films(he acted in Mary Kom) vis-à-vis your directorial ventures(he featured in both LKF and LKF2)?

An actor is the usually the most unnecessarily pampered person on set. I always feel everyone else is working more than the actors. Most of my time as an actor in Hindi films, I’ve been lying in vanity vans, reading something or chatting with fellow actors. You spend 2-3 hours idling, then do a shot which can take as little as 15 minutes or maybe a couple of hours, then you again get back to the van for another hour or so of idling while everyone else is scrambling to set up the next scene.

Making the LKF films has been like an extended picnic. Almost all the cast and crew are family and friends, so we’re constantly having fun, eating good food, helping each other out and incidentally, making a film also.

I’ve also directed around 16-17 episodes of various TV shows in Mumbai. In those, there’s literally not a moment to rest for me. Even while having lunch, I’m planning shots for the next scene. Those three-day bursts of activity are quite tiring – I’m glad they don’t last more than three days – but the money is good, so the end result is quite nice.

How does being an actor help you directing other actors?

It helps in the sense I can demonstrate exactly what I want from an actor, if needed. I don’t have to say, “Be more sarcastic,” for example. I can directly say the line in the tune that I want and with emphasis on the right words.

But working with Tigmanshu Dhulia on Raag Desh and Yaara has been the best example of how much it helps when the director is himself a master actor (Dhulia acted in Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur).Tishu sir would have minute suggestions on the volume of a sentence, when to put a hand on the other guy’s shoulder, just the right amount of time to look away and then look back, doing a line in a non-cliched way and so on and so forth.

What are your upcoming projects?

As an actor, I have a few vital scenes as Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose in Raag Desh (releasing on July 28th). Yaara is hopefully releasing towards the end of the year. As for directing, that’ll now depend on which project I get money for first.

For the North-easterners aspiring to make films, what cue cards would you offer?

I wish I had sure-fire answers. We need many more screens everywhere before North-Eastern films become commercially viable.