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Glowing with pride
Sabal Singh Shekhawat's debut film 'Fireflies' will premiere at the New York Indian Film Festival in May. He's hoping that the movie which examines the relationship between two brothers will strike a chord with viewers
Inspiration can come from a dark place. For filmmaker Sabal Singh Shekhawat, it was a cold winter night in New York, back in 2005, when he was mugged by a group of seven men who left him bruised and beaten, to crawl back to his hotel. "I couldn't move at all and needed to channelise all the angry thoughts out of my system, " Shekhawat, 46, recalls. The emotional purge became 40 pages of a turbulent story that explores internal rage, the complexity of relationships and human emotions which Shekhawat now brings to life in his feature film debut, titled Fireflies. "You come, you glow and you go, " he says, explaining the theme, which encourages people to make the most of their lives.
Ironically, the film's world premiere takes Shekhawat back to the city it was conceived - Fireflies is being screened as part of the New York Indian Film Festival on May 2. Actor Arjun Mathur, who co-stars with Rahul Khanna and Monica Dogra in the film, has also been nominated for a Best Actor award at the festival, which Shekhawat is excited about.
Fireflies tells the story of two brothers Shiv (Rahul Khanna) and Rana (Arjun Mathur) who don't get along. Shiv, the elder, is a successful banker basking in the superficial glitter of Mumbai's corporate world while Rana, whom Shekhawat describes as "a bit of a bum", is a lawschool dropout used to getting by on his wits. As their lives move forward and they are caught up in similar experiences, a tragedy that had pulled their world apart 15 years ago seems destined to repeat itself, in a new incarnation. The brothers, who have buried their antagonism all this while, are forced to find each other again. Shekhawat says this experience, that one incident that can dramatically alter the course of one's life, is something most viewers will be able to identify with. "The brothers always had their differences but this one incident is the final nail in the coffin, " says the filmmaker of the movie, shot primarily in English.
Covering themes of childhood, love, marriage and brotherhood (but surprisingly, not the mugging that started the film on its journey) Fireflies "could and could not be autobiographical", says Shekhawat. "A bit of my relationship with my brother is reflected here but it also has pieces of some of my friends' lives, their relationships with their wives, brothers and families. " Pausing to reflect on the work that goes into handling relationships, Shekhawat's characters ask "why we hold on to the past, memories that are best forgotten and not let them go, why we don't forgive when we should".
It was while writing the film that Shekhawat realised the number of people he knew who had lost battles to their own twisted perceptions. "They are broken, trapped in a haze of love, pain, fear and disappointment. " The filmmaker recalls how when he started getting people on board, everyone found a connection with the subject. "Maybe because the truth is that all of us, somewhere deep down, are quite lonely, " Shekhawat says, revealing that when Rahul Khanna went through the first draft, he got the space immediately, drawing parallels with The Lonely Man, a 1957 Western starring Jack Palance that deals with an estranged father-son's forced reunion.
Fireflies may have been his debut feature, but Shekhawat says his background in ad filmmaking was a good training ground. Ad films discipline you to work in certain timeframes and on schedule, he says. "You learn to be very precise in your deliverables. We shot the film over 29 days, travelling from Mumbai to Sri Lanka, which doubled up as Ooty and Bangkok in the film, " he says. Parts of the film reflect the director's own childhood milieu, spent in Delhi where he schooled and Darjeeling, where his father was a tea planter. "You'll find tea gardens in the film, " he says. "The title comes from the fireflies that abound in the area. " Filmmaking has been Shekhawat's passion right from the start - disillusioned with college, where he was reading English Literature, he dropped out and headed for Mumbai where he started out as a copy writer. An assistant's job with Shantanu Shorey is what set him on his present course, and he remembers being ecstatic about the legendary ad filmmaker giving him a break. "It was like getting an Oscar because he was the best in the business at the time, " says Shekhawat, who branched out on his own in 1994 with The Big Picture Company and has since worked on campaigns like Coke, Pepsi and John Players, among others.
For now, Shekhawat has his sights on the big screen picture. As Fireflies gears up for the NY premiere and its launch in India soon after, he is almost through with his next project. "It's a mad, convoluted satire about two brothers who get separated at birth, " he says. "Of course, much depends on how Fireflies fares but our journey with films has well and truly begun. "
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