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Bulgarian Director Konstantin Bojanov On His Cannes-Bound Hindi Film The Shameless

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Bulgarian filmmaker and visual artist Konstantin Bojanov is headed to the Croisette with a gritty female-led Hindi film that plays out in a fictional city in north India. Titled The Shameless, his third fiction feature is one of 18 titles in Un Certain Regard at the upcoming 77th Cannes Film Festival. The Shameless was more than a decade in the making. The arduous journey took a lot out of him. But the film has turned out to be well worth the time and effort. “I started the project 14 years ago,” says the writer-director. “There were points when I felt that the film would not move forward. Then there would be one small step and a door would open. It was a very slow process.”

Due to limitations of budget and multiple postponements caused by the pandemic, “the period of prepping and the shooting days were vastly inadequate,” he says. “But we (the director and the cinematographer) did our best to discuss not only the cinematic language but also the break-down of scenes,” recalls Bojanov.

Once the shoot got underway, the film began demanding its own visual interpretation. “The fact that we had to work in extremely small spaces determined the style to a degree. I wanted to stay very close to the two main characters and experience the story through them,” he says.

The Shameless features Mita Vashisht, Tanmay Dhanania, Anasuya Sengupta, Omara Shetty and Rohit Kokate in key roles. It centres on a woman who kills a policeman in a G.B. Road brothel and flees.

She changes her name from Nadira to Renuka and seeks refuge in an insular northern Indian community of sex workers, where she forges a forbidden relationship with teenage prostitute Devika. The younger girl stands up against an entrenched system and an oppressive mother and joins the fugitive on a hazardous dash towards freedom in the face of a spiral of violence.

Bojanov graduated from the National School of Fine Arts in Sofia and then continued his studies at the Royal College of Art in London before going to New York University to study documentary filmmaking. He first came to India 20 years ago “as a traveller, as most people do.”

His filmmaking career began with Lemon is Lemon (2001), a documentary about a group of heroin addicts who lay bare their emotions on camera. He followed that up with another documentary, Invisible (2005), about six young addicts in Sofia.

Bojanov’s narrative feature debut, Ave (2011) was a coming-of-age story of a boy and a girl who meet on the road and the latter invents new identities for the two with each ride that they hitch. The film premiered in Cannes Critics Week.

His second film, Light Thereafter (2018), about an emotionally fragile and artistically inclined Bulgarian-British teenager (played by Barry Keoghan) who travels across Europe to meet a French painter he idolizes, competed for the Hivos Tiger Award at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam.

Bojanov had no plans initially of producing any work in India. But in 2005, he shot a three-screen video piece in Varanasi. It was shown in museums and galleries. “I still continue to make art although I also have to find time for my filmmaking. I move between one and the other,” he says.

The genesis of The Shameless was serendipitous. Bojanov stumbled upon William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India in a Brooklyn bookstore that he frequented near his house in New York.

“The book gave me the idea of making a documentary cross-referencing four of the stories through characters with similar backgrounds and predicaments and examining larger themes of love, sexuality, art and freedom of expression within a society in which the caste system is still very powerful.”

Bojanov spent months researching the stories, travelled 10,000 kilometers across India and tried to find characters for his documentary. “I met a number of devdasis is northern Karnataka. One of them, Reshma, fascinated me.”

Bojanov posed a question to the devdasis: given the work they do, are they capable of romantic relationships? “Only one of the dozen or so women I met said yes,” reveals the filmmaker. He observed in Reshma’s relationship with her best friend, Renuka, great tenderness and depth. It triggered in his mind the idea of writing a love story of two women against a similar background.’

While the script went through numerous revisions, “it took forever to finance the film”. The elements involved – a European director, the sensitive nature of the story – made things difficult. Bojanov found funding only “in bits and pieces, from here and there”.

“We still couldn’t shoot the film in India,” he says. “We approached a dozen line producers. Nobody wanted to touch a film with the budget that we had.”

Filmmaker Anurag Kashyap was extremely helpful, says Bojanov. “When I was working on the documentary, I stayed in his house twice. He connected me to some of the people who worked on The Shameless,” says Bojanov.

The Shameless was shot in Kathmandu and another city in the south of Nepal bordering India. “It is set in a fictional North Indian city. I wanted the film to be abstracted from reality. It isn’t a social drama. It is a love story nestled in a crime story,” explains Bojanov.

Interpreting, and not merely translating, the somewhat abstract dialogue that Bojanov wrote into an appropriate type of Hindi was a challenge. “I do not speak Hindi. Basharat Peer, editor at The New York Times, helped quite a bit and connected me to people.” After many tried (and failed), the film’s production and costume designer Parul Sondh wrote the Hindi dialogue.

“Having worked with me for almost two years, she knew what I wanted,” says Bojanov. “On the set, I also had a trilingual (Nepali, Hindi and English-speaking) assistant and an Indian script supervisor who would alert me to anything that shifted in a way that did not adhere to the written script.”

“In terms of melody, Hindi is very similar to Bulgarian. It has the same kind of staccato rhythm. I picked up some Hindi in the month that I spent editing and mixing the sound. I now know what many of these words mean but that does not imply I can speak the language,” he says.

He sees the Cannes nod as “a first step of validation of my work” although he asserts that his feeling was that “once the film was out it would find its own audience”. “It is tremendously important to open the film at a prestigious A-list festival,” says Bojanov.

“I haven’t lived in Bulgaria since I was 20. I set up home in six different countries,” he says. His themes, he adds, come from “my constantly looking for answers someplace, then someplace else… there is obviously something in me that makes me want to write stories like this.”

Bojanov continues: “My films are not so much about being on the road as about escape, about the desire to change one’s circumstances, about the urge to escape from one’s own self as well. I am drawn to stories of those that are not comfortable in their skins.”

He is mindful of the risks that a Western director telling an Indian story could face. “The Shameless is a love story between two women. There is a political background and some elements that link to religion. That is why I was looking for the universal human elements,” he says.

“The Shameless reveals our shared humanity. Culturally we are different but as human beings we are the same. We experience the same feelings of pain, love and desire… Stories should connect us, not divide us.’

​The Shameless was more than a decade in the making 

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