Indian-American filmmaker Ben Rekhi on telling stories his way
... And what working with George Clooney and the Coens has taught him
- Published 2.12.19, 3:18 AM
- Updated 2.12.19, 3:18 AM
- 6 mins read
Indian-American filmmaker Ben Rekhi has made some diverse films over the last few years, with themes ranging from spirituality to crime. His latest film Watchlist — set and filmed in the Philippines against the backdrop of the underworld and examining the human cost of the war on drugs — premiered at the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) where it was in competition for the prestigious Golden Peacock in the foreign language film category. t2 caught up with Ben for a chat on his career as a filmmaker and working with George Clooney and the Coen Brothers.
Are there any nerves, considering Watchlist is in competition at IFFI 2019 or are you looking forward to the experience of it?
I am very honoured. It’s one thing to be screening at the festival but to be considered worthy of being part of the competition line-up is truly humbling. I try and not be concerned about the result of any process like this, because as a filmmaker, you can’t control how far a film goes, how many people see it or what awards it wins. The question really is… are you enjoying the process of making that film?
Your films, over the last few years, have been very diverse. Watchlist is set in the Manila underworld, The Ashram before that was a fantasy thriller centred around spirituality. Has that been by design or are you simply telling the stories that come to you at that particular point in time?
I think we are always changing as people and our sensibilities as creative people also, therefore, constantly evolve. For me, it’s not about the genre or the style… it simply comes down to the story itself, a story that I am compelled to tell and also spend the next few months of my life with. It’s exciting to defy genres and not be put into a box. Some of my favourite filmmakers are the ones who ensure that every film of theirs is different. Look at Danny Boyle or James Mangold or Cary Fukunaga…. I hope I never get pigeonholed into making just one particular type of film.
What was the genesis of Watchlist?
The first inspiration was a photograph of a woman holding her husband who had just been slain by the police. It got burned into my psyche… I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I tracked down the reporter who had written the article and she proceeded to tell me the most heartbreaking story ever. At the end of the call, she invited me to the Philippines to see for myself what was happening.
On a whim, I flew there for three weeks, met a few journalists and ended up going to different crime scenes and meeting families of victims. I saw more dead bodies in those three weeks than I had ever seen in my life before and I was really struck by the human cost that this war on drugs was taking.
On one hand, one can make the argument that being tough on crime makes our streets safer, but on the other hand, it destroys families and we have to face the fact that an entire generation is growing up without fathers.
I was struck by the idea of telling my film through the eyes of a mother who goes to great lengths to protect her children… I felt it was the most human way to tell the story. It’s quite bizarre why as an American I would tell a story set in the Philippines and direct a film in the Tagalog language (an official language of the Philippines, together with English), but I have learnt not to question where inspiration comes from and just to honour it whenever it comes to me. I feel the story chose me and the universe conspired to make it happen.
It must have been a challenging film to make, on various levels…
It was challenging. Shooting in a different language meant having translators on set all the time. Secondly, I was shooting a story that was very controversial. After all, I was an outsider coming in and telling an indigenous story. It was a tremendous responsibility… I made sure I minutely researched every detail. Also, typhoons happened during shoot… our locations got flooded. A scene that was being filmed in a neighbourhood involved firearms and cops thought a real shootout was happening and came and shut us down. A train hit our set… so we were shooting in pretty extreme circumstances, including in slums, which were actual crime scenes. So safety was a big concern.
To rewind a little, what was it like shooting The Ashram in India and working with the likes of Melissa Leo, Kal Penn and Radhika Apte?
It was an incredibly difficult experience. We were very ambitious… shooting at 10,000ft in the remotest regions of Manali… not really the picturesque locations one would normally see in films. We had to trek to locations for three hours carrying very heavy gear. We had to river-raft to locations… we were shooting on the edge of cliffs, underground with bats…. Looking back, I think I enjoyed those challenges, but at that time, it was harrowing, to say the least. Maybe masochistic, in a way! (Laughs)
Any plans of shooting another film in India anytime soon?
I would love to come back to India and shoot. While I am here, I am meeting a few production houses and studios and talking about a couple of projects… one of which is an action thriller. Nothing has been fixed yet, but a lot of conversations are happening. There’s a lot of talent here. I had such a great experience working with Radhika Apte… I would love to work with her again. A couple of years ago, I was at The Delhi International Film Festival with my film Waterborne and I realised that this is the biggest film market in the world and I really want to tell stories from here.
Can you talk about your Indian roots and what made you want to take up a career as a filmmaker?
I grew up in the US in San Francisco. My dad is Punjabi and my mom is American and growing up, I had the best of both worlds. My experiences as a child involved spending time in my uncle’s house where a lot of Indian food would be cooked, watching Hindi films and listening to Hindi music. There was a sense of familiarity when I finally came to India as a teenager and realised how much India is embedded into who I am.
During my young days, I got together with a few friends and did basic stuff like making home videos, and with each video we learnt some trick photography or some editing technique. After school, we ended up making 60-70 of these amateur short films for fun. And since we were in Silicon Valley, we had access to editing equipment. As a result, as teenagers, we started doing special effects stuff like light sabres and blasters…. I ended up going to film school and then worked for George Clooney and the Coen Brothers. I was able to finally get a foot into Hollywood working with different production companies.
What was it like being picked by George Clooney to film the behind-the-scenes of his directorial debut Confessions of a Dangerous Mind?
That was one of my early experiences. Clooney is incredible. He’s a gentleman… one of those last classic actors, something that Hollywood has somehow lost… leading men with charm, looks and wit. He’s also a practical joker and loves pulling pranks on people. I remember one crew member had a fear of goats and the next morning, Clooney sent a herd of goats storming in through his door! (Laughs) And if somehow you end up in a snowball fight with him, you don’t want to mess with Clooney (laughs). He’s like a kid from Kentucky… he will fight dirty if he has a snowball in his hand. But then he’s also a person who will hold the door for everyone and just be a genuinely nice guy all around. Working with him taught me that you can be a really good person and also succeed in this business.
What tips about filmmaking did you pick up while working with the Coen Brothers?
The Coen Brothers are geniuses. They have built an entire cinematic world which is uniquely their own. There are very few filmmakers whose work you watch — it could just be a 20-second clip — and know whose work it is because of their unique signature. The way they put together a scene is incredibly organised… they have everything planned in their heads to the point where they know what it’s going to look like when it’s edited. That kind of preparation that they come with really inspired me, and yet they would leave room for improvisation and for magic to happen.
Do you watch Indian films?
I do, I do. The ones that I enjoyed the most growing up were the Bollywood films of the ’60s and ’70s… the ones with strong themes of good vs evil and family honour, just the simplicity and strength of those stories. Now, there are a lot of exciting films that are pushing the envelope. I just watched Gully Boy and I was blown away by its technique and storytelling. Anurag Kashyap was a huge mentor of mine when I first lived in India. He took me under his wing just as he has done with so many other filmmakers and he was our guide, our rebel, the one breaking the rules so to speak, and he still is (smiles). Dibakar Banerjee is another filmmaker I admire. Zoya Akhtar is phenomenal. There are a handful of people who can work on the international stage and Zoya is one of them. I am excited to see what she does when she takes that leap.