In conversation with Kenny Basumatary about filmmaking, raising finances through crowdfunding, viewers’ expectations and more.
New Delhi: You may have missed noticing him in Mary Kom, Shanghai and Phata Poster Nikla Hero, films dominated by big stars. But going by the success of the first film he acted and directed in Assamese, it won’t be wrong to say that young Kenny Basumatary is a name that must not be missed in Assam.
His Local Kung Fu (LKF) was nominated for best feature film at the inaugural Filmfare Awards for the Eastern Region in 2013.
With LKF, Kenny, who quit midway through his engineering course at IIT-Delhi to participate in a scriptwriting workshop in Mumbai, made a mark among viewers in the state as the man behind “Assamese Kung Fu comedy,” a local version of the genre that Jackie Chan and Stephen Crow have made popular in Hollywood.
With martial arts and boxing clubs present in almost every nook and cranny of the state, LKF – made on a shoestring Rs 90,000 budget – found many takers in Assam. Sprinkled with comedy, the film was a hit among many.
Four years after his first film, Kenny is now preparing to release a sequel. At present, he is raising finances for LKF-2 through crowdfunding.
In an interview with The Wire, Mumbai-based Kenny is candid when he says, “Making the second film becomes a very scary proposition when the first has hit such sky-high popularity.”
So what was in your mind when you thought of making an ‘Assamese martial arts comedy film’?
In 2008-09, I took part in the Sankalan script lab-cum-competition held by the Mahindra group in Mumbai. It was a wonderful experience since I got to learn from people like Anjum Rajabali, Anurag Kashyap and Sriram Raghavan.
My script, “Ek Plate Kung Fu”, made it to the top six. The top three were supposed to be made into films, but that didn’t happen.
I decided I didn’t want to wait for someone to give me a ton of money to make a film, so when my mother offered to spare Rs 1 lakh, I started figuring out how to put things together.
I had a huge asset – a circle of friends and family adept at martial arts. So it was only natural for me to make a martial arts film because no one in India had ever done it properly before. Although I’m not a particularly witty person, I seem to be able to put together funny moments on screen. Some experience in acting with Bollywood Nonsensex on Channel V and the online comedy show Jay Hind further helped my understanding of comedy. I put the two together and voila – an Assamese martial arts comedy was in the works!
Did the huge success of LKF surprise you? Did it help you to find more acceptance in the Mumbai entertainment world?
We knew that LKF would become popular, but we had no idea just how popular it would be. The original intention was to have just an online release, but the love and help we received from friends and well-wishers propelled it to the theatres.
Director, producer and distributor Shiladitya Bora released it in the metros through PVR Director’s Rare, and my co-producer Durlov Baruah came on board and financed its theatre release and publicity. In the last four years, it seems almost every young person in Assam has seen Local Kung Fu. The actors are recognised wherever they go and the huge number of calls we got on a recent local TV talk show were another indicator of the tremendous love we’ve received.
LKF also helped me find my footing in Mumbai. I landed my TV directing gigs because I’d directed a theatrically released film. I also finally got to work with Anurag Kashyap, choreographing the fight in his short film That Day, After Everyday.
How different or similar will LKF-2 be from the first film? Are the actors same?
LKF 2 is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors. In our version, one set of twins knows martial arts and the other doesn’t. Gangsters are after the first pair, who end up fleeing to the town of the second pair, and that’s where the confusion and action start.
Barring a few exceptions, we’ve managed to retain almost all entire cast of the first film. In the sequel, we have two new heroines – Assamese singers Eepsita Hazarika and Sarmistha Chakravarty, and new villains, played by Bibhuti Bhushan Hazarika, Assam’s “Tony Jaa” Montu Deuri, and National School of Drama alumni Yashraj Jadhav, Mrigendra Konwar and Suneet Bora.
You also plan to make a Hindi version of LKF-2.
We are looking at doing the Hindi version as a web series if not a theatrical film, depending on who makes us an offer we can’t refuse.
Comedy is difficult to sustain. Now that you are about to roll out LKF-2, what were the challenges faced the second time as director and scriptwriter? How do you keep the line firm between comedy and crass, particularly in dialogue writing?
Making the second film becomes a very scary proposition when the first has hit such sky-high popularity. That is why I didn’t even try to duplicate the first and took a completely different track. Coincidentally, even LKF-2 started with a competition – in this case, a Shakespearean adaptation contest. Again, my script wasn’t shortlisted, but the laughter among friends and family when I narrated it to them convinced me that it had potential. While writing out the full script, I consciously avoided the elements that might seem like we were trying to ape successful tropes from the first film. We just focused on making this particular story as fun as possible.
Also, I have a natural revulsion towards crassness, so keeping the comedy non-crass wasn’t that hard.
You managed to make your first film with just Rs 90,000.
Yes. All the cast were friends and family, so they acted practically for free. Our heroine Sangeeta wasn’t a family member, but she later got married to my brother and became one. For the music and sound work, I again had my brother, whose latest work features in Jagga Jasoos and Dangal. We shot at relatives’ homes and public places. Our major expenses, apart from buying the camera, were food (momos and chowmein) and petrol.
You are making the second film after four years. Was it because of the paucity of funds that independent filmmakers often have to deal with?
I’m rather lazy to go out and hustle. I spent most of these four years directing TV episodes, acting in a couple of major films and making two shorts for LXL Media’s School Cinema program. I pitched my film scripts here and there, but I don’t really follow up much – if someone’s interested they’ll get in touch. If they’re not, why badger them?
However, my understanding is that only when one has a moderately famous actor on board can a film start getting financed.
You are using crowdfunding to finance your second film. Were you hopeful of raising the amount of Rs 8 lakh that you were initially intending to?
Crowdfunding through Wishberry worked out well, but it’s mainly because we already have such a huge fan base, and I have some generous friends. Before the last date of April 1, we succeeded in raising a little over Rs 8 lakh. Hundreds of people contributed amounts ranging from over Rs 50,000 to even Rs 4. We suspect the numbers would’ve been even higher if internet payments were more common in Assam.
Filmmaking is an expensive business, especially since my parents aren’t crorepatis. I might have made LKF for only Rs 90,000, but just to release LKF-2 in 40-50 theatres would cost us Rs 5-7 lakh. I am not even counting the costs of hoardings, posters and the like. My bank accounts are empty and I didn’t want the tension of putting someone else’s money at risk. So I opted for crowdfunding. Hopefully, the patronage of several hundred people will help complete the film and pay for the highly talented people who’ve worked so hard on it.
You are also an actor. Did you train yourself in acting?
I suppose I could say that I learnt acting from all the plays I did in school and college, and then learnt small but important things from directors and co-actors.
What led you to opt out of IIT-Delhi?
I left IIT-Delhi only so that they wouldn’t have a chance to kick me out! My original plan was to go to FTII, Pune, for which I needed to graduate first. Unfortunately, I scored 85% in my science subjects and instead opted for IIT. I should probably have gone to Kirorimal College in Delhi and done theatre. The level of academics at the IIT was much higher than I was willing to work at. I accumulated a record number of failed courses. It would’ve taken me another three years of torturous studying of subjects I had zero interest in to graduate. The only courses I actually liked were the humanities courses – American Literature and Creative Writing. But all’s well that ends well – the biggest contributors to the ongoing crowd funding campaign are all friends from IIT.
You wrote a novel too. Was it a film script that became a novel?
Yes, my novel Chocolate_Guitar_Momos was originally a zero-budget film script I’d written to make myself, if no one else would. However, in Mumbai, scripts are literally lying around in piles – even taxi and autowallahs that ferry you around the city have scripts – so I figured my script would gain more respectability if became a novel first. I wrote the first three chapters and sent them out. My writer friend and batch mate at Guwahati’s Cotton College, Siddhartha Sarma, helped point me towards a couple of publishers, and Westland finally accepted it.
So when is LKF-2 likely to hit the theatres?
The film is nearly ready. It should most likely hit the local theatres on April 19 (around the festive season of Bihu in Assam) assuming we get the censor board certificate by then. In the rest of India, the film will release three to four weeks later. The Hindi version will take more time.