Filmmaker Vikash Verma on what went behind the making of No Means No, the first Indo-Polish film
Vikash Verma, the director and co-writer of the first ever Indo-Polish film No Means No, recently had to take the tough decision of delaying his film’s release by about six months amid rising Covid-19 cases. Produced by G7 Films Poland, No Means No features an mixed bag ensemble that includes the likes of Gulshan Grover, Sylwia Czech, Sharad Kapoor, Nazia Hassan, Deep Raj Rana, and Anna Guzik with the debutant actor Dhruv Verma essaying the film’s lead opposite Natalia Bak.
In this interview, Vikash Verma talks about No Means No and the challenges of shooting the film in extreme conditions across two consecutive winters in Poland, the rationale behind his sudden decision to push the film’s release to November 2021, and his forthcoming dream project The Good Maharaja which is based on the true events of World War II involving Digvijaysinhji Ranjitsinhji Jadeja, the Maharaja Jam Sahib of Nawanagar, with Bollywood actor Sanjay Dutt essaying the titular character.
Tell us about your film No Means No.
No Means No is actually the first ever Indo-Polish film. It is essentially a teenage love story that follows a young man from India who visits Poland to participate in a ski championship and ends up falling in love with a Polish woman. One of the major themes of the film is women empowerment and the story features some powerful female characters.
The film is shot majorly in the vastly unexplored locales of Poland such as the breathtakingly beautiful vistas of Żywiecczyzna, Bielsko-Biała, Szczyrk and Zwardoń. Hopefully, the film will introduce Poland to the Indian audiences and in turn boost tourism in the country, thereby further reinforcing the cultural ties between India and Poland. For this reason, we have shot the film simultaneously in three languages, i.e. English, Hindi and Polish.
How did you conceive the idea of making the first ever Indo-Polish film?
Well, it all started a few years back when I was in Poland and my family friend Ajay Bisaria, the former Indian Ambassador to Poland and currently the High Commissioner of India to Canada, introduced me to the true story of Digvijaysinhji Ranjitsinhji Jadeja, the Maharaja Jam Sahib of Nawanagar, Gujarat. In the pre-Independence India, the Maharaja provided shelter and education to around one thousand Polish children evacuated from the USSR while escaping the German bombings during the Second World War. In fact, one of the kids rescued by him went on to become the Prime Minister of Poland.
Fascinated by the story, I started my research on the project and was really surprised to discover that the Polish government has already installed a statue of the Maharaja in their Parliament. Also, a road has been named after him and yet hardly anyone in India knows about this. Then when I happened to narrate the story about the Maharaja to Sanjay Dutt, he agreed to play the part of the Maharaja in the proposed film titled The Good Maharaja. So we started developing the script but then a realisation occurred that it’s going to be a mammoth task that would first require us to acclimatise ourselves with the climactic and geographical challenges of shooting in a place like Poland.
Subsequently, an idea occurred to me that if we can successfully undertake a smaller film project in Poland as a dress rehearsal of sorts for the film on the Maharaja then we would certainly have a better grip over things. But, to tell you the truth, the supposed small movie actually turned out to be a very big movie — both in terms of budget as well as scope. I wouldn’t have managed to make it without the support that I got from both the countries and so it’s truly an Indo-Polish collaboration. And now with all the confidence that I have gained from making No Means No, I believe I am all ready for The Good Maharaja, which is currently in the pre-production phase with both Sanjay Dutt as well as Hollywood megastar Steven Segal onboard.
You have a very interesting mix of talent attached to your project ranging from Gulshan Grover to Hariharan to Shiamak Davar to Shreya Ghosal to Sharad Kapoor to Anna Guzik. What was it like to work with such a unique mix?
The legendary Hariharan and his son Akshay Hariharan have done a wonderful job in the music department. We had musicians from Belarus, Poland, Germany, USA, among others and so it’s really a global project. Also, Shiamak Davar’s presence alone lifted everybody. And to have an actor of the pedigree of Gulshan Grover alongside stalwarts like Deep Raj Rana and Sharad Kapoor as well as several international actors, one just can’t ask for a better ensemble. But the biggest challenge was to match the scale that the script demanded. The exotic locales of Poland themselves serve as a character in the story and so we had to capture everything in its essence. And that’s when the weather started playing its tricks but we stuck to the guns and finally got the desired results.
For the most part, you had to shoot in extreme conditions. Could you elaborate on how you and your team coped with the harsh uncertainties of the location’s weather?
The weather was adverse to begin with, and then it kept on getting more and more challenging but the story demanded certain shots which we had to capture. Now what made it even more challenging is the fact that we were relying on the local weather experts. All our preparations were done keeping their advice in mind but when the weather started showing its unpredictability, it just got tougher and tougher.
As per the knowledge and expertise that we had on board we were all prepared. It was meant to be a 30-day shoot. So we landed with the cast and crew in Poland in the winter of 2018. Though as per the schedule we started with the shoot in November but we didn’t get any snow the whole month. Also, there was no snow in December as well. It was totally unprecedented that around Christmas time in Poland there was hardly any snow around. We were already well past our schedule and then Gulshan Ji had to go back to LA for a shoot. There were some suggestions that we could use CGI and get the things done using some artificial snow. But I thought that it would defeat the very purpose of capturing Poland in its pristine beauty.
Meanwhile, we were getting some leads that it might snow in the second week of January. So we stayed back and suddenly conditions completely turned to our favor and we started getting everything that we wanted. Also, Gulshan Ji who was shooting in Hollywood took a private jet and landed in Poland just in time. But just when we were hoping to finally complete the shoot we entered a totally different zone with the temperatures suddenly dipping below -30 degrees. We once again improvised and started using certain chemicals which kept our shoes and clothes warm. But then the camera and the battery started playing tricks with mercury dipping further and further. Eventually, it became impossible to continue and we had to return home. We went there back in the December of 2019 and finally managed to complete the shoot. The experience above all taught me to respect mother nature, more than ever.
You also had to wait for a long time to release your film owing to Covid-19. The film was scheduled to release in March 2021 but you had to push the release. How frustrating this has been for you?
Well, my stand on this is pretty clear. I will release my film only after my audience is safely vaccinated. One can still muster the courage to deal with material losses but the loss of human life is unacceptable. The safety of human life is paramount and right now even with all the protocols in place there is still a risk of infection. It’s certainly important to bring back the audiences to the theatres but it is perhaps even more important to ensure that when they come to enjoy cinema they are fully protected and are at a minimal risk against the deadly disease.
(Cover image: Filmmaker Vikash Verma)