In this series–a kind of double bill–we pick two films that share characteristics that may not be obvious at first glance. In the fourth instalment, we discuss Ken Loach’s Kes (1969) and Vikramaditya Motwane’s Udaan (2010)
More than an hour into Ken Loach’s Kes (1969), 15 year old Billy Casper (David Bradley) and others in his school, guilty of found smoking behind the games storeroom, are summoned to the principal’s room, where they are subjected to whips of cane on a typically cold Yorkshire morning. There’s a younger boy from a lower grade who’s there for a different reason (the older group coerces him into taking the blame on their behalf by slipping the cigarette packet in his pocket). The principal gives them a dressing-down—‘Look at that glazed expression on your faces. You never listen. Yours is the generation that lever listens’. At one point, the boys start giggling, despite the knowledge of the punishment coming their way.
Like Kes, a current of teen, anti-authoritarian spirit runs strong in Vikramaditya Motwane’s feature film debut Udaan (2010). A ‘twin scene’ appears right in the beginning, when Rohan (Rajat Barmecha) and his friends are called to the head teacher’s office at their boarding school in Shimla, guilty of sneaking out in the night to watch Kanti Shah Ke Angoor. ‘What’s the name?,’ is the first thing the head teacher asks them as they are lined up in front of him. ‘Name of the what, Sir?’ asks one of them with apparent innocence but other intentions. ‘Name of the film’, comes the angry reply. Their wisecracks continue, despite the knowledge that they face the prospect of being expelled from school (which they do). Naturally, they start giggling. Did I mention there’s a younger boy from a lower grade who’s there for a different reason?
Normally, films featured in this series—with the somewhat exception of Aamis/In the Realm of the Senses, where director, Bhaskar Hazarika, had acknowledged the influence of the Oshima film on his—have been ones where I had to make a case for it by finding the connections. This one came from the director himself. In his list of 42 films he wants everyone to watch, Motwane described Kes as having “massively influenced” Udaan. It should immediately make sense to anyone who has seen both the films but never thought of them as spiritual companions, both coming of age dramas about a young boy set in industrial towns, Kes in the grubby mining town Barnsley, Udaan in the ‘steel city’ of Jamshedpur. Both from broken families—a single parent and a brother—and an empathetic supportive figure (Ram Kapoor’s uncle in Udaan, Collin Welland’s teacher, Mr Farthing in Kes). Both, with ‘villains’ in the form of the protagonist’s older, male counterpart—Ronit Roy’s alcoholic father, Freddie Fletcher’s rough, self-loathing brother Jud—men who are products of a lifetime of work in the factories. Both with a scene where the central character’s inner talent comes out in the form of an impromptu performance—Billy’s account of how he learnt falconry has his classroom in thrall/ Rohan gets an audience with the hospital staff and other patients when he entertains his brother with a story. Both with similar beats but different endings—Kes in tragedy, Udaan in liberation.
It goes without saying that the films, as in all Twin Films, are as different as they are similar. Loach’s kitchen sink drama is about the boy and the bird—a Kestrel, that gives the film its title—he takes a liking for, decides to train it and that becomes his form of escape from a hardscrabble existence; Udaan is about the boy wanting to become a writer. But the bond between Motwane’s indie spirited film and Loach’s iconic British film goes beyond mere plot mechanics and characterisations, to the poetic realism of the visuals and finding tenderness and beauty among the roughness. Motwane agreed for an interview on the same, illuminating on the aspects of Udaan that he owes to Kes—and Loach in general—and 8 Mile, and Superman, and Bruce Springsteen, and Somerset Maugham.
In what ways was Kes a reference point for you in Udaan?
So Ken Loach in general has been a reference point. I saw Sweet Sixteen (2002) first—it was my first Ken Loach. I had gone to Cannes (with Devdas) at the time. I took the opportunity and I saw the world premiere. I already had the seed of Udaan in my head and when I saw this film I was like yaar, you can make these coming of age films. I was very excited. And of course, Ken Loach—his minimalism in shot-taking and the simplicity of everything being about the character, everything being about the actor, about the performance, and the story and everything else being all background—I was just very blown away by Sweet Sixteen. That lead character, the anger that he had and all that kind of stuff. I saw Kes probably after writing Udaan.
It’s the whole setting of Kes. I think what I was trying to look for is that Jamshedpur setting. This one almost poetic dude in this industrial town. There are moments in Kes where he is sitting in Barnsley. And this whole factory at the back and the imagery was so amazing. I remember taking a screenshot of that and showed it to (Mahendra) Shetty, my DOP, and I was like ‘Yaar, aisa kuchh karte hai’.
Literally, when we went into shooting it was Kes we had in mind also because Kes had that very muddy, sort of grimy… We were trying to figure out how we can end up replicating that, and again, Ken Loach’s simplicity of just the shot taking: something is happening, car needs to stop—as in the car literally stops in the frame, you don’t have to go into this buildup and come from somewhere and stuff like that. And I love that. I love that about him. Me and Shetty said, ‘Okay, let’s try and see’…Of course we found our own style, own voice around that.
There are two things about Kes. One was the milieu of the film and just trying to, sort of, see how we can get that industrial feel. And also the poetry of that boy’s face. Something about the boy’s face in Kes that is so amazing and so simple and poetic and you feel like here’s a guy who’s so lost, he doesn’t really belong in this world kinda scenario. I think some of that was also a bit of an influence in just casting Rajat. It’s what I recently spoke about in the Thursday Bitches podcast, about the whole idea of Udaan being able to have these extremes. And one of the criticisms, I remember, was people saying, ‘Yaar pata nahi why does he have to be a…poet? Why couldn’t he be an architect or whatever.’ But the whole point is to have a factory man working with iron and steel and a poet, right? The poetic extremes of that is what creates the conflict in the film. Which is why the baby faced, almost feminine faced hero who has to come to this moustachioed guy’s factory to work. There’s almost a greek tragedy-ish approach to it and Kes had that. Kes had this greek tragedy feel to it where you had this really innocent hero in this sort of cruel cruel world. I thought I’ll do the same thing in a sense.
There are parallels in terms of plot and character, with slight variations. How much would you say it owes to Kes and how much is it the function of story in terms of basic elements of structure, tropes.
I had written the script before I saw the film so I think it’s definitely story and tropes and it’s also the working class right? About these honest factory workers and that’s true whether it is India or UK. There’s part of that in Billy Elliot (2000). Part of that is in Kes. And I mean Ken Loach’s films are full of working class stories.
One of my biggest influences has been Bruce Springsteen’s music. Between two albums, Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of town, It’s about that sort of life in a small factory town. Born to Run is about getting away from that. Udaan is a mix of both those thoughts in a sense. Again, these are things that I’ve realised afterwards, like ‘Oh, that’s where a lot of your subconscious influences come from’.
One of my biggest influences has been Bruce Springsteen’s music. Between two albums, Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of town, It’s about that sort of life in a small factory town. Born to Run is about getting away from that. Udaan is a mix of both those thoughts in a sense.
Also I also grew up for sometime in Nashik and my dad had a factory. So I have seen that life from pretty up close. I’ve interned in this factory, I’ve seen that..and I think that is a trope that exists across. Whether it is John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, it’s like taking things out of that landscape, something very interesting about that. And that sort of world. And Jamshedpur is that. It’s actually very interesting, if you go there. It’s literally sort of…
I’ve been. And it has these greens as well, contrasting with the idea of a ‘steel city’…
Yeah, yeah. And that’s exactly what…the greens and the factory towns…when you go from Jamshedpur to Adityapur, you cross the river and go to the industrial part of town it’s like the smell of the town changes. Literally you smell the steel in the air and every lane leads to another factory, trucks coming and trucks going and rolling and stuff like that. It’s also very beautiful.
In what ways did Kes influence the stylistic choices in Udaan? Because the connections with Kes are not just in terms of plot and character but also about the more sensual aspects of the film.
I would say the look and feel—that one thing that you can’t really…you are always trying to touch in cinema, I think that’s the one thing that Kes had, that slightly muddy, grimy… and you trying to find a diamond-in-the-rock wala feel. I think that’s also what we tried to go for.
Visually Udaan was a mixture of 8 Mile and Kes. Those were our two point of reference, in terms of the way Rodrigo Prieto did all the handheld work in 8 Mile. That sort of approach. The way they shot the car sequences, some of the lensing that they used, that was like, ‘Okay, if we can get that world married to this beauty, grimy kinda thing’ —that’ll be ideal for us in terms of what we wanted to achieve for Udaan, you know, like we had that sense of beauty, and yet have this very nice, sleek sense of being able to stay handheld and slightly edgy…
And then there’s the title itself. It means ‘flight’ in English, which in its own way, kind of, refers to Kes, but also Superman, which I’m aware you’re a fan of.
Superman is the one. That’s a genuine metaphor for the entire film. So much so that in the end he is wearing red, white and blue while he is running away. It’s an obvious metaphor. (Laughs). Including his hoodie almost becoming a little cape when he is running.
Wow. Didn’t think about that.
Yeah, I know.
There’s also the ending being a nod to 400 Blows ending. But Rohan’s decision to take along his half–brother with him, is it also… Apur Sansar?
Consciously, no. In a weird way, the approach to the ending was it actually in terms story—okay here’s where it ends but here’s where it really ends. You know, like he could have easily run away and that would’ve easily been the end of the film.
But there’s a surprise.
So the reference point to me was W. Somerset Maugham The Razor Edge. I remember the last chapter. Somerset Maugham is the narrator and he is talking about the main character and he says ‘Okay, the story is over, so if you want to step away by all means step away. But here’s the most important chapter in the book’. And I just love the fact that he was writing that… I was approaching it that way while writing where you’re sort of saying, ‘Okay fine, picture over,’ but then you realise that you can’t really do it that way. So you start planting things here and there and they start to pay off afterwards.
I wish I had seen Nomadland before I had seen Udaan. She (Chloe Zhao) has done so many interesting things in the film. Have you seen it?
No. Not yet.