How India-Set Nepal-Shot ‘The Shameless’ Transitioned From Documentary to Adult Animation to Cannes Un Certain Regard Fiction Feature

Bulgarian-American filmmaker Konstantin Bojanov’s Cannes Film Festival Un Certain Regard selection “The Shameless” has taken 14 years to come to fruition.

Bojanov previously directed the documentary “Invisible” (2005), followed by his Cannes-debuting fiction feature debut “Avé” (2011). Post “Avé” and prior to his 2017 Rotterdam selection “Light Thereafter,” which starred Barry Keoghan and Kim Bodnia, Bojanov acquired the rights to William Dalrymple’s 2009 book, “Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India.” The idea at the time was to make a documentary cross referencing four different stories from the book, including one of a sex worker in Karnataka, southern India.

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Bojanov scoured India to find real stories similar to the ones in the book and in 2014 he started filming in Karnataka, with a view to using the footage to attract finance for a feature-length documentary. During his research, the filmmaker also came across a young girl growing up in a family of sex workers and another woman from the profession who was “extremely hardened and driven and soft at the same time,” Bojanov said. “It gave me the idea of a love story between two women in similar circumstances.”

“I quickly abandoned the idea of a documentary. It was a daunting project – not that ‘The Shameless’ didn’t turn into a similar ordeal – to direct the documentary, or three documentaries, in three languages that I didn’t speak, relying on different interpreters and everyone having their own agenda as well,” Bojanov added. “It was nearly impossible unless I moved to India, lived there and learned some of the languages.”

In “The Shameless,” protagonist Renuka escapes from a Delhi brothel after killing a policeman, seeks refuge in a community of sex workers in a small town in northern India and develops a forbidden romance with Devika, a young girl condemned to a life of prostitution.

However, financing was hard to come by for an India-set independent fiction feature. “I was so disillusioned that I could ever make this film that I started thinking about making it as an adult animation film,” Bojanov said. While that idea was also eventually abandoned, it had an unexpected benefit. Bojanov was introduced to character visualizer Anasuya Sengupta who’d moved to Mumbai to become an actor, wasn’t impressed by Bollywood and became a noted production designer and artist instead. The filmmaker friended her on social media and found his Renuka. Theater actor and exponent of Indian classical dance Bharata Natyam, Omara, was cast as Devika from a self-tape she sent in after Bojanov had seen hundreds of auditions.

Meanwhile, Frederic Corvez and Maeva Savinien of France’s Urban Factory contacted ex-colleague Palmyre Badinier at Switzerland’s Akka Films and together with Bulgaria’s Klas Film and Taiwan’s House on Fire, raised €800,000 ($868,000), enough to commence principal photography. “It’s been a very long journey to find all the money to make the film and in the end, we didn’t find enough money,” says Corvez. The last piece of the financing eventually came during post from U.K.-India outfit The Production Headquarters.

However, the budget wasn’t enough to shoot in post-COVID India. “It became suddenly very complicated to shoot in India, the price increased a lot after COVID and we had a very limited budget, which scared some line producers,” says Savinien. There was also “scepticism about the script being able to get the necessary permits as a foreign production to shoot in India,” Bojanov adds. A line producer from Nepal stepped in and the film was shot in and around Kathmandu.

After its global festival run, The Production Headquarters is planning to release “The Shameless” theatrically in India, Nepal and Bangladesh. Part of the film depicts an Indian Hindu nationalist political party. Given that India is currently ruled by Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), currently seeking a third term consecutive in office at the ongoing general elections, its reception in the country could be interesting.

“Some places we’ll have to mute it, some places they’ll ask us to censor it. We don’t have a choice. But definitely it’ll be an adult A-rated film,” says The Production Headquarters’ Mohaan Nadaar. “Depending on who comes to power now in the election, that’s why it’s a little fluid at the moment. If the BJP still comes in power, then definitely we’ll have to do it. If not, then we’ll let the censor [India’s Central Board of Film Certification] decide.”

Sengupta adds that while she hopes for an Indian theatrical release, it seems “particularly ambitious,” but if it does, it would be well-received by a percentage of the audience. “More than ever now there needs to be a reclaiming of freedom of expression and freedom of speech,” Sengupta says. “Otherwise, art is gonna die. It’s getting more frightening every day.”

Political elements aside, Bojanov says he is curious to see the film’s reception in India as a foreign director making a film in an Indian language and subject, describing it as his “greatest challenge.” “I’m a male director dealing with a female subject, I’m already prepared, I’m going to get attacked, left, right and center. But it’s very important to me to know that perhaps I didn’t completely fail,” Bojanov said.

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