Searchlight: Puneet Rakheja

Puneet Rakheja was all set for a sensible career in engineering when he was distracted by a metaphorical white rabbit wielding a very real film camera. And Wonderland seems to be treating the young director well, now he’s signed to Believe Media. Puneet tells Laura Swinton why he’s grinning like a Cheshire Cat.

When did you first pick up a camera?

19th July, 2000 at 4:30 pm.
You didn’t expect an answer that specific, did you?
I have the date put up on a wall in my room. That was when I physically picked it up. After months and years of longing to own a camera, using cardboard cut-outs to compose images, this moment was rather special to me. I even named that bugger. No wonder I chose a career where I spend more time dreaming up images than shooting them.

Can you tell me a little about your childhood and what led you to become a director?
Looking back, my childhood was rather boring. I was a geeky fellow, who almost became an engineer. Somehow a strain of artistic flair was allowed to blossom and I eventually decided to quit the rat race and plunge into the wonderful world of uncertainty. It was quite a rabbit hole,

I began as a graphic designer, who got lured into motion graphic and eventually live action films. I remember it was a screening of Greenaway’s Pillow Book, where he so amazingly merged the type, design and live action. Those two hours cemented the decision.

What inspires you?

I find people who harbour a curious outlook to life very inspiring. I am also quite influenced by a ‘magical realist’ way of thinking which looks at every ordinary event with such a sense of wonder.

Are there any directors or film styles that particularly influence your work?

I look for films and filmmakers which move me viscerally, works that gets under my skin and appeals to my core being than just intellect. This could be in form of gentle tales of Malgudi Days (an Indian television series based on stories by R.K.Narayan), intense (Bergman, Leigh),  lyrical (Wenders,Tarkovsky) or the scandalous (Cronenberg). Though its Kubrick’s work ethic that I swear by.

The Altoids Lazy Boys combines a surreal sense of humour with a really vibrant, Indian vibe. Are you a comedy fan? And how does your Indian heritage influence your directing?
I do enjoy the surreal sense of humour as you call it and the use of irony. I feel it adds a multi-dimensionality to the work and increases its replay value. I generally refrain from laugh-out-loud college humour.
India is like a carnival. There is so much going on at any point in time and the most bizarre things are passed over very casually. But I only realised a lot of this when I moved away from India. It definitely taught me to look closely at what might at first seem mundane. I recently travelled over 9000 miles in India in a span of 100 days and was surprised to find myself amused by situations that would’ve otherwise made me real angry. Life in India can be tough. I think you do need a good sense of humour to tackle the hardest things in life. This Altoids script I believe offered me a great chance to let these influences play out.

Judging by your Pendel Witches pastiche of Joan D’Arc, you really know your film history. Tell us about the project and the preparation you did for it?
The preparation stage is probably the dearest to me. You can blame my science background for it. I need to research anything related to the subject I am dealing with. You never know too much. Pendel was so special because I was getting an opportunity to recreate Dreyer’s masterpiece. I wouldn’t want to make a mockery of it. I read and saw a lot about witch-hunts and was quite challenged to present the dark episodes in the light of humour. My focus was constantly on the emotion I wanted to evoke and let the brand/product come through as that light. I remember being overwhelmed by the tales of horror from the material I saw and read about, and eventually my production designer matter-of-factly stated that her great, great aunt was also went through the same ordeal.
The most fun part of the process for Pendel was casting. This was the first time I used some street casting, with quite exciting results. After soaking myself in so much of the imagery related to the period, I did let myself go and didn’t hold too tight on any references and shot-lists. And then there was the horror of managing eyelines of a dozen actors on a bare set.

What are your ambitions as a director? And where do you see yourself in ten years time?
My priority as a director is to maintain a strong work ethic and create some powerful pieces that can stand along the work of the people I admire the most. I would be quite excited to work on new forms of content emerging, but especially like the branded films format. Like most directors I do have plans for long form but I am patiently developing my ideas on that.

I don’t quite approve the idea of setting a goal post for myself and make my career as a race to get there.  I am quite enjoying my journey down the rabbit hole and trust to let the wonderland wow me.

Check out Puneet’s website here.

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