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Why Gul Panag’s short film will have you spooked, intrigued, and entertained in equal measure

Gul Panag’s latest short film Manoranjan, released on February 3 on the Royal Stag Barrel Select Large Short Films' YouTube Channel, is an interesting take on a psychological thriller.

Why Gul Panag’s short film will have you spooked, intrigued, and entertained in equal measure

Friday February 04, 2022,

6 min Read

“How do people react when their best-laid plans go awry? What do they do when something unexpected happens?” were the questions actor Gul Panag asked herself when COVID-19 struck the world.

Over months of lockdown and digital divides in work and personal lives, this little idea germinated into something much bigger, till she felt compelled to have it play out on screen. Manoranjan, a short film presented by Royal Stag Barrel Select Large Short Films, is the result of this.

This short feature, released on February 3, 2022, on the YouTube channel of Large Short Films, is an interesting take on a psychological thriller – even loosely falling in the category of comedy-horror.

“A practical joker plays jokes purely for their own entertainment – they’re not doing it for the world. We were aware that it’s considered ok for a teenager or young person to play practical jokes, but our challenge was to create a middle-aged practical joker while retaining sympathy for her character and making her likeable,” explains Gul while chatting with YS Weekender.

The theme

Though Gul’s brainchild, the final version of Manoranjan is the result of dedicated teamwork. The film has been produced by Gul, directed by Suhail Tatari of The Family Man fame, and written by actor-writer Sukhmani Sadana, a well-known OTT personality.

Gul plays Lalita, a small-town homemaker from Bundi, Rajasthan, who prioritises her husband, mother-in-law, and kids over herself. She is the quintessential middle-class Indian woman, yet in a sparkling deviation from her character’s profile, she has a twisted sense of humour that she isn’t afraid to use to her advantage.

Lalita matches her wits with an 18-year-old cocky house guest called Chirag (played by promising young actor Mihir Ahuja). Satyajit Sharma, who plays Lalita’s Station Master husband Satyanarain, ably supports the two leads.

At its essence, the story is about a practical joke, yet Sukhmani liberally sprinkles it with elements of horror – a genre she enjoys dabbling in. Another layer adding depth is that of mental health. The protagonist battles a delusional disorder for which Gul did thorough research before shooting.

“Before making the film I spoke to Shrradha Sidhwani, a renowned clinical psychologist to learn more about this condition. It’s a state where people have all their faculties in place and are able to do everything yet in one aspect of their life – usually related to some kind of trauma – they harbour delusions. The really scary part is that people around them sometimes start getting affected too and they begin to buy this deluded behaviour because they can’t tell what the reality is,” explains Gul, delving into her character’s personality.

Just like its name, Manoranjan offers plenty of entertainment. Horror and humour shine in equal measure while also allowing mental health issues to make their presence felt. Well-defined characters and a taut storyline keep the audience engaged.

Gul Panag

The platform

Using a short-film format instead of a full-length feature or series has its advantages. In this case, it became the perfect medium to explore varied themes, while packing a swift punch.

Since it first launched in the year 2012, Royal Stag Barrel Select Large Short Films has become synonymous with the curation of noteworthy cinema of a shorter duration. Over the years, the team has worked with numerous filmmakers and performers of renown, on films that have done the rounds of famous film festivals and won numerous awards.

As the platform’s name suggests, they believe in making short films that leave a large impact on the viewer. They hold the distinction of being a destination for aspiring directors to work alongside mainstream established directors on an equal footing – one where good cinema reigns supreme.

Their works include films like Ahalya, Interior Café - Night, Ouch, Chutney, Anukul, Mumbai Varanasi Express, Khool Aali Chithi, The School Bag, Bruno and Juliet, Shunyata, Juice, Maa, Chhuri, Her First Time, and Iktarfa. The platform’s support has helped boost the genre of short films in an industry known for its lengthy offerings the world over.

Gul first collaborated with the platform for her short film Disconnected. Pleased with that experience, she knew they would be the perfect fit for Manoranjan too, and is already working on her third collaboration with them.

“I’m quite glad that a platform like Royal Stag Barrel Select Large Short Films is allowing such contemporary stories to see the light of the day. This is my second movie with them and post the success and reaction to my last film, it was an obvious choice from my end to associate with the platform again. I am looking forward to more such associations.”

Manoranjan debuted as a selected entry for the Dharamshala International Film Festival in November last year. With the support of the platform, the film’s team hopes it will tour many more festivals in the coming months.

Gul Panag

Gul Panag's Lalita matches her wits with an 18-year-old cocky house guest in Manoranjan, a short that centres on a practical joke.

Challenges and expectations

Though they had a creatively satisfying experience overall, the team did face challenges. It took quite a while for them to work out the final iteration of the story. Getting into the character’s teeth was also challenging. As an exacting director, Suhail made Gul do a number of readings to truly identify with the character of Lalita.

“He insisted that I read and read again. I did more readings for this one than for any of my other short films. Once I had envisioned her character, I had to prep to get her physicality right. I went shopping to the local market and picked up the kind of sarees and nightie I felt her character would wear. I also got the blouse stitched by a local person. Plus, Suhail had a lot of insight on the way she should look – he wanted thicker eyebrows and the big Bindi –very north Indian traits to suit her character,” Gul says.

Comedy horror as a genre is enjoying its moment in the sun with the popularity of Bollywood movies like Stree. Yet Gul is reluctant to classify Manoranjan in this genre. Her real motivation to make the film came from a short story she read while in college, called The Open Window by HH Munro, which was centred on a practical joke.

She points out that the spookiness in Manoranjan was an ornamental touch provided by the writer, and the mental disorder was an essential element to keep the protagonist real and grounded.

The pandemic may have brought the world to a standstill, but Gul’s acting career went on unabated. After Manoranjan, she is wrapping up a legal drama with Chaitally Parmar and Vikas Bahl for Sony Liv, and a film called The Ghost with Nagarjuna.

She ends the chat with a message for the audience, “We would like you to come and watch Manoranjan to think about how we deal with life’s interruptions when a spanner is thrown in our works. I also hope you leave the film thinking about what was really going on in Lalita’s mind!”

Edited by Teja Lele