May 20, 2024

Director Karan Tejpal’s feature film debut “Stolen” is a nail-biting thriller about two privileged, big-city boys who unwittingly embark on a harrowing adventure as they help an impoverished young woman find her kidnapped baby in rural India.

The film, which is produced by Gaurav Dhingra’s Jungle Book Studio (Toronto titles “Angry Indian Goddesses” and “Faith Connections”), is also a commentary on the alarming number of child abductions in India in recent years, and the explosion of often misguided vigilantism that accompanied the widespread adoption of instant messaging apps, particularly in rural areas.

The film, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival, earned a special mention in the Feature Film Competition at the Zurich Film Festival this week, and heads next to the BFI London fest.

The film follows brothers Gautam (Abhishek Banerjee) and Raman (Shubham), who try to help the desperate Jhumpa (Mia Maelzer) find her five-month-old child after she is abducted in a remote train station.

A 2017 news report about two young men in India who were wrongfully accused of child kidnapping and brutally lynched inspired Tejpal to pen the story.

“It was a phenomenon that was going on in India and it’s still prevalent,” Tejpal notes, adding that it was especially problematic between 2015 and 2020, when the killings became known in the media as the “WhatsApp lynchings.” 

“There were hundreds of cases where innocent people of all classes and castes were being wrongfully accused by large mobs and lynched,” Tejpal explains.

“It was something that was on my mind because personally I’m a really outdoorsy guy. I love going to remote places for hikes with my friends. These two boys had just gone for a fishing trip. It struck a real fear in me in a weird way: This kind of injustice can happen and you have no way out.” 

At the same time, Tejpal stresses that “it’s not as simple as just misinformation and these crowds being some kind of crazed zombies. As we delved deeper into it we realized that, on the flip side, child crime in India, especially in the marginalized demographic of our country, which is enormous — you can imagine 70% of our country is marginalized — in that demographic, child crime was on an incredible rise. The numbers are so staggering: It’s 50,000, 60,000 children a year.”    

“In India, when these people don’t have access to state services and there is no recourse to justice, it’s then that they’re forced to take matters into their own hands. And that is what was causing this whole mob-lynching fever. It is so interconnected — and nobody is to blame, nobody is a bad person, but there are a lot of innocent people suffering injustice.” 

“Stolen” was also inspired in part by the story of Buddha – the tale of the pampered prince Siddhartha Gautama, who is transformed after witnessing death, Dhingra notes. The character arc of the film’s central character, Gautam, very much reflects that transformation and his own growth as a human being, he adds.

Tejpal developed the story with Dhingra and writer Agadbumb and shot the film early this year.

For Tejpal, working with Dhingra and Jungle Book offered major advantages. “We had complete creative control, which is a really rare thing — probably around the world, in India even more so I would say. All of the work in India is funded by big corporate streamers or a very small clique of very rich producers, so control is very difficult to come by. That was one of the biggest things that attracted me to work with Gaurav. He also taught that creative control was necessary.”  

Tejpal has found inspiration in classic Indian and global cinema, including the works of filmmakers like Satyajit Ray, “especially because he made this very small Indian cinema which became global in nature,” Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan “for his beautiful cinematography,” and Iran’s Asghar Farhadi “for the intense suspense.”

On a personal and stylistic level, however, Tejpal says he feels more connected to the new waves in Korean and Mexican cinema.

“These are the two movements that have really made me think about how I could do cinema in a way where its original, important, essential but also exciting and also global.”

In tweaking “Stolen” for a global audience, Tejpal had support from the film’s Berlin-based executive producer, Sol Bondy, who has previously collaborated with Dhingra. Bondy’s father, director and composer Arpad Bondy, also lent his musical talent to the project, composing the film’s score.  

“He brings that international perspective [and] we want to make international films,” Dhingra says of Bondy.

Paris-based Charades is handling international sales for “Stolen,” with Jungle Book overseeing distribution on the Indian subcontinent.

Looking ahead, Tejpal is currently developing two ambitious feature films, including a project he describes as “very close to my heart, something I’ve been working on for about 10 years.”

Also set in rural India, the story centers on young lovers fighting to be together in a community “where young people are not allowed to love as per their own choice. The extremes that the families go to to control love and freedom is murder. Families murder young kids in order to safeguard their so-called honor.”

It’s “a Romeo and Juliet story set on its head because these modern young kids are not willing to just lie back and die, so they take matters into their own hands. … It’s a romantic thriller.”

Tejpal is also working on an “atmospheric horror story” set in the early 1900s and based on the exploits of real-life Indian-born British hunter and conservationist Jim Corbett. The film, an adaptation of one of Corbett’s stories, follows a hunter who is tracking a man-eating leopard through the dark jungle. “This film deals with themes of conservation and superstition,” Tejpal adds, noting that the animal is widely regarded to be a demonic beast by locals.

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