Thought Box



by Utpal Datta June 23 2024, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 8 mins, 42 secs

Director Mrunal Mestri discusses the evocative power of silence and visual storytelling in 'Malti,' a black-and-white cinematic masterpiece exploring the emotional turmoil of a woman confronting her husband's infidelity, writes Utpal Datta.

"Malti," directed by Mrunal Mestri, opens with a woman in her thirties entering a house adorned with photographs hinting at her past joys and marital life. The scene is a prelude to the profound emotional journey that follows, revealing the woman's intimate and painful discovery of her husband's infidelity. Through minimalistic yet powerful visual storytelling, Mestri crafts an evocative narrative that explores the depth of human emotions.

Set in monochrome, the film relies on striking imagery and meticulous craftsmanship. The absence of dialogue is replaced by expressive visuals and subtle background music, enhancing the emotional weight of the protagonist's experience. The protagonist, played by Kankana Chakraborty, delivers a performance that transcends words, her expressions vividly portraying disbelief, pain, and longing. The film’s strength lies in these silent yet impactful moments, particularly her reaction to her husband's robe and her reflective solitude at the dining table.

The technical prowess of the film is evident through Zhen 'Donny' Li's cinematography, which captures the protagonist’s internal void with haunting long shots, and Luis Morales's music that perfectly complements the visual narrative. Alexa Ruvalcaba’s precise editing maintains the film’s delicate balance of mood and pace, ensuring a seamless flow of the protagonist’s emotional journey.

Mestri’s adept direction shines through in his choice of a talented cast and his ability to evoke profound performances. Despite the film’s lack of dialogue, Chakraborty's portrayal is rich in emotional nuance, making her character's silent suffering palpable. The film’s title, "Malti," though not explicitly tied to the narrative, evokes a lingering fragrance, much like the subtle yet lasting impression the film leaves on its audience.

In this interview, I explore the creative process behind "Malti," seek details about Mrunal Mestri's vision, the challenges of silent storytelling, and the intricate layers of emotion that make the film a compelling piece of cinema.

Excerpts from the interview:

Utpal Datta: How did the concept of Malti originate? Was it inspired by personal experiences or born from your imagination?

Mrunal Mestri: Malti originated from an amalgamation of my personal experiences and my imagination. I’ve wanted to make a film on infidelity ever since I came across the term. Whilst growing up, I was surrounded by healthy marriages. My parents celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary last year in Alaska, and my grandparents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary two days ago. I had a very rosy picture painted in my head about love and marriage. I thought - if there’s love, there will be a successful marriage. No one can ever be disappointed in love, right?   

But being a Millennial, one has to hear horror stories about ridiculous terms like “open relationships” which means no strings attached and “friends with benefits” daily. I am someone who doesn’t seek those benefits in her friendships most definitely. I felt empathetic towards every single friend of mine who got her heart broken. 

I distinctly remember, in the year 2021, when I was pursuing my Masters in Filmmaking, a friend called me at 2 am in the night. I could feel the anxiety in her voice as she was huffing and puffing. I ran out of my house to pick her up; luckily, she only lived a few blocks away. I still remember very clearly seeing a woman with bruises on her thighs and her face, walking on a lonely street with her luggage. She couldn’t stop crying. As I hugged her, my chest was heavy, and I felt so hurt knowing that someone was betrayed in the name of ‘love’. What I found more heartbreaking is when her partner called her 2 days after he hit her and cheated on her, she went back to him. She said, and I quote, “He cares”.  

At that moment, I realised that there are many young men and women out there who suffer in love and get their hearts broken and crumpled. Still, most also choose to be in that relationship instead of acknowledging the unfairness and stepping away. They think, “This is their only chance in love; they will never find anyone else in their life”. Due to this fear, they choose to stay. I believe that Malti is not a film on infidelity; it's a film about someone who decides to be mistreated in her romantic relationship until she realises her self-worth. 

Malti originated from these experiences. I wrote the first draft of Malti in a day. I wanted to say something through this film and reach people who have been hurt in love. I wanted them to acknowledge the reality of their relationships, if it’s toxic. If I can inspire even one person to do so, I feel that I have done my job. 

Utpal Datta: What motivated you to craft the narrative as a 'no dialogue' film? What challenges did you face during the filming process? 

Mrunal Mestri: As a filmmaker, I like to challenge the norms and do something different. Dialogues are easy for me. Saying it out loud is always preferred over bottling up your emotions. I wanted Malti to be claustrophobic and uncomfortable, and I wanted the audience to feel anxious when Malti feels anxious. 

Recently, I was watching a ROMCOM during which the narrator said, “Now these two individuals will fall in love.” After hearing this statement, I wasn’t rooting for the characters to fall in love but looking forward to experiencing their journey with them. I am scared of writing bad dialogue, so I choose not to write it. 

Malti would have been a very different film if the narrator at the beginning of the film said, “Now Malti finds out that her husband just cheated on her”. It’s the silences that stay with you and also give you, as a filmmaker, the chance to be different. It's my dream to make a 60-minute silent feature. Hopefully, one day, I can! 

Utpal Datta: What led you to cast Kankana Chakravarty in the lead role? Are you satisfied with her performance, and what preparation did she undergo for the role?

Mrunal Mestri: I never write, keeping an actor in mind. I find it distracting and restrictive. Once I was done writing Malti, I began searching for the right actor for my character. I knew that I wanted someone with a strong, independent but also naive, innocent, and caring personality. Kankana is a versatile and hard-working actor willing to mould herself into any role she’s offered.  

I am delighted with the performance of all three actors. This is the first time Kankana and I worked together, and it was both delightful and challenging, as there was no dialogue. We started with a table read and broke down the script for all the characters in the film. And then we met again to understand the back story of every character. We did an in-depth analysis of every word written. I also bought a perfume that best suited the film and the characters. I gave one of the perfumes to Kankana and asked her to familiarise herself with the smell as that was Malti’s husband’s scent. I did not have her sniff the other woman’s perfume until we reached that scene when she realised the change in scent on her husband’s shirt. I wanted to capture her genuine reaction in that moment and Kankana performed and reacted flawlessly.

Kankana and I used to meet every single day and break down each scene, beat by beat. We also went over the beats in the shooting order. Kankana was always so patient and understanding of my vision. I have never worked with an actor so dedicated to understanding the director's mind, and I am only grateful to have her be a part of my film. 

Utpal Datta: Malti received acclaim both in the East and West. What do you believe contributed to its universal appeal?

Mrunal Mestri: I believe that the story and its theme lead to its universal appeal. I was thinking about this last week as well. I have a bittersweet answer to this question. I think infidelity is a universal grief and heartbreak that many people experience in their lives. During the development stage, I knew I wanted the film to cross all boundaries.

Another reason for its universal appeal is that it is a silent film. Malti’s emotions are expressed through her eyes, not her words. The audience connected with what they saw in her eyes. 

Utpal Datta: With the director and lead actor both hailing from India, the setting in the USA, another actor from the West, and music composed by a non-Indian, how did you synchronise such diverse cultural backgrounds within the project?

Mrunal Mestri: One reason behind such a culturally diverse cast and crew is our education here in the States. At film school, I always worked with students of different ethnicities. Working and collaborating with filmmakers and colleagues from your home country is fun but easy and comfortable. I don’t like comfort. Comfortable is boring. I handpicked every single person from this team. We had a 50:50 men and women ratio on set. My core team were mostly women. My Production Designer is from Kazakhstan, my 1st AD is from Italy, my composer is from Utah, and my Cinematographer is from China. 

The music for Malti was composed by Luis Morales. This is my 4th film with Luis. I choose to work with him because we share great chemistry and understanding. During my prep, I associate temp music tracks with every scene. It helps me visualise and set the tone for the film. I share my temp music with every department head so that we are on the same page with my vision for the film. We also share a common love and passion towards cinema. Perhaps this is also one of the reasons why Malti has such a universal appeal - because the team is universal!  

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.