A film by Ashvin Kumar
Howly (to howl is to cry) is a lonely boy who comes of age while negotiating the rough and smooth of growing up in such a school, in the journey of friendship, loyalty, betrayal and the discovery of self-worth.
A delightful, heart-warming romp through the lives of boys growing up at The Doon School, the ‘Eton’ of India; arguably India’s most famous boarding school whose alumni comprises of some highly distinguished, prominent achievers in Indian public life. Howly (to howl is to cry) is a lonely boy who comes of age while negotiating the rough and smooth of growing up in such a school, in the journey of friendship, loyalty, betrayal and the discovery of self-worth.
Howly is a side-kick to Boozy, a top-notch sportsman who is about to win the most sought after award for sports in the school – the games blazer. Seeing his friend’s determination to win, Howly cheats on Boozy’s behalf at a high jump qualifier that gives him the points he requires to win the games blazer.
Despite Howly’s loyalty and hero-worship, Boozy disassociates with him in front of other friends. After a particularly bad bullying session which is witnessed by a concerned teacher, Howly is encouraged to audition for a part in the theatrical version of the Mahabharata (India’s greatest epic). Howly discovers that he possesses a natural histrionic talent. He is cast in the lead role as the God, Krishna.
In what follows, the mythic world of the Mahabharata and the philosophical and ethical choices forced upon its vexed characters fuse with Howly’s own dilemmas in a journey that floats seamlessly between the reality of the conformist school and Howly’s flights of fancy. His imagination mixes the world of the Mahabharata that is surreal and endearing as it is hilarious.
Howly’s past catches up with him soon enough. Boozy discovers that Howly had cheated and that his games blazer was won through unfair means. A big dilemma presents itself that alters their friendship forever as Howly emerges from Boozy’s shadow as a person in his own right.
I was surprised when the school agreed with my suggestion that we should steer clear of the corporate style documentary and think about a fictional film about the rough and smooth of spending six years at Doon. The film had to encapsulate the ethos of the school, showcase its traditions while looking forward into the future. It had to do all of these pretty undramatic things and yet work as a dramatic story with an ambition and scale that befitted the institution.
We shot about twenty five days, over forty locations, each one separately dressed and prepared – including the mounting of two plays within the film. A cast and crew of forty boys and more than five hundred extras – logistics that sound similar to a large-scale feature film. We had to achieve this schedule despite the interruptions of torrential monsoon rain and logistical problems to do with a campus that was being readied for DS75.
Rather than try to control the chaos that ensued, we decided to incorporate the madness into the film. We improvised with abandon and sometimes staged entire scenes that had not been scripted, many of which have ended up in the film. If it rained and we needed to keep shooting, such as the scene on the roof with Howly and Pokey, we incorporated the rain into the scene.
The process of creating this film was as important as the film itself. Talented students of the school took on serious roles in the costume, design, camera, lights, sound, directing departments. The best of what is taught at Doon came to the fore. Suffice to say, without these boys and girls, this film would not have been possible. In volunteering themselves for this project, my professional colleagues from around the world found themselves teaching film-making on-the-fly to a crew of students that had never made films before. Yet, they had to get them to perform like a professional crew and deliver a film that looks and sounds world-class.
Those weeks living in Hyderabad House and enjoying the rustic charms of the bogs were precious. The experience of working with the boys and girls, simply exhilarating. We had a sense that we were participating in a grand experiment and the film that has emerged is the result of this unique collaboration. I am truly grateful to have had this opportunity.
As I write this, I pause to receive news that the big man passed away this morning. Its hard to believe that it was only some weeks ago that I had him playing cricket in a dhoti on the main field. I will remember him for his large heart, his dedication to his boys and as the only man who could get me through ICSE maths. I am very glad that I wrote scenes for him into the film, it is but a small tribute to an outstanding human being who taught me to live fearlessly.