Cinema of India


The Fribourg International Film Festival, which completed its 36th edition in March, has made a part of its program available online to watch for free until April 18. Two short films in competition, one from India and one from Pakistan, make intriguing forays into social portraiture through very different formats.

Rishi Chandna’s excellent short documentary Party Poster offers a glimpse into Mumbai’s visual culture around the Ganesh Chaturthi festival. Every year, residents of Bandra’s laundrymen association commission a banner to accompany the festivities in the dhobi colony. These posters follow a convention: horizontal layout, bright background, an image of Lord Ganesh on top, lines of text inviting onlookers to the pandal, a graphic representing the legacy of the colony and, most crucially, an array of mugshots of the men (and only men) organizing the event at the bottom of the image. The latter respects a hierarchy, with the faces of the most influential individuals dominating those of junior members of the committee.

Distinguishable from movie posters that feature in countless montages about Mumbai, the festival poster is something of a self-referential object, an icon attracting worship. While its nominal function is to invite passers-by to the festival, it really seeks to draw attention to its own grandeur and to valorise those who have put it up. One interviewee in the film describes these banners as a gateway to popularity, even asserting that without them, one doesn’t even exist. After the festival, they sometimes get recycled, serving as thatching material against rain water or, tellingly, as the makeshift wall of a local shrine.

Party Poster is set in 2020, and the pandemic has had financial repercussions on the washermen community: the contributions for the festival have dropped and poster printing has become more expensive. The Ganesh idol too seems to have shrunk in response. Rajesh, Munna and Prem, the three figures that the film follows, feel strangely obliged to include Covid-awareness messages on the banner, exacerbating the fight for poster real estate: faces become more crowded, shoulders are cut off, the Ganesh image is cut down in size.

What’s worse, these awareness messages seem to be at odds with the purpose of the poster. Rajesh & co. want to lead by example by appearing with masks on the banner, but no one would be able to identify them anymore. They recognize the contradiction inherent in asking the public to stay home while inviting them to the festival. Reflected in their ambivalence is a tug-of-war between the eternal desire for community and the urgent need for social distancing. Chandna includes a very funny shot of an organizer who instructs caterers not to serve those without a mask and then, realizing the presence of the camera, quickly pulls up his own mask.

Party Poster zeroes in several such tensions that the poster culture embodies. Imitating the prime minister, Rajesh wraps a scarf over his mouth in place of a mask. He lives in a shantytown, but still believes he can work his way up the party ladder. To this end, he asks the poster designer to make the tilak on his head more prominent. The poster provides him a relief from the anonymity of the city, whose contempt for people like him is barely concealed: outside the colony stands a hoarding for a high-rise apartment complex that promises its customers “mask-free living”; that is, away from the crowd that Rajesh and his friends represent.

In Arun Karthick’s Nasir (2020), Ganesh Chaturthi was an occasion for Hindu assertion, pandals and processions staking a claim on the secular landscape of Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. In Party Poster, the festival procures a semblance of enfranchisement to otherwise marginalized individuals. It does this not only by offering them a chance to momentarily assimilate into dominant identities, but also by allowing them to participate and bond together in the open ritual of putting up banners without governmental or corporate retaliation.

The film, however, takes pains to point out that this poster culture is nonpartisan and that individuals and organizations of all stripes partake in it: political parties, professional fraternities, cultural associations. In opening the phenomenon up, Party Poster poses the question of who owns a city. The hoardings all carve out private shrines out of public spaces — an encroachment that the authorities appear to tolerate seasonally. Rajesh and his friends perch their banner on a tree by the main road. With no additional support, the installation looks fickle and Chandna amplifies the sense of fickleness by filming it from a distance at late night.

The fragility is but more than just physical. Like the festival, the empowerment that Rajesh & co. experience in putting up their banner comes with an expiry date as well. When the season comes to a close, the men carefully dismount their poster and take it back into the colony, ruling out any more outsider attention. As the credits roll, we see municipal authorities bringing down banners in a different part of the town. Public space is reclaimed and re-secularized, but in doing so, it is also reintroduced into the market for corporate bidding.

In Seemab Gul’s short drama Sandstorm, on the other hand, it is a question of private images and private spaces. Zara (Parizae Fatima) is a high-schooler from an upper middle-class home in Karachi. She has befriended a young man from another city (Hamza Mushtaq) with whom she chats every day in the privacy of her room. On his request, she sends him a video in which, sporting a sleeveless kurta, she performs a dance with her dupatta. The man saves the clip that was supposed to vanish and tries to take advantage of Zara with it.

The threat, and the boyfriend’s comment that her dance looked a little chhichhori (subtitled as “slutty”), cuts Zara’s world down and makes her realize how limited it is. She is truly free only in her room and has to lie to her father about her secret conversations. A neighbour appears to stare at her as she is removing her lingerie from the clothesline. At her all-girls school, she is taught that women’s virtue is the foundation of a civilization.

Sandstorm is indeed about gendered social norms and the double standard that men have. But the film focuses on Zara’s response to it more than anything else. Gul shoots Zara from up close, at her eye level and largely from over her shoulder, resulting in a surfeit of left and right profiles. This abstracts the world around the girl and invites the viewer into her inner life. We dwell on Zara’s long hesitation before she sends the clip, we observe her anxiety over the video leak in her interaction with others, and we see something that we seldom see on screen: the first pangs of sexual shame.

Caught between propulsive desire and restraining guilt, Zara’s reactions to the blackmail are soaked in an ambiguity that sustains the tension. Some of this ambiguity passes through the dupatta she wears, which registers first as a sensual dance prop, then as a sexual accessory and finally as a boa constrictor that wraps around Zara’s neck. On the day that she is supposed to meet him, Zara turns the dupatta into a headscarf at the request of her boyfriend, putting on and then rubbing off her lipstick. The scarf eventually helps her gain anonymity and evade the scrutiny of the man’s eyes, threatening to turn the film’s feminism — despite its obvious sympathy for Zara — into a cautionary defence of tradition: “see what happens when you don’t cover up.”

 

[First published in News9]

Writing with Fire, directed by Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh, is a documentary about Khabar Lahariya, an all-woman media company based in the Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh. But in the run-up to the Oscars, where it has been selected for the Best Documentary Feature award, the film has become the story. On 21st March 2022, the editors of Khabar Lahariya put out a statement distancing themselves from Writing with Fire, which they believe “eclipses the kind of work and the kind of local journalism we have done for twenty years.”

This soft disavowal has come as a surprise to the filmmakers, who had so far enjoyed the support of the newspaper and its journalists. Whether the volte face stems from a puritan recoil from international recognition for a grassroots organization, or a resistance to being co-opted by partisans, or simply post-election damage control, we won’t perhaps know. But the affair goes to show that, even in a closed system like filmmaking, the best intentions may not always lead to favourable outcomes.

And the best intentions, Writing with Fire abounds with. In fact, it casts Khabar Lahariya as nothing less than David taking on Goliath; the opening title cards tell us that when Lahariya was set up in 2002, it was “expected to fail,” but that it went on to “stir a revolution.” With wide-eyed admiration, the film profiles the reporters of the newspaper who brave societal discrimination, sceptical family members, unsupportive husbands, malevolent governments, corrupt police force and internet trolls to give voice to the voiceless and speak truth to power.

We don’t get to know about the history of the newspaper, its charter, its funding mechanisms or its machinery as such. The film instead looks at its everyday operations by following three of its reporters. Meera, who is currently the Bureau Chief of the outlet, was married at the age of fourteen, had children in high school, completed her masters and became something of a mentor in Lahariya’s ranks. The younger Suneeta is articulate, plucky, unmarried and a resident of a mining town devastated by illegal extraction. Shyamkali would seem to be the oldest of the three and is still a learner. Writing with Fire films them on buses, trains, autos and on foot, as they travel to towns and tiny hamlets in search of stories. The women cover a host of topics including elections, sexual assault, sanitation, illegal mining and religious radicalisation.

The film captures Lahariya at a moment of transition: after fifteen years of newspaper publishing, the company is launching its YouTube channel, which means that its employees will now have to produce video content too. Meera trains junior reporters on the use of smartphones, but there is still apprehension about the new medium. The upskilling is however successful, and over the course of the four years over which Writing with Fire was shot, Lahariya accumulated over 500,000 subscribers. Over time, the reporters themselves become savvier, more well-versed with the aesthetics and rhetoric of video reportage. The film fashions Lahariya’s growth as a value-neutral media success story, periodically showing us its increasing viewership and reach.

To see marginalized young rural women actualize themselves through education, employment and technology is thoroughly uplifting, and for them to do this through conscientious journalism is stirring. But Khabar Lahariya’s recent statements evidence a disconnect between how the organization regards its own work and the film’s response to it. There is a process of contextualization at work all through Writing with Fire that views the newspaper’s day-to-day efforts through the prism of national political discourse. This reframing obscures as much as it clarifies.

On one hand, the film’s national consciousness performs the important task of analysing Lahariya’s larger role within the political climate of the country. To this end, it stands to reason that the murder of Bangalore-based journalist Gauri Lankesh is one of the stories that Writing with Fire includes: in the film’s view, the reporters of Lahariya face adversity as reporters, in addition to their other identity-based disadvantages. The narrative firmly establishes that theirs is a risky, even life-threatening occupation that is not welcome in these quarters. In that regard, their participation in Writing with Fire may have come with the promise of some degree of immunity, in addition to publicity.

At the same time, the film’s approach reveals a tendency to simplify, to recast something new and specific in terms of the familiar. Writing with Fire explicitly pits the newly minted BJP government of Uttar Pradesh with the operations of the Lahariya, in effect bringing them on the same playing field. But what for the film amounts to a direct defiance of an extremist leader may perhaps only be the negotiation of everyday reality for Lahariya’s field workers — we don’t get to know how they perceive this exactly. Sword-wielding, effigy-burning Hindu Yuva Vahini youths make sensational fodder for the national media, but it is hard to believe that such a low-hanging fruit would provoke similar reactions among the reporters.

Moreover, in its effort to editorialize the Lahariya story, Writing with Fire risks making the mistake of sorting complex issues into distinct progressive and reactionary camps: patriarchy, intolerance, casteism and avarice are the sole dominion of the latter, while Lahariya embodies the ideals of liberal democracy. There is undeniably some truth to the classification, but any reasonable person living in the country would know that reality is more intransigent than what such mental models would allow for.

This rhetorical manoeuvre becomes something of a handicap in the film’s depiction of Lahariya as an institution. To its credit, Writing with Fire dedicates passages showing the functioning of the outlet: how raw footage by reporters is edited and transmitted on the internet by a group of younger, savvier newswomen. In the monthly meetings or yearly outing, Lahariya comes across as a fairly democratic outfit where every voice is heard. But the film doesn’t get into the disagreements and ideological differences within the organization. This homogeneity is discordant, especially as we can perceive class differences between the reporters and the newspaper’s top brass — it is probably in response to this impression that Lahariya’s statement emphasizes the heterogeneity of their newsroom.

But the accusation that the film passes off some of its own footage as Lahariya’s is more serious since it suggests a formal obfuscation rather than mere ideological simplification. Writing with Fire presents the reporters’ work through video clips that simulate the YouTube browsing experience, complete with upload titles, subscriber count and user comments. A cursory search on the site doesn’t bring up these videos for verification, but given that an original shot of Yuva Vahini members taking a selfie is cut to the same image embedded in Lahariya’s report on the topic, the charge has substance.

In the same vein, the presence of the film crew alongside the reporters called for a little more reflexivity. Meera’s inquiry at a police station is shot with two cameras and edited into a shot-reverse shot sequence. Another interview appears to be photographed with two lenses. Point of comparison: the documentary A Rifle and a Bag (2020), in which an Adivasi woman’s interactions with the state are shot with a single camera setup from the behind the functionaries. Writing with Fire raises questions that plague other works of its kind: did the presence of the film camera facilitate or complicate Lahariya’s access to people in power? What was the film’s process of collaboration with Meera and co.? How did the subjects of Lahariya’s stories perceive the film crew?

To be fair, these formal issues are challenging to address without making the work cripplingly inward looking, and the film’s introduction of extraneous footage into Lahariya’s reports may finally be excused as a lapse of judgment. Above all, Writing with Fire has a communicative purpose that it achieves with considerable success: to present and celebrate a form of journalistic endeavour that instils hope in those who find it increasingly hard to come by. By linking Lahariya’s reporting to remedial actions by the state, the film assures us, willingly or not, that that the powers that be can still be held accountable. In that, Writing with Fire is possibly more optimistic than a lot of its viewers.

 

[First published in News9]

The first few minutes of Gurvinder Singh’s Adh Chanani Raat (“Crescent Moon”), which premiered at the Harbour section of IFFR, are of such economy and precision that they set up the lead character with great clarity: arriving at a small-town railway station in Punjab, Modan (Jatinder Mauhar) tells a rickshaw puller that he has always paid only 10 rupees — and not 150 as the man demands — for the ride to his village. Deciding to walk instead, he finds himself giving directions to a passing SUV: he delivers it fumblingly, albeit with a feigned authority that makes it evident that we have here a man who thinks he belongs in these parts, but has been long evicted from them by time.

There is a reason why time feels out of joint for him: he is returning after fifteen years of prison time for murder. When Modan arrives home to his aged mother (Dharminder Kaur), the prodigal son takes some time to absorb the situation, to come to terms with the fact that things aren’t the same anymore. The landlords who killed his father have taken over the village, pushing his family to the outskirts. Worse, his own brothers are working with the landlords now and have built a mansion from the new money. Simmering with rage at this double betrayal, Modal wanders the village at night, ending at the local watering hole where, by way of gossip, drunk old men bring us up to speed on the family rivalry.

When good sense returns, Modan decides to build life anew: he breaks with his brothers to reconnect with an old friend Ruldu (Samuel John), a man without an ounce of ill will towards him. Modan begins to work on Ruldu’s sugarcane fields and, with the help of his friend, restores the ancestral the property from which his family was evicted. He reinstates his mother in this house that she had been made to leave six years ago. Soon after, wishing to start a family, Modan marries Sukhi (Mauli Singh), a young widow with a child.

A home, however, can’t be collected and this dream assemblage of Modan’s strains at its seams: uprooted from her other sons, mother feels somewhat restless at this new-old place; she doesn’t exactly get along well with Sukhi and wanders away from home. Sukhi has her own personal baggage that she is not ready to share with new husband. Waking up next to a toddler doesn’t, moreover, seem to be the image of domestic bliss that Modan had imagined for himself. Ruldu’s aggressive neighbours encroach his land, provoking the two friends to fight back. Modan’s younger brother, too, has run-ins with the landlords and comes over to his elder sibling’s side. All through, there is a constant threat that Modan might regress into the past.

Inspired by from Gurdial Singh’s novel of the same name (1996), Adh Chanani Raat is resolutely fixed on Modan, his figure, his world, his violence. Except for an unexpected flashback where we see Modan killing a man in revenge, the landlords he seethes against are barely seen, so much so that they could represent a metaphysical threat; indeed, when Modan creates a ruckus around the landlords’ bungalow towards the film’s end, he looks up at the sky as though he were challenging gods rather than men. But the entities that are on the margins of Modan’s universe offer a more telling commentary, an alternative to its model of retributive masculinity: Ruldu’s reticent young son, the beseeching voice of the landlords’ mother that echoes Modan’s mother, Sukhi’s child who may yet be saved from this cycle of revenge.

Yet this privileging of Modan’s perspective also disadvantages the film in some ways. One the one hand, the narrative intends us to view him as a victim of the landlords’ chicanery and his belligerence as noble resistance to them. But because the antagonists have no presence in the film, this implied injustice doesn’t register as well as it should. I think the script forces the matter further by having Modan spontaneously instigate a violent confrontation whose bloody outcome comes across less like tragic fall than mere machismo that was asking for it: play stupid games, win stupid prizes.

Jatinder Mauhar, six feet tall, plays Modan as a hulking creature ready to combust at any moment. There is little history in his performance, little sense that this man has spent 15 years in a cell, and I think this is what the script expects of him: a character so consumed by revenge that even time hasn’t muffled the indignation. Gurvinder devotes long shots of him just walking, which gives us an inkling of his blind determination, but it is a shot of him uncharacteristically coming home with a bag of groceries that expresses his essential unpreparedness for what he desires.

Like Gurvinder’s previous films, Adh Chanani Raat continues to present a Punjab that the rest of us rarely get to see: people as they are, proud, kind, arrogant, dignified. Shots of Modan sneaking out from his brother’s oversized mansion on a used motorbike, with prayers blaring out from a gurdwara nearby, or the long sequence of him rediscovering his childhood home — made of a slowly panning camera reminiscent of Mani Kaul — give a hint of the work’s lived-in texture.

On the contrary, the film doesn’t clearly establish the geography of its story; the relation between the brother’s mansion (supposedly on the “outskirts”), the ancestral home (in the village? town?), the landlord’s bungalow and Ruldu’s cane fields is never evident, which means Modan’s constant peregrinations between these locations are even more disorienting; this, despite the fact that Ruldu offers Modan a charming tour of the transformations in the village, its growing inequality, its realigned power relations and its material problems.

Lastly, I had the impression that Gurvinder would rather have made Adh Chanani Raat on celluloid, where the camera movements could have been put to better effect. As it is, the film has the look of a ‘90s telefilm shot on analog video, especially the night scenes that appear somewhat diffuse or bleached out. It also takes some shine off the actors’ performances.

The star-crossed lovers of Indian cinema may declare that their romance is divine, but it isn’t every day that they actually become the playthings of gods. Seeing the world through each other’s eyes, whispering tender secrets in each other’s ears, retaining one another’s memory, expressing emotion in lofty proclamations — Rahat Mahajan’s debut feature Meghdoot (“The Cloud Messenger”), in competition at the recently concluded IFFR, takes these ideals of Hindi movie love at face value and gives them a weight by encoding them in Indian mythology.

The year is 1995 and the setting is a mixed-gender boarding school nestled in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh. Quiet yet mischievous, Jaivardhan (Ritvik Tyagi) is instantly smitten by new student Tarini (Ahalya Shetty), victim of visions. This adolescent romance is, however, framed by a faux-Orphean legend where yaksha lovers Jaivardhana and Tarini are separated by the jealous, ten-headed king Dashanana — this story told intermittently in a mixed style that draws elements from traditional dance forms of Kerala. As the film progresses, the two strands cross paths, interpenetrate each other to a point that it is not possible to tell the text from subtext anymore.

Life at the convent is presented mostly through caricatured professors seemingly out of Another Brick in the Wall, but these jarring bits soon recede into the background, for Mahajan’s film isn’t all that interested in the banalities of campus life. It is a work at once rooted in a specific milieu and slightly unmoored from it. If it uses the rectilinearity of the school’s colonial architecture to stately effect, its tracking shots and shallow-focus cinematography detach the protagonists from these environs, which become increasingly alien to them.

Meghdoot is not Rockford. While it is patently a coming-of-age tale, the film doesn’t refract this experience through the prism of male sexuality or view it with nostalgic indulgence. None of Jaivardhan or Tarika’s peers are individualized, which means that we are spared a lot of colourful frat talk. The film’s strength instead lies in identifying completely with its young leads, who experience their union literally as a matter of life and death.

The mythical narrative, for its part, is impressively produced, with the performers arranged in precise tableaux vivants in a muralled palace and the story recounted by a Kudiyattam narrator in magnificent Carnatic vocals. However, I found the whole idea chafing in the way it uses Kudiyattam/Theyyam primarily for its spectacular potential rather than for what it is as a form. Now, I know next to nothing about Kudiyattam/Theyyam and I am not a purist; an artist has all the right to pick and choose elements from one form to adapt it to another. But in their use of sound elements external to these forms — hums, dramatic strings — and their repetitive if immersive forward tracking shots, these passages register too much as a forceful upsell of Indian mythology, closer to the assured commodification of music videos than the tentative heterogeneity of artistic experiments. (Mahajan reportedly has a background in visual marketing of Bollywood productions.)

But my bigger reservation was with the film’s construction. Evidently, Meghdoot seeks to provide thematic heft to its central love story by framing it through legend. But the parallels are so closely established, all the symbols so clearly mapped out, that the narrative becomes overdetermined by the myth. Watching the film, I was reminded of Christian Petzold’s Undine (2020), another water-obsessed work that employs an enveloping fable to impart mystery to the clinical relations of a present-day love story.

Mystery, though, is regrettably absent in Meghdoot, where everything is rationalized to a point that the viewer is left with a gradually self-solving puzzle. Instead of the myth infusing everyday life with a sense of the eternal and the inexplicable, the uncanny is made familiar by the literal-minded intercutting. Late into the film, Jaivardhan stares at a photograph made by Tarini. The film ensures that it cuts to the reverse angle and shows what exactly is present in the photo. This kind of instant gratification, I’m afraid, permeates the film, where the viewer is rewarded for practically no work.

It is undeniable that the multi-hyphenate Mahajan thinks cinematically. The assured repetition of compositions and sounds—canteen, dorm, bathroom, stairs, swimming pool, trumpet calls, electrical arcs—the division of dialogue across spaces with actors striking poses as they declaim impossible lines of dialogue, the leisurely pace despite the brisk editing pattern, the composition of points-of-view shots and the sporadic attention to telling documentary detail all point to a filmmaker with a native literacy in the medium.

Meghdoot also reveals an excellent direction of inexperienced actors in demanding roles. Ritvik Tyagi hurtles through the frame in a very physical performance, his rookie earnestness completely convincing. In contrast to her mythical counterpart, Ahalya Shetty’s droopy-eyed Tarini is taller than her partner, a piquant difference that is emphasized in the many mid-shots they stand together in. Her stature and broad shoulders also make it easier to spot her in a group shot, of which there are numerous in the film. The only misstep may be the role of Mr. Sapru (Raj Zutshi), a visiting photography teacher, whose serious tone and deliberate, self-important diction are exacerbated by a slew of didactic, overexplanatory lines.

But these fine qualities make me wish that the film didn’t have to play as safe as it does, to be so ready to please. For a story about the hereafter and the beyond, Meghdoot is unfortunately too much of this world.

[Edit: I learn now that the traditional dance form is in fact Kudiyattam (and not Theyyam, as previously mentioned in the review), with the film borrowing elements of Theyyam for some of the figures. I’ve corrected this in the text.]

He doesn’t imitate Amitabh Bachchan, he plays him. So insists Firoz Khan, also known as Junior Amitabh Bachchan, one of the three celebrity impersonators at the centre of Geetika Narang Abbasi’s documentary Urf (A.K.A), currently playing at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR). Through a series of talking head interviews with Firoz, “Junior Dev Anand” Kishor Bhanusali and “Junior Shah Rukh Khan” Prashant Walde, the film offers us a glimpse into the world of what are known as “tribute artists,” lookalikes who play stars on stage, television and in films. Interwoven with these interviews are vignettes from the production, promotion and release of Amir Salman Shahrukh (2016), a minor movie starring lookalikes of three major Bollywood stars.

By means of relaxed exchanges in domestic settings, Urf examines the outlook of its subjects (and their family) towards their profession. Firoz “Bachchan” Khan emphasizes that physical likeness to a star is only part of the requirement; the bulk of it, he says, involves research, practice and hard work. Indeed, many of the artists we see in the film make up for what they lack in resemblance with a conscientiousness and charm that is impressive. Kishor believes that his mimicry of Dev Anand has a signature of its own that would inspire neophytes more than the star’s persona itself. Prashant is just happy if he could make people laugh, no matter in derision or delight.

Despite this touch of pride, their self-image proves rather conflicted. The three artists we see in the film are united in their desire to break away from being typecast and strike out on their own. All three appear to be on different stages of the same journey: Kishor, the most senior of the trio, has long transitioned into a busy career in light music. The middle-aged Firoz is now a regular on TV shows where he does not have to play Bachchan anymore. Prashant, for his part, seems at a crossroads, still trying to find his voice. The older men regard their earlier fascination with impersonation as youthful indiscretion. In their testimony is a sense that the work of a lookalike comes with an expiry date, that at some point the need to find one’s own identity takes precedence.

Underlying this ambivalence is a change in the nature of stardom and celebrity. In a mixture of wistfulness and self-deception, Kishor and Firoz view themselves as the last of their kind. The latter offers a striking diagnosis of why there are increasingly fewer impersonators in Bombay: it is that there are scarcely any stars with their own styles anymore, absorbed as actors today are into an anonymous naturalist manner. And then, says Firoz, celebrity isn’t as scarce as it used to be. Technological advance, including multiplication of distribution channels, has meant that stars can be seen by fans any time they want, rendering the vicarious thrill of impersonators redundant.

Unusual though its subject is, Urf is a work that comes in the line of documentaries looking at various facets of the lives of impersonators. Premiering in the same IFFR fourteen years ago, The Reinactors (2008) trained its attention on the community of lookalikes and cosplayers dotting the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Just About Famous (2015) normalized the practice, portraying these artists as consummate professionals serving a concrete cultural function. Perhaps the best of these documentaries, Bronx Obama (2014), spirals out from the private life of the president’s lookalike to explore America’s class and racial relations.

If celebrity impersonators in these earlier films were presented as social outcasts hustling to make ends meet, the individual we see in Urf can only be described as solidly middle class. We accompany Kishor on a visit to his spacious new apartment in a high rise, but professional doldrums aside, even Prashant seems financially better off than most of the hopefuls that make up the fringe of the Bombay film industry. At one level, their relative success marks them out as exceptions in a niche if competitive field, but it also reflects a vast demand for lookalikes that persists in spite of the pejorative associations the profession carries.

We see signs of this flourishing secondary market all through Abbasi’s film. The impersonators are featured performers in weddings and corporate events, play body doubles to their stars in commercials and get top billing in parodies and B-grade knockoffs of popular movies. Urf relates this parallel economy to the insatiable thirst for celebrity that Bollywood inspires or, more often than not, manufactures. Ardent fans from all across the country assemble outside Shah Rukh Khan’s home to catch a glimpse of their idol, declaring with a zealot’s faith that “he will come.” Some of this adoration rubs off on his lookalike, Prashant, who is constantly asked for photographs by admirers who wouldn’t stand a chance of getting as close to the original.

These reflections notwithstanding, Abbasi’s film is a modest proposal. Unlike The Reinactors or Bronx Obama, it does not hazard wider socio-political arguments. There is certainly something to be said about the paradox that the work of these impersonators is devalued as being unoriginal by an industry that thrives on formulas and remakes. But Urf is not the place for theoretical considerations. Abbasi’s film instead lets the human-interest stories take centre stage. It does not address the lookalike artists as a community. Its success, on the contrary, lies in individualizing them, in letting them recount their journeys and aspirations without undercutting them. Far from the freaks of primetime television, they come across as decent, reasonable people providing for their families while trying to keep the inner flame alive.

 

[First published at Firstpost]

Sci-fi movies often trade in scenarios that are set in a distant future, but which are largely determined by the conditions of the present. It is not just that the worlds imagined by these works are invariably limited by the possibilities of today—quickly rendering them quaint or antique with the passage of time. It is that many of them, by design, seek to clarify the present moment by isolating and exaggerating its most prominent aspects. The health crisis of the past two years has brought out many of the fault lines underpinning modern civilization with blinding clarity, making it easier for artists to extend them in creative speculation.

The current pandemic hovers in the background of Prappeda (“Hawk’s Muffin”), a feverishly active science-fiction feature in Malayalam made by Krishnendu Kalesh, playing now at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR). We don’t, however, witness any images of the present, which is invoked solely through an on-screen transcript of a conversation between a military pilot, assigned with the dispatch of ‘antidotes’ following a virus outbreak, and his command base. After the drop, the pilot is rewarded a vast stretch of land and instructed to go into hiding “until last man standing.”

What follows is a story set some hundred years after this murky operation. The land, now a dense rubber estate, is occupied by the descendants of the pilot: his grandson (Sreekanth Pangapattu), the senile patriarch of the clan who is also the narrator of the film, the old man’s middle-aged daughter (Nina Kurup) who has stopped speaking after a mysterious encounter in her youth, and granddaughter Ruby (Ketaki Narayan), a sensitive young woman who looks after her mother. The old man has relegated the management of the estate to hired hands Xavier (Jayanarayan Thulasidas, also the film’s producer), a military renegade who keeps outsiders at bay, and Shepherd (Mano Jose), a priest-cum-retainer intended to rein in the unruly Xavier.

This feudal order of things is challenged when a local policeman Thumpan (Nithin George) enters the premise, claiming to be an heir of the pilot and demanding a share in the estate. Roaming the woods, meanwhile, Ruby discovers an alien being that has crash-landed (Rajesh Madhavan). The creature, seemingly out of a movie by Guillermo Del Toro who is thanked in the credits, has an endearing air about him: his extremely frail frame, beady eyes, silly hair and jerky gestures are put to comical use, multiplied by jump cuts and time lapse shots. He performs a dance, gifts Ruby precious stones and takes her to a hidden niche near a majestic waterfall. A fairy tale romance ensues; the alien helps Ruby see the world anew, she takes him in her protection.

As the synopsis suggests, Prappeda unfolds partly like a children’s fable, partly like a political allegory. The film opens with a faux-newsreel about a mythical amphibian that will help the world’s elites in their domination of the planet. The continued influence of this elite is announced by helicopters constantly flying over the estate and by mysterious bots invading the premises following Thumpan’s “contamination.” The inhabitants of the manor, like the residents of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village (2004), have no contact with the outside world and believe everything that this implied nexus wants them to believe.

The film is saturated with these weighty assertions and mythical notations, but pursuing them may not lead one any further than a set of conspiracy theories. Where Prappeda succeeds is not in the quality of its ideas, but in its constant attempts at formal invention. A cinephile-turned-filmmaker, Krishnendu Kalesh adopts a heterogenous style reflective of the name of his production company: Hybrid Tellers.

He employs a host of narrative modes with roots both in mainstream cinema and art film: musical numbers alternate with naturalist drama, silent cinema pastiches with impressive special effects, melodramatic episodes with abstract passages. Low-key drones are interwoven on the soundtrack with an emphatic, staccato score made of violins and percussions. The taciturn Ruby can speak, but her words are conveyed to us through intertitles and on-screen texts, which share the work of exposition with voiceover and dialogue. There is no sense that the filmmaker perceives a hierarchy between these modes, which co-exist without harming the film’s fundamental tone.

Prappeda has the stylistic brashness that one expects from debut works, and thankfully so. It trots out one power move after another, which succeed more often than not: a remarkable shot of Ruby discovering the fallen alien floods the frame with the blinding white of a parachute; a crack appearing on a wall is cut to an intertitle supplying building instructions; when Ruby and her friend discover photo negatives in the attic, the sequence suddenly atomizes into a series of photograms; a text on screen identifies a popular song playing on the soundtrack.

Besides Del Toro, the credits also thank Georges Méliès, Andrei Tarkovsky and Hayao Miyazaki all of whose influences are tangible here. There are repeated invocations of silent cinema, in particular, in the use of intertitles, sped-up footage and changing aspect ratios. Ruby observes a fight between two men, scored to slapstick music, through a Nickelodeon-like opening in the wall, as a projector hums on the soundtrack. This combination of dystopia and film history, seen recently in Norbert Pfaffenbichler’s 2551.01 (2021), imparts an unusual texture to the film, even when the two are not always perfectly integrated.

The production design, likewise, mixes markers of different eras such that we are never sure what time period we are in. The archaic rubs shoulders with the futuristic in Prappeda: candles and sewing machines find a place alongside electronic gadgets and modern weaponry. The sylvan setting, the earthen colour palette of browns and greens, the expressionist wall design incorporating creepers suggest a distant past, while CGI robots, war machines and synthetic noises hint at a far future. This lack of specificity, it must be added, plays to the film’s advantage.

Prappeda does not seek emotional involvement from the viewer as much as a visceral response. This is, after all, a film where the narrator vanishes midway in a blink-and-you-miss moment of stupidity. The meek and caring Ruby is offered as a provisional point of identification, only for this connection to be severed after a tragic event. The story is shrouded in mystery, and an explanatory montage towards the end only complicates the affair. What Prappeda instead provides is the pleasure of fabrication, a vision born of an adolescent daydream. Chances are slim that you will see a shot of a woman delivering a baby as she is parasailing over the clouds in another film any time soon.

 

[First published at News9]

An auditorium is filmed in perfect symmetry from behind a fence as the sun rises over the building. A few men unload musical instruments from a van, parked slightly off-centre such that it tastefully disturbs the shot’s symmetry. The vehicle exits the frame a while later, revealing a dozen individuals at the gate of the imposing structure. The group, we will learn, is a theatre company invited to put up a play at the annual function of a residential association somewhere in small-town Kerala. They have arrived rather early to the venue; they believe they need the time for practice and preparation.

The troupe, called Little Earth School of Theatre, is the subject of Chavittu (“Stomp”), an outstanding new film by Sajas and Shinos Rahman that premieres at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) this week. The Rahman brothers’ third feature is a boundary-bending formalist work that, for the most part, showcases the troupe’s preparations for their upcoming performance. Shot by Mukesh Muraleedharan (Uyare, Varane Avashyamund), Chavittu is dominated by a static, wide-shot aesthetic that loosens up as the film progresses.

We see the company’s rehearsal in considerable detail, their work on gesture, movement, voice and cadence. The nature of play they are putting up, on the other hand, remains sketchy and elusive. We gather that it has to do with money, coins specifically, and there is talk of revolution. There are dramatic confrontations and belligerent assertions. A hint of political lampooning is tangible, as are public service messages. But the directors are careful not to distract us with too much literary material. What we are left with are pieces of a puzzle whose final form is never clear.

Attention is devoted, instead, to the formal elements of the performance. The dance, seemingly a traditional form, involves stomping energetically to oral music made of emphatic scatting. Clenched fists, stern looks and occasional pirouettes feature saliently, while oversized coins, backless chairs, empty frames and long pipes serve as props. The musical sections are interspersed with equally physical narrative bits. The actors’ gestures here are very stylized, perhaps conforming to the form’s conventions. There is some improvisation, but directorial intervention mostly pertains to where a new song should begin or an old one should end. What is patent is that a performer in this company needs to have a supreme sense of rhythm.

These extended passages of theatrical rehearsal are periodically intercut with the auditorium being readied for the evening: props, accessories and backdrops being designed, chairs laid out, food arranged. In a surrealist touch that is at odds with the obsessive materialism of the rest of the film, we see these preparations “spill over” into the surrounding rural scenery: men wandering the landscape seated on each other’s shoulders, playing shadow volleyball, or performing short mime-like actions for the camera.

Much of the critical conversation around Chavittu is bound to revolve around what it doesn’t do. It is plain that the film avoids the temptations of dramatic development; there is hardly any story here to speak of in the first place. But what truly sets it apart is its refusal to offer any sense of interiority to the people we see on screen, who are not as much characters as much as presences. There is no evocation of their state of mind, no references to their private lives. We barely hear their names. These are not individuals that we are dealing with, but a body of consummate professionals.

It is likely that this omission of the troupe’s emotional life, this lack of individuation will be held against the film, but it is precisely what makes it so modern, so bracing. Chavittu is a procedural work intently focused on the physicality of its subjects, who are filmed in various states of undress, in a mixture of mid- and long shots, natural and artificial light. Unlike in a conventional documentary, this scrupulous attention to detail isn’t complemented with interviews or explanatory voiceover.

The sensuality that the film radiates comes not through dramatic or formal devices, but from the raw presence of young, athletic bodies populating the frame. For a bulk of its runtime, Chavittu showcases bare-chested men wearing shorts or lungis working together in close proximity, immersed in performance, not unlike the half-naked legionnaires in Claire Denis’ Beau Travail (1996). But in light of the codes of South Indian masculinity, this exhibition doesn’t scan as homoerotic sublimation or suggest the possibility of gay panic. In fact, despite the cohesion that occurs over song and dance, the company hardly feels like a community. What we have here is a group which is bound by nothing else than the activity they undertake together.

The first attempts at discursivity, at accommodating an expositional framework, occurs about an hour into the film, after the sun sets and the annual day function begins. Prominent members of the residents’ association and dignitaries from the town deliver back-scratching opening addresses to a family audience. One elderly executive of the organizing committee rails against the death of Malayalam cinema and literature. Shortly afterwards, achievers of the community are recognized: a local Youtube star, a Facebook poet, an entrance exam hopeful. These felicitations are followed by a series of amateur performances by residents— Thiruvathirakali, a Carnatic kriti, an English number—which take precedence over the troupe’s play, scheduled after dinner.

We are clearly in the presence of a self-indulgent middle class—an anthropological group with a separate set of gestures and rituals, as the film demonstrates—that has lofty ideas about its own role as protectors of culture, even as it preserves a hierarchical notion of the arts. But it is to the Chavittu’s success that this bit of satire doesn’t come across as mean or blunt as it sounds on paper. Even the character of an ex-secretary of the association, a vain old man serving as intrusive coming relief, acquires a touch of grace by the end of the film.

Chavittu avoids devolving into caricature here thanks to the directors’ decision to cut between these amateur shows and the members of the theatre company waiting for their turn backstage. These actors don’t provide any reaction to the performances on stage, refusing us the convenience of second-hand judgment. They are instead absorbed in last minute preparations, refining moves or working over props. For the only time in the film, they are seen in isolation, as individuals getting into particular roles. One actor shaves his feet, another one dresses up as a woman, making us aware of a gendered distribution of roles for the first time.

This contrast between a committed theatre troupe working with focus and discipline and the family audience at the annual day function that just wants to have fun has definite parallels with the filmmaking process. It is notable that, except for the director and the screenwriter, there are no clear division of roles within the company. There is certainly no sense of hierarchy, no rank pulling, that prevents the members from lending a hand in other preparatory tasks. In this regard, it is apt that Chavittu ends on the audience, on us, with an image that embodies a mix of melancholy and hope.

 

[First published at News9]

My first book Modernism by Other Means: The Films of Amit Dutta is now available for order in a limited edition hardcover version, lovingly produced by Lightcube!

 

Book Description

Since the mid-2000s, Indian experimental filmmaker Amit Dutta has been producing work that defies easy categorization. His sensual, stimulating films are as removed from national mainstream cinema(s) as from the international arthouse tradition. They are, instead, incarnations of a personal quest, a lifelong project of research and self-cultivation. They propose newer forms of cinematographic expression through their constant, ongoing dialogue with ancient Indian artistic thought. Taken together, these films constitute a cinema of aesthetic introspection. Despite universal acclaim, including awards and retrospectives across the world, critical commentary on Dutta’s oeuvre has remained scarce.

Modernism by Other Means is the first book-length consideration of the output of one of the most compelling film practitioners active today. Through close-grained critical analysis of each of his films, it examines how Dutta’s work strives towards an authentic conception of modernism, one that bypasses Eurocentric rites of passage, inviting us to reframe our ideas of what being modern in art means.

 

Links

Hardcover book (India only)

Hardcover book (international)

Kindle e-book (international)

PDF e-book (international)

 

Reviews

“A magnificent work, as complete as it is precise, analyzing in depth each of Amit Dutta’s films, intended to be a reference. Congratulations to Srikanth Srinivasan and his publisher, Lightcube. I would like every contemporary experimental filmmaker to find their Srikanth!”

Dr. Nicole Brenez, Professor at the Sorbonne Nouvelle

Srikanth Srinivasan’s book on Amit Dutta is an invaluable foundational text for anyone wanting to explore the rich contours of Indian experimental film and is also an indispensable authorial study that opens up a far reaching interrogation and critical awareness of modernity and its relationship with contemporary filmmaking in India today.

– Dr. Omar Ahmed, UK-based Film Scholar and Curator

Amit Dutta might possibly be my favorite filmmaker to have emerged in the 21st century. His mix of playfulness, inquisitiveness, respect for his subjects, his devotion to numerous forms of beauty—all make him a rare and deep talent… I recommend the e-book [of Modernism by Other Means], which is inexpensive, and which is proving to be a really valuable document on a great body of work.”

– Zach Campbell, Independent Scholar

“Modernism by Other Means is structured chronologically, but Srinivasan’s prose flows between influences, memories, and Dutta’s visions of the future of his cinema, invoking Dutta’s style and perspective; he makes the proposition that we are reading about a filmmaker and artist who matters.

– Soham Gadre, Los Angeles Review of Books

With rugged clarity and verve, Srinivasan walks us through an extensive portrait of an elastic artist… Modernism by Other Means is nothing short of an essential aid not only in contextualizing Dutta’s films, but in some cases understanding the absolute basics of what each film communicates, the existing register it is working within or developing upon.”

– Maximilien Luc Proctorphotogénie

Helping the director return to cultural circulation is already a remarkable merit for the book dedicated to his work, but not being involved in the cultural economy gives value to both it and Amit Dutta’s films.

– Maksim KarpitskyCineticle

Dutta’s interests include architecture, as seen in the four-hour documentary Finished/Unfinished (2015), where he obsesses on every minute detail of an eighth-century rock-cut temple complex at Masrur in the Himalayas. Srinivasan’s book, too, is a manifestation of such rigorous study and examination.”

Arun A.K.The Art Newspaper

 

[Trailer for the book]

A train moves across the screen from left to right. The camera echoes the movement, panning slowly to the right, in the same direction as the locomotive. In the foreground, in front of the train, are three women, clad in sarees, striking a graceful pose before a tree, their heads gently responding to the moving vehicle behind them. The edge of the panning camera stops just to the right of the tree. We expect the train to come into view after it passes the tree, but no, the iron horse simply vanishes behind its trunk, as if swallowed by this compositional element. This shot, worthy of a John Ford, constitutes the opening of Bengali academic and experimental filmmaker Ashish Avikunthak’s seventh feature, Glossary of Non-human Love, one of the five Indian films screened in June at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR).

And it’s a shot unlike anything else in contemporary cinema, combining movement and stasis, a classical idea of plastic beauty with some SFX magic. It will be a question of such incongruencies and anachronisms all through Avikunthak’s film, which, we are told, is set in a future when Artificial Intelligence has taken over human life. Divided into 64 chapters, variously titled “Jealousy”, “Affection”, “Remorse”, “Delusion”, “Perfection”, “Rebirth” and so on, the film offers a series of vignettes in which half-a-dozen men and women, presumably hollowed out by AI, try to understand the cumulus of emotions and sensations around physical love.

The chapter names have little relation to what we see in the vignettes; if there is a connection, it is mostly oblique, for instance the chapter titled “Shadow” where an actor plays shadow cricket, or the one called “Non-Duality” where another performer smokes with a CGI double of hers. Many of the vignettes are propelled by dialogue, but the lines are shared by different actors such that none of them has any fixed identity. Several scenes feature the performers in the nude, composed into striking tableaux or engaged in minimal but precise movements, with their desexualized nudity echoing the blank states that their minds are. What sounds like residual memories of lovemaking are invoked, as are mythological and historical accounts; the difference between past and present, male and female, gods and humans all vanish in this collective stream of consciousness.

It is a tall order to process Glossary of Non-human Love in any meaningful way in one viewing, especially for those who don’t speak Bengali, caught as the eyes are between its visual provocations and the subtitles. Unless your name is Ashish Avikunthak, trying to closely follow its philosophical arguments will not take you very far. It will, in any case, take you away from the primary pleasures of the film, which lie not in its text but on its surfaces.

There is always something of formal interest in each of the vignettes, the film constantly experimenting with newer ways of composing them. At times, it is the gonzo camera angles that prompt the viewer’s eye to recompose space; elsewhere, it is the fragmented compositions in which the frame is divided into multiple rectilinear subframes, each one competing for our attention. Or it’s the fine-grained sound design, which suggests a world beyond what we see. Some sketches are presented as single-shot tableaux while others are distributed across several settings, jumping from one to another even in the middle of a single line of dialogue.

It is, however, the use of architecture in the film that is most striking. Discounting the outdoor locations, Glossary of Non-human Love is shot inside half-a-dozen different residences in Kolkata and Mumbai. The buildings range from angular, modernist designs to colonial structures and traditional brick houses; their peeling paint, rusty ironwork, double doors and grilled windows with Indo-Mughal motifs, scorched courtyards and general lived-in quality possess a nonhuman sensuality and warmth that stand in contrast to the icy, naked bodies of the performers.

Despite the dead seriousness of its subject, Glossary is also a film with a subtle sense of humour. Many of its indoor scenes are intruded upon by the external world, either visually through the windows or in the form of ambient sound, which pierces the Great Art Film Experiment conducted by the filmmaker and his collaborators, hermetically sealed within expressly emptied houses. In this, and in its attention to the textures of everyday living, it joins the cinema of Tsai Ming-Liang, whose work too taps into the spiritual possibilities of the quotidian spaces.

Equally provocative, but in another manner, Kerala-based filmmaker Don Palathara’s fourth project Everything Is Cinema is told entirely from the point of view (and the camera) of a Malayali filmmaker called Chris, unseen but voiced by Palathara himself. Chris, we learn, went to Kolkata in January 2020 to shoot some kind of a remake of Louis Malle’s documentary Calcutta (1969). But the project comes to a halt with the outbreak of the pandemic, and Chris is stuck in an apartment in the city with his partner, an actress called Anita (Sherin Catherine). At this point, his film turns inward, with Chris now shooting Anita in her daily routine.

The city documentary may have turned domestic, but the filmmaker’s gaze remains that of an outsider, with Malle’s voiceover over street scenes of Calcutta giving way to Chris’ voiceover over monochrome images of Anita. We see right away that their relationship is in tatters: the pair is estranged; Chris can’t stand Anita and subjects her to a barrage of criticisms on the soundtrack, ranging from mild rebuke for her supposed hypocrisies to misogynistic tirade. With little self-awareness and much self-love, he assumes a higher moral and intellectual stand, regularly quoting philosophers and undercutting Anita’s supposedly pseudo-progressivism.

Even within the confines of a private space, Chris and Anita are enacting a filmmaker-actress duo, that classic model of modernist filmmaking with its own gender biases: the camera-wielding filmmaker is the creator-subject (thoughtful, capable of Deep Emotion) with the capacity to describe the actress-object (shallow, conceited if interesting and colourful), not very unlike the power dynamic Malle found himself in in relation to the city he was filming. The camera, in Chris’ hands, becomes the vehicle of objectification and abuse.

The impression one gets, however, is that Chris is somewhat thick in the head. Making this film, he thinks he is incriminating Anita, finding irrefutable proof of her vanity and vileness. The poor idiot even assures us that he isn’t manipulating the footage to place her in an unfavourable light. But the visual evidence incriminates only him. Nothing in what we see of (and hear from) Anita confirms Chris’ negative characterization of her in the voiceover. He generously offers to intersperse footage of Calcutta as a welcome break for the viewer from having to constantly see Anita’s face, but it only serves as a welcome break from his obnoxious monologue.

So Chris’ film gets out of his hand and turns against him. The camera frame, instead of imprisoning the figure it contains, indicts the one behind it. In one of his many moments of self-flattery, Chris compares himself to the protagonist of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Camera Buff (1979), a man who can’t relate to the world around him unless he sees it through the frame of a camera. But in fact, he is closer to the protagonist of another Kieślowski film, A Short Film About Killing (1988), which immerses us entirely into the subjectivity of a murderer. There are moments where we sense that there may be a more reflective, nuanced individual in Chris, as when he wonders why Anita stopped writing or when he mulls over the possibility of collaborating with her, but it’s these contradictions that serve to throw his darker thoughts into relief.

Palathara’s film is patently treading on dangerous ground. In its very concept, it offers the viewer a space to intimately identify with the deranged impulses of a woman-hater. But unlike a work like Gone Girl (2014), this identification is kept in check in different ways. Firstly, the (presumably) liberal audience of the film already has their sympathies aligned with Anita, especially as she is obviously in the right here. There are, then, scenes of Anita speaking for herself before the camera—like Malle’s subjects who return the camera’s gaze—puncturing Chris’ descriptions of her. Finally, Palathara amps up Chris’ odiousness to a breaking point—and this is arguably a failure of nerve on the part of the film—that we are more hostages to his point of view than accomplices.

The film doesn’t always succeed in working out solutions to the problem of identification posed by its framing concept, but for the most part, we are kept in a state of fugue, laughing sometimes with Chris and sometimes at him. And Palathara certainly deserves credit for taking the risk, for not settling for an easier way out by, say, telling the story from Anita’s perspective. His film is less a cinematic exploration of a relationship gone sour and more an investigation into the ethical questions of cinema through the time-tested device of a marriage-in-crisis picture. In just that, the film accomplishes more that most domestic dramas out there.

 

[Originally published at Mint]

Prantik Basu’s Bela, which premiered at the Visions du Réel in Nyon last week and is headed to the International Film Festival Rotterdam in June, is an hour-long documentary about everyday life in the titular village in West Bengal.

Shot over two years, Bela is the third work born of Basu’s collaboration with the inhabitants of the village. The film, however, conceals the filmmaker’s familiarity with the region and its people. Reserved and self-subtracting, Basu’s digital camera surveys the spaces of the hamlet with a ruminative, bovine gaze. These measured gestures are fitting, for Bela seeks to register the leisurely rhythm of life and work in the village. To this end, the filmmaker assembles footage amassed over several months into a cyclic diurnal-nocturnal pattern, with each “day” unfolding roughly over a quarter hour.

The men of the village are, for the most part, occupied with Chhau performances, a costumed dance form of gyrating, thumping male bodies that blends classical and folk idioms. The women, on the other hand, seem mostly engaged in highly physical, productive work, harvesting crops, gathering firewood or crushing rice. But just as we briefly glimpse men making their living at a timber depot, the women decorate the threshold of their homes with beautiful rice rangolis whose simplicity counterpoints the baroque costumes and movements of the Chhau shows.

These contrasts and continuities in the gendered division of labour are offered for our consideration without a guiding commentary. Compared to Basu’s previous short films, Sakhisona (2017) and Rang Mahal (2019), which are fuelled by Santhali cosmology and myths, Bela is a stripped-down work, presenting no discursive framework to supplement what we see. There is no voiceover, musical score or interviews with its subjects, making the film at once more airy, more austere and more elusive than its predecessors.

In that sense, Bela has more in common with the formalist rural symphony that is Basu’s Hawa Mahal (2015). The filmmaker shoots with an eye for plastic composition: asymmetry, offsetting elements in the foreground, impressionistic effects obtained through frame dropping. His camera would often drift away from a scene to end on a light source or the participants’ feet. Recurring images in his work – electric wires, women carrying wood, twilight skies, rain and thunder, deforestation – become charged with specific meaning, but Basu’s touch remains light, not unlike the women’s rangolis.

We conversed with the filmmaker on his new work.

 

Could you tell us something about your personal and academic background? How did you come to filmmaking?

I grew up in a joint family of eight people, in the suburbs of Calcutta. Films are something that I have always been drawn to. I loved telling stories as a child and would always visualise the short stories and poems from my school curriculum and imagine them as films in my head. While doing my B.A. in English, I wrote the script for a short film and directed it with the help of a few friends back in 2007. That same year, I gave the entrance exam for the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), and got into its Direction department.

 

How did Bela come about?

After my graduation, I was called back to FTII to direct a film as a guest filmmaker. During the making of Sakhisona, I met the wonderful performing artists, dancers and musicians of the Manbhum Sramjibi Chhau Nritya Dal. They performed and composed songs for the film. I remained in touch with them and, upon the completion of Sakhisona, visited their village Bela to share with them the final film. I stayed on for a few weeks, without any plans for another film. Over time, I developed great friendship and comradery with them, shooting showreels for their dance group and travelling with them to their dance competitions. And at some point, the seed of a new film germinated.

 

Your previous short films (Sakhisona, Rang Mahal) made imaginative use of Santhali folklore. In comparison, Bela registers as a more sober, fly-on-the-wall documentary. How did you decide on the film’s form?

Unlike my previous films, the formal structure for Bela developed during the process. I started with the dance group, and was mostly interested in tracing the transformation of the dancers from the people they were to the gender-bending roles they played. Since the Chhau dance is mostly practiced by men, I meandered to observe the women and their activities in and around the village. The juxtaposition in itself was telling a story, so adding a voiceover would have made it didactic. We see when we are told to look, but on our own, we observe. So I limited my intervention to the least, and aimed for a cinema verité approach in Bela.

 

Could you tell us a little about the Chhau performances?

Like all other dance forms, Chhau involves tremendous discipline, coordination and practice. Etymologically, it is derived from the word Chhaya, meaning shadow, image, or mask. It is said that every other boy in Purulia (where Bela is located) is a Chhau dancer, and that they learn the techniques of somersaulting underwater as they learn how to swim in the ponds at a young age. The songs that accompany Chhau dance are called Jhumur, and they follow the dohar (couplet) form. These are entwined with the landscape of Rarh Bengal and its flora and fauna. For example, the repeated meter of Jhumur songs derive inspiration from the echoes that occur while calling out in this undulating terrain, and that the subtle turn of the neck and torso in the Chhau dance is an imitation of the movements of a peacock. These nuances are usually overlooked by the viewer who is often lost is the grandeur of the performance.

 

There is a sense, towards the end of Bela, that this way of life is under threat of disappearance. Even the Chhau performances seem destined for a town crowd.

Their way of life is under a constant transformation, much like everything around us, maybe a little slower, but isn’t that inevitable? This change is probably much less in the region where I shot Rang Mahal; there is a certain welcome resistance too, in the form of the Pathalgadi Movement, for instance. But the community in Bela is at the threshold. Many of the Chhau dancers move to cities across the country and contribute to the migrant workforce. When the team had come to Pune for a performance at the FTII, two workers from a nearby construction site heard the sounds of the dhol, dhamsa and shahnai, and immediately rushed to the campus where they were performing. It turned out that they were from their neighbouring village. The joy of their reunion in a place so far away from home was a sight to behold.

 

In the film, we see men mostly engaged in the Chhau performances while women are largely responsible for productive labour, both at home and in the village. How did you see the relation between men and women in the village?

It was quite compartmentalised, in terms of gender roles. While the men dress up as women for their performance, and the women display immense physical strength in their daily activities, the lines otherwise are rather rigid. So the argument of Chhau dance being masculine for its physical rigour fails to hold true after a point. Of late, few female Chhau dance groups have formed. But the attitude towards them is very similar to the ones towards the women’s sports teams in our country.

 

Did you script or storyboard before the shoot? What was the process?

I was making notes every day after shooting, more like production notes and data logging. I shot for a few months, on and off for over two years and had accumulated an enormous amount of rush footage. So I made index cards of the sequences and did a few rounds of paper edits first. I did storyboard for my earlier films, but since I shot the last two myself, I somewhat knew the kind of frames I wanted. Also, both Rang Mahal and Bela are nonfiction films, so there is only so much one could pre-plan in terms of framing. Most of them were chance and intuitive responses to the scenes unfolding in front of the camera. Sadly, some of the best moments occur when the camera is off. Turn it on, and they are gone.

 

In a number of shots, your roving camera ends on a light source, almost as if offering a cue to the viewer that the shot is about to end. What is your fascination with light?

That’s interesting, I never thought of it like that. In most cases, it was an instinctive response, as I was mostly working with available/natural light. The night rehearsal sequence is one that I can recall. The entire activity took place around a single light source, a 100-watt tungsten bulb. Earlier, it was a longer sequence, where the bulb was set up, the insects hovering around, and then gradually the people gather. While the dancers practiced in circular motions, their blurred movements appeared like celestial bodies orbiting around the Sun.

 

Did you show the film to the people of Bela?

They have seen parts of the film, but I am yet to share the final film with them. Hopefully that will happen soon.

[Originally published at Firstpost]

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