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]

[The following is a translation of a dialogue between Hélène Frappat and Jacques Rivette originally published in La Lettre du cinéma in 1999 and reprinted in Textes Critiques, the collection of Rivette’s film criticism issued by Post-Éditions in 2018. The reprint carries an introductory note by editors Miguel Armas and Luc Chessel, reproduced hereThere are no images accompanying the reprint, the additions here are mine.]

Hélène Frappat and Jacques Rivette

Towards the end of 1997, Hélène Frappat contacted Jacques Rivette, who was about to finish editing his film Secret Defense, in order to propose a conversation intended for publication in a new quarterly magazine called La Lettre du cinéma, whose first four issues had come out that year. Their constant exchange, following the release of the film in March 1998, gave way to two recorded conversations, held on 30 September of the same year and then on 6 January 1999, whose transcription was revised and reworked by Rivette, who added three footnotes with his pen.

Together, they constitute a truly collaborative work, published in two parts in issues 10 and 11 of La Lettre du cinéma in the summer and autumn of 1999: the first part carried the title “Trailer”, as a quick introduction to an upcoming dialogue; the second, initially announced under the title “Hunt down the imposters!” was finally titled “Secrets and Laws”, providing the text its general and final title.

It wasn’t the first time that Rivette participated in this kind of exchange: recall the importance of the sprawling conversations he had with his companions at the Cahiers du cinéma, attentively read over and corrected by the filmmaker himself, on his films L’Amour fou (“Time Overflows”, issue no. 204, September 1968) and Le Pont du Nord (“Interview with Jacques Rivette” in two parts, issue no. 323-324, May 1981, and issue no. 327, September 1981); or his dialogue with Serge Daney in two parts, “Day” and “Night”, filmed in Paris by Claire Denis as Jacques Rivette, the Nightwatchman, for the collection “Cinéastes de notre temps” in 1990.

But “Secrets and Laws” seems like a separate work in itself. While presenting it then, Hélène Frappat gave the following guideline:

“What you’re going to read isn’t an interview, but more precisely what Rivette prefers calling a ‘dialogue’, for him a more interesting form than the traditional ‘Q&A’, a form more open and closer to his usual method of working when he’s writing, preparing or shooting a film with members of his crew. The concern of this dialogue will be more general and theoretical (what is a film?) than particular and circumstantial (how to evaluate this or that film?). It’s perhaps for this reason—though he is loath to mention his older writings most of the time—that Jacques Rivette returned to two foundational texts published by Cahiers du cinéma, one in 1953 and the other in 1956: “The Genius of Howard Hawks” and the “Letter on Rossellini”. In these two articles, Rivette reflected on a double evidence: the self-evidence of Hawks’ genius and that of Rossellini’s modernity; a question all the more crucial because, in a way, it poses a threat to the very activity of criticism: how can one prove a self-evident fact (if it can’t be demonstrated, only confirmed)? And what are the conditions that make it possible to think about the feeling of self-evidence that often underpins our critical judgment [1]?”

“Secrets and Laws” thus constitutes as much a reflection on the work of criticism in its relation to the history and practice of cinema as a return to Rivette’s journey, his thought and his work by the filmmaker himself: a major text on the theory of art, which develops invaluable and unexpected ideas in trenchant orality, soberly offered for the use of future readers, where the questions “what is a film?”, “what makes a film a work of art?” register as political questions, in line with the one that Rivette never stopped asking under the name of “modernity”.


[The following is a translation of Serge Daney’s interview with Satyajit Ray published in Libération on 9 February 1982 and reprinted in Daney’s Ciné Journal Vol. 1 (1998, Cahiers du cinéma). With kind help from Laurent Kretzschmar of the indispensable Serge Daney in English blog.]

Satyajit Ray by Nemai Ghosh

February 1982, Calcutta

In which we go meet Satyajit Ray at his home in the city that he never stopped loving.

At any rate, he’s stands tall. Heads and shoulders above the rest. He just celebrated sixty years of life and twenty years of cinema. To the rest of the world, he is “Satyajit Ray”, the symbol of Indian cinema. But in his country, where films are made on an assembly line (743 films in 14 languages in 1981) and dreams are ruthlessly manufactured, he’s the first one to have left the factory. It happened between 1952 and 1956, here in Calcutta, and the film was called Pather Panchali. Since then, with his baritone voice and his impeccable English, Ray has never yielded on the most important thing: to shoot at home in his language (Bengali). A little less than thirty films in twenty-five years. But Indian cinema, the “all India film”, hasn’t yielded to him either. The struggle has been long. When you leave Bengal and ask the man in the street, no one knows Ray anymore. When you remain in Bengal and talk to any kid coming your way: he knows the names of stars, of cricket players and of Ray.

He’s at home in Calcutta. This inconceivable city, where it seems so easy to live and so easy to die, oozes with culture. Ray writes, produces drawings, composes music, and one day, in 1947, the year of independence, he starts the first film club in Calcutta. Ever since, this old capital of colonial India (from 1773 to 1912), this “premature metropolis” that has become a giant village, remains the conscience of Indian cinema. The film festival (called “filmotsav” here) is a genuinely popular event. The theatres—New Empire, Metro, Jamuna, Society, Jyoti, Paradise, Elite and Glove—are full. A ticket is a precious commodity. Tickets for second-class seats are sold on the black market.

Reaching Satyajit Ray’s house isn’t hard. Bishop Lefroy Road isn’t far from Chowringhee, the aberrant centre of this decentred city. Overcrowded arcades face an empty stretch of land where, amusingly, the Russians and Hungarians have been pretending for years to construct a metro that, all of Calcutta likes to think, will collapse with the first train (they still have ten years to go, says Ray who finds the idea funny). The filmmaker’s house is located in a central district of Calcutta, in a rather calm and posh neighbourhood. The houses, their windows and balconies have been fittingly corroded by humidity. Their ochre is turning into black. Ray lives on the top floor of a mansion barely older than him. I notice the spacious office where he receives me. I make out the rest: slow domestic helps, plants, film reels piled up, a diorama of greeting cards on a small table (it’s January, and the winter weather is wonderful), books of course, an old radio, two windows overlooking two streets, folded newspapers and, in an armchair, Satyajit Ray, very relaxed and even cheerful. Ray expects admiration from a visiting Westerner. He knows he deserves it. This respect pleases him but doesn’t surprise him anymore.

That’s for the image. As for the sound, the pitch is set by crows that caw with as much repressed hate as on the soundtrack of India Song. Traffic jams, human cries, honking automobiles, street vendors and assorted birds make for the rest. It’s simple: the city enters by the window.


[A report on Mirza’s masterclass at the Bangalore International Centre in February]

Saeed Akhtar Mirza in conversation with Aakar Patel.

“Don’t try to be good, try to understand”, remarks filmmaker Saeed Akhtar Mirza, reflecting on a hideous story idea proposed by two well-meaning acquaintances of his. To understand: that might be the verb Mirza most used at the masterclass organized by the Bangalore International Centre in February. In conversations with different hosts, Mirza talked about his childhood, his turn to filmmaking, the blossoming of his political awareness and various aspects of his filmmaking and writing practice, including the circumstances of production of the three films screened at the event. Together, the films and the conversations evoke the image of an artist for whom practice is an extension of one’s intellectual relation to the world, a transcription of one’s ‘understanding’ of it.

As the child of noted screenwriter Akhtar Mirza (Naya Daur, Waqt), Mirza found cinema and cinema-related discussions an integral part of growing up. But it wasn’t until his 14th birthday, when his father projected a copy of the Soviet film Battleship Potemkin, that the medium took firm root in his consciousness. The image construction, he says, was shocking. He’d subsequently have one classic of world cinema screened at home every month. The realization that cinema could accommodate ideas, conversations, polemics as well as narratives enthralled him.

Adult life, however, had different plans, and Mirza found himself working in an advertising firm. He experienced an internal crisis eight years into the job. Encouraged by his wife, he applied for a course at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), coming back to the road he had left behind in his adolescence.

At the institute, then under the direction of Girish Karnad, Mirza set out to document protests against slum evictions in Bombay. The sheer imbalance in clearing thousands of residents to make way for a few hundred government officials struck him, instilling an abiding desire to speak to people and hear what they have to say. Emergency was declared shortly after he finished editing the documentary, simply titled Slum Eviction.

How is it that a cosmopolitan—“internationalist”, in Mirza’s description—unmarked Muslim from west Bombay became a committed, politicized filmmaker producing work attuned to realities that had little bearing on his social situation? Mirza traces the transformation to an incident from childhood. At the age of ten, he refused to enter the Bandra mosque with his father to offer prayers on the day of Id. He didn’t believe in god anymore, he told his father, who asked him to remain seated at the steps outside the mosque. This original doubt paved way for others, taking him on a journey of progressive ‘declassification’ of the mind.

Mirza relates this opening up of the mind to diverse ideas, especially at the film institute, to the predicament of the protagonist in Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastaan (1978). One of the two films produced by the quasi-legendary Yukt Film Cooperative Society (the other being Mani Kaul and K. Hariharan’s Ghashiram Kotwal (1976), in which Mirza also worked), Arvind Desai, says Mirza, is about being young and hailing from a particular social milieu. He adds that Arvind’s predicament, of rationalizing the gap between acquired ideas and lived experience, of harmonizing the two, was his own. “Our school education is status quo-ist”, notes Mirza, “we need outside ideas to shake it up”. Arvind Desai thus became this “journey of guilt”, tracing the chasm between received education and political action.

His subsequent film, Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyun Aata Hai (1980), set around mill strikes in Bombay, is the story of the politicization of a bourgeois businessman. It came at the end of a significant personal change, says Mirza, the result of “being swept into a vortex of ideas”. “It was an age of questioning at a mass level”, he adds, referring to the international protests against the Vietnam war in the seventies. And Albert Pinto was another step towards engaging with the other, in this case with one of the largest organized workforces in the country.

Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho! (1984) adopts a sophisticated expositional framework that combines the tamasha form of theatre, a middle-class melodrama and a documentary. Even though the decrepit chawl we see in the film seems like a real slice of Mumbai, the film itself has only tenuous links to realism, weaves as it does in and out of a burlesque mode of narration. Bhisham Sahni’s dignified face, representing for Mirza ‘civility in an uncivilized world’, is pitted against the machinations of a caricatural Naseeruddin Shah, whose career rises just as the chawl continues to crumble.

On being asked about the long, revealing titles of his films, Mirza speaks of a democratic dialogue with the audience, of not wanting to deceive them. When the viewer buys a ticket, he says, he has an idea of the film he’s walking into. “It’s not some Khandaan or Jurm.

In no other film is the title as illuminating as in Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro (1989). The instruction—don’t cry over Salim the cripple—positions the film as a tragedy, with the fate of its lead character sealed from the start. Salim, a low-level hustler with dreams of making it big as a gangster, gets a rude awakening when he’s showed his place by a system that views him differently. The Mumbai slang of Salim and those who abuse him are far from the Byron-quoting urbanity of Mirza, who had to undertake midnight trips to Dharavi to talk to real underworld figures as part of his preparation.

Mirza describes the last of his five major films, Naseem (1995), as the final nail on the coffin of the idea of India. Set in the months preceding the destruction of the Babri mosque, Naseem paints an elegiac portrait of a syncretic, tolerant nation, thrown into disarray by the events of and after December 1992. Like Salim, but on a lower, more heart-breaking key, the teenager Naseem (Mayuri Kango) is forced to confront her social identity as reflected in reaction of those around her. Naseem finds Mirza articulating space with greater surety, with the fluid camera stitching the rooms of Naseem’s middle-class household into long, unbroken shots.

Responding to why he didn’t direct films at the same clip after 1995, Mirza said that he felt he didn’t have anything more to say, that he needed to gather himself. Over the next few months, he travelled extensively through the country, meeting people of all stripes from across geographical regions, in order to “regain his faith in people”. “The Babri demolition”, he adds, “was an assault on what my mother stood far”. And this journey across the Indian heartland was necessary to restore his belief in the basic generosity and benevolence of ordinary Indians.

Mirza’s energy and effort after Naseem were directed towards writing: screenplay for a children’s film Choo Lenge Akash (2001), but also two books. In a conversation with Aakar Patel on his writing output, Mirza detailed the idea behind his first book, Ammi: Letter to a Democratic Mother (2008). Letter, he says, is a tribute to his mother as an individual, but also a remembrance of history, an act of unburdening. His mother’s deep thirst for information was often checked by an insecurity about herself in face of an erudite husband and English-speaking children. With conversations unfolding at home in English, reflects Mirza, language became a tool of distancing. Letter was a way to address this distance, to recognize the silent revolutionary gestures of his mother—a document, then, at once personal and political.

“It’s unforgivable if you’re over 50 and don’t have a sense of our history”, asserts Mirza, pointing to the collective amnesia the country has developed around the Babri demolition. Just after the events, in a workshop with students of direction of the batch of 1992 at FTII, he admittedly asked students to mull over three questions: whether India was (a) more intolerant (b) more violent and (c) more religious than any other country in the world. When the students came to the conclusion that India was no special case, he counselled the students then to cut out the clichés and understand the causes and effects of historical upheavals.

Cause and effect. Words crucial to both the inner workings of Mirza’s films and his view of history. Marxist in spirit, Mirza’s work never settles for easy simplifications of human behaviour, even when framed as melodramas as Mohan Joshi or Salim is. It’s also a Marxist term he coins to characterize the changes the nation has been subjected to in the past thirty years; a “lumpenization of aesthetics” has taken place, he says, and the globalization of the economy has but resulted in a “ghettoization of the mind”.

“Each film I’ve done is a journey of understanding myself and the world”, reflects Mirza. His work invites us to undertake the same journey, to leave the self-imposed ghettos of our mind.


[First published at SilverScreen]

A for American Cinema

Perhaps more than any of his Nouvelle Vague comrades, Moullet retained a fascination with classical American cinema all through his writing and filmmaking life. Some count with numbers, some others with John Ford’s filmography.

B for Backpacking

Moullet has stated more than once that his real profession is trekking (which explains his love for movies with people on the move). That cinema is just a hobby. A hobbyist’s cinema then, free of the need to make statements or find a purpose.

C for Cinephilia

A great fidelity towards cinema over other arts. There’s are a few literary references, hardly any to painting and almost none to music or theatre in Moullet’s work—quite unlike his New Wave peers. The Cahiers du cinéma is the abiding literary material on screen.

D for Doors

Probably as many as in the Dardennes. There are four or five door-related events in the very first short film, including an appearance by Moullet himself. There’s a whole film about the different ways of bypassing the Paris metro turnstiles.

E for Economics

A perennial obsession with finances, both from a macroscopic, economic point of view and in the transactional, everyday sense. A shopkeeper recounts her dealing with a serial killer. Moullet: “Did he settle his account?”

F for Fake

Master of false histories and forged statistics, Moullet was a devoted explorer of the mockumentary. His short films, in particular, dwell in the slippage between the documentary form and the fictional nature of things being said.

G for Geography

Mountains, plateaus, marshes, rivers, grasslands, slag heaps are the central characters of Moullet’s cinema. It is what he paid the most attention to in his writing as well. Many of his works are virtually excuses to film certain landscapes.

H for Housework

No helping hand to lend, no shopping to do, no firewood to pick up, or dishes to wipe. Everyone is condemned to the anti-dialecticism of intellectualism. Write, write, write forever. I think, therefore I am… but no, I think therefore I don’t wipe, for there’s nothing to wipe.” Not in his films though.

I for Irony

The Moullet persona is a product of contradictory impulses, his great delusions of grandeur undone by the pettiness of his concerns. A neurotic, self-deprecatory figure somewhere between Jerry Lewis and Woody Allen, with a touch of the silent greats.

J for Joke

The Moullet screenplay is an occasion for chaining together quips and visual gags. The joke is often a radical simplification of a situation (Moullet stealing newspapers from a vending machine) or a radical elaboration (a two-minute sequence of a man noting down something from a newspaper).

K for Kitchen

Food, of course, is at the centre of Genesis of a Meal, but has a tangential presence all through. Hunger grounds the intellectual being, the act of cooking, preparing the table and consuming all serve a purpose of reverse-transubstantiation.

L for Lists

“I have 72 ideas for key scenes, I arrange them to have a logical order”. Enumeration is the chief manner by which Moullet builds his films and texts, which overflow with lists of all kinds, often rattled off by the characters themselves.

M for Maps

The capital of French cinema, he wrote, is a rhombus in the Centre region of the French hexagon. The capital of madness, we are told, is a pentagon between the Alpes-Provence regions. A body of work suffused with cartographic imagination.

N for Nowhere

The cinema’s poet laureate of boondocks and bleds paumés, Moullet takes particular pleasure in discovering and deriding the most disconnected and isolated settlements in the country. Mean? Perhaps, what comedy isn’t?

O for Omnidirectional

A Moullet film is a collection of unicellular entities with no central nervous system or sense of time and space. It wants to go nowhere and everywhere at once. The longer the film is, the more apparent its atomization.

P for Province

For a filmmaker born and working in Paris, Moullet gives the city of lights awfully little representation. His cinema doggedly heads for the provinces, militating for a relocation of French capital to the town of Imphy, population 4000.

Q for Quantity

Moullet, who determined that 3.5m² was enough for a new parliament, is nothing if not metrically rigorous: “I had to buy half a dozen cutlets, a half-hour worth of wine, 100 metres of noodles, a litre of fresh eggs, 4 francs of olives, and a pound of cake.”

R for Resourcefulness

Shots, soundbites, narrative threads from one film, one piece of film criticism will be reused in other. Repetitions abound, and not just for the sake of humour. The Moullet cinematic universe—and one could speak of a veritable universe here—is finite and ever-shrinking.

S for Statistics

I’d gather technical information—number and duration of shots and shooting, budget, box office of the film etc.—which made subjective positions sound objective.” “Contrary to expectations, certain statistics are even more subjective than critical opinion.

T for Transport

Four people depart from Paris for the provinces. One leaves in train, one on a motorbike, another on a bicycle and the last one takes a car. The time to their destination is in inverse proportion to the speed of their modes of transport.

U for Unemployment

Moullet might be the filmmaker most concerned with unemployment, of all of France as much as his own. The sight of waste heaps strewn across Nord-Pas-de-Calais is for him as much an opportunity for job creation as it is aesthetic real estate.

V for Vélo/Love

“Here I had a satisfying relationship that could last hours. One I could dominate, one which involved no problems. I tried to ride in a straight line. The more circuitous things got to be, the more I liked straight lines. I wish my life were a straight line.”

W for Whip pans

The camera oscillates between two points of interest, expressing indecisiveness, or an act of comparison. This dishonoured device finds shelter in Moullet’s cinema, a veritable refuge for such kind.

X for Xerophilia

Fear of water is the main subject of Ma première brasse, but water bodies (or lack thereof) are permanent fixtures. Moullet stays away from the coasts and is attracted to the driest of regions in France. The one film he made in the US was set in Des Moines, Iowa.

Y for Youth

A perennial boyishness, self-styled petulance and a lifelong refusal to grow up and “be serious”. A film on mortality he made at seventy is shot through with an adolescent flippancy towards death.

Z for Zsygmondy

Like the eccentric accommodation scheme of the eponymous refuge, Moullet’s writing and films are often demonstrations of analytical frameworks that are in part or wholly arbitrary. Just like the setup of a good joke.

Adoor Gopalakrishnan in conversation with Maithili Rao

Adoor Gopalakrishnan is not much of a speaker. He has written the screenplay of all his films and composed several books on cinema, but the spoken language is something he appears to steer clear of. So it’s perhaps fitting that the two-day masterclass he conducted at the Bangalore International Centre on November 23-24 began with a screening of Kathapurushan, the story of a writer who suffers a speech impediment. It’s also perhaps the reason that the masterclass was conceived simply as a series of moderated Q&A sessions instead of a monologue supported by film extracts. While the moderators, film critic Maithili Rao and writer-filmmaker Basav Biradar, provided useful interpretive frameworks to give shape to the discussion, Adoor’s comments proved rather tangential, veering into generalities in response to specific questions, preferring to dwell on personal authorship over collaboration and remaining focused on the films’ literary aspects when probed on formal choices. But as with all significant artists, we are glad to receive whatever we get.

Adoor describes Kathapurushan (The Man of the Story) as an “incisive look” at himself. Spanning forty years, the film charts the life of Kunjunni (Vishwanathan), the scion of a feudal household who suffers from a stuttering problem. Kunjunni’s personal story—his legend-like birth, his fatherless upbringing, his relationship with the working-class family employed at the house, his blossoming into a young intellectual, his imprisonment and his eventual “cure”—is set against larger events from the history of Kerala. Like many of Adoor’s characters, Kunjunni is a barometer of the upheavals that saw social relations transition from feudalism to communism. His stutter goes just like it came: in reaction to a specific institutional violence. Adoor constantly jumps in time with ellipses that arrive unannounced. These vast temporal leaps are in contrast with the real-time sequences that populate the film. In Kathapurushan, the filmmaker accentuates his characteristic editing style that involves intervals of dead time bookending action or dialogue within a shot.

In the exchange that followed, Adoor touched upon the co-production offer by NHK, Japan, and described how he was urged by the film critic Tadao Sato to take up the offer even though he had no story idea at that point. Speaking about the colours in the film, he recounted how he wanted to shoot the film between rains in peak monsoon in order to capture the various shades of green proper to Kerala. He insisted that he storyboards his sequences beforehand, with the cinematographer responsible primarily for the lighting. This explains the stylized shot division of the film’s most memorable sequence: a raid at Kunjunni’s revolutionary press shown entirely through close-ups of typesets, pamphlets, strewn paper, marching feet and cuffed hands. This manner of synthesizing shots against continuity recalls the work of Sergei Eisenstein, as does the use of actors. Especially in Kathapurushan, the actor’s work is objectified into individual packets of information—gestures signifying discrete ideas like crying, grieving or rejoicing—whose purpose is to support the wider thematic scaffolding.

If Kunjunni represents the first type of Adoor protagonist, the individual who rises above the station his situation consigns him to, the principal characters of Vidheyan (The Servile) are wholly products of their environment. Both Patelar (Mammootty), the malevolent feudal relic who runs roughshod over a village in Dakshina Kannada, and Thommi (M. R. Gopakumar), a migrant settler who becomes his trusted vassal, are products of a social structure that has no legality anymore. Right from the first shot of the film, where Thommi is interpellated by Patelar’s humiliating call, the two are bound in a master-slave dialectic in which each derives social-existential legitimacy from the other. If Vidheyan remains Adoor’s supreme achievement towering over the other films, it’s perhaps because, here, his style finds a subject matter that’s an organic extension of it, inherent to it: the shot divisions, the backlight and the use of off-screen space all become emanations of the central idea.

Talking about the genesis of the script, Adoor said he changed the Patelar character from a serial killer in Paul Zacharia’s original short story to a naïve being out of step with the times. He also revealed that he had offered the short story to his friend and fellow filmmaker K. G. George. The latter, it appears, turned it down as he was more interested in the social politics of migrant Malayali settlers in Mangalore, in place of this abstract meditation on power. Adoor also rejected the moderator’s proposition—after Suranjan Ganguly—that his films were about outsiders, maintaining that they were only about individuals. Discussing his casting of Mammootty as the antagonist, Adoor said that he doesn’t differentiate between novices and professional actors and usually casts actors in small roles before giving them meatier parts in subsequent films. That this was his third production featuring Mammootty made the star comfortable in portraying as repulsive character as Patelar.

If Patelar and Thommi are products of a system, Basheer, the protagonist of Mathilugal (The Walls), rejects all isms and asserts his irreducible individuality. Adapted from Vaikom Muhammad Basheer’s autobiographical novella, Mathilugal, in fact, centres on the dissolution of an institution, namely the police force, into individuals. The story is set a few years before independence in a Travancore prison where Basheer (Mammootty) is held for writing against the state. At the facility, he gets a preferential treatment, with both jailers and fellow-prisoners willing to provide him with his indulgences. Basheer, in turn, is not only brotherly towards them, but affectionate to the plants and small animals on the premises as well. He thinks of a jailbreak, but the romance he develops with a woman prisoner across the high walls of the prison makes him rethink the meaning of freedom. Mathilugal is a tender film for Adoor, gives in as it does to the vagaries of human desire and behaviour instead of putting it under the microscope.

Adoor remembered his collaboration with V. M. Basheer with great fondness and respect. He described how the author was sure the film will turn out well when he learnt that the sole woman character in the story will not be shown, but only heard. Adoor spoke about the authenticity of the period details and the prison set that was built with brick and mortar. He stated that the central challenge of adapting the novel was to turn the ‘I’ of the novella into a flesh and blood character. Answering the moderator’s question about the casting of the Mammootty as Bashir, he said that, in his writings, Basheer had a lofty self-image, which he wanted to bring out through the image of the handsome actor. In the film, Basheer perambulates the prison corridors, amusing himself at first but soon descending into a marked depression—a change in tone that Adoor mapped to the Basheer’s real-life spells of schizophrenia.

The last screening was that of Elippathayam (The Rat Trap), arguably Adoor’s most academic, but also most rigorous film. Another chronicle of the response of the powerful classes to disempowerment, the film follows a landed family living in an ancestral house: the entitled, lazy-to-the-bone patriarch Unni (Karamana Janardanan Nair) and his two sisters, the suffering Rajamma (Sharada) and the self-absorbed Sridevi (Jalaja). Unni’s incurable fear of change eats Rajamma away and prompts Sridevi to flee the house in a gesture of self-preservation, while he remains locked up in the house like a trapped rodent. Elippathayam is a highly abstract work like Vidheyan, and Adoor gives each character in the film a single defining trait. Every shot, sound and detail of the mise en scène has a fixed place in the film’s meticulous structure and serves to illustrate the thesis. Adoor’s characteristic, Platonic attention to objects vested with social significance, such as ancestral furniture, saturates the film with meaning and intellectual heft.

Adoor mentioned that Elippathayam was a film about “sharing”, about our reluctance to respond naturally to change. He detailed the reasons why the film was shot in colour: the Moraji Desai government, having gotten rid of licensing limitations for the import of film stock, enabled the flourishment of colour stock in the country to the detriment of monochrome. The highly coded colour choices of Elippathayam were thus a virtue made of necessity. He asserted that films, whatever else they are, must function at least as social documents, pointing to the authenticity of the way of life depicted in Elippathayam. For all its ills, he added, the feudal system fostered a more intimate relationship between the landed class and the tillers, as well as between the tillers and the land—something that vanished with the disintegration of joint families and ancestral homes.

The four films screened at the masterclass, all of them Bluray projections, offered an excellent cross-section of Adoor’s body of work. Even with Adoor’s limited commentary on them, it was evident that they stake a claim for the filmmaker as one of the true modernists of Indian cinema. The novelistic, classical quality of his script—personal stories set against historic transformation like in John Ford—are given a critical edge by the self-conscious form, the countless doorways that double frame his shots and the carefully curated panoply of ambient and artificial sounds. In all the four sessions, Adoor reflected on the long periods of inactivity between his films. He explained that the hardest part is for him to be convinced that an idea is worthy of a feature-length production; the rest follows. It’s good to get stuck working on an idea and return to it after a while, he went on, instead of compromising the idea. He said that he constantly asks himself why the audience should see his films, that nothing will change if he doesn’t make films. The last thing the seventy-eight-year-old filmmaker wants to do is to repeat himself.


[A shorter version of this report was published in Film Companion]

I'm Going Home


“Life is a moment which is always past, which doesn’t exist anymore. It’s the genius of artistic creation to attempt to retain life. This is the function of literature, of painting, of sculpture, which preserve the passing life. Not its historic dimension, but the ephemeral dimension of things which flow like the water of a river. The place is the same, but the water isn’t.”

— Manoel de Oliveira, at 90


It is something of an irony that Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira, who passed away at the age of 106 – a full life and a half – on Friday in Porto spoke frequently about the ephemerality of life. To cinephiles who have celebrated and cheered for him during each of his post-centenary birthdays, it seemed that Oliveira will be around forever, making the kind of films he makes, free not just from the ruthless exigencies of commerce, but also the passive-aggressive demands of film festivals, academia and cultural fads at large. Even the Venice Film Festival felt obliged to give him their lifetime achievement award a second time in 2004, having underestimated the late bloomer’s career plans the first time around in 1985.

To be sure, Oliveira’s vast body of work, the bulk of which was made after the filmmaker turned 70, despite regular critical acclaim, hardly fostered undying allegiance in his already niche audience. He was a thorough modernist, yet worked consistently with classical texts and themes devoid of political polemic or cultural commentary favoured by the academic establishment. He was at the vanguard of cinematic experimentation, but was so religiously bound to the written word as to frustrate “Pure Cinema” evangelists. The typical Oliveira shot is static, with the fixed camera squarely filming well-costumed actors flatly spouting dialogue in an anti-realistic, declamatory fashion. One recalls old Tamil films where actors, burdened as they were by the tradition of theatre, spoke looking at the camera than at each other.

Instead of shunning theatre for the critically venerated idea of film as a pure form, Oliveira’s cinema embraces and even subordinates its filmic elements to it. For the filmmaker, there is no real need for cinema to consciously distinguish itself from theatre, for its very nature sets it apart from the latter. Theatre is always material, contingent on actors and décor, while a movie, once filmed, is fixed and ethereal with its bodiless phantom actors. Theatre, cinema and reality form a triad in Oliveira’s films, each one feeding constantly into and illuminating the other two. Like Michel Piccoli in I’m Going Home (2001), who comes to terms with his old age only through the conventions of the stage, Oliveira believes that it is theater that helps us better understand reality.

So too with cinema, which captures fugitive moments of life and preserves it for eternity in order that we have a clearer view of it. Nowhere is this preservative quality of the moving image more piercingly and movingly portrayed than in The Strange Case of Angelica (2010), one of Oliveira’s last films and one of the greatest films of this century. Like so many of the director’s films, Angelica is a story of unfulfilled love and thwarted desire, in which Isaac the photographer (played by Oliveira’s grandson and regular collaborator Ricardo Trêpa) falls in love with the image of a dead girl he has photographed. Through Isaac’s attempts at bringing to life this girl through the imaginings of his art, the film becomes an ode to the redemptive quality of cinema in which impressions, people and memories long dead are resurrected through the magic of the medium.

Art and life: the two co-ordinate poles between which Oliveira’s cinema resides and oscillates. Characters in Oliveira’s films yearn that the shortcomings of life be dissolved in the perfection of art, while art harshly brings them back to bitter the quotidian reality around them. These romantics always want to be somewhere else – some other time, some other place, some other medium. Perhaps that is why these films routinely straddle multiple historical timelines that often meld into each other such that the contemporary seamlessly cohabits with the classical, the modern with the medieval. Oliveira’s is a cinema of longing, of this vain desire to be ‘somewhere else’, of the uniquely Portuguese feeling of Saudade, or what he himself calls, the nostalgia for the future.

(For The Hindu)



A man putting off a cigarette on his wrist, midwives being trained to handle childbirths with a plastic baby, an actor roleplaying as a traumatized war veteran with the help of a virtual-reality software, visitors at a Vietnam War memorial in Washington caressing the engraved names of the deceased, a group of architects discussing how to maximize the amount of time a buyer spends in a shopping complex, a mock Iraqi village set up in California with Iranians and Pakistanis intended to train American GIs. These are but some of the unmistakable images from the films of German documentary filmmaker Harun Farocki, who passed away last week at the age of 70. Farocki’s output, which spans the genres of filmic essays, Direct Cinema documentaries and multi-screen installations, is among the most intellectually piercing and artistically rich bodies of work made in the last 50 years anywhere in the world.

Born to an Indian father and a German mother in 1944, Farocki was taken at a very early age to the work of Bertolt Brecht, who, along with Theodor Adorno, had a deep impact on his filmmaking style. As a student, he was actively engaged in the student movement in West Germany and was, as a result, rusticated from the film academy. Inextinguishable Fire (1969), which Farocki made during that period, contrasts the horrifying effects of Napalm B on the human body with the amoral, scientific detachment with which it was developed in the laboratories of the Dow Chemical Company. This phenomenon of the alienation of labour from its products – the defining characteristic of industrial era – and the absence of individual moral accountability in hierarchical corporate capitalism haunts the entirety of his 45-year working life.

A lifelong Marxist, Farocki examined the ever-changing face of industrial production, continuously investigating what exactly constitutes such production and what labour means in an age in which the boundary between productive and not-productive work has become fuzzy. His last, unfinished installation project, Labour in a Single Shot (2011-2014), which consists of a collection of shots showing people at work in 15 different cities simultaneously projected on 15 screens, probes into this shape-shifting nature of labour and its increasingly invisible place in the scheme of things.

Such a desire to get to the heart of modern capitalist practice is also what informs the series of observational documentaries – fly-on-the-wall films in which the filmmaker abstains from intruding on what is being filmed and instead simply plays the non-participative spectator – which Farocki made from the 90s onwards. In these works, we typically see a group of white-collar workers coming together to conceive and realize a project, such as the construction of a mall, the forging of a deal between an investment company and a startup, training of interview candidates or the design of a new corporate office space. As they unfold we are made privy to something that is all too elusive in the technocratic society of ours – the presence of rational, human decisions underpinning the actions of systems larger than them. In these sound-proof rooms of glass and steel, we witness the crystallization of an entire socio-economic climate around individual choices – the materialization of ideology in the realm of the visible.

This constant osmosis between the domain of ideas and that of real things is a theme that binds all of Farocki’s work. These films recognize the progressive abstraction of tangible things into intangible notions – the translation of use value of commodities to its market value and the subsequent transformation of hard money to vague stock market numbers – and the continuous virtualization of the real. They throw in relief the fact that, in the sphere of production and marketing, material things are merely temporary containers in which one abstract idea (the idea of happiness and satisfaction for the consumer upon buying the product) is realized before it is converted to another (the advertising image). Taken together, these films form an elegy for materiality, a testimony to the loss of tactility of objects.

Nowhere else was this loss as sharp and complete as in Farocki’s own professional practice, in which he had to move from working with film stock, to shooting with analog video, and then to making films with digital cameras. The increased digitization of shooting, editing, storing and distributing of films, for Farocki, rhymes with the increased depersonalization of manual labour. Data from the real world is stored as electrical charge in computers, then abstract images are formed out of these charges and finally the real world is reshaped with these very images, thus closing the loop. The pre-existing filmic material used in Farocki’s films – surveillance videos, engineering models, reconnaissance footage, and scientific data feeds – attest to the centrality of machine-captured images in military, economic, social and legal processes today: supermarkets are architected according to the walking patterns of consumers, defense strategies are planned out based on video game designs, psychological traumas are treated with virtual-reality games and prison facilities are controlled and regulated through interactive CCTV setups.

The image, of course, is the primordial object of study in Farocki’s films. These works delve into the history of modern image making – from the diminishing perspective of Renaissance architecture which anointed sight as the preeminent sense to the flattened images of aerial photography that gave birth to both Cubist art and wartime telecasts – to explore how the cinematic image has time and again been the tool of choice for subjugation and how it has unwittingly played its part in the concentration and abuse of power. “The history of battle is primarily the history of radically changing fields of perception”, wrote Paul Virilio. Farocki’s films echo this observation and demonstrate how, in modern warfare, wars terrains are mapped out in amazing detail, war strategies simulated through software and variables of battle are controlled to such an extent that the actual war simply becomes a logistical formality. In such an asymmetric war, the side that controls machine-filmed, amoral and objective images of a region is the one that conquers it. To see is to capture.

Farocki’s cool, composed essay films remind us of the treachery of images, sure, but also keep pointing us to their possibilities and their liberating power. These works move beyond analyzing our extremely visual, late capitalist culture through its advertising images alone and reveal the epochal shift that machine sight has brought in every sphere of existence. One of the greatest strengths of these films is their genuinely open-mindedness towards the rapid transformations that mark our post-ideological age. Though they certainly take a political position, they are not monolithic, leftist diatribes perceiving every change as a machination of the powerful that leaves no scope for resistance. Neither pessimistic nor triumphalist, Farocki’s films distinguish themselves with the untainted curiosity and the openness to change with which they attempt to make sense of the time we live in. The same could be said of Farocki.

(For The Hindu)

Chris Marker avec Monsieur Chat

“I’m writing you all this from another world, a world of appearances. In a way the two worlds communicate with each other. Memory is to one what history is to the other: an impossibility.”

–         Sans Soleil (1983)


It is possible to build a case that a person called Chris Marker, who reportedly passed away two weeks ago in Paris, never existed; that the name is a mnemonic for an underground art collective, a projection of an auteurist film culture that tends to preserve the aura of a reclusive artist or a convenient label to denote audiovisual echoes from another world: a world of images, a world of appearances. Rarely photographed and even less frequently interviewed, Chris Marker, born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve in 1921, is something of an invisible man in the hallowed halls of world cinema. Generally associated with the Left Bank of the French New Wave, alongside high priests of cinematic modernism such as Alain Resnais, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Marguerite Duras, Marker has been credited as a pioneer of the Film Essay – a free-form genre marked by a strong authorial voice in which cinema most resembles non-fiction writing. Although it is true that he has produced some of the most groundbreaking, most challenging and most riveting film essays to date, it would be gross injustice to pigeonhole an artist who has not only engaged with a range of documentary forms like cinema vérité, agitprop, film diary, artist profile, travelogue and the home movie, but also wandered across media – literature, photography, video games, interactive multimedia and cinema – to explore his chief metaphysical and political concerns: time and space, history and memory.

‘Wandering’ was what Marker truly did. With the curiosity of a child, the fascination of a foreigner and the detachment of a drifter, he hopped media in search of the most eloquent articulation of that which haunted him the most. Unlike some of his New Wave peers, cinema, for him, was never an end in itself, but yet another medium – as powerful and as insufficient as any other – that could directly deal with ideas close to his heart. His films are incomplete in the sense they are not predetermined theses disbursing answers, but intellectual terminals where trains of thought depart from. There is a sense of mystery and rediscovery that these films impart to everyday experience, as though prompting us to look at the world anew, that could have been conceived only by a bonafide outsider, a person who does not belong anywhere but everywhere. A perennial globetrotter, an aesthetic voyager and an escape artist par excellence, Marker, as it were, never belonged to a single place or time. Such an elusive yet enchanting perspective is what informs the central theme of his most renowned work: the science fiction short La Jetée (1962), the tragedy of a man simultaneously stuck and unstuck in time.

Part a playful tribute to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), part a serious study about the nature of cinema, La Jetée is composed entirely of still photographs. In the film, a man possessed by the image of a woman he saw in his childhood – now long dead – goes back in time to meet her, with full knowledge that he will lose her again. Marker’s spellbinding film literalizes the “double death” that haunts every photograph and which Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag would expound on decades later: the realization that a person in a photograph one is looking at is already dead and will be dead in some time after the photograph was taken, the dread that Eduardo Cadava called “memories of a mourning yet to come”. It realizes that the photographic image has neither a history nor a future and that it is the actuating force of cinema that provides it with both. The idea of such a malleability of memory and history – personal and collective – and an obsession with the enigmas of space and time motivates another of Marker’s hypnotic films: the sprawling, shape-shifting Sans Soleil (1983).

A masterwork of the free-associative essay form, Sans Soleil endlessly tosses one idea against another, examining the way we restructure personal and collective memory and construct our identity – as an individual and as a society. The film is riddled with questions relating to the differences in human experience that a geographical and temporal dislocation brings. Why is it that one is alive here and now? What if one was born in a different place or in a different time? In one way or other, these concerns have pervaded nearly his entire filmography starting from the extremely witty, self-reflexive film diary Letters from Siberia (1957). Through the decades, Marker has proven himself to be a relentless chronicler and examiner of the visual media that surround and shape us. His films have probed, in various forms and to various degrees, the deepest tissues that connect us subconsciously to the moving images of cinema. And it is only befitting that we thank him, in true Markerian spirit, for all his discoveries we are yet to make.


(Originally published in The Hindu)

Interview: Girish Kasaravalli

[The following is an interview of Girish Kasaravalli I did for the latest issue of Projectorhead magazine. Talking in person to the director whose films I deeply admire was a rather revelatory experience in that it not only cleared me of many misconceptions about these works, but also exposed interesting differences between how a filmmaker conceives his films and how a viewer receives them. Heartfelt thanks to founders/editors Gautam and Anuj for giving me this opportunity]


Srikanth Srinivasan: Your films are rife with rituals, ceremonies and legitimization games. This is perhaps most apparent in Ghatashraddha (1979), your debut feature. What interested you in dealing with such conservative constructs?

Girish Kasaravalli: Although they are present in the later films as well, rituals and ceremonies are central only to Ghatashraddha. I wouldn’t say I am interested in rituals or castes as such. I liked the scenario of Ghatashraddha, which is about this pair of people Yamunakka and Nani who are marginalized and outcast by this religious institution. She is a young woman who naturally feels the need for male companionship. Nani, otherwise rather sharp, finds it difficult to learn these scriptures. Both of them are ridiculed and outcast by the establishment.

SS: Your direction of Meena Kuttappa in the film is highly stylized. It is not exaggerated, but it is not natural either. It is almost Bressonian. This kind of acting is not found elsewhere in your filmography.

GK: Yes, we were familiar with Bresson’s cinema that time and Meena’s performance is similarly very stylized. It was a de-dramatization gesture. Much of our acting assumes that emotions are to be expressed. I wanted the emotions to be expressed not through the acting but the events of the story. Throughout the film, Yamunakka stays in a single register of suffering. Nani, on the other hand, undergoes a marked change. He realizes that he has to help Yamunakka. While he cannot do a whole lot, he does what his strength and age allows him to. That is why, his performance, along with other characters, is more naturalistic. Even the lead performance in Thayi Saheba (1997) is stylized the same way.

SS: One of the students studying with Nani might be homosexual. Was there any backlash against this? I’m guessing it would have been scandalous locating such a character within such milieu.

GK: No, there wasn’t because it was not overdone, it was subtle. Outrage occurs when a portrayal is sensational or too provocative. There were some who questioned me about Haseena (2004), but there really has been only one such provocative instance in all my films taken together: when Tabara curses the pension officials in Tabarana Kathe (1986)

SS: You mention Haseena, whose story is set in a Muslim community which has its own laws pertaining to marriage and divorce. Post 9/11, it does seem like a rather risky move. What was the reason to set the film is such an enclosed social setup?

GK: Haseena is not as much related to 9/11 as it is to our response to that event. Haseena is rallying for justice at the mosque. She tries to achieve what she wants within the structure of the Islamic law. She does not attempt to come out of it and appeal to secular establishments. What I was trying to say is that there is a space in every religion in which one can address issues. Only when they are institutionalized that cover-ups happen. The character of the rich lady in the film points out just that.

SS: I think your point is very central to Naayi Neralu (2006). Even though Venku is within a rigid establishment, the intrusion of the man, who claims to be her reincarnated husband, comes across as a form of liberation. She is not completely averse to it.

GK: She is initially averse to the idea. She does not believe in reincarnation. But she realizes that one way out of this suffocating atmosphere is to pretend that as if she believes in it. That, in my opinion, is a form of protest. When we usually talk about protest, we only think of large-scale demonstrations, but in the world around us, we see a number of such small gestures which make life meaningful.

SS: In films of, say, John Abraham, social change is achieved through radical political change, whereas you take a bottom-up approach in your films. Do you believe that without large scale political change, a social overhaul could be achieved?

GK: In John’s films, the characters are already politicized and aware of their situations. My films are about other people who aren’t. Yamunakka, Haseena, Venku are not the kind of people who can take up placards and fight the order. Marx calls it “village idiocy”. They are not. They have an innate instinct on how to respond meaningfully to their situation.


SS: In Mane (1991), which is unlike anything you’ve done and unlike other films dealing with marital relationships, there is so much happening around the couple, while the cracks are all within. It’s very unreal. Why did you take a tale as personal as this and trying to view it through a sociological lens?

GK: Mane and Kraurya (1996) were two films that deal with changes that affect personal relationships. Rajanna keeps talking proudly about working in an MNC. India had just opened up their markets. I thought that agrarian society would be left behind in Rajiv Gandhi’s “Leap into the 21st century”. Mane, then, became a metaphor, with the rocking house, the walls, and the shed and so on. I don’t show the people working in the shed. Rajanna thinks these people are a threat. He doesn’t realize that the company he is working for is the real threat. He comes from a rural background. Initially, he doesn’t want his wife to be with his aunt, who he thinks is morally questionable. But slowly, he starts pestering her to go to his aunt’s house, knowing well that the inspector – who represents the state – will be there. There’s a shift in his perspective. Such social changes also bring about changes in values. I wanted to register that. An extension of this is seen in Kraurya.

SS: You establish the dichotomy between rural and urban life, which you talk about, early on. Rajanna’s rural life is just alluded to, and you shoot the suffocating urban spaces, the decor in a completely unconventional manner. The sounds and the images, too, seem completely synthetic and shaped to precision. How did all this come up?

GK: In every film, one does that. But in Mane, you probably notice it because it’s a little more stylized. For instance, the colour scheme in Mane and Naayi Neralu are the same. In the latter, it is more conspicuous while here I play with the colours. I felt that  in Tabarana Kathe people got carried away by the narrative that they saw  bureaucracy as the source of the tragedy .Where as what I wanted to say was Tabara is both the exploiter and perpetuator. So I thought that I should have a narrative that is more symbolic and one which doesn’t exist in real life. I started working on a minimalist narrative, where you are forced to look at things. But the next film Kraurya, like Tabarana Kathe, is abundant with details. Naayi Neralu has the same red, green and white colour scheme of Mane. But I use it in a more realistic way there and in a more unreal fashion in Mane, which is why it became noticed.

SS: Even in Thayi Saheba, there is an abundance of red and deep brown in the indoor scenes. What was the motivation of have these scenes in such intense colours?

GK: One thing is that it was simply a detail. These are oil-lamps and would produce yellow/amber atmosphere. It was a period detail. And not all colors are red; there is just a dominance of red. Appa Saheb is always in white. Among all my films, Thayi Saheba wears the maximum number of colours, because it brings out the irony her character – An exterior full of colours but lonely within.

SS: You use perfume as a metaphor for the aristocratic legacy that the son carries. He tries to break out of it continuously. You are deeply empathetic towards him, but at the same time, you sympathize with Thayi Saheba. Is Thayi Saheba a revolutionary, a reactionary or a victim?

GK: When I was working on the script, I asked my wife, who hails from that area, one detail that characterizes the aristocracy. She said Attar. I thought it was a good detail and I could use it in many ways. It is not a visual cue, but it has a strong conceptual presence throughout. What is Thayi Saheba? I wouldn’t say she is a revolutionary, but she is not a reactionary either. We have this wrong notion of revolutionaries. Appa Saheb has a ideological clarity, while Thayi Saheba finds it impossible to understand these political terminologies. But in the realm of personal relationships she achieves everything that Appa Saheb doesn’t. She’s neither a reactionary nor revolutionary, but she’s one with a very progressive attitude. The ideologue Appa Saheb takes to religion once he loses his legs. I gave another facet of it to other Zamindars, who want to retain their land after independence. Their notion of freedom is restricted to a political freedom from imperialists. So the freedom movement is not a part of women or the farmer class. It is restricted to a particular group. To highlight this historical reality, I wanted to take to get a period ambience. The film was made in 1997, 50 years of independence. I wanted to understand if we’ve really got freedom for everyone. The film is set in a period between Gandhi’s and Nehru’s death and I wanted to raise to all those sociopolitical changes that took place and how it affected his legacy.

SS: With Dweepa, you jump right into a post-globalized India. The effect is established right in the first scene; indigenous people are being relocated, as in other third world countries. There is so much happening structurally in the film as well, with differences and splits manifest on many levels. Why the sudden shift from the minimalist, metaphorical modes of previous films to a confrontational one?

The film is not as much about relocation, which does happen in the background, as it is about submersion. We always talk about displacement, but we submerge more than just the geography: cultures, life-styles and, most importantly, self-esteem of the people. Ganapaiah’s greatest shock is when he learns that his past does not count at all. Even his biggest supporter calls him a madman. Krishna hails from the city and represents the future in a way. He keeps talking about the world outside the island. Nagi, on the other hand, has neither the burden of the past nor the enamored by the future. She is a person of the present. She thinks only about solving the current crisis the family faces. She tells her husband that she came to live with him in the island and can survive under any circumstance. I wanted to explore what makes this woman so resilient. That innate quality which Indian women have: managing with the little resource they have, negotiation with the time and situation. There are five characters in the film – I consider nature to be an important character because it is so directly involved in the family’s lifestyle. Nagi is like the river, you can try to hold her with the dam, but she will overflow. Her essence remains the same. I wanted to construct the film like an inverted pyramid: first the village is submerged, then the island, then the family and finally it tries to submerge the couple. I’d say, even here, I work on a metaphorical level. I haven’t gone  after issues. It would have become another Tabarana Kathe. I didn’t want to do that.

SS: When dealing with such a topic, filmmakers often run the risk of exploiting their subjects. How did you negotiate this problem and decide on your limits and your approach towards the characters?

GK: Sometimes, we try to take a very easy approach. We don’t look for grey shades. One of the problems with agitprop cinema is that they don’t look for grey shades. The strength of films that are humanitarian in their concerns is that they always have grey shades. Sarbojaya in Pather Panchali (1955) steals, Antonio in Bicycle Thieves (1948) steals. Yet we sympathize with them, because the directors succeed in diverting your attention from the acts of stealing towards the sociopolitical reasons of stealing. In agitprop cinema, you concentrate more on the action and don’t go beyond that. Ray and De Sica make you understand the situation through this act. I, as a spectator, don’t want Antonio to get caught because I have sympathized with him and understood the problem in all its dimensions. In other kinds of cinema, zamindars are evil. The real challenge for a filmmaker is to capture the characters in grey shades, not pure white, not pure black. In Dweepa, when Nagi’s husband dismisses her efforts, we don’t become angry, we move to a higher space where we understand reality with much clarity. You realize that the male ego does not want to accept her sacrifice. You realize the gender politics between them. It’s not husband beating the wife. He does not hit his wife, does not scold her, but there is gender politics going on,

Kanasembo Kudureyaneri (2010)

SS: We can see this kind of grey portrayal in Kanasembo Kudureyaneri (2010), where some of the landlords try to help Irya out of the situation. In Kanasembo, you use an unconventional narrative structure which isolates the two classes, as if a person from one side can’t see what’s happening on the other side. Did you decide on the structure before developing the material or did you find a technique that suited the subject?

GK: I had wanted to make a fragmented narrative for some time. But are we going to use it for the heck of it? It shouldn’t be the case. I was actually looking for a subject that demands such a narration. When I found the story, it hit me because an event looks completely different when seen from two different places. I wanted to retain that structure because as a spectator, when I watch Irya’s first dream, I think he is mad and that Mathadaya is a rational man. That is the attitude most of us have. We always think that the stories, dreams and myths of marginalized people are rubbish. When a man in coat and with a tie talks about “vision of India”, we listen attentively. Today everyone is writing a book on a vision for India. In their vision, a large section of India doesn’t exist. As a viewer, the first section is very convenient for me to criticize. When we see the same event in the second section, we learn a different truth. So, in a way, it makes me introspect about my attitude towards other cultures and myths. Rudri’s dream is spoiled by not Mathadaya, but Basavanappa, who is more rationalistic. He has this wrong notion that if he destroys their myths, Irya and Rudri will progress. This is the biggest danger.

SS: In Gulabi Talkies(2008), you cover a lot of grounds, the film contains almost an excess of detail: fishermen’s conflicts, communal riots, the Kargil war, the effect of Gulabi’s TV on the neighbours etc. Do you think all these events could be tracked to a single top-level problem?

GK: Gulabi is a unique film in my oeuvre. Gulabi is tied to the community, she is not the centre. She is as much important as the fishing community. It’s a film about a community, not an individual. When you are talking about a community, you cannot just touch one point. I wanted to bring in all those elements, which has made our life complex, many of which cannot easily be solved. People very simplistically say that so and so is the reason for communal tension. Behind that there is globalization, behind that there is changed economic motivations. Hindus were bosses, Muslims were workers once. Then the situation changed. Then there’s the exploitation of sentiments by the media. The original short story is set in 1930s. I shifted it to the 90s, which is a very turbulent period in recent Indian history. That’s the period when economy was opened up, the Babri Mosque was destroyed, and private TV channels bloomed, which were blaring Vande Mataram in warlike tunes. I wanted to have the inner world of Gulabi and the outer world of the fishermen, each contributing to the other.

SS: There’s been much talk about death of cinema. Do you think cinema is mortal?

GK: The media only looks at the dominant industries. When Antonioni came out with L’Avventura(1960), people criticized him because it was completely radical for its time. They were used to filmmakers like De Sica and Fellini. Even now we have directors from small countries like Taiwan making good films. These filmmakers are trying to find a unique idiom of expression that is only possible in cinema. I would say cinema is, in fact, becoming more cinematic. So I wouldn’t be so quick to write the obituary of cinema.

SS: Your thoughts on digital filmmaking?

GK: In the olden days, directors needed to get the approval of the studio before they could acquire the equipment and start making their films. Then, in the sixties, the situation improved, with the waning of studio’s power. That’s how we could make films. Even then, we needed to get the various equipments before we could begin shooting.  But, today, there is no need for even that. You can make a film with a limited crew. I think it’s a good thing; it gives everyone an opportunity to express themselves. But just because the resource is easily available, you should not misuse it.

SS: The 70s saw a boom in film societies, but they have gradually decreased in numbers since then. What do you think is the reason for this decline?

GK: You should look at it in terms of access to films. At that time, only film societies had access to world cinema. They used to file requests and get the prints. If a thousand people were registered in a film society and six hundred of those frequented it, only those six hundred had any knowledge about international cinema. Young people today have much more exposure to world cinema than those days. Nowadays, you can find any film sitting at the computer or walking over to your nearest DVD store. The need for film societies gradually went down. But at the same time, cinema-watching has ceased to become a communal activity. We watch it alone in front of our computers, instead of sitting with 800 people in a hall. The experience is totally different.

SS: So should film societies concentrate less on procuring films and more on making films a communal activity, generating discussion and debate along the way?

GK: Film societies should play a bigger role in culturing a viewer into a cinemate. Some film societies have not been able to do this, at least some of the societies I know of in Karnataka. They are familiar with world cinema but when it comes to a film from Kannada or Marathi they are not that enthusiastic. Discussions should be more inclusive and participatory. They should understand the cinematic and cultural norms of specific geographies. There is such discussion online. You watch a film and visit the web. You have forums where people discuss such matters.

SS: One perfunctory interview question – filmmakers who have had the greatest influence on you? You’ve mentioned Ozu elsewhere.

GK: I’m not influenced by filmmakers; I’m influenced by individual films. Some of my friends go after filmmakers and make sure they catch up with all their films. I don’t do that. I like Pather Panchali, but don’t like some of Ray’s other films. I mentioned Ozu because I admire his filmmaking. But that does mean I’m influenced by him. You can’t see his influence in my films. Ozu  is very minimalistic and his form is highly codified  You know that if three people are talking, he’s going to go for a triangular composition.. If one character gets up, there will be a cut to a long shot instead of a dolly back or a moving camera. If there’s a red, there will be a yellow somewhere in the image to balance it. If there are walls, they will be almost empty, without decorations. No character will break down dramatically. I can’t do that. I need a little more drama in my films.


(First published at Projectorhead)

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