Interviews


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”.

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[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.

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[The following is a translation I did with Andy Rector of the 14-page interview with Jean-Luc Godard that appears in the October issue of Cahiers du Cinéma]

That is what is beautiful about The Image Book. The whole life piles up. You keep everything with you.

I debuted in the second Revue de cinéma when it was with Gallimard and it was with the help of Doniol-Valcroze that I entered Cahiers little by little. Doniol-Valcroze was the son of a friend of my mother’s at the Victor-Duruy high school. I thought he received me because of that. I learnt later that he was demobilized and took refuge in Switzerland. It was my mother who got him to France, to Thonon, on a little speedboat called “the hyphen” and with which we often went vacationing in my grandfather’s property. I discovered that after Doniol-Valcroze’s death. I wasn’t against the Cahiers management at that time. He was the editor-in-chief along with Bazin. He was a “gentle man” in the literal sense of the term. I didn’t know Bazin like Truffaut did at all. I knew Bazin as the head of a communist organization, Work and Culture, just opposite the Beaux-Arts. There was a small library opposite run by a friend of Rivette’s from Rouen. It’s a story that I attached myself to little by little, not from the beginning, but there are all these stories I want to keep to myself. I was prudent like the Delacroix character. I stole some money from one of my uncles to finance Rivette’s first short film, Le Quadrille.

Whom did you feel closest to?

Rivette. Then Truffaut, but before he made Les Mistons. I don’t know if he was already married to Madeleine Morgenstern, whom I liked a lot. He’d become rich by this point. Madeleine Morgenstern’s father was the head of a distribution company called Cocinor in the Nord region and in Paris. But when he wrote “A Certain Tendency of French Cinema”, I hung out with him a lot. I wasn’t so much with Rivette. We could go see films at 2pm and leave at midnight because it was a single-admission cinema. I’d give up after an hour or two. Rivette stayed until the end. Rohmer had a different life. He was a professor and lived in a small hotel opposite the Sorbonne. His name was Schérer and he started signing “Rohmer” so that his mother didn’t know he led a dissolute life in cinema. These were three different friends. It was real camaraderie with Schérer—I still call him Schérer—Rivette and Truffaut. Schérer was one of the few who knew which woman I was in love with, and I was the only one to know that he was in love with the wife of an old head—a communist—of the CNC. Rohmer was ten years older and he was the counterbalance to Bazin and Pierre Kast. In The Image Book, I have a shot of the Liberation of Paris. We see an FFI member from behind, with a gun on his back, speaking to a woman on her knees. To my mind, this man was always Pierre Kast. I hope it’s true.

We get the feeling that you didn’t have political discussions at Cahiers at that time.

Very little. It was the cinema. Even girls were a secret. I remember a moment during the Algeria war. I was at the Place de l’Alma with Rivette. A car sped by with the “nee-naw” of the OAS siren. I saw that as a shot by Douglas Sirk. And Rivette chided me. I couldn’t see things politically at that time. The one who could easily do that was Straub, because he was there from the beginning.

 

In Memory of Jean Douchet (1929-2019)

[The following is my translation of the interview with Jean Douchet that introduces his collection of DVD reviews, La Dvdéothèque de Jean Douchet (Cahiers du cinéma, 2006)]

Your first collection of articles, L’Art d’aimer1, was published in 1987. It’s almost been twenty years since. What was the context for this book, which has since become a reference work?

I moved away from Cahiers following a famous episode—the magazine’s opening up to modernity and to great thinkers of the sixties (Levi-Strauss, Barthes, etc.): to put it briefly, it seemed that the kind of criticism I encouraged and practiced wasn’t intellectual enough. This separation lasted a while, until Cahiers’ Maoist period of the seventies, when the magazine almost went into a turmoil. It was an interesting phase too, but that’s not the point: I remember being very worked up about the collective article on Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (No. 223).

I came back to Cahiers little by little, notably with the interview “Douchet dissects De Palma” (No. 326), on a filmmaker that the magazine didn’t like at that point in time, not enough to my taste at least. After this, certain critics, including Serge Daney and Jean Narboni, started to think that what I proposed was powerful. That’s when I got the idea of publishing my important articles for Cahiers, as well as a few rare ones from the Arts weekly, for which I wrote five to six lines as well as authentic reviews.

L’Art d’aimer allowed me to go back to the world of criticism—even if it would be an exaggeration to say that I’d been totally absent in the intervening years. Immediately afterwards, Serge Toubiana entrusted me with a column that I wrote for two or three years. But my real return to Cahiers was in 2000 when, during the launch of the website under your editorship, you both invited me to write a weekly DVD column. The column I write today in the magazine is a continuation of that. These articles for the site were numerous, “lost” for the most part since the site doesn’t exist in its original form anymore: that’s part of the interest of republishing them today.

 

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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]

 

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?

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.

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.

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.

 

(Full interview at Projectorhead)

Mani Kaul

An enormous void has been created in world cinema landscape with the passing of Mani Kaul, one of the greatest Indian filmmakers. The least we could do is to cherish his works, spread the word and discuss about them and keep his grand legacy alive.

Here are some writings by and interviews of Mani Kaul. A heartfelt thank you to everyone who helped bring these pieces on to the internet.

Writings

Interviews