By Nita Deshmukh. Posted on October 20, 2015
Gurvinder Singh is one of the most unique voices to have emerged in India in recent times. While his first short film Pala was a documentary based on the Punjabi folk singers, he is best known for his first feature film Anhe Ghore Da Daan (Alms for a Blind Horse) which also won him National Film Award for Best Direction at the 59th National Film Awards.
Chauthi Koot (The Fourth Direction) competed in the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival this year alongside Masaan. The film is also scheduled to be screened at the 17th Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival. Chauthi Koot narrates two different stories set in a post-Operation-Blue-Star Punjab in the ‘80s and is based on writer Waryam Singh Sandhu's collection of short stories of the same name. Set in the militancy-era of the state, the film was shot in Amritsar and Ferozepur and does not feature any professional actors. It explores the dilemma of the common man trapped between excesses of the military on one side and terrorists on the other, leading to an atmosphere of suspicion, fear and paranoia.
In this interview with Jamuura, Gurvinder Singh speaks about his film, his inspiration and his take on non-professional actors. Read away to know more about this multifaceted filmmaker.
I was born and grew up in west Delhi populated with the post-Partition migrant Punjabi population from West Punjab, both Hindus and Sikhs who shared a common sense of having been wronged. Ours was a devout Sikh family and religious rites formed a cornerstone of all events and upbringing. The consciousness of having suffered historically at the hands of Muslims, during the period of Sikh Gurus and later in 1947, was quite eminent. Hagiographies of Sikh Gurus and warriors were widely circulated as also the tortures suffered by them at the hands of the ‘evil’ Mussalmans.
Trips to the neighborhood Gurudwara with my grandparents were frequent as were functions at home like the continued recitation of Gurbani or welcoming the Prabhat Pheris before sunrise to mark the anniversaries of the Gurus. I avidly participated in all these, serving langar and chai! But then as I became a teenager, disenchantment with religion started creeping in and kept growing. Thankfully my parents never tried to impose a religious identity on me or my brother.
My parents moved out of my grandparents house when I was ten. There was a lot of secluded time once that happened and I immersed myself in newspapers and books. Most time was spent daydreaming. And religion disappeared. When I look back, I can say that a different search for identity began, more inward, experiential and sensuous.
My father was an avid family photographer. He took hundreds of black & white family portraits with his twin lens reflex camera. It was a Yashica make, akin to the famous Rolleiflex. What a joy it was to look through its viewfinder and play with it, as if there was a magic world inside. If you opened its back and held it close to a wall, an image appeared on the wall, and you could throw it in or out of focus by moving the lens ring. And the image was in color! That was such a discovery. Here was a camera on which my father only took monochrome pictures, but on the wall it produced color images.
Those were perhaps the first films I made, of which of course I have no record! And there were encyclopedias and books on art at home. So I knew about Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Gauguin when my friends in school had no clue about these. And I started copying them. I remember copying self portraits of all three of them, specially of Van Gogh with the bandaged ear and Rembrandt as an old man (years later I saw Bert Hanstra’s film on Rembrandt’s self portraits while studying in FTII). It was a great period of solitary self learning. I learnt much more at home than at school which I detested. So the seed in the consciousness was sown much early. But it was much later when I moved to Pune that a pull towards cinema initialized.
Artists and writers were always the inspiration. And I devoured writings by artist like Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo, essays by Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Cezanne, and later the American abstract expressionists, especially Willem de Kooning. How they engaged with their art and times. John Cage’s music and writings and the collages of his contemporary Robert Rauschenberg, who stood before the Pop Art era. The dignified aloofness and alienation of Robert Frank’s subjects refuses to go away and I feel that subconsciously a ‘Frank’ like feeling comes through in my cinematic treatment even today. And closer home, the works of Amrita Shergil, the Pahari miniatures and traditional Indian music.
And the mind boggling depth of meaning, variety and techniques of folk arts and crafts which I see as a continuous Indian Modernism from the past. Now I carry writings by Francis Bacon, Gerhard Richter and William Kentridge and sip them like vintage wine. But all this engagement with art needs to be seen in conjunction with the life we see around, to understand how to give sense and structure to the perplexing reality.
As for films, I never saw them as art until I came to Pune. Bunuel and his association with the Dadaists and the Surrealists was my first initiation into cinema as an art form. Then slowly the world of cinema opened up. But it were Mani Kaul’s films that left a lasting impression. And through his practice I understood Bresson’s manner of depiction. Everything came together in those works, all that one had thought, read, seen and felt. Au Hazard Balthazhar is perhaps the most beautiful film ever made. As a student I didn’t see too many films and was very selective in my viewing. That’s the case even now.
I think its better to be influenced by other arts and what one observes and experiences in life. I can sit through a bad play but a mediocre film makes me restless. I always try and co-relate the methods and techniques of other arts like theater, music and painting to cinema and find answers to my questions therein.
I find it stimulating to fuse socio-political concerns with artistic challenges. Both the films tell intimate tales of human angst and search for dignity set in political and social moorings. The issue is never presented as a fait accomplice but slowly unravels and grows. Suspense, mystery and a certain fear of the unknown pervades the setting of both the films and the characters’ behavior. Someone said that Chauthi Koot is almost Hitchcockian in that sense. But they need a certain imaginary of the larger issues the films are set in and referring to, since the clues are scattered all along like a trail through a forest.
Since it’s never spelt out, it leaves a certain segment of the audience, who cannot gather the clues, somewhat lost. But I feel they can still be felt and experienced if you let yourself loose in the ‘experience’ of the film rather than the nitty-gritty of the plot or the meaning.
In selecting the stories there is of course the humanistic concern for a particular issue, but how the story can be dealt cinematically is the overriding concern. When writing a screenplay from a story, the film should start taking shape in the mind rhythmically and give ideas of how time and space can unravel cinematically through various elements like movement of characters, objects and camera; lighting; composition; shot duration; sound on and off the screen; the actors’ gestures; the rhythm of the dialogue: in short the entire mise-en-scene. Nothing exists as a whole. Every isolated element leads to the building of the whole. And the final coming together is in the audiences’ minds, not on the screen! If the idea is forced on the screen, it will never fructify for the audience. And how it will come together is always a surprise even for the filmmaker.
I am always asked this question. I have nothing against actors and love watching theater or films where the actors’ role is paramount. The lead actors in both Anhey Ghorhey Da Daan and Chauthi Koot (Samuel John as ‘Melu’ and Suvinder Vikky as ‘Joginder’) are ‘professional’ actors, but perhaps not famous or ‘stars’. Acting is their full-time profession, whether on stage or films. They were chosen because their ‘being’ resonated closely with the characters I was trying to depict. And their faces told a story even in silent contemplation. But along with them I choose a varied cast of ‘non-actors’, people with no experience in film acting.
Like in Anhey Ghorhey Da Daan, the entire village cast is from the village where we shot the film, including the old man and his daughter Dayalo. From where would I get such faces among actors? And they were comfortable with the milieu of the film to which they naturally belonged. I told them they have to talk, walk, handle things or just sit as they normally do at home, since they were playing themselves. I never expect my actors to put on a mask and become someone else.
Non-actors also don’t ask questions about characterization, motivation, personae etc. etc. I don’t even rehearse with them. I throw them in the cauldron and ask them to react as they would in real life. The responses can be unpredictable, tentative and raw, but always closer to the truth and believable, even if not technically perfect or refined from the point of acting. But one has to be very careful in choosing the right face, as that does half the job.
When we were shooting Anhey Ghorhey Da Daan, I used to tell my assistants that I am trying to bring together Mani and Ghatak and find a common ground. There seemed to be a deep chasm between them. Initially even I could not come to terms with Ghatak’s melodrama. But slowly his sensory world overtook, the images took on meanings of their own accord and actors and their antics became a part of the cosmos. Mani’s restraint and Ghatak’s exuberance are both relevant for me and to cinema in general. If you look at Mani’s work, the exuberance is hidden in the simulacrum of masterly camerawork, sound and edit. It reaches its peak in Satah Se Uthta Aadmi which is an extremely saturated work.
This idea of the ‘saturated’ and the ‘rarefied’ is something Mani often spoke of from Gilles Deleuze’s writings on cinema. In a ‘rarefied’ work, so much could be happening beneath the surface that it can sometimes seem even more layered and sensory than any ‘saturated’ work. I am interested in the relationship and dialogue between the two. That explains why I am so fascinated with the films of someone like Emir Kusturica on one end and Abbas Kiarostami on the other and I’ve learnt a lot from these two. And I feel that perhaps Bresson stands somewhere in between, masterly gazing at everything! But it’s an ever evolving process and I don’t know where my next film will take me.
It is set during the period of militancy in Punjab in the 1980s when normal daily life and human trust teared apart at the seams. Paranoid, fear and mistrust ruled the roost. Hindu-Sikh ties also came under strain. And it was all a creation of the state, be it the militancy or the ruthless response to it. The victim is the ordinary man in any such conflict. Look at what’s happening with Syria now.
When I screened Chauthi Koot recently in Rome, people could relate it immediately to the Syrian situation. How living in fear and mistrust due to political violence and unrest forces entire families en masses to leave their homeland in search for dignity and normal life. This is what happened in 1947 and the fear of it loomed large again in the eighties. At the same time, the film talks of the rise of fascist forces and dictatorship, both of the state and the extra-constitutional actors.
The film is based on two short stories by the Punjabi writer Waryam Singh Sandhu, who incidentally recently returned the Sahitya Akademi Award he had won for these. I could relate to the atmosphere in these stories as I used to follow the events in the newspapers at that time, besides having experienced first-hand the 1984 ant-Sikh pogrom in Delhi. The two stories were like a diptych for me, one facing off the other in a dialogue, independent in themselves, yet incomplete without the other.
Its challenging to release a film like this in India. Its releasing in France before year end. It will soon release in Canada and the Yugoslav territories too. As for India, we hope to release it early next year. Narrative wise it’s a much more accessible film than Anhey Ghorhey Da Daan and I expect it to resonate with the audience, specially in the Punjab where the events of those times are still fresh in people’s memory and very much a part of the political and religious discourse even today.
There are a few feature film ideas I’m working on and will start the funding process for a couple of these soon. But currently I’m working on a short film and a video installation. The short film is a part of an international omnibus of ten directors from ten countries who have been approached by a Turkish producer to make films on the the theme of ‘conflict’. The video installation is for a video/film show to open at a contemporary art museum in Switzerland coming May. It’s a new territory for me and I’m really excited about exploring this. It gives me liberty to engage spontaneously with the medium which is different from narrative filmmaking. And its challenging because the attention is split over multiple screens, requiring a different approach to the idea of time and simultaneity.