By Arun Fulara. Posted on June 21, 2016
Indian films winning at international film festivals isn't a big deal anymore. This is powered by a new breed of young filmmakers, unhindered by the past, who are willing to explore new terrain. While most filmmakers are dealing with new kinds of stories, there are a few who are going further & playing with the medium itself.
Kabir Mehta is one such filmmaker. His docu-fictional short film, Sadhu In Bombay, recently won the top award at European Media Art Festival (EMAF), an annual German film & media festival that aims to showcase the latest trends in contemporary audio-visual art. The jury in its citation highlighted the experimental nature of his work & the use of the medium to blur the lines between, reality & fiction.
"Sometimes to get at the truth, you have to look eye to eye with the camera. But the winner of this years EMAF award shows that looking the camera in the eye and speaking directly can make the truth more complicated and difficult to face. For one thing, is the main character a real life subject or an actor? Is the director revealing reality or refabricating it? Or is there even a difference in these distinctions? This film bravely explores this grey zone in a way that isn't gimmicky or overly self-reflexive, but open, smart and straightforward, dealing with the deceptive layers of both moving image media and social media. Energetic and curious, this work vividly addresses contemporary life in a country where, sadly, it is forbidden to be shown."
Kabir Mehta receiving the award at EMAF
Mehta's filmmaking career started with his winning a filmmaking contest at Delhi University. He's since worked with acclaimed director, Ashim Ahluwalia at his production company Future East Film, before branching out to make his short films.
We caught up with the young filmmaker recently & had a chat about his film & filmmaking ambitions.
Gaspar Noe’s short film Carne; Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, Caché & Das Schloß; Tsai Ming Liang’s Vive L’amour; Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain; Pasolini’s Saló are some films that come to mind. I adore Satyajit Ray’s Charulata. I can watch Kubrick on a loop. I admire Ashim Ahluwalia, who has distinctly opened up new possibilities for Indian cinema & young filmmakers. I feel privileged to have had a chance to work with him. Through him I was introduced to many landmark filmmakers, in particular Imamura and Cassavetes.
Beyond cinema, I have been influenced by existentialist philosopher Ernest Becker’s book Denial Of Death. I have also recently been reading the books of Ray Kurzweil & Kevin Kelly with a deep interest in the ontological relationship between human beings and technology that they explore.
During my travels around India in 2013, I had the extraordinary experience of spending time with an aghori in Benaras. He was an utterly compelling character- cranky, theatrical, somewhat misogynistic- and yet strangely unforgettable. Completely captivated, I developed a fascination with the idea of planting this character into a city environment. His reactions to this unfamiliar milieu, which predominantly took place in my imagination, shaped the background for the sadhu we see in the film.
In the process of developing this character, I began to draw parallels between sadhus and filmmakers who I recognize are equally hypocritical, manipulative and unfazed by reality (case in point- me!).
After this it suddenly stuck me- what if these two characters meet?! Intrigued by the potential of what I could do with this interaction sort of paved way for this entire film.
The approach to a docu-fiction is interesting because you document some aspects of reality and lace the narrative with fictional elements. There were times when we were running up to 60 takes for a shot and other times when we had to let the camera roll and patiently wait for an accident to happen. This also meant frustrating moments where we’d witness something magnificent only to realise that the camera was off! By the time we got going, we could only manage to capture the tail end of the moment.
A still from the film
The blend of these two contrasting methods made the process more exciting and surreal. I must add between completing this film and shooting for my next, I have begun to understand the metaphysical nature of filmmaking and that, through the lens of a camera, every moment is as fictional as something fabricated and conversely as authentic as a documentary.
A couple of years ago, I saw a film titled 10 Minutes Older by Herz Frank which is an uninterrupted tight close-up of a child lasting a whole 10 minutes and once the film is over, regardless of whether the child was deliberately made to sit in from of the camera or not, ten minutes of the child’s life have gone by and we witness a documentation of that moment in time.
Sadhu In Bombay resonated with the folks at EMAF, who understood that I was exploring the grey zone between reality and fiction and essentially making a film about filmmaking, while putting forth my argument on contemporary life and media consumption. From what I learnt, the jury liked that it was an interesting mix of edgy content and technique, while adhering to some more mainstream type narratives.
Though, more than the award, the experience of meeting with filmmakers from across the world and watching their films (which were truly extraordinary) has given a lot more to me as a filmmaker- I now see so many more dimensions to the medium.
By design, any film that is seeped in reality (or even if it’s not) is social and political- it’s impossible for a film not to be. As a filmmaker, I don’t make a conscious choice to make something that has social resonance. I am fundamentally drawn to a certain character and his/her microcosm.
Inevitably, however, the socio-political themes that I am curious about would find their way into whatever I make. Although the two films that you mentioned were made a few years ago primarily as an excuse to get behind a camera and shoot a damn film- in a way, they were self-imposed film exercises.
My next project, which I have been shooting in Goa, is pretty much in the same vein as Sadhu In Bombay but at the other end of the social spectrum.
I am also kicked about exploring the immersive possibilities of virtual reality & the visceral experience it can induce- these days, I am toying around with a 360° camera that I’ve just got my hands on.