Into The Mind Of A Documentary Filmmaker: Roy Dipankar On His Journey, Process & Aspirations!

By Aditi Patwardhan. Posted on February 02, 2016

A musical exploration of spiritual and cultural bond between India and Iran, for those who are following open lines of Sufism outside and beyond any per-conceived doctrine of law, institutions or religion, the intriguing synopsis of Nafir states. Nafir is the debut documentary of the Chennai-based documentary filmmaker Roy Dipankar, which premiered at the 21st Kolkata International Film Festival in the Short and Doc category in November 2015 and was screened at 17th Madurai International Film Festival and the 14th Indonesian Festival Film Dokumenter, Yogyakarta.

He embarked on his next project Extreme Nation, which aims to chronicle one of the darkest, most explicit and mysterious forms of a subculture of metal music that has developed over years in the Indian subcontinent. The film documents this little known or largely unexplored phenomenon through exploratory travel and character development. Shot over a period of two years and filmed across various cities, towns of India as well as beyond borders, the film is now in its post-production.

We talked to Roy about the process of making Nafir, his ways of approaching the editing process, his take on the role of documentary filmmaker in the society, his ongoing project Extreme Nation and much more.

The trailer of Nafir ends with one of Rumi's quotes- "What you are seeking is seeking you." Relating to that, did cinema seek you or you sought it out? Tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into filmmaking.

I was always inclined towards and exposed to cinema since a very young age. My parents are huge film buffs, so discussion on films, going to the movies were a part of the household. However, things got serious sometime during 2006, when I quit my day job as a copywriter. Along with two of my friends, filmmaker Abhinav Tiwari and marketing professional Vivek Chaturvedi, I formed '3SENSES'. We called it a ‘creation house’ of films conceived with the sole intention of creating soulful cinema that would showcase altered perspectives of life. We had quite a few scripts and concepts at hand. Though the venture was short-lived, I held on to documenting something unique that I found in Nafir.

What inspired you to make Nafir?

Nafir was a group of student-musicians from Iran, who used to perform all over India as a band based out of Pune, near Osho Commune, Koregaon Park. Their music was fresh soundscape to my ears. I wanted to promote the band and also get them the coveted stage at 'Jahan-e-Khusrau', a Sufi music festival organised by Muzzaffar Ali in Dehli. On Mr. Ali's request, who had heard a bootleg recording of the band at a listening session that I'd organised, I started filming Nima Lavafpour and his band mates. It was more like shooting for a documented music video and travelogue, with no guarantee of a slot for the band to play at the festival. I had just quit my then day job and had used some of my savings to fund the filming process.

What was the filmmaking process like? Did you set out to shoot with a concrete idea or it took shape along the way?

For Nafir, initially I started shooting totally on instinct. Equipped with a PDV150, a handy cam, a boom microphone, a backpack and assisted by cameramen Dev Shankar Prasad (who used to shoot for Doordarshan) and Dilip Dutta (my roommate and expert production house runner), I travelled with Nafir to some interesting places and concerts. We met some people of good intrigue along the way.

Eventually, the storyline delved deeper - from not just 'covering a travelling band' but trying to understand mysticism of Sufi greats like Hafez of Shiraz and Maulana Rumi. I've been an ardent reader of Sufi mysticism. So filming ideas became more and more concrete. Till I got shoestring broke and had to stall the project. In a couple of years, the band split and everyone left for different parts of the world. And Nafir became a bleak possibility. But, this was my debut effort, and this had to see the light of day someday! And after years of patience and learnings, it did at an appropriate time!

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Roy Dipankar (left) and Oinam Doren (on camera) during the shoot of Extreme Nation

The film is a combination of footage from analogue DV tapes from last decade and DSLR footage. How difficult was it to process the old footage and to create the look of the film, combining the both?

That's the reason why Nafir had to be completed with digital! After 7 years, Nima was visiting me, and that too in Chennai where I live now. I wanted to complete the story. Without 'playing character' to the audience. The transitions had to be linked, and a friend visiting you after 7 long years, cannot be directed to a certain 'frame' or 'expression'. It's a personal journey of a documentary in the true sense with 2 timelines. Human personality changes every 7 years, I read it some where! Hopefully it reflects on screen. (winks)

The digitization of the tapes happened due to the proximity to the technology. I have been working with this wonderful platform in Chennai called IndiEarth that gives me an opportunity to curate independent films from all over the world for festival & community screenings in Chennai and other cities. I also get to meet some amazing filmmakers as well as progressive technologies in this process. Coming back to the tapes, post-digitization I watched the footage shot of Nafir for quite a few times and decided to go close to true color while color correcting. Actually the format differences among tapes and digital footage have come off well and natural on screen. It's a colorful film with colorful personalities.

A filmmaker has a number of ideas for films, there are several things that you see around you, you read about or you think about- how do you decide which one of them to work on and make a film on that subject? What draws you to a particular subject?

There is so much happening around us today. The world is witnessing so much these days. Even if we look at the initial years of Films Division of India, the issue-led or propaganda documentaries made by greats like SNS Sastry, Pramod Pati, Sukhdev were exemplary and way ahead in terms of film art. They were also a reflection of the prevalent socio-economic and geo-political times of their era.

So for me, the decision of selecting the topic for a film would be the intrigue points of the subject  as well as the creative elements attributed to it. It has to provide that massive drive in me to actually convey the story, that needs to be told.

When it comes to editing a documentary, it can be a herculean task with hundreds of hours of footage and a limited duration. Would you talk a bit about how you approach editing and your relationship with the editor?

Building the rough sketch of a storyline, including parallel narratives, turned out to be a good exercise for me to work on forthcoming shoot schedules of my next feature length documentary Extreme Nation. It already has more than a terabyte of footage. Hence data management skills come in handy, as the process is completely DIY, it's imperative for me to handle them too.

Editing is a meditative process and the editor-filmmaker relationship has to be one of trust, complementarily creative and magical. There are enormous possibilities that the visual and sound mediums have to offer. An editor is the first mate for a filmmaker when it comes to this exploratory voyage. The equation is difficult to explain in words. It is very karmic.

My approach towards editing is non-gimmicky and artistic keeping the flow of content in mind. In documentary filmmaking, as one is depicting real situations and life characters, the choice of shot taking & scene composition has a pivotal role. I try to implement little or no control, even if I could use some, over what manifests in front of the camera. It's portraying the happenings as is. Here in Chennai, we have a great talent pool of editors. Though sometimes, it is important for them to "unlearn" a few things here due to years of mainstream aesthetic bombardment.
It's been great meeting and working with some fine DOPs with my projects. Generally for me, inspiration from old school greats as well as new age filmmakers from across the globe, and their post production techniques helped. It's an evolving process for me as I am still learning with my sophomore project.

Tell us about your next project: Extreme Nation.

Extreme Nation has been shot across 7 states, 13+ cities and towns of India, and as well beyond borders in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

With a self-funded limited budget and time-location constraints, the entire shoot, spanning more than 2 years, was conducted with careful pre-planning, and a clear mandate - to capture a character or a set of characters in concurrence with an on-ground situation. A steady storyline is carefully ensured, weaving through different cities, bands and fans. The story depicts never-before shot underground shows, places and faces in the Indian subcontinent, projecting a thriving emergence of metal music and a first-hand account through exploratory travel and character development, avoiding the usual voice-over narration and talking heads style. I have gathered vital learnings and encouragement from eminent filmmakers & peers like RV Ramani, Nilotpal Majumdar, Venkatesh Chakravarthy, Shashikanth Ananthachari and Q who have haelped in some way or the other to develop my own distinct treatment of films. Oinam Doren (National Award winner - Songs of Mashangva) has shot the North East India leg of the film. Animesh Mandal from Kolkata, documentary filmmaker Ehsan Kabir from Bangladesh, Rogger Kenneth, Art director, Ogilvy & Mather, Sri Lanka, Hassan Amin & Sheraz Ahmed (young and enthusiastic filmmakers from Pakistan), Dilip Dutt & Gagan Judge from Bombay, indie filmmakers Aniket Dasgupta, Ashwath Nair & Mithun Bhat from Bangalore, Harish Gowtham from Chennai - all have been a part of the filming process for the documentary.

Each one of these fantastic artists has a distinct style of capturing frames and movement on camera and they all contribute wonderfully to the final outcome of the film! Currently I am in the process of pitching the film to various funding platforms worldwide, so that post production can be initiated, as the journey has been self-funded so far. Hence I am looking for interested producers, investors, film and technology evangelists.

What role do you think a documentary filmmaker plays in the society?

A documentary filmmaker is bringing real stories to the screen. There lies a huge responsibility in conveying true facts to the audience avoiding unnecessary embellishments and layers of glitter provided to deviate from the main issue. Given today's media-frenzy times of everyday rising trends and fad, it is the documentary filmmaker who induces the much needed originality and freshness in the art of storytelling. Society is in dire need of such storytellers and we are really grateful to all those who have been at it since years.

Documentaries don't reach people at a wider level, as there are fewer platforms which showcase documentaries. What do you think is the solution to tackle the problem? How can we bring documentary format to more and more people and encourage docu filmmaking?

I believe there is a considerable segment in today's audience who would be interested to watch documentary films, provided the subject is presented in a certain way. Organisations like Vikalp, Experimenta, IndiEarth OnScreen, IDF, BYOFF, IDSFFK, VIBGYOR, FD Zones, DIFF and the likes are working tirelessly to promote docs and short films in India.

We definitely need more platforms, screenings, film festivals, interactions, workshops dedicated to documentary film, for creating wider interest and awareness in a mainstream commercial art environment. The explosion of digital platforms with VOD and free streaming facilities also contribute further encouragement. Websites like Culture Unplugged have been a treasure trove of doc resource since a long time.

How did you go about funding your documentary? What kind of options are available for documentary filmmakers today to fund their projects?

As I've mentioned earlier, currently I'm pitching for post production and marketing funds.

Platforms like IDFA, Brit Doc (UK), Yamagata (Japan), Docedge (India) and more, provide the necessary tools and pitching forums that nurture work-in-progress as well as films in their nascent stages towards completion. Films Division of India in the past few years under the able leadership of Mr. Virender Kundu has also produced some interesting films dealing which a wide range of demanding subjects.

Any advice for people who want to get into documentary filmmaking?

 I'm too young to place an advice as of today, however, to those yet to get into documentary filmmaking; once the subject is identified, the intent has to be clear, risks have to be taken, the focus - razor sharp!


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