The State Of Experimental Cinema In India - In Conversation With Shai Heredia Of Experimenta!

By Yash Thakur. Posted on December 05, 2015

Experimental cinema is not a new or a recent concept in India. In the late 60's and early 70's, a lot of avant-garde work was produced by the Indian government. This was a period when a community of artists at the Films Division was experimenting with the format, and these films were often shown in cinemas before features. Dadasaheb Phalke, who is considered to be the father of Indian cinema, can actually be considered the first experimental filmmaker from India, given his experimentation with time-lapse photography way back in 20's.

Originally from Mumbai, avant-garde filmmaker Shai Heredia is not only the founder of Experimenta, an international festival for moving-image art in India, but she has also been involved in the early years of the Bhavishyavani collective, that was instrumental in bringing various forms of cutting-edge electronic music to India (The Mole, Aquarius Heaven, DOP, Laurent Garnier and Chloe to name just a few).

Shai has also curated experimental films for Tate Modern, Berlinale, Images Festival (Toronto) and EXIS (Seoul). As a filmmaker, her latest film is a short titled An Old Dog's Diary. Co-directed with Shumona Goel, the short opened to critical acclaim in the Wavelengths category at this year's Toronto International Film Festival and went on to win the Best Short Film Award at the London Film Festival 2015. The 11-minute-long film assembles, in puzzle-piece evocations, a portrait of Indian avant-garde painter Francis Newton Souza, revealing the cultural conditions for his work and its' eventual institutionalization.

an old dog's diary

A still from An Old Dog's Diary

Recently, Shai conducted a session called 'Film As Art' at the recently concluded 17th Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival where she spoke about experimental cinema in India & across the world.. Though she was busy getting the 9th Experimenta up & running, Shai managed to speak to us about her film, the need for festivals in today's day & age and on the state of experimental cinema in our country. Below are the excerpts from the interview:

Let’s start from the beginning. How did your tryst with experimental cinema start?

When I first saw the works of Luis Bunuel, Mann Ray & Michael Snow, my perceptual world shifted.

There are quite a few names to watch out for today, when it comes to experimental cinema in India. Amit Dutta for one. What are your views on the current state?

I am not sure I would place any particular filmmaker as an experimental filmmaker, and others as not. I think there are many different kinds of filmmakers who work in different contexts and styles, from inside and outside, both the film & the art industry. Actually, there's a large number of women filmmakers who make avant-garde work like Shumona Goel, Priya Sen, Natasha Mendonca, Payal Kapadia, to name a few. Their work has been shown at international festivals and won several awards worldwide. We need to study their work more closely. If we really want to know where the challenging work is being made, it's important to connect to the many communities of filmmakers who live and make films independently across the country. They are not from film institutions but are self-taught filmmakers with pure passion.

Tell us about your film An Old Dog’s Diary. What went into the making of it and how did the idea germinate?

The Xandev Foundation initially commissioned us to make a film on FN Souza in 2012, which is how we came to the subject in the first place. However, on encountering Souza’s writings, our process changed dramatically and the film began to take on several layers and become more complex. Perhaps the film is more than just a film about Souza.

Shai Heredia 2

Another still from Heredia's short film - An Old Dog's Diary

We spent a great deal of time in an archive that houses Souza’s letters, writings and essays. Once we had a sense of who Souza was - his ideas and philosophies, we then began to identify which of these resonated with us as filmmakers.  We were not interested in investigating FN Souza as a personality and artist for others to consume - many books, essays, articles, films have already done so quite extensively. To us, An Old Dog's Diary is quite simply an impressionistic portrait of the internal world of an artist, and quite possibly any artist.

Congratulations on winning the Best Short Film Award at the London Film Festival. Could you tell us about your collaboration with Shumona Goel?

We share similar ideas and approaches to filmmaking. We trust each others politics and aesthetics.  We are also friends. We believe in the collaborative approach to experimental and personal cinema.

Shai & Shumona

Shai Heredia & Shumona Goel

You have a soft corner for archival material and the use of film. What is your take on the transition from film to digital?

All our early photography & filmmaking exercises were done with black & white film so for us it's in fact most normal to work with black & white. In fact, working with colour would be quite challenging - Black and white is much more forgiving. It has greater latitude.

How important is the short film format today, in terms of experimentation?

Maybe short films do not have the pressure to speak to large audiences through television or cinema releases so they can explore diverse subjects. We do not set out to make a film with a duration in mind. We identify ideas and cinematic subjects and contexts, shoot them and then the duration is determined through the ideas that govern how the film is crafted in the editing process.

5 experimental films that you would recommend.

Chattrabhang by Nina Shivdasani Rovshen

Innocence Unprotected by Dusan Makavejev

Girl Chewing Gum by John Smith

Reason Over Passion by Joyce Wieland

Wavelength by Michael Snow - We could't find any of Heredia's films, but you can watch Wavelength below.

A word or two about the role of festivals in the promotion of experimental cinema, such as MAMI and Experimenta India.

Film festivals play a crucial role in building film and cultural literacy, which is why they have a responsibility to showcase path-breaking independent & experimental film, that is rarely seen or hard to come by. Film festivals in my opinion, must exist independent of the film industry and not be determined by commercial interests.


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