Monday, November 28, 2005

A Courtyard Screening

For almost a year after I shot my Tulu film SUDDHA I did not go to Moodbidri, the place where I had shot it। My associate Surendra Kumar, who like me is also stationed in Mumbai, had been pestered by enquiries by local actors who had acted in the film. So, when I completed the film, we decided go to Moodbidri, to quench their thirst. Subhash Padiwaal, one of our actors, had agreed to arrange a screening, in his house.
A two hours ride on the three o’clock express bus that left Udupi, where I had gone to attend a cousin’s marriage, took me to Moodbidri। After a quick coffee with Surendra, who had gone there a day before me, we boarded another bus। Half an hour later, at our destination, we were greeted by a smiling Subash Padiwaal, some sweet ginger juice, an incessant local journalist who was pitching in for the non existent post of a PRO of my film and last but not the least, a deafening power cut। Tuesdays was the official power cut day in the area. We were supposed to start the screening at seven in the evening, by which time the power would have been restored, Subhash Padiwaal had assured us. He had made the best of arrangements.
A pandal made out of dry coconut leaves, locally called ‘chappara’, had been constructed in his courtyard. He had hired a few chairs. His 21-inch TV was to be used for the screening. And I was told that he had also arranged for some snacks and sweets. ‘Bonda', one of item that is to be served, is on our behalf’, quickly added Surendra, not to be undone.
While waiting for the power to be restored, we visited the nearby temple, managed by the Padiwaal family. The family spends around twenty thousand rupees a year just to conduct the annual temple ritual called kola. Subhash Padiwaal’s family was an erstwhile feudal landlord family which once owned a few nearby villages. ‘The story of my family is quite similar to the story told in your film’, confessed Subhash Padiwaal. SUDDHA dealt with the decay of the feudal mentality of erstwhile landlord families in Coastal Karnataka and their reluctance to accept changing social norms.
Decades ago, such families offered patronage to local folk arts like Yakshagana and different forms of puppetry. Performances were held in the courtyards of their houses. By sponsoring the screening of our film in his courtyard, Subhash Padiwaal was keeping alive such a tradition. The irony was not lost on me.
As darkness engulfed the Padiwaal courtyard, the wannabe PRO started drilling me with some questions, in the guise of an interview. By then the actors started coming. They too grilled – ‘What took you so long to complete the film?’ ‘Did you find any sponsor?’ ‘I thought the film would not see the light of the day’ ‘Why not have the screening in Moodbidri town itself?’
Fortunately the power came right at seven. We decided that the screening would be held in the very room where they had kept the TV, for I did not want the natural sound ambience of the courtyard to affect the sounds that I had designed in the film. An excited audience cramped into the room, sitting on sofas, chairs and tables; and even on the floor. Some stood at the back, shouting at people not to block their views. Among those were men and women who worked in the fields of the Padiwaal family; who are traditionally not allowed into the inner sanctity of the house. It took some time for all of them to settle down. ‘What a start!’ I cursed myself.
And then, five minutes down the film, just when I thought that the audience were getting involved in the film, the light went off again! ‘There is some repairs going on nearby’, I was told. Suddenly I an elderly man went up to the phone to call someone, pleading for a power restoration. He was the private contractor attached to the electric department responsible for the day’s repairs. He was one among the audience, for his daughter too had acted in the film. ‘In a few minutes...’ he declared.
Utilizing the time, Subhash Padiwaal and his family served us snacks. That was when we realized that there were around a seventy of us. We had just planned for an audience of twenty, but the word had spread. Although each one of us got just half a sweet, half a bonda and a peg of coffee, I felt secured for it reflected that there are people who wanted to see my film!
When the power finally came, it was decided, by public demand, that the TV be taken outside. There were far too may people wanting to watch the film. The audience themselves arranged the chairs under the पंडाल, I raised the volume of the TV to the maximum level that I could and left the rest, as they say, to the gods - even though I hardly believe in a whole lot of them.
For the next fifty minutes, the screening went off well. The audience reacted generously. It was music to my ears. But there was one thing that bothered me - Subhash Padiwaal’s courtyard had it’s own sound ambience. Night crickets shrilled through the darkness that evening, merging their voices with the sounds effects that I had orchestrated into the film. At one point even I got confused, was the sound coming from the TV or was it the natural sound ambience? Fortunately the audience did not notice it.
And then the light went off again, for the third time! ‘It is a major repair’ I was told this time. Some members in the audience almost ordered the electric contractor to make the necessary phone calls. This time the contractor was reluctant, for restoring power would be a hindrance to his business. But the audience was determined. It was already nine in the night and it would be difficult for them to go home, if it got late. Besides, Subhash Padiwaal had not foreseen such a problem for, if he had, he would have surely arranged for dinner for the whole lot of us!
Suddenly, as if by public demand, the power came all by itself, saving everyone the blues.
The rest of the film went off without any interruptions. It was 10’ clock when the film got over. There was not much of a heavy-duty discussion about the film, for every one had to go back to their homes to have their respective dinners. But from whatever little people spoke about, I was glad that they actually liked the film; some had even noticed my sound design!
The highlight of the post screening secession, much to my embarrassment, was that in a moment of inspiration, one of the actress’ of the film went to the extent of touching my feet, much to the amusement of Surendra!
SUDDHA is a leisurely paced film that has no music in it। It is constructed only through the natural sound effects that echo in the silent villages in Coastal Karnataka. It does not have those elements, often used in the mainstream cinema that would mesmerize the audience’s mind, strangle them and hold them captive. But the audience in Moodbidri watched the film, I would say, without any pre-conceived notions or prejudices. They took the film for what it is. I was thrilled for, contrary to what some people had to say after watching the trials in Mumbai; there was indeed a receptive common village audience for my film! Back in Mumbai, Surendra still giggles around when he jokes about the ‘inspired’ lady touching my feet at Moodbidri!

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Sunday, November 20, 2005

The Sight and Sound of Jogeshwari East

Sushma, my wife, had agreed upon this one bedroom-kitchen-hall abode that we are presently residing, mainly because our colony, Satellite Park, has a lot of open spaces – a rare commodity in a land starved city like Mumbai. Besides, it is just a stone’s throw away from the Jogeshwari Railway Station. But after having lived here for over a year, I have no option but to conclude that it takes some sort of courage to make an existence here. For example, I can say, with a certain degree of confidence, that only the strong willed and the brave hearted can manage to complete the short but adventurous journey from the Jogeshwari Railway Station to my house at Satellite Park.

The ordeal starts right away when you get down from an auto at S.V. Road, near the railway crossing in Jogeshwari West. But before you can even think of getting down, you might encounter some quick-reflexed passengers trying to get into your auto to grab seats. If you are not fast enough, you might just be pushed out! These are the guys who want to share an auto with like-minded passengers to areas like Behraum Baug, for it costs as much as a bus ride and is faster.

A valuable bit of advice after you get down from the auto is to turn a blind eye to any vehicle that might stop right in front of your nose. Act dumb to the driver’s abuses and head directly to the railway crossing. To facilitate the speedy flow of the peak hours local train traffic, the Jogeshwari crossing is made non functional for twice a day for two hour each. Sensing immense business opportunities, many roadside vendors set tables and spread blankets right on the middle of the road. They spread their goods, ranging anything from cheap shirts to plastic watches to ultra red apples. During these times, you have no option but to wade through their goods. You better be a good navigator, for if you step on any of those goods you have had it!

During the rest of the day, when the rail crossing is functional, these vendors would be gone for sure, but there would be umpteen smoke emitting vehicles, some times huge fat old lorries, waiting to get over to the other side. You would then be forced onto the narrow footpaths, or should I say whatever is left of the footpaths - because these footpaths themselves are encroached by the licensed shopkeepers. In the process don’t worry if any of the speeding bikes hit you, there are two medical shops right there!

When you finally reach the railway crossing a feeling of achievement may erupt in you – a feeling of having won an Olympic marathon. But beware! The battle has just begun. Make sure that you don’t get under the crossing gates while it is being closed, for they might break your heads. Pray your stars and begin the next step of your journey – which is to actually cross the railway tracks.

This leg of your journey is very easy. If you forget to look over your shoulders to spot the speeding trains, you can be assured that you will hear yells from your fellow travelers. Whenever you hear such yells you can blindly stop wherever you are and be safe – except of course if you are right at the center of the track in which the train is coming. And be prepared to see some broken skulls, real blood and curious types watching fellow travelers hit by some moving train, dying a painful death. Needless to say, sometimes a white Maruthi ambulance, donated by a nameless well-wisher, stands alone near the ticket counter at the other end of the railway crossing. Wonder what is it doing there.

Ah yes... one important tip while crossing the tracks, especially the long distance ones, is to be careful of the human waste that is thrown outside the lavatories of traveling trains. This is really crucial. Otherwise you might end up transferring some human shit onto wherever you go, thanks to your sticky shoes! Before I forget, let me tell you that you can also climb up the footbridge to cross over the tracks, avoiding the umpteen beggars housed there. But I would bet that, like me, you too would neither be having the time nor patience to do that. It is very human to take grave risks!

If you find yourself alive after having crossed the by now not-so-dangerous-railway tracks, consider yourself to be damn lucky. But the ordeal is not yet over. To come to my house at Satellite Park, you have to now ‘swim’ through the innumerable vegetable and fruits vendors encroaching upon the road that will leads you to the Western Express Highway! I use the word ‘swim’ because during the monsoons, this low-line area is always water logged. In the September floods this year, the water levels had almost reached chest height! But even in such situations you need not worry because there would always be drunken volunteers who would hold ropes to guide you – as if they are helping you cross a river in the Amazon forests.

But during the dry days, if you are in a footpath-shopping mood, you can have a variety of choices - Flowers, banana leaves, newspapers, balloons, false mustaches, mehendi, tender coconuts, blouse pieces, mobile phones, sugarcane juice, incense sticks, lottery tickets, rat poisons – you name it and it is there. But I should confess that, although I am not an avid footpath shopper, a couple of desi fast food joints selling vada paavs, samosas and other spicy stuff look tempting, despite the fact that they have caused infections in my system every time I ate them or sometimes, even if I had the thought of eating them!

A few steps into this on-the-road-supermarket and you will find a road divider. The best way to travel into our colony from this point is to walk right at the center of this road divider. No vehicle would crush you. No person would brush you. You can even increase the pace of your walk. A few months down the line, I can’t assure you of this, because your fellow travelers would know this secrete and the divider then would be as crowded as the road or the footpaths, or whatever is left of the footpaths!

When the divider ends, you take a left into the only official shopping complex of Jogeshwari East. Behind this complex is the Satellite Housing colony–with its open space and refreshing breeze. ‘This is bliss’, you may feel and you are right. There are no vehicles that would crush your toe, no one coming from the opposite side who would dash against you and no vendors screaming at your ears. Only the green campus of the Ismail College that is right opposite our colony is better than this bliss.

Once inside the colony you can walk peacefully and come into my house at B 603. I normally enjoy this last leg of my journey. And believe me, there is nothing like stretching your tired legs in your own house after hard day’s adventurous journey.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Meaning Making Machines

The other day, I showed my 105 minutes Tulu film SUDDHA to a few friends in Mumbai. Among the viewers was Srinivas Jokatte, a Mumbai based Kannada short story writer and journalist at ‘Karnataka Malla’, a Mumbai Kannada newspaper. After seeing the film one of his reaction was that it is an “Art Film” and some of the subtleties that such ‘Art Films’ would posses might not work with ordinary filmgoers. He gave examples of some ‘Art Films’ that had come from Bangalore at the height of the New Wave Movement a few decades back. ‘People did not understand what the filmmakers were trying to say’ he lamented. He added quickly, ‘There is no such communication issues with your film, but will the layman get the meaning of, for example, the general village shots that you have inserted between various sequences?’

In SUDDHA, as an editing pattern, there are some general village shots that I had inserted in between some key sequences. These are shots showing villagers going about in their daily routine. They have very little connection in the main plot. A man ploughs his fields, another climbs a coconut tree, a kid goes to her school, a woman scraps some coconuts etc… Shots like these act as a transition between sequences. They give the necessary breaks amidst the ever-talking characters.

One of Jokatte’s observations was that these shots were unnecessary to the film because they were ‘meaningless’ and that they did not add anything to the main story of the film. Within these statements lie the fundamentals of how we generally approach the process of watching and experiencing a film. Thanks to the trigger ignited by the ever sensitive and incorrigible Jokatte, I now am able to formulate my thoughts regarding an issue that has bogged me down for quite some days now.

We are all, as the saying goes, meaning making machines. Generally, it is my observation that human mind tends to assign meanings to what ever it sees and experiences. Thus, if a politician sits on his chair, the chair may be taken as a symbol of ‘power’. If your subordinate happens to question you, it maybe considered by you that he lacks respect for his superiors. A husband might doubt his wife if she enjoys a joke with one of her male colleague over the phone.

If we separate the fact from fiction, the only reality that can be assumed is that the politician did sit on his chair, the subordinate had posed a question to you and the wife had laughed at the joke that her male colleague had uttered. These facts by themselves do not mean anything or they do not have an inherent meaning attached to them. The meanings and interpretations are assigned in our own minds. Thus, a simple chair becomes a symbol for ‘power’, a simple question from your subordinate may become termed as ‘arrogance’ and your wife’s simple laugh might be interpreted as ‘infidelity’!

Going by this, it is natural to assume that our mind indulges in such ‘meaning creation’ while watching a film. Very long back, when still in college, I had gone to a ten-day film appreciation course that was being conducted by K.V. Subanna’s Ninasam in Heggodu, Karnataka. A well-known Kannada writer, who was my co-participant in the course, was very impressed by a sequence in a film where the heroin had placed her hand into the mouth of an anthill. For him, the act ‘meant’ that she was sexually unsatisfied. Maybe the filmmaker might have meant that, or maybe he did not. The point I am making is not if the interpretation of the well-known writer is right or not, but the fact that we always assign meanings to works of art.

While it is not ‘wrong’ to assign such meanings, it is just one of the approaches we could be taking while watching a film or a work of art. There might be a film or a painting or a drama, which would need an altogether different approach of experiencing it. Sometimes, change has the ability to unsettle even the strongest.

So in SUDDHA when I do not assign any meanings to all those village shots, except perhaps what is being experienced, I have noticed that people do get worried! What do these shots ‘mean’? Why do you shown a woman bathing her child in between those two sequences? How does it carry forward the story? Why have kept the shot so long? Is there any ‘meaning’?

My question is – is there any which way that we can stop assigning significant ‘meanings’ to everything and anything we experience during the process of watching a film? Is it possible that we just ‘be’ with the film and it’s characters, their dialogues, movements and their emotions without giving any ‘meanings’ to them? Can we ‘be’ with the pace of the film, the sounds of the film, the camera movements of the film, the cuts of the film without giving any ‘meanings’ to them?

Is it possible to experience a film just as we experience music?

What ‘meanings’ do we assign to a classical Bhajan that Bhimsen Joshi sings? Even if the listener does not know anything about Ragas, Talas, Shruti and other technicalities that music imbibes in itself, does he not appreciate the music? One can’t appreciate music unless you are actually ‘listening’ to it and ‘being’ with the voice that is thrown at you. In fact, if at all one started to assign ‘meanings’ to Bhimsen Joshi’s voice modulations; one could never ‘be’ with the music. One would therefore loose the very essence of the music and the rasa it would have generated.

Having said that, I do know that it is probably relatively easy to ‘be’ with the musician, than to ‘be’ with a film - because what Bhimsen Joshi sings are abstract voice throws. Where as, what we see in a film or in a drama is concrete stuff that one can easily relate to, in one’s real life. It thus lends itself to many interpretations and connections beyond the film, while the film is running on. Thus for some, a shot of a politician sitting on his chair may mean, ‘power’ and for some others it might mean ‘greed’!

Many-a-times the filmmaker himself gives some ‘significant’ meanings to what he is creating. ‘The audience must understand this meaning that I have given to this action or sequence’, is his desire. Again, there is nothing wrong with this approach. But how does the filmmaker ensure that the audience gets the exact meaning that he had originally thought of for the action or sequence? There is no way in the world that he can ensure this, except perhaps put in a subtitle, ‘This is to be interpreted as this!’ No wonder people complain that they cannot understand an ‘Art Film’. And no wonder some filmmakers complain that the viewers have not understood their film.

If a widow putting her hand into an anthill symbolizes her unfulfilled libido, then there would be a few more questions posed. While coming to the anthill, she had probably rested her hand on a tree, plucked a leaf, and maybe looked at a flower - what do all these mean?

On the other hand, what if there is no inherent meaning intended? Like the village shots in SUDDHA… Is it possible to ‘be’ with these shots without assigning any meanings?

Ironically, I feel that it is in the mainstream cinema that the audience can easily ‘be’ with the film. The dramatic techniques in this kind of cinema are such that the audience is automatically drawn into the screen, loosing their identity. Heavy captivating music, heightened conflict between characters, and a linier fast paced story line – all ensure this. ‘The film has captured the audience’ the saying goes. Neither the filmmaker nor the audience assign any ‘meaning’ to a fight sequence where the hero bashes up four tough guys, except the fact that the hero bashes up the tough guys!

But how about generating the audience’s ‘being’ with the film without any manipulative techniques used by the filmmaker?