Gurvinder Singh, an alumnus of the Film and Television
Institute of India (FTII), India, is one of the flag bearers of contemporary
Indian art house cinema. His films Anhey Ghorey da Daan (Alms for the
Blind Horse) and Chauthi Koot (The Fourth Direction) were premiered at
the prestigious Cannes and Venice film festivals respectively, and both went on
to win numerous awards in various international film festivals. Anhe Ghore
da Daan also fetched him the national award for best director. His
documentary Pala, which chronicled the folk ballads and oral narratives
of Punjab, was based on extensive travels through the state. He
was closely associated with Mani Kaul and was his teaching assistant at FTII.
For the last few years, he has been running a cafe in Bir, Himachal Pradesh,
and his upcoming film Khanaur (Bitter Chestnut) is based on the life
From the various reports that have come out on Khanaur, your third film, it is evident that unlike your earlier two, this is more personal, and also markedly different in terms of narrative structure. Could you elaborate on this transition?
The whole film is based on the idea of acceptance. There was no process of casting in the film. People automatically cast themselves into the film by their presence or relationships to one another. And not just people, the spaces also chose themselves. Everything was a given and I had to accept its truth, even at the risk of eschewing the dramatic or the intentional. I became more of an observer, guiding a little, but more or less just watching, even looking for a spectacle in the so-called ordinary. It was like gathering material the way a documentarist would do. And eventually keeping only what resonated with each other in the context of the edit.
The second most important thing is the lack of a plot line which is quite strong in the previous two films. Things grow and arrive at new configurations, not necessarily moving in a particular direction. The connections grow by spreading out in a circle rather than moving in a line. Nothing resolves itself or ends. A circular structure can never have a sense of the end, it can only fade out as ripples do in a pond after you throw a stone. This happens both at the level of the unit and the whole. Everything is left suspended, abruptly moving into the new.
Both Anhey Ghorey da Daan and Chauthi Kooth are based on wonderful literary works. (Anhey Ghorey da Daan was based on the novel of the same name by Gurdial Singh, while Chauthi Koot is based on two short stories by Waryam Singh Sandhu.) As a filmmaker, you were keen in both those films to employ a style that could be termed precise, or even rigid, in terms of being specific about the nature of meaning each single shot carried with it. Could you give a sense of your stylistic vision that framed both these films?
It being my first feature fiction, whatever style or form Anhey Ghorhey Da Daan took was a surprise for me also. The form can be like a revelation to the filmmaker, not before the making of a film, but only as something to feel after completion of a work. What one can start with is a method of working, not any form or style. The choice of working with mostly non-professional actors led to a certain style of working which had a bearing on the overall form of the finished film, coupled with observation of rhythms in people’s lives and spaces. While taking a shot, I don’t care much about meaning because there is no meaning in a single shot. What I care for is feelings, that each shot should carry some emotion and feeling, that it should have the capacity to resonate with other images and sounds. The meaning is a symbiosis of these feelings, arising from the synergy between shots when put together in the edit.
What might seem like rigid to you is emerging from a very spontaneous and flexible style of shooting. But working with non-professional actors brings certain restrictions in terms of length and durations of shots. For example, you have to divide the scene into units as it’s not possible to take extended shots with those actors. Certain things like sequence shots are ruled out. I sometimes wonder if this was the reason that Robert Bresson arrived at his fragmented style: looks and divisions of spaces, objects, faces and body parts became so important for him. Everything is determined by looks, that of the actors and the camera. The actor is both the observer and the observed. There are always two observers in any shot and I am always aware of that. The camera as a character is forever present, a truly feeling object. And that feeling is only present in the temporality of its being. The image is merely information to be absorbed, it is not the end in itself. In Chauthi Koot I created the sense of foreboding and suspense with the same method.
Now that you are working on a much more personal film, has the emphasis on rigid stylistic frameworks changed? How do you, as a filmmaker and a student and observer of cinema, chart this stylistic transition?
It is personal to the extent that the people who play themselves in the film are known to me with a varied degree of comfort. It’s an experiment which might or might not work for some. People have a certain idea of acting, good and bad, and I am not working in that parameter. Whatever comes, I accept as long as it feels truthful to me. Also the audience wants to be carried by a plot or story, which might be missing for some. I am working with the idea of events, one after the other. As long as the event is involving, it will find some meaning juxtaposed with another event, even if there is no direct connection.
Working with a loose and suggestive script has its challenges.
Style is not something permanent that I have to stand by it for rest of my life. When life itself is transitory, how can style be anything else? My teacher Mani Kaul used to say that style is related to our ‘swabhaav’ or nature. And that nature of ours, if we can feel it and be conscious of it, is not something permanent. It is evolving with time and the different events we experience in our life. The desire to express different things at different points of life is linked to that. When we are expressing different things with different works, how can the way of expressing them remain the same? It will by its very occurrence change.
A recurring underlying theme in both your films has been an exploration into the ways human dignity shines through in even the most oppressive of circumstances.
That theme is in the stories itself on which the films are based and that’s what attracted me to adapt those for film. But it being in the literature and it coming through in the film are different things, because the film makes it visible, rather than describe. Sometimes I feel that being with a character is a form of solidarity or sympathy with them. No matter how hard a filmmaker tries to hide or reveal, his or her stance will come through irrespective.
When a scene is revealed through the eyes of the exploited, there is bound to be sympathy for them. The entire opening of Anhey Ghorhey Da Daan (AGDD) is through the eyes of the father who walks to the site of the demolished house, up to the point where the owner is dragged away by police and whisked away. He is watching it motionlessly, arms folded behind the blanket. You can say that’s a sort of conditioning, to dare not react.
The sounds of police roughing up and the car driving away are muffled by the passing train. That is the strength of cinema, to create friction through overlapping and juxtaposition of images and sounds. Impressive solitary shots don’t mean anything.
An equally important idea that recurs in your films is that of migration: from one physical space to another, and also from one state of mind to another.
That is linked to the idea of attention, or ‘dhyaan’. Every event will demand a different way of seeing, receiving and feeling. If every shot can be seen as an event, then every shot can have a different attentive quality. A film can be conceived as a series of varying degrees of attentive qualities: sometimes brisk, sometimes lagging, sometimes uplifting, sometimes drifting, a sudden rupture and so on. The attentive quality of listening to classical music is different to that of listening to jazz or pop. As will the response be different. A music composer uses this sense of changing perceptions where the mind becomes a rhythmic battle-space. A filmmaker has even more at his disposal, orchestrating sounds, spaces, objects and people, with their inherent movements and temporalities.
In AGDD, when the rickshaw pullers assemble at a nursery to play cards and drink, they leave behind their rough life in the streets, even if to only recall their angst after a few drinks. The space becomes contrarian to their life of struggle. It’s only a temporary relief, but which makes them remember the harsh realities of their life even more forcefully.
While shooting, I treated it differently from the rest of the film. The camera moves among the lush greenery in the nursery, the shallow focus creating a sort of chimera. It was not pre-planned. The crew landed there in the morning. I felt I had reached a very calm place. So the transition within me after days of shoots in streets and bare homes, it almost felt like a luxury to lie on a cot surrounded by plants which only perhaps the better-off bought to decorate their homes. The plants even seemed to cut off the city noise. The shots were devised instinctively based upon what I felt.
This sense of migration you talk about also helps to break the thread of a linear narrative. In AGDD the story shifts from the village to the city and returns to the village. The shift introduces a new set of characters who become integrated into the film soon. The shift is not merely visual or spatial, but introduces concurrent ideas and themes.
Similarly in Chauthi Koot, the train journey, with all its movement and rattling sound from inside the guard’s cabin, gives way to moist paddy fields shining under the moon in the night, and a couple with a child held in their arms navigating the fields cautiously. The same theme of fear and caution moves into a different spatial realm. A new thread starts getting formed, not divorced from the one already established. But it breaks the idea of the established atmosphere as a complete whole. A kind of sign of outer life in a parallel universe.
Both your films were fairly big budget for Indian independent cinema. Now with the new ruling dispensation, funding of that scale for independent cinema has almost become non-existent. What has been the impact of such a change and how do you cope with that?
Today even I feel surprised I was able to make those films. They are doing their best to squeeze funding from everywhere. The corporates and big production houses have no interest in this kind of cinema. They continue to take risks on mega budget films, some of which do badly at the box office, but consider doing a 1 or 2 crore film as not rewarding, even if it can bring them accolades at film festivals. Still we have seen a lot of independent films in the last few years. But as you say most are made on a minuscule budget which rules out a certain scale and themes.
I could conceive of Khanaur only because I thought it was possible to make it on a shoestring budget with a bare essential crew. Even then it’s not been easy. So it’s becoming next to impossible to conceive of a big assemblage. But that does not deter one from at least putting down ideas on paper, even if they are never executed.
I am dreaming of a fairly big budget film set across the border in Punjab that is in Pakistan. The script is also complete. It’s been written by an Urdu writer whose work I admire. The Punjab does not end for me where they drew the border. I shall wait for the day when people are freely allowed to mingle across this artificial divide. I don’t see myself as a full time filmmaker. So I am not going to run after producers for funding. If asked, I will happily make a film. Else there is enough to do in this world to occupy oneself.
How different has it been as a filmmaker to work with state funding and now with private investors?
Both have their challenges. In the end what matters is that one should be able to retain one’s artistic integrity and not compromise. To resist any kind of intervention, that struggle remains the same. But fortunately I have not had much of a problem on this front. Both have been supportive of my aesthetic vision of making the film the way I wanted to make.
What does audience mean for you as a filmmaker? How do you cope with the fact that the nature of the aesthetics that frames your films is unlike to attract theatrical release, at least in India?
I see films as historical documents, as proper events created for posterity. So this idea of an immediate audience does not bother me. One is not creating a product for immediate and mass consumption, though it should have contemporary relevance. Good cinema will continue to find relevance through time, it’s a slow process. While creating I am not conscious of any audience. Theatre release is anyways becoming irrelevant for arthouse cinema. It’s not even desirable in the current scenario of online platforms. The audience for my kind of films is not even aiming to visit theatres anymore to watch alternate cinema. Though the role of film festivals continues to grow as they at least aim to provide the right atmosphere for reception of these films.
On the lasting influence of Mani Kaul on your language...
Mani would challenge you on that! He would say that cinema is not a language. It does not have syntax like language. Language can become gibberish if the syntax is not followed. Cinema on the other hand can create a lack of clarity and for him that lack of clarity was a desired element in cinema.
Even I hate to watch a film in which everything is explained or understood in a desired manner. The audience should become a co-creator, not just a receiver. As many audiences, as many experiences. For him cinema was essentially a form of experience, as is music.
While teaching, he would talk more of other arts like music, painting and literature. Cinema borrows from all these arts but in the end it should not become one of those or even contain those. Cinema has to be understood in its ontological sense, that which becomes cinema is essential to the being of the medium. For me it’s important that the narrative be constructed in a manner which only cinema has the possibility to narrate.
What is often called “language of cinema” is nothing but conventions of cinema which have been handed down to us. Cinema has no language or grammar. It can create varied and perhaps endless forms.
And importantly, he rid me of the notion that cinema is a visual art. It is visual, but operating in time. That is the key to its understanding, that cinema is a temporal art. When I conceive of a film, I conceive it rhythmically, not visually. The visual is contained in the rhythm, it is space operating in time. And to conceive rhythmically is to think in terms of duration and velocity, almost in a contrapuntal manner.
On your early influences and the inspirations that made you take up film as your medium of expression?
The early influences were not from cinema. In fact there was no exposure to cinema till I arrived in Pune, initially to do my masters at Pune University. That’s where I developed interest in cinema, watching films at the Film Archives and FTII. But before that it was mostly the other arts, specially painting, music and literature. And also photography. I wanted to be a photographer and thought of applying for cinematography at FTII.
But I didn’t have any background in science, which I thought was an absolutely silly requirement at that time. Now I believe it’s been done away with. So it was painting and photography, studying masters like Cartier Bresson and Sebastio Salgado. Robert Frank’s stark photographs of American life had a huge influence. And later on the music and writings of John Cage. And in painting it was mostly the philosophy of abstract expressionism that attracted me, with initial painters like Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky and later the figurative abstraction of painters like Willem De Kooning and pure abstraction of Gerhard Richter, or the “combines” of Robert Rauschenberg.
And I would listen a lot to Hindustani music, though I technically did not understand anything. Just responded to it’s “lays” emotionally and experientially. So all these influences were a sort of strange mix. Even today, I hardly watch any films. As a student at the film institute, I would watch only selective films. To make films, you don’t need to watch all kinds of films like a scholar or academician would. I always thought that feeling the life around, a keen observation of people and objects and reflecting on the general nature of things and seeing how different mediums express this through their being was far more important.
You are an FTII alumni and have also been keen on mentoring young filmmakers from various institutes across the country. In the present political scenario, how do you view the significance of film institutes and what in your view are the things that need to be changed?
The two major institutes under the government, the FTII and SRFTII, are running on outdated models of cinema as an industrial art. They scare students with their large campuses, studios and heavy equipment and manpower. The students feel they have entered some kind of manufacturing set-up. When the truth is you don’t need all of this.
What cinema schools need are smaller spaces to function and basic good equipment keeping up with the technology, and most importantly good mentors. We need smaller schools in different regions with an emphasis on regional cultures and the capacity to imbibe and make films in different corners of this country. Imagine, a student from Assam has to recreate his village in Assam in some village of Maharashtra because he has to shoot within 200 km of Pune! What can be more absurd?
His sensibilities lie in the soil where he comes from and he wants to express that. Languages and cultures are integral to cinema. These film schools divorce students from that. If I hadn’t travelled extensively around Punjab studying its folk and oral cultures, I wonder what I would be making today. Cinema by its nature is ethnographic, it’s rooted in cultures and subcultures and an exploration of that is essential to the idea of it’s expression.