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Interview Malayalam

KIFF 2017: Story is driven now by market, not experience, says Pushpendra Singh

The filmmaker speaks about his influences for the film Ashwatthama and the oral tradition of storytelling, among other things.

Photo: Kazcha Photo Forum

Sukhpreet Kahlon

An alumnus of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), actor and filmmaker Pushpendra Singh’s latest film, Ashwatthama, was screened at the Kazhcha Indie Film Festival (KIFF). The festival was organized by independent filmmaker Sanal Kumar Sasidharan in protest against the treatment meted out to his film Sexy Durga at other festivals.

The film explores the myth of Ashwatthama, who, after the Mahabharata war, was given a strange curse by Krishna — of being immortal, but living forever with the pain of his wounds.

In the film, a young boy Ikshvaku is told this story by his mother before she is killed in an attack by bandits in the village. The story becomes his last memory of her and stays with him, making Ashwatthama and the story central to the child’s journey. A layered, complex narrative, the film unravels the Chambal region, its beliefs and the violence of the land. 

Ashwatthama review: This tragic parable is a piece of a visually captivating cinema

In conversation with Cinestaan.com, the filmmaker spoke of his influences for the film and the oral tradition of storytelling. Excerpts: 

What made you come on board the Kazhcha Indie Film Festival? The discussions have been that all filmmakers want their films to travel and be screened, but somehow a lot of films from India are being ignored at festivals in India.

First of all, this idea of festivals has become institutionalized, and once it becomes institutionalized, it also becomes bureaucratic, and then to deal with those bureaucratic challenges as a filmmaker is so humiliating sometimes that I feel there should be independent forums where we could go and screen our films without worrying about things like filling forms, getting selected, doing all these formalities. So when Sanal [Kumar Sasidharan] proposed this idea, I was game as we were getting a chance to screen the film without worrying about all these hassles, and institutional backchannels.

Your film Ashwatthama was screened at the festival. You had said in an interview that we do not make films on fallen heroes, but in mainstream Hindi cinema, films like Mother India and Deewar have explored a different hero, an anti-hero.

But the idea is still heroic as there are conditions that make them like that. This whole idea of the hero’s journey — a common man who is taken out of his stupor and he undertakes a journey. That journey is the hero’s journey. Whether you call it a hero or anti-hero, it is still within that convention of drama and conflict and ideas of gripping the audience.

And you have stayed away from that very consciously in Ashwatthama....

Even in my first film, Lajwanti. I have stayed in Rajasthan and observed those storytelling traditions and they are so complex and people still follow them. I have seen people at the renditions and the audience views them with devotion. They don’t intellectualize it.

In your film, you have woven together oral traditions, folklore, mythology, literature and made a very strong comment on present-day Rajasthan.

But you look at our storytelling traditions, which do the same thing. They will be telling a story from folklore and then they will suddenly comment on the current political situation also. You see, there is the idea of the vidhushak [narrator]. In the Ramayana, suddenly there will be a vidhushak who will comment on the raja and his activities so he will connect all that. It’s so fascinating to see this.

Suddenly we were bombarded with this idea of storytelling. First in theatre through Aristotle’s Poetics, the hero’s journey and a three-act structure. Now, when we go to the script labs, we are asked to tie down the script to what is important, remove all the mundane things and in all this I feel where is the idea of the ‘rasa’, moving away from the story and living and experiencing that life. So the whole idea of experiencing the life within the story has gone away because it is driven by a market. So the story is driven by the market, not the experience anymore. The whole idea in ‘rasa’ is to evoke a feeling rather than catharsis.

Talking about theatre, I was thinking of the iconic play Andha Yug. What made you choose the story of Ashwatthama?

Exactly, the whole idea of choosing Ashwatthama came from Andha Yug. The play starts with the whole pain of it and the play was a comment on the Emergency period. My film is also an allegory on the current times. That’s why it stays in the past, but when it cuts to colour, it is commenting on how religion is trying to control us. 

Andha Yug is also a strong comment on the loss of humanity and empathy and that comes out vividly in your film as well because there is latent violence in the film which is shot in Chambal. It has a history of violence and you evoke that.

I come from the Chambal area and have grown up on the stories of Sholay. I used to feel that that was not Chambal because they would speak about the dacoit. As a child, I remember there was this attack on our village. The dacoits were coming and my father went outside with a gun and there were other villagers. But I saw my mother. She was so afraid and was trying to stop my father. That scene in the film is from my life. And then I realized that no one talks about the women and the children, those who are vulnerable in the house. 

This masochist, patriarchal idea of being a bandit and romanticizing it and how it affects society, that’s the tragedy in my film also. In the end, the child calls for Ashwatthama, but is running behind the bandits. That’s the irony. 

The film has several layers and it takes a repeat viewing to soak in the various elements of your film. The way in which you have captured the landscape of Chambal and the last sequence where you are looping back in the shot are mesmerizing. 

When I start a film, I have a discussion with my DoP [director of photography]. This is our third film together, so we have a working relationship. I send him my notes, my references — short stories, films — and then I try to make principles so the shoot becomes easy and there is clarity when we shoot. First is the story and then there’s the idea of bringing points of view in the film, and from there we think of how to translate certain feelings into cinema. There are certain devices in filmmaking itself — working in arcs, circles, semi-circles etc that can be used. 

You have also captured the domestic space of a haveli in a way that we can feel the claustrophobia of the tiny spaces for women as your film makes a strong comment against patriarchy.

The film is a comment on patriarchy and the use of religion by patriarchy to control society. 

Do tell me about the artistes and how you chose them, especially the boy, who is exceptional in the film.

The people are from the region. The boy is my nephew and I observed him before the shoot. I found that he had a certain quality and while looking for children to cast, I realized that naturally, organically, my gaze was going towards him. My DoP also agreed. I did a small workshop for an hour with the children to open them up so they weren’t shy. I also took it slowly, the first day of shooting was in the open so that people could get bored by the whole idea of shooting. The actors also get used to people watching them and I took repeated takes to make them used to it.

Because this was my second film, I knew how they will respond, the challenges involved, so I did the scheduling also where I thought in terms of my actors and not locations, as most people do. Mostly these people are working people, so we had to work around that. There were times when my crew was just waiting. 

Did you think of your film as also being a response to the way in which Rajasthan is romanticized in mainstream cinema as a land of Thakurs and havelis, where the bejewelled women are mostly just part of the colourful landscape or a ritualized life in the home?

My first film was also based on a folk tale, but a very subversive folk tale about a woman in the veil and how she comes out and discards the patriarchal ideas that she also subscribes to. So that was the whole idea. I have spent time with Vijaydan Detha who wrote these folk tales and he says that he took the folk tales but changed them so they reflect on society and subvert the ideas that are prevalent in Rajasthan. So that is also a concern which I kept in the background in the film, but then try to comment on it.

What are the films that you are planning next?

I’m working on a documentary which is a musical, which I am attempting. The interesting thing about cinema is that you can try so many things and explore and so I’m trying to make it a musical, which is a challenge, but let’s see what happens. At the co-production market, I pitched a folk tale by Vijaydan Detha, but I have adapted it to Kashmir, to the Bakarwal tribe. It is a story of how society wants to control a beautiful woman, a shepherdess, through their identity. And she breaks this whole idea of identity and charts a new path for herself.

Related topics

Kazhcha Indie Film Festival