Interview English French

A good film is made of things that you do not see on screen: Filmmaker Vijay Singh

Vijay Singh speaks of his latest documentary, Farewell My Indian Soldier, which looks at the experience of colonial troops during World War I from a non-Eurocentric perspective.

Courtesy: Farewell, My Indian Soldier

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Filmmaker, journalist and writer Vijay Singh has written and directed four acclaimed films. His first feature, Jaya Ganga (1996), received resounding praise and was described by one critic as "a lyrical trip down the Ganges".

The success of Jaya Ganga was followed by his second feature One Dollar Curry (2004), an entertaining comedy about immigration, which was also widely acclaimed and noted for its subtlety and freshness.

Vijay Singh's documentaries include Man And Elephant and India By Song. His latest, Farewell My Indian Soldier, depicts the experience of colonial troops during World War I from a non-Eurocentric perspective.

The refreshing viewpoint illuminates the lives of Indian soldiers as they comprehended an alien land and the ways of its people. The soulful film references rare archival material, the most significant being letters written by Indian soldiers to their families, to uncover the bonds of affection and love shared between the French families and the soldiers. 

The filmmaker spoke to Cinestaan.com on the sidelines of the Habitat International Film Festival in New Delhi last month, where Farewell My Indian Soldier was screened. Excerpts:

In the documentary, you have used several fictional elements to bring out the story and its various elements.

I think Mani Ratnam, who was in conversation with me in Chennai, put it best when he said, "The beauty of the film is that it has the emotion of a feature film and it is a documentary."

The trick is Paloma, the girl. I could have easily made the film more through the eyes of Paloma, but I didn't do it because, somewhere, as a filmmaker, one must realize that am I going to be telling Paloma's story slightly fictionalized — is that more important, substantial, or is the story of the soldiers, whose story has never been told for 100 years, substantial?

I felt that the soldiers' story was immeasurably more important, so that is why I keep Paloma only in three large sections of the film, whereas I give primacy to the soldiers because I think the film is so very important for them and their stories and that is where I think the emotion, if you felt it in the film, also comes from.

Filmmaker Vijay Singh. Courtesy: Vijay Singh / Facebook

Also, I must tell you about the beginning of the film. I had read about affairs among Indian men and the [French] women and the children they had. Coming from a background of novels and fiction, I thought that if we found those children, that would be a real story. So I started looking for them, which was quite a task.

We started looking through newspapers, sent out circulars, information… ultimately, after some time, she [Monique] contacted a journalist who then reached me. When I got hold of her, I had to spend about half an hour to convince her that I was not the other side of her family [from India], that I was just a director. She was so excited, she thought the other side of the family was contacting her!

And she is the one who plays the grandmother in the film?

Yes, she is Monique, the real grandmother, and Paloma, the great-great-granddaughter, Monique's granddaughter, is an actress playing the role of the granddaughter.

There are several Eurocentric accounts that are available of Indian soldiers and how they were viewed by the Europeans as they marched down the streets in various parts of Europe, but your film looks at history from below, the way in which the Indians were looking at the Europeans.

This is the first film of its kind where you have a non-Eurocentric account of the First World War. All World War histories till now, for reasons best known to colonization or to imperialism, have been written through the eyes of the Western world. There are very few accounts, which are just about beginning now, where we are beginning to see World War history through the eyes of Indians. I am glad that you raised this question because the film is an effort to see World War history through the eyes of the Indian troops. 

As a student of history at St Stephen's college, you have engaged with history from below, as it were, in several of your films and that seems to have been an enduring concern as a filmmaker.

That's modern history, it's modern left-wing history. I would say I learnt less of it at St Stephen's and more at JNU [Jawaharlal Nehru University], where I was a student of Romila Thapar, Bipin Chandra, S Gopal, Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, the best historians this country has known, and I am so sad about what is happening to JNU today, they are ruining that tradition of great history. It was a wonderful university and they are after it!

Pauloma Coquant and Vijay Singh on the ferry to Dover during the making of Farewell My Indian Soldier

They don't realize that they are ruining themselves. They call themselves Hindus and nationalists, but if there is someone who has earned a name for themselves in the world, it is the historians from JNU.

I went and worked with the best names in the field of philosophy and they used to wonder where has this guy come from. But it is not me, it is the teachers who taught me, it is those bibliographies that we were given.

They will win the battle of two days because one government is in power over the other, but they will lose the war, which is that of an alternative way of looking at history. We learnt history from below, that you asked me, at JNU.

You have used mainstream film songs evocatively in your film and also historical songs from the period.

There were only two songs that I could find of the period, 'Mureya Lama Toh', which is a Punjabi song, which was Indian widows singing to the men who returned, and the other is a Haryanvi song, which is a recruitment song.

And you have used Hindi film songs and Punjabi shabad [devotional songs] as well.

That's a larger craft of thinking what were the soldiers thinking. They must have been remembering god, so I bring in shabads and I bring in the one which I like the most. I love that part and where the shabad is used — when the soldiers are writing letters home, when there is nostalgia.

I often say that a good film is made of things that you do not see on the screen, and the questions that you are raising of emotion are related to that... how you put a thing together and in a very insidious, clever, surreptitious way, you put in elements which create an impact, but which are not the subject of the film. You heighten the impact of what you are creating through elements which are not directly related to the film.

I was also trying to make a connection with your earlier film, India By Song, where, too, you have explored history from below through the use of songs. I was thinking of the ways in which you evocatively use songs in your films.

This is a bit of an accident that two films followed each other with songs, but otherwise there is music in my films, with soundtracks independently sold. In independent films it is not very easy for them to become entities on their own. And in most of them [his films], I must admit, the sound design and soundtracks are very carefully selected by me. In One Dollar Curry, I did play some role but a smaller role because Zakirbhai, Zakir Hussain, was doing the music.

When Vanraj Bhatia did it [the soundtrack of Farewell My Indian Soldier], we worked very closely on it. One day we had a big fight and we were going to call it quits. So I told him, yaar, what are you doing? In one part the girl sings and in the other the French boy sings, so he understood and took the two melodies and created multiple versions in different instruments and that became the soundtrack. That's his genius, that he got the idea and executed it so well.

I also want to ask you about your use of form — because you straddle both documentary and fiction, and in this documentary, Farewell, My Indian Soldier, you have used several fictional elements to bring out the story.

I don't know where fiction starts and where non-fiction starts. In my life also, there is an invisible line between the two. There is a fine line between the real and the unreal, and that's where surrealism lives, and that's why I live in Paris, because I was in search of surrealism — half-dream, half-reality.

I truly want to thank you for making such an important film. Do tell us what you are working on next.

I'm working on several things. I'm working on a big film called The Opium Symphony, which is based on a novel I wrote 25 years ago called Whirlpool of Shadows. It's a big Rs100 crore film. People have liked the screenplay a lot. And maybe in case French television agrees, I'll be doing a film on Gandhi, which will be a documentary.

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Habitat Film Festival