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Interview Bhojpuri Hindi

Naach Launda Naach: Archiving, documentation and a new kind of storytelling

Filmmaker Shilpi Gulati and scholar Jainendra Kumar Dost talk about their documentary film, its politics, and ways of documenting an art form.

A still from Naach Launda Naach. Courtesy: PSBT

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Naach Launda Naach by Jainendra Kumar Dost and Shilpi Gulati explores a Bihari folk art form called Bidesiya, largely attributed to the folk artist, playwright, singer and social activist Bhikhari Thakur (b 1887, d 1971). The film was screened as part of the Public Service Broadcasting Trust's festival of documentary films, Open Frame.

Doctoral scholar Jainendra Kumar is pursuing his research at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). His work examines the social and political realities of Launda Naach and Bhikhari Thakur's folk theatre in Bihar. Shilpi Gulati is a filmmaker whose body of work largely engages with gender, identity and oral narratives of regional communities in India.

Gulati's last film, Qissa-e-Parsi, won her the National award in 2015. She is pursuing her PhD in cinema studies from JNU and her first feature documentary, Taala Te Kunjee, will be screened at the India Habitat Centre today (6 April).

Jainendra Kumar and Shilpi Gulati spoke to Cinestaan.com about the film Naach Launda Naach. Excerpts:

Let me begin by asking how the tradition of Naach came to interest you.

JK: From childhood we used to watch Naach and I joined IPTA [Indian People's Theatre Association] in class 11 and 12, and from thereon I got interested in theatre.

For my graduation I came to Delhi and decided to do theatre. I saw the kind of theatre being performed in the city, and people started asking me about theatre in Bihar and I heard about Bidesiya and Bhikhari Thakur, so I started reading about them.

I was also part of a theatre group that did musical theatre, Brechtian Mirror, so I was made to sing a lot and asked to sing in the style of Bhikhari Thakur. Then when I started studying theatre I realized about this particular form and started studying it further.

When I came to JNU, my initial subject was post-modern theatre, but then I realized that people were working on their own culture, so I thought I should work on this area. So I started formally working on this in 2012. I am currently working on the naming, content and documentation of Bhikhari Thakur's work.

From the various discussions around the film, it seems everyone has their own interpretation of the term Launda Naach. How would you explain the term?

JK: There is a caste and gender connotation in the term. Had the word not been in the title of the film, people wouldn't have discussed it. There are multiple layers to it, but some people try to impose their own meaning in it. But we are trying to see it through multiple layers.

Wherever we have seen the use of the word launda, it is as a derogatory term. An upper-caste person uses it for a lower-caste person, or generally it is used for boys who do not conform to social morality and work outside of it — by dressing up in a certain way, etc. But one cannot use the term casually, one cannot use it to talk about a Thakur's son, for example. One may use it casually while talking to one's wife because the context is different.

Shilpi, your film Qissa-e-Parsi looked at the Parsi community in depth and issues that concern the community in current times. In this film too, you are in a way looking at a dying art form and the concerns that plague Launda Naach. What propelled you to this subject?

SG: Before Qissa-e-Parsi, the first film that I made after graduating was Dere Tun Dilli (2012) which was about a refugee community called Derawals who had moved to Delhi during Partition. I come from that community.

Over time, I have realized that a large part of my interest in documentary films has something to do with regional communities. The second film was on Parsis, the third film is in Bihar, looking at Bhojpuri societies, and the fourth is a film on Punjab, so that journey of mine is a big learning.

When one analyses the kind of filmmaker one is becoming, I see that rather than looking at a topic and going over it over and over again, I move from one project to another. 

So, Launda Naach was introduced to me by Jainendra completely. Before that, I had no reference for it. Like Jainendra said, everyone in our class was doing work that was relevant to their research and lots of practitioners are doing work which is theoretical enquiries into their practice. Both of us are doing exactly this.

With Launda Naach, the first time I heard of Bhikhari Thakur and spoke to people from Bihar about Bhikhari Thakur, I realized that he is like Premchand for us, or any of the big writers. And I wondered that there was someone as big as him, who was doing dance, theatre, singing songs, is socially relevant, and everyone knows him, but we don't.

So my interest grew through conversations with Jainendra and it was only very late in our shooting schedule that I actually saw a full-blown performance. In some of the wide footage, you can see that I am with the camera and dancing, so we realized that maybe because of the dance form itself, or because of the relationship that we shared with the artistes, or maybe because language has no barrier and you can really enjoy a performance without associating so directly with it, I felt that there was something very evocative in this form, which was a very new experience for me, and it's something our whole team thoroughly enjoyed. So I feel like Bhikhari spoke to us.

JK: I would add here that if Shilpi were just a filmmaker and not a theatre artiste, she would have understood this differently. The second thing is that if she hadn't worked with the older people from the community earlier, she may not have developed that emotional relation which she did. Shilpi and her relation with the artiste is different from my relation with the artiste. 

What was the most important thing you wanted to come forth about Launda Naach through the film for the audience?

JK: Documentation, of course, and we have documented a group that is 100 years old but no one is talking about them. Through our work now people have started writing about it.

In Bihar, a debate has been ensuing about whether to call this form Naach or Bidesiya or Launda Naach. In some newspaper they have examined the art form through a series of articles. So the basic aim was to make people understand Naach and the audience's experience of Naach. Documentation and a debate was really the main aim, so we also get to know about the ways in which people think about the form. 

And for you, Shilpi, what aspect did you want to highlight through your film?

SG: One of the things we were trying to explore is how would one document a theatre form through the camera. There is a conversation happening between theatre and cinema and this was a challenge and an experiment that we took on at the time of the shoot itself as we wanted the audience to experience Launda Naach with its energies and understand all the layers about caste realities, gender realities, realities of Bhojpuri society, or about these artists, I mean all the layers, but we thought that ultimately how do you make the audience experience Naach?

If you go back to academia, you would say this is a mediatized form, so if you cannot feel it live, then what's the point? So, for us, we wanted to see if we could recreate a performance that is taking place in Bihar, in front of an audience anywhere else in the world and still evoke the same kind of politics, aesthetics, and emotion. So that was the film for me.

The film has a very light touch in terms of intervention or prodding for questions. What propelled that choice for you?

SG: My understanding of documentary films is also evolving with every film that I am doing. In the beginning, for the first shoot, we did sit down and do interviews with everyone and ask them questions. But when we watched the footage, we realized it wasn't working. We didn't feel like we had created the time and space that we had spent with them.

In cinematic language if you see this, then what is film? Film is an experience of time. If I am in a certain space right now with you, can I recreate that for my audience? So, when we did the recce for the shoot, we felt that it was a dead approach, so we changed that and decided that rather than going out and seeking answers in a very technical manner, we will let it evolve more organically.

What happens in that process is that there is a very different equation that you establish between the subject and you. Shiv Lalji, for example, always knew that he was performing for us. He would silence people first and then talk. He was always aware about that, so I brought that into the film, because it's not like I am going there and documenting them every day. I am an alien person to that space with alien equipment and I am getting them to speak to me, so it's an extraordinary situation actually, so we tried to maintain a balance of that rather than being intrusive, and I hope that is reflected in the film.

It is, which is why I asked this question. It's the sense of the camera capturing them as they are.

SG: There are two aspects to it. One is, let them say what they want to say and we let them share exactly what they want to. Jainendra at one point tried to prod him saying, "Why is this vulgar in society? What do you feel?" and he gave us an answer in terms of metaphor and said, "Four tastes are important for food." As simple as that. We read it like, why are item songs included in 'Bollywood'?

An artiste has to make a performance in a way that it is appealing to all. So, he told us the entire theory but through the four flavours. So we didn't feel the need to emphasize it more. So that is one aspect in our approach.

The second was self-reflexivity — to reveal that filmmakers have gone and asked this. It's not as organic as it appears to be. So we balanced that.

I wanted to ask you, Jainendra, that on the one hand, there is a lot of fun and masti in the film, but there is also a lot of sadness as you see the lives of the artistes and it is marked by a very definite sense of loss, the sense of a fading, changing tradition. Is the sadness because of the dying tradition?

JK: One big reason is that the tradition has changed. Bhikhari Thakur's performances are steadily decreasing. But if we see Bhikhari Thakur's work properly, then he was the first person to write about Dalit feminism in the 1920s, when he was writing about the problems of intoxication for a woman. In a play two children are fighting whether they are the sons of the mother or the father. So such stories are there, about daughters being sold. So the themes being taken up are sad and that is reflected in the performance. In the film, Ram Chander is alone in his old age, Shiv Lalji's wife is mentally disturbed, so they are talking in terms of theatre and reality. 

Shilpi, do you see your film as being part of archiving a tradition that is fading away, and being integral in writing the history of a tradition that may be dying?

SG: You know, I don't think this tradition is dying. Like I said, when 500-1,000 watch an online performance, I don't think it is dying. When Jainendra gets married, a Naach party comes. When Shiv Lalji's wife dies, a Naach party comes, and there are hundreds of them. Jainendra says there are about 100 Naach parties in Chhapra alone, so it's not a dying tradition.

As far as archiving and documentation of a tradition is concerned, absolutely. And the things that I also learnt over course of time is that it's not just about restoring the songs or capturing the place, but the tunes are fading away. So, the way Ram Chanderji sings 'Piya Gaye Lankatwa' and the way Kalpana Potwari would sing the same song, or a theatre artist from the Bhopal Theatre Academy, is completely different.

There are also older tunes that are being forgotten. So, what we did as part of this project was we created a folk studio in Jainendra's school, you will see a glimpse of it in the film. We took up a small room in his school, we put some lights at the back, and got our sound recordist Varun to come there with all his equipment and recorded as many as 16-17 songs and six plays that night.

Jainendra is also the director of the Bhikhari Thakur Repertory Training and Research Centre and through that he is trying to revive the tradition and bring out many more stories and also initiating a training process for many more people to come and learn. So I feel the film is a very small part of this larger project that Jainendra has taken on. It's definitely archiving and documentation and a new kind of storytelling that I am learning to tell.

What about your next film?

SG: It's called Taala Te Kunjee, based in a rehab centre in Punjab, and although it is based at a rehab centre, it does not really look at addiction in the way that Udta Punjab, for example, did. It looks at recovery. It looks at the lives of four recovering addicts and the relationship they have with their partners who did not leave them. So it's actually the relationship between the lock and the key.

I have been doing this film for the last two years, we were doing it parallelly, and it's the first time I am doing a feature documentary.  

Taala Te Kunjee will be screened at the India Habitat Centre on Friday 6 April 2018 at 7pm.