Interview Hindi

Maheen Mirza: We need to bring back viewing of films as a community

The cinematographer said people have to have the agency to decide what they want to see and what they don’t, while speaking at the first Kazhcha Film Festival in Thiruvananthapuram in December 2017.

Photo: Kazhcha Film Forum

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Turup (Checkmate) is a unique film as it is the product of the Ektara Collective wherein several creative minds come together to democratically create a work of art. Their first feature, Turup tells the story of three women against the backdrop of increasing right wing fundamentalism. The collective previously made two short films Chanda Ke Joote (2011) and Jaadui Machchi (2013).

Speaking on the sidelines of the Kazhcha Film Festival, cinematographer Maheen Mirza, spoke about independent cinema and its fight against the system while discussing pertinent issues like alternate models for film distribution and exhibition, changing technology and ways of watching films, and censorship. 

I want to begin by asking you about the idea of the Ektara Collective, which has flummoxed several filmmakers at the festival as they’ve wondered how a group of creative people with their different ways of thinking and working collaborate on a single project. How and why did the idea of the collective come about?

To begin with, all of us have been involved with different Peoples’ movements in different cultural spaces. Some of us are writers, some photographers, some come from theatre, so we are a bunch of different people but while doing that we felt that cinema is something that is enjoyed and is very much a part of the lives of people whom we have been interacting with — the working class, people in movement spaces but unfortunately there was nothing really reflecting our lives on screen. So that was a concern for a lot of us and we also felt that this was a space that we needed to occupy. That is how the idea of coming together for something began, because we all felt the same way.

Why we chose cinema and fiction in particular was because cinema allows us that kind of space — to be able to get as much expression as possible, so you can have music, acting, ways of looking at things, ways of hearing things, and it gave us that kind of elbow room, that leverage that we needed to bring in a larger number of people onto that platform. 

When you want to occupy then you have to be in numbers and unfortunately, cinema has become a space that is increasingly exclusive, singular, niche and independent cinema, probably because of distribution platforms, gets limited to festival spaces and again, we do not have access to those spaces. So, we were looking at things at various levels but we also realized that just one of us could not make a difference. It would have to be a group of us and if it was like that then we would have to be equal. And that is how the idea of getting together collectively began.

When we started, we did so with short films and this one [Turup] is a feature. Also, all of us are not trained in making cinema but I think that as technology has become more accessible to people, it’s not really foreign anymore and as you make cinema, people’s control over the medium is also increasing. I think that in itself is a change that’s coming through for us, as collective work, as we see that more and more people are becoming surer of themselves about how to express something, using a certain aesthetic, sound, lights, all of this are questions that people are grappling with and it is very revealing and very enjoyable. 

I thought you would also say challenging! Because when there are different creative minds collaborating, there are bound to be differences. I was also curious about the mode of working. Is there just one writer, cinematographer or could that be collaborative as well?

When we think of so many people being involved, there is a feeling that things may be haphazard or a whole bag of confusion but that is where the challenge comes, in bringing so many people together in doing this one singular thing. So, we’ve adopted the mechanism of the dialectic. Every time each part of the film has to be put together, there will be a person who has the skill to put that together but that person will have to be subservient to the process of the collective. So, we will look at the script and say that certain things are working and others are not. The people who have the skill or the craft to put it together will constantly be given this feedback. 

There is conflict. You cannot avoid it and that is a healthy process because unless you have arguments, I don’t think you are able to elevate even your own thinking to another level. And there is a process of consensus building, which is a democratic process and then we have a dialogue. Finally, we litmus test it against the story of the film and see whether it works or not.

Most of us are very experienced with working with people so, for us, each comment, each suggestion is something that brings some richness to what we are doing. Sometimes there is a difference of opinion which will remain, but people remain with that difference of opinion.

So you agree to disagree on certain things and decide to move on...

Yes and if you are doing the script, editing or sound etc. then you will finally get to take the decision, but these are our arguments. So sometimes people will not be convinced with an alternate view. But it’s okay…

There are other battles to be fought...

Yes, there are other battles to be fought and the film is being made. Once the centralization of the vision happens and the decentralization of work happens, that thing gets eliminated to a large extent. The idea of singularity comes in.

What is the overall vision that informs your work?

There are two or three things actually. One is that what we are making must be owned by the people that we are making it with. If there has to be music, then it must be there. Also that people have to be given a certain amount of space to express themselves and for us to constantly be listening to what is happening so we are able to bring it in. It is basically to make cinema that people love and enjoy and are entertained by and just put it out in public.

And actually, many of the fights that happen, and there are many, once the film is made it’s all forgotten and people live like blood brothers.

Maheen Mirza with Sanal Kumar Sasidharan at Kazhcha Indie Film Festival 2017

You mentioned that festivals are closely controlled spaces and there are very few exhibition spaces open to independent filmmakers. You screened the film for the community within which it is located and Sanal took his film in a ‘Cinema Vandi’ (cinema cab), Anand Gandhi spoke of a crowd distribution model that he followed for An Insignificant Man. So are we at a point when independent directors need to find alternative modes of distribution for their work as they also want smaller communities and places to view their films?

You are absolutely right and I think that we are at an interesting cusp in the history of cinema. We are 100 years old and we are at a very very interesting point. What is happening is that now that we can access technology, there is a lot of audio-visual material that people are able to generate and people are able to have some amount of control over it. When you have control, for you to not control where it is going is a kind of an ironic situation. And the models that we have had in the past are the ones taking people away from controlling their film and controlling what they see.

Only the films that find a release are films that you can watch, but there is so much more that is being made, and such interesting stuff. Even Turup has been shot in one of the mohallas in Bhopal and it had to have that as the preview screening, the first screening, because these are the people who have put in the labour and they have to see what has been happening. It was important for us that they saw the film as a whole. 

In terms of distribution also I think that people are now at a point where they are going to challenge the current system of distribution and I think everybody is realizing that it is time for us all to get together and heave against that model that exists in order to break it down. It will be challenging as no fight, no struggle, has had easy times. But I think it is now time for it. People are also realising that we need to cultivate audiences because people have forgotten how to see a film because that distance has increased so much.

And we’ve also witnessed the waning of the film society movement which gave certain kind of films a space for exhibition and brought together an audience. Given this, I feel that a festival like Kazhcha is a step in that direction, where films are being screened independent of the bureaucracy that usually controls film festivals.  

Each time there is a sense of complacency, the boat needs to be rocked. In our cultural spaces in particular, we have had a lot of struggle, we’ve broken down structures and I feel that this is bound to happen because once you get established, you start to do the easier things and sometimes people need to remind you about the ideas that you had started with. So I think this is a step in the right direction and I see it as being a kind of a very healthy thing which has happened here. Finally, it is these kinds of things that will correct us, if we need corrective action or set up alternatives, if that is what we need. 

Finally, I want to end by asking you about censorship as your film addresses religious divides and at the festival we are talking about a larger sense of intolerance that has pervaded the cultural space. I’m also curious that if you’re circulating a film in communities etc. do you even need a censor certificate? Have you circumvented that formality?

Exactly, that’s what I was going to say. We have actually asked people to take the film and show it wherever they want, in whichever community they want and however they want to show it because with mobile phones, tablets and laptops, cinema as a community watching activity has come down. People now think it is not needed anymore. 

But cinema was something that a community watched together. You went to the cinema and sat beside a person whom you did not know and watched the film or a family thing where you took your picnic baskets and watched the film together. Even to bring that form of viewing back is important and is a challenge so if you become very exclusive that becomes very difficult. 

And with censorship as such, it really depends on who is sitting at the Censor Board and that is very tricky to answer. And one can see that freedom of expression is being curbed but still you have to go through that process. That will have to change.Things are changing too fast. You cannot have parameters that existed many years ago and you cannot curb freedom of expression. People have to have the agency to decide what they want to see and what they don’t want to see. 

Related topics

Censorship Kazhcha Indie Film Festival