Interview Hindi

Meeting people like Sheru has been a humbling, learning experience: Filmmaker Ishani K Dutta

The documentary filmmaker speaks about her film Say Cheese, the conceptualization of the film, its production, inspiration and its lasting effect on her, on the sideline of the 6th Woodpecker International Film Festival.

Prateek Rawat

Ishani K Dutta’s short film Say Cheese was screened on the second day (24 November) of the 6th Woodpecker International Film Festival at Siri Fort Auditorium in New Delhi. Dutta’s work focuses on issues of gender, environment and human rights.

Winner of Asian Pitches and Tokyo Docs, Say Cheese follows Sheru, a street kid from Delhi and his trials and tribulations, his aspirations and his desire for a camera which he believes makes people happy.

Here are the highlights from Dutta’s interview with after the screening of her documentary at the festival.

Talking about the genesis of the idea of the film, how did it happen? Why did you choose Sheru as the protagonist of the film over other kids?

In 2016, I applied for Tokyo Docs which had the theme 'Children, Seize the Future'. I was thinking how to develop the theme when I remembered Sheru. I’ve been in touch with him for years. Whenever I speak to him, I see this hope in him despite all his struggles.

I went to him and started speaking to him. He told me he wanted to become a photographer. Street kids are very vulnerable to illegal activities and abuse. This child had been trying to preserve and protect himself from all that, so I decided to make a film on him.

I wrote a small proposal and sent it to Tokyo. NHK Japan [Japan's national public broadcasting organization] came forward to support the film and asked me about my proposal. I told them that I wanted to show the child’s dreams, his desire to connect with his family, especially his mother.

I won the pitch and started working with Sheru. Every day – for two months – was something new. Apart from Sheru, I was also fascinated by the concept of Children Development Khazana, a bank for street kids who do not have more than Rs10 per day. This fascinated the audience and jury in Japan. I linked this to Sheru’s desires and dreams.

A lot of the shots in the film while following Sheru or recording him interact with his surroundings have a bit of a curious mix of being non-intrusive with a shade of sneakiness. What form of aesthetic were you going for in the film?

We wanted to keep the film raw and real. In the shop-sequence where he is trying to purchase an expensive camera, I wanted to show his face. Making the shot beautiful was not part of the plan, I wanted to depict his life as it exactly is, and his response to it. When he was meeting his father, we used two cameras but they were very far off. So that we should not intrude into the conversation and respect his privacy.

Whenever he was on-camera, we kept the cameras quite far. It became an object like a wall or a tree or a road. We have used steady cameras a lot. The cameraman had a lot of difficulty especially on the dark roads when he went through the shady alleys to meet his mother. It was a 1.5 hour walk which got condensed into a few minutes for the film.

It was a Delhi I haven’t even seen. There were so many activities (prostitution, drug deals) in the shadows, which on the advice of my producer and NHK, I decided not to show in the film. That would have made it sensational and distracted from the focus on Sheru. To make the audience feel a part of that journey, we experimented with camera angles and movements.

A lot of documentary filmmakers vacillate between their passion for their subject and their objective position because the integrity of the documentary form lies in the fact that it belongs to an objective order. Considering the almost charming character of Sheru and the close relationship you have with him, how difficult was it to switch between the filmmaker and the human being?

It was very difficult. He has been calling me his mother for a very long time. Some difficult choices were made in how I wanted to represent him. When he was talking about his mother, I was afraid I was taking advantage of his niceties and his humility. So, I kept on asking him if it were okay if I put in particularly personal shots. He allowed me to do that because he felt that people have many misconceptions about street kids, and that they must know what kind of family he comes from and that he was not ashamed of it.

I had a lot of issues with describing his mother as a sex-worker and I kept asking him if it were acceptable to put that in the film. I pondered over it, spoke to the producers, funders, NGOs and audiences, and everybody said that it is a fact and a documentary must mirror the truth and nothing but the truth.

There are times when I feel I have exploited the situation. Sheru is very close to my heart. Whether or not I show it, I do know that Sheru’s life is my responsibility. I’m waiting for him to finish his 12th so that I can take him on as a cameraperson trainee in my production house. I want him to have a steady income and get opportunities.

I read somewhere that you believe in storytelling through documentary, that you choose instances or moments and over time you’ve learned how to weave stories out of them. So, what has been the learning through it all?

It is beautiful to tell stories through non-fiction. We tell real stories, we do not have any make-believe characters or actors. These are the stories of real people, real challenges, real problems, real suffering. I’ve learned to be positive, humble, and appreciate the little things in life. These people are my real role models, Sheru is my role model. Meeting so many people like Sheru has been a humbling and learning experience.

I think today I am a better human being. I am not doing a big favour to Sheru, he has done a big favour to my life. All my accolades are owed to these people. They mean a lot to me.

Right now, I am working on a film of a child who was raped when she was 2. The rapists were recently caught. She is 8 now and has suffered tremendous physical and psychological traumas. I’ve been following her for 5 years now. Every day when I look at the child, there is so much to learn from her. She has suffered so much but when she smiles at me, we with all our excesses cannot do that. That is why I want to keep making documentaries. I want to stay rooted, humble and stay in touch with life.

Related topics

Woodpecker International Film Festival