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Experiencing how a script changes into scenes and how scenes join up to create cinema is fascinating: Udita Bhargava

In an exclusive conversation, first-time filmmaker Bhargava, whose debut movie Dust is being streamed on Mubi, speaks of how she had to extend herself and her notions about direction.

Vinay Pathak in Dust

Keyur Seta

Filmmaker Udita Bhargava worked behind the scenes on Danny Boyle's landmark film Slumdog Millionaire (2008) as well as on Anurag Basu's Life In A... Metro (2007). Her debut feature film, Dust (2021), is now available for the world to see. Curated movie platform Mubi began streaming Dust from Friday 26 February 2021. The film will be available on Mubi for a year.

Dust, an Indo-German film, tells the story of David, played by Danish actor Morten Holst. David visits Indore in Madhya Pradesh after the death of his Indian photo journalist girlfriend Mumtaz (Amrita Bagchi). Some of the places he visits are hotbeds of armed leftist rebellion and the characters played by Vinay Pathak, Kalyanee Mulay and child artiste Abu Bakr Golu become important parts of his journey.

In an exclusive conversation with Cinestaan.com, Udita Bhargava spoke in detail about her experience of putting the film together. Excerpts:

How was the idea of Dust born?

Studying in Berlin, I was asked constantly: where are you from? My reply, 'from a city in central India called Indore’, would inevitably produce a snigger and a joke, in-door like outdoor? Dust was my graduation feature. In response to that poor joke, I decided to make a film about ‘where I am from’. Trying to answer that question is like asking yourself the ‘who am I?’ question. There are no definitive answers! Many impulses came together: my interest in the peoples’ movements across our country had been sparked by writers diverse — Nandini Sundar, K Balagopal, Arundhati Roy, Dr Alpa Shah.

Udita Bhargava

While writing the film, I spent much time at home. Indore, as I knew it once, was gone. Its new face of half-built high-rises, bulky highways, desert-like urban wastelands clashed with my nostalgic memories of riding through open fields to Rala Mandal or Khajrana. Indore felt like a place in transition, waiting, haunted. It's the place David navigates. At the level of the script, I wanted to turn inside out or upturn the idea of 'the Hero's journey', a narrative which consists (mostly) of a white man saving the world. All these impulses bled into each other. They created an impressionistic collage called Dust.

What was the reason for casting Morten Holst in the lead?

Morten was willing to shoot outdoors under the open sky without the comfort of a vanity van at temperatures above 35ºC. He is from Denmark. It's a very cold country. His discomfort, his alien-ness fills the screen. Funnily enough, I had never met Morten until the day he arrived in Indore to start shooting! We had communicated via Skype. We had discussed what he didn't like or understand about the script and his character.

Of all the characters in Dust, David's is the one I have the least sympathy for. He is a millennial of my generation, a self-absorbed citizen of the world who feels out of place and unhappy in it. But Morten's performance, his vulnerability, brought me closer to the character; it gave me and the audience something to identify with. I think Morten's strength is the sincerity with which he played his character without judgement. That's amazing!

Vinay Pathak in Dust

How did you come across Abu Bakr Golu? How challenging was it to get the right performance out of him considering he had to play such a difficult character so early in life?

Golu showed up at the theatre workshop that we were conducting in the Khajrana area of Indore! Neev Foundation, an NGO [non-governmental organization, a nonprofit] run by the untiring and inspiring Pankhuri Vedprakash, has been working in the area for many years. We had been casting for children in schools and theatre groups until Pankhuri proposed the idea that we start an informal workshop in Khajrana, where children could simply show up if they felt like.

My assistant director, Aakash Jamra, who is an NSD [National School of Drama] trained actor, and I began our workshop on the rooftop of the Neev Foundation — under an open sky. And slowly, as word spread, on any given day there were between four and forty children there. For two months we trained every day; come rain, come shine. The children were unstoppable!

We had girls and boys of different ages, learning through games about movement, improvisation and storytelling. And they were all natural performers! Including Golu. Once he understood the premise — that his brother is missing and he is suspected by his group of hiding the truth — he simply took over. He had to play a difficult part, but it wasn't difficult for him.

What went into the research about the Maoist areas of India?

I travelled in Madhya Pradesh and some parts of Chhattisgarh. I read a lot: fiction and nonfiction. I pored over the imagery of journalist and photographer Javed Iqbal (through his blog titled Moonchasing) and Ishan Tankha (whose B&W photographs appear in the film). A novel called A Naxal Story by journalist Diptendra Raychaudhuri bolstered my confidence that it was possible to create a work of fiction that created intimate encounters rather than delineating a conflict.

Also, I would like to point out that I have never used the word Maoist explicitly. Even Ishan's photo series, ‘A Peel of Spring Thunder’, captures the grim and confusing reality on the ground. “Where identities are blurred, it is difficult to tell who is a Maoist and who is a villager.” Unfortunately, ‘Maoist’ and ‘Naxal’ are terms that are being used interchangeably today to delegitimize and demonize resistance movements and individuals related with those movements. Individual persons as well as whole communities bear the brunt of this branding and the fake narratives spread about them.

Secondly, with Dust, my aim is to lend images to a reality, but I do not aim for 'realism' in the narrow, 'based on a true story' way that is currently a mode. Dust is about the crises of lives in a landscape torn by conflict; a conflict that influences and shapes the life of even an individual born very far away from it.

Kalyanee Mulay in Dust

Dust is your first feature film. How was the experience for you personally?

I had to extend myself, become another person. It forced me to get better at many tasks which I had naively believed did not belong to the realm of directing — production, people management, selling the idea! The main producing company, Unafilm, is based in Germany, with no previous experience of working in India. Thus, in India, we had to create a production company (VK Arts and Design) in order to start shooting, which took place over 26 days.

The first budget and the schedule of the film were made by me and I had never made a film budget in my life before, let alone a budget for an Indo-German project. Once my line producers, Mr Kishor Sawant and Mr Narayanaswamy, came on board, my life quality improved substantially! On set, the biggest challenge was to ensure that the mixed Indo-German team was working smoothly. There were the usual hiccups: language problems, difference in working styles, heat, dust and illness. Keeping the morale up even on the worst days when everything is going wrong is a talent that I am still learning!

You have worked behind the scenes on popular films like Slumdog Millionaire and Life In A... Metro. How much has this helped you in your journey?

I've also worked on Lars von Trier's Antichrist (2009). Working on film sets and experiencing how the script/written word changes into scenes and how scenes join up, almost magically, to create cinema — its fascinating! My fascination for film comes as much from working on film sets as from those formative movie-watching years. And I can say that there is much glamour, even through it's hard work, in working on a film set. The glamour of shooting until 5am or waking up at 5am to film a sunrise.

When I was working on Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle and I would often share a lift ride down to the hotel lobby at 4am, never exchanging a word, but I'm sure we were both thinking of what lay ahead of us that day. So yes, working on those films gave me an enduring bond to film. And Life In A... Metro, shot over one whole year in my first year in Mumbai, gave me an enduring love for that booming, buzzing city!

Correction, 3 March 2021: An earlier version of this interview suggested Dust would be available on Mubi only till 4 March 2021. Cinestaan.com has since been informed that the film will remain on the platform for an entire year.

Related topics

MUBI India German cinema Indian independent cinema