Songs of the people

A filmed-on-the-go project by two artistes has culminated in a film that captures performances in everyday life across India

Written by Sankhayan Ghosh | Published: September 21, 2013 5:49 am

When Anushka Meenakshi and Iswar Srikumar saw a group of farmers working in unison,singing songs as they ploughed their fields in Spiti Valley,Himachal Pradesh,they filmed it. It was a seemingly purposeless journey that the couple had embarked upon,using all the money they had saved for their house-rent in Chennai. Drawn to the “performative” quality of the act,both — Meenakshi is a filmmaker,and Srikumar,a theatre actor — decided to shoot it instinctively. “It struck us as something very similar to what we do on stage,” says Srikumar.

That simple act became the starting point of a two-year-old endeavour known as the U-ra-mi-li project. It is a collection of films and images that the couple found similarly intriguing as they travelled across the length and breadth of the country— from the rhythmic motion created by the weavers of Thenzawl village in Mizoram to the mask-makers of Majuli island and the community art in McLeod Ganj. The curious title,in fact,refers to “the song of our people”,in the dialect of a Naga village where the team shot.

The spur-of-the-moment videos shot over the initial seven months became a larger entity when the duo spotted common themes of music,rhythm and performance. “Initially,we had no topic in mind,but we decided to play around with the film. We saw in them the qualities we look for in great performances,” says Srikumar.

A full length feature film,U-ra-mi-li is taking a unique shape. At every stage of editing,the duo holds screenings where they collect feedback,which they try to incorporate into their film. A screening of the latest edit is scheduled in Chennai and Bangalore this month,while a mid-November screening is being planned in Mumbai.

In the past,the feedback came from “performers” or even villagers from places where they filmed segments of U-ra-mi-li. How did it affect the film so far? “Some people suggested they wanted to see more of the two of us,as it was earlier designed as a journey of two travellers. But some said they wanted to see less of us. This led us to completely do away with the two characters. We don’t show ourselves in the film anymore. It is like a theatre performance in a way,where you evolve with every show collecting audience reaction,” says Srikumar.

Meanwhile,the remaining accumulated material is being gathered in the form of images,videos or audio recordings uploaded on the project website uramili.in. Since the project is crowdfunded — and partially by the India Foundation for the Arts (IFA) — the filmmakers wanted to ensure that it is accessible to everyone. Moreover,being largely undocumented,some of the stories with archival value need to be preserved,says Srikumar.

Many of the stories,set in the interiors of Meghalaya or hamlets of Himachal Pradesh,came through the people they met. “Our hotel manager in Nagaland,common people at tea stalls or local eateries,many suggested these stories,” he adds.

IFA is funding a portion of the film that focuses on the work-music of Phek village in Nagaland. Some of the lesser-known stories that they plan to film include the honey-hunters in Nilgiri Hills who sing songs to calm bees down,and group of singing roof-painters in Kolkata. As a film that tries to capture the music in the cinematic performance,it has a free flowing narrative devoid of any interviews.

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