It was during the filming of Afternoon Clouds (2016) — the story of a day in the lives of a 60-year-old widow and her younger domestic help Malti — that filmmaker Payal Kapadia, a final-year student at FTII, came across Bhimashankar, an adivasi village in Maharashtra. The sounds and sights of the place turned the forest into the location for her latest film, an experimental documentary titled And What is the Summer Saying. At the screening of the 20-minute documentary, which had its world premiere as a part of the Berlinale Shorts Competition section, Kapadia came across a “ vibrant selection of films that include experimental, animation, documentary and fiction”. Here, she steps away from a conventional narrative and highlights universal themes of love, longing, and desire through the portrait of the village. Excerpts:
Your documentary, And What is the Summer Saying, is a sketch of Bhimashankar (an adivasi village in Maharashtra). How did the idea evolve?
A friend of mine had also shot her film here and guided me to Mr Namdeo, the head of the village then. I visited the village and the Reserve Forest over many months and was intrigued by the changing landscape through different seasons. I also followed him on his trips into the jungle and visited his home. It was on these trips that I began to collect various stories. The voices were so powerful that I had to find a way to make images that were not illustrative but evocative.
You have shot it sometimes in colour, sometimes without. Also, various lines by various characters are completely unrelated. Initially, I wanted to shoot the film in black and white. But there was something so magical about the evenings — the pale blue light in the sky and the gentle rays that lit up the surrounding mountains. I decided to retain that experience by maintaining the colour in the beginning and the end. The lines in the film, although spoken by different women, are all in some way related to desire and love. Whether it is the desire to eat crabs or roam in the forest or to speak a few secret words to one’s lover. These stray lines weave together a tapestry of desire that I think go beyond the women who speak them.
It seems as if the audio has been pieced together and the visuals came later.
Yes, I had collected a lot of spoken material before shooting and the biggest challenge was arriving at a form. I think the form captures my own experience of being there. The audience too can meander through the houses and the forest, the hillside and the courtyard, listening to the stray strands of conversations. It allows for people to imagine and create their own meanings.
There is always a sense of silence and melancholy in your films, while the dialogues are minimal.
In Afternoon Clouds I was interested in what could not be spoken, through gazes, gestures and silences. In most of our mainstream cinema, it is the male characters who speak of their love. In my films, I want to find ways to allow for these confessions of love and desire in a society where there is limited means to do so. Here, although there is spoken word, there is a shyness to its revelation. As if, these words are a secret, meant only for the audiences’ ears, sometimes whispered in a half asleep state.
You don’t present characters or their relationships, but universal concepts — of desire, longing, and love. Was it deliberate?
I saw Bhimashankar as a space very distant from where I come from. And yet, the stories I recorded could be in my home too. Somehow there is a collective sadness amongst women that we relate to, regardless of social background. When I showed the film to other women in Mumbai, one of them exclaimed, ‘this is my story’.
Like your last film where you used artist Arpita Singh’s artwork, paintings are a part of this one too.
In this film, I use my drawings and made them into a stop-motion animation. They have a certain crude and childish quality to them. The film is a bit like a crafted, patchwork quilt. The drawings too are a part of this, giving it a slightly unfinished look. I am not interested in polished images but the roughness of something homemade.
Tell us about growing up in Nalini Malini’s house, and your exposure to art.
It wasn’t about looking at art but at the world that surrounded us. My parents sent me to a boarding school, which was quite
alternative. We had no TV or internet and spent most of our time climbing trees. We listened to the sounds of the evening, the insects, and watched rocks in moonlight. Being in the countryside had a deep impact on me.
What are your upcoming projects?
Currently, I am working on my final project at FTII. It is also an experimental short film.