Since his very first feature film, Valu (The Wild Bull, 2008), filmmaker Umesh Kulkarni found his own audience base across Maharashtra and beyond, which only grew with his subsequent films — Vihir (2009), Deool (2011), which he directed, and Masala (2012), Pune 52 (2013) which he produced. But it’s been a long break for Kulkarni since his last release as director Highway (2015), which did not do too well in cinemas.
So where’s this filmmaker who turned the tide for Marathi films in the late 2000s, which were facing both aesthetic and commercial challenges, with Valu? Apparently, Kulkarni (42) is immersed in exploring new possibilities that have opened up in the non-fiction genre. He has spent the last two years making a documentary on the Kumbh Mela and is in the process of making another on the Wada culture in old Pune. At the same time, Kulkarni has also launched a documentary film club with the help from artist Raju Sutar and National Film Archive of India (NFAI), with an aim to showcase best works from Indian non-fiction filmmaking tradition to the general public.
“In 2009, I had made a documentary for FTII called Three of us. It was shown at several international festivals including the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IFDA), which the biggest festival of documentary films in the world. While visiting the festival to present my film, the exposure to non-fiction form opened an entire new world to me. It was there that I realised that feature films and documentaries are not two separate, distinct forms with fixed boundaries. The way films are being made internationally, the boundaries between these two genres are getting merged and filmmakers are trying to explore the area that lies in between,” says Kulkarni, adding that some of the documentaries that he watched at the festival influenced him and left a lasting impact.
Back home, he observed that while India had a certain tradition of non-fiction filmmaking, there were no avenues for these films, with filmmakers struggling with the release and screenings of the films. “In many countries, there are festivals dedicated to non-fiction films, in some places there are television channels exclusively for documentaries. In India, although we had filmmakers like Mani Kaul, Shyam Benegal and others making documentaries and the Films Division funding a great number of them, there was very little exposure to the common public,” says Kulkarni. The film club, he adds, has recently screened Kamal Swaroop’s Pushkar Puran (2017), the first-ever retrospective of Amit Dutta in India, as well as non-fiction work by Mani Kaul.
Meanwhile, Kulkarni also started working on his own non-fiction projects. Kumbh, which he finished recently, was shot over several years chronicling the biggest gathering of humans. The film was selected at IDFA, New York Indian Film Festival and Kerala International Film Festival (KIFF).
“Kumbh is not a conventional documentary, as it tries to explore the space in the margins of fiction and non-fiction. I am at present also working on another documentary on a wada in old Pune where my grandma used to live. I have spent many days of my childhood there. Now, all the families that used to live there have shifted to their own apartments. I’m trying to explore the texture of life that the wada offered to its residents and how it has changed,” says Kulkarni, adding that he has decided to make a documentary or short film between every two feature films.
While he’s following his changing interests, doesn’t he feel that it may take away his fan base which may rather like him to stick to his flair — comical realism with a social message. “As an artist, I feel that I have to keep trying to find newer ways of expression. An artist can’t be a toy in the hands of the audience. If I continue to do what I have been doing, then I become too predictable and it gets boring. Also, we should give an opportunity to a different art form to get established. It may take some time as had happened in other cases such as Impressionism in painting or short story in literature. People resist, ridicule at first but later they accept if the movement has its merits,” says Kulkarni.
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