You boycotted the National Film Awards ceremony even though your film Chauthi Koot (The Fourth Direction) was the winner of the best film (Punjabi). What were you upset about?
After what the government did at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune — imposing a person of questionable cultural credentials as its head, and then ruthlessly taking on the protesting students — it had become clear that they are hell-bent on sidelining and even suppressing a certain form of cultural and artistic expression, which is not in sync with their overarching ideology of hyper-nationalism and commodity-driven thought. Hence, the (selection of the) National Awards were not a surprise at all. In fact, I was not expecting any, not even in the regional category, as I had been critical of the government on the FTII issue. As for boycotting the ceremony, how could I receive the award from the same people who were subverting the idea behind institutions like FTII and treating protesting students like criminals? I wish other FTII graduates, too, who received the award, had boycotted the ceremony.
Do you think regional cinema is neglected on platforms such as the National Awards?
It’s clear that the jury was designed with the intention of giving all the main awards to mainstream commercial films, and confine artistic independent cinema to the regional category. The government is sending out the message that Bollywood is “national” cinema, whereas those experimenting with local idioms and telling real stories of real people or contemporary and historical socio-political issues in a “non-glamorous” format can’t be seen as representing the nationalistic ideas of right-wing forces. And anything critical of the state, of course, stands no chance.
If you look at the main jury, not a single person represents this other cinema, there are no filmmakers of stature or anyone who understands cinema as a philosophical expression beyond the market forces. The manipulation starts from the selection of the jury which has to be in keeping with the government’s thoughts, which today are being dictated by extra constitutional agencies like the RSS. How do you explain that not a single award went to any FTII diploma film, whereas every year they win a handful of awards in the short film category?
Which movies and artistes do you feel were more deserving and should have featured in the winners’ list?
We all know that Titli was sidelined because one of its co-producers, Dibakar Banerjee, had returned his National Award in protest. His film Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! had fantastic production design, perhaps one of the finest Indian cinema has seen. We had a strong haul of films representing India in the international festivals in the past year or two, films like Tithi (Kannada) and Visaranai (Tamil) which got relegated to the regional category as did Chauthi Koot, which has one of the best sound designs. And what do you get? Baahubali, with its Brahmanical machismo, misogynist, fantastical Hindutva iconography, as the best film! Your guess is as good as mine as to who dictated the awards.
Chauthi Koot captures the fear and distrust during Operation Blue Star. Do you think it finds any resonance in the current political situation in India?
It’s not just about Blue Star, but the period before and after in Punjab. A work of art not only stands for the historical period or zone it portrays, it should find resonances beyond, even anticipate the future. Chauthi Koot could be the experience of anyone living in conflict zones in any part of the world. It talks of the high-handedness of both the state and extra-constitutional players, and the common man who bears the brunt of it.
What was your trigger for combining two stories, written by Waryam Singh Sandhu, about that period — one about two Hindus friends travelling with a Sikh man on a freight train and the other about the owner of a farmhouse being asked by terrorists to kill his dog for barking when they moved at night?
Putting two stories together brings a kind of non-linearity to the narrative which I like. One story passes on the baton to the other, like in a relay race, and receives it back. The two stories helped open up space and imagination beyond the screen.
Both your films have been atmospheric. Why is that kind of treatment important to your story-telling?
Cinema as a temporal and reflective art has attracted me more than as a visual form. I am not interested in spectacular visuals, only in the essential. While shooting, I am always on the lookout for elements which are not directly related to the narrative, but which have an indirect impact on it. For example, the coming of the storm in Chauthi Koot was not in the script, but our shooting got disrupted a few times by thunderstorms and rain. The thunderstorm replaced a scripted scene. The unplanned and the unrelated bring a sense of wonder and reflection to the story as it unfolds.
Does your sensibilities as a painter seep into filmmaking?
I paint because sometimes I want to see quick results. I paint for the joy of it. Filmmaking is too long an exercise. The gap between two films can lead to a lot of restlessness. Painting is a means to get over that anxiousness. It also helps co-relate ideas of two different mediums. I believe I can grow as a filmmaker only by bringing in the learning from other forms like painting, design, literature, music, theatre and dance.
How crucial is state support for the growth of cinema, especially regional cinema?
Anhe Ghore Da Daan would not have been possible without the support of NFDC. No other producer would have touched it and neither did I approach anyone else for it. They are the main Indian producers for Chauthi Koot too. I think it’s critical that the state supports at least the first two films of a filmmaker who is trying to push the boundaries of filmmaking. Right now, state support is peanuts for a country the size and talent of India. NFDC should have the budget to support at least 20-30 films a year. It should also create a network of dedicated screening venues, programming not only the best of Indian but world cinema. Cinema is today the most important constituent of national cultural identity, and I mean beyond Bollywood.
Chauthi Koot releases in France on June 8 and in India in September. How important is box-office success for you?
Art, by nature, is the domain of the fearless and the free. Freedom is an indispensable condition to create. I will give up filmmaking if I have to make unreasonable compromises. At the same time, I understand my responsibility and challenge to deliver a film in limited resources. I also know that my films will not notch up immediate numbers at the box office, but will slowly and surely find new audiences over the years. A lot of people have recently written to me that they have discovered Anhe… now.
Both your films are in Punjabi and you use cast locals in them. Why?
The films are set in Punjab. It would be ridiculous to make the characters speak in Hindi for a greater viewership. I am very comfortable in villages and with villagers, so I am able to work with them. Whether a person is an actor or not is immaterial to me. It’s the person’s face, voice, personality and essence that are more important than any acting ability or experience. I am not striving for anything polished or perfect. I believe that doesn’t exist. Flaws are a manifestation of life which is far from perfect. But there is a difference between flaws as part of an organic whole as against flaws that stick out as bad craftsmanship.
What sort of expectation do you have from the audience?
Going by the response at the screenings in India, I am optimistic it will find a decent audience. It will be a limited release. I am curious about how the lay audience in Punjab will react to it, since it is unlike anything most would have seen in terms of cinema.
You have moved to Himachal Pradesh. Does that affect your work?
I moved only last year to Bir, a village in Himachal, and am still learning a lot from my surroundings. The people here are educating me about the sowing cycles and self-sufficiency in food and living within minimal means. There is a sense of common ownership of shared resources. It’s great to live with people who are from a different social and cultural background. I don’t miss city life at all and wish I never have to travel to Delhi or Mumbai for anything. It’s high time we had a modicum of reverse migration. Technology can afford that today, but we are still stuck in an industrial mindset in a post-industrial society.
Have you started work on your next project?
I have just finished a short film, Ghuspaithiya, which is part of an international omnibus of 10 films, produced by a Turkish production house. Besides, I am now planning a video installation and making a documentary on a well-known Indian artist. There are couple of feature projects, one of which I am writing and the other an international project, the details of which will be revealed as and when it is announced.