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‘Cinema is writing history through characters,’ says Director Gurvinder Singh

Director Gurvinder Singh on his new film, which will premiere in India at Jio MAMI, and why a filmmaker is a political being.

Written by Alaka Sahani | New Delhi | Updated: October 13, 2019 5:49:58 pm
Director Gurvinder Singh, National Award-winning filmmaker, Khanaur Stories of the Soil: A still from Khanaur (Bitter Chestnut)

The third feature film by National Award-winning filmmaker Gurvinder Singh, 45 — Khanaur (Bitter Chestnut) — will have its India premiere in the India Gold section at Jio MAMI festival, which starts on October 17. Khanaur is a personal film, unlike Singh’s earlier two films, Anhey Ghorhey Da Daan (2011) and Chauthi Koot (2015), which were based on works of Punjabi literature. The movie is inspired by Singh’s stay in Himachal Pradesh’s Bir where he ran a café. The film features Kishan Katwal, who works at the café, as the protagonist, and, through him, looks at the aspirations and insecurities of life now. Excerpts:

This is not the first time you have worked with non-actors.

This is a departure from my previous films, because, in them, there was a script and non-actors or actors were cast according to the role and character. This time, the script has been written keeping in mind the people who feature in the film. So, the actors, their relationships and their spaces came first, the script later. Everything was worked from whatever was available and juxtaposed according to the theme of the film.

What was your experience of running the café in Bir? How has that contributed to your craft of storytelling?

The café itself has not contributed to any understanding of making this film. It’s a setting in the film and has contributed to the small crew we were working with. There could not be any elaborate lighting or mise-en-scène. It’s a film that primarily contrasts modernity and tradition, desire and belonging, the community and the individual. In that sense, the role of editing is more important, as is the sound, which I have always relished, and turned into an integral part of storytelling.

After cinematically adapting literary works in your first two films, is there a shift now in how you look at the cinema?

I can’t keep making films the same way and want to explore different themes which can lend themselves to different styles or forms. I continue to have a deep interest in non-fiction and that inevitably seeps into my fiction work. I will call Khanaur (Bitter Chestnut) a staged documentary or ethnographic film. What has been staged is rooted in the characters’ lives and not imposed on them. All the clues came from what they were doing and dealing with in their everyday lives. That’s why shooting it over a long period in different seasons was important and that can be done only with a small crew. I don’t think I will make a film in a similar fashion again. I am now back to making a Punjabi film, a drama set in agrarian Punjab and how struggle for land can even make brothers turn into sworn enemies. I see the same happening in cities over properties and inheritance. It’s based on a novella of Gurdial Singh, whose novel Anhey Ghorhey Da Daan I had adapted for my first feature film. After this, I want to make a film written with a friend, based on her life history. So, I am trying different approaches.

How is it to step away from the hurly-burly of the film industry and make films?

I can’t imagine living in Mumbai, even though I like many things about the city. I can’t live in such crowded and noisy places, in tiny apartments, which is all I would be able to afford if I lived there. Quality of life is more important to me than making films. I love to relax and be lazy. My work is not set in Mumbai or dependent on daily interactions that I need to be based there. Staying away from the industry keeps me focussed and dreamy.

Stories of the Soil: Gurvinder Singh

National Film Development Corporation of India (NFDC) funded your first two films. How difficult has it been for you to get funding for this project?

It was difficult to get funding for this because it’s not a conventional drama or method of making a film. I started with some small private funding before Bobby Bedi stepped in to produce the film. We were already discussing a few film ideas when I was doing this. The next film is also being produced by him. So, it’s been a great support working with an experienced producer and we hope to carry on our collaboration.

How important is state funding for the growth of cinema?

Absolutely vital, at least for the first two films of any filmmaker, as it happened in my case. I feel lucky I could make those two films with the support of the NFDC and with decent budgets. I feel that the budgets for independent films being produced privately are bare minimum and more often people are working for very low wages, or even gratis, out of love for making their first works. This restricts the themes and possibilities. Many people ask why Indian films don’t make it to the main competitions at festivals like Cannes or Venice. The answer is simple: we don’t make big-budget independent art films. How do you expect to compete with restricted themes, budgets and lack of resources to even cast good and established actors? There is no dearth of skill, stories and imagination. Just not enough financial support.

During your last mentorship at FTII, Pune, you were forced to edit the unfinished graduation film Sea of Lost Time (2019). Did its screening at the Rotterdam film festival in the Laboratory of Unseen Beauty section come as a validation?

The way it is being run, there is no future for the FTII. Now students can’t even choose the films they wish to screen, as if that will stop them from watching them on their laptops. The academic staff has been barred from attending council meetings. People, who have nothing to do with cinema, or any idea of its history and role, are running the place, of course, with directions from their political masters. All they want to do is discipline students and throw rules at your face. That was the case even with me, when I was invited to make a workshop film with students. The whole place reeks of officialdom and nothing else. No grace, respect and freedom. The atmosphere is stifling. They even tried to stop the screening of Sea of Lost Time at Rotterdam by sending a notice to them, saying, I had stolen the material from the institute to make the film. I could only smile after the festival officials showed me their mail.

Khanaur deals with migration to and from urban centres. As a filmmaker, can you stay away from making social and political commentary?

A filmmaker or any artiste is a political being with feelings. There is no other way. How you explore and deal with it creatively in your work is individualistic. You can layer it beneath your story or just hint at it for the audience to grasp, or make something overtly political or activistic, even aggressively. Cinema is writing history through individual characters and their struggles, aspirations and paradoxes in a particular period of history. How can it remain devoid of political touches?

Khanaur is the story of every village household in Himachal Pradesh: boys wanting to migrate to tourist centres like Goa in the hope of earning quick money by getting temporary jobs. Yet they have an unflinching sense of belonging for the homeland and community which they don’t want to lose. The quandary of wanting both the worlds.

You have already written a script about undivided Punjab. How hopeful are you of being able to make it?

It’s a film set on the other side of divided Punjab, in Pakistan. A film in Punjabi and Urdu set along the Sutlej river which flows from India into Pakistan. The story is by contemporary Urdu writer Ali Akbar Natiq, whose work I admire. He has written the screenplay in Urdu. Going by the current political climate, it seems next to impossible. But there is no hurry.

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