From the plains of Punjab, from where director Gurvinder Singh created the acclaimed Anhe Ghore Da Daan, the Punjabi film that got him the National Award for best director in 2011, Singh, a graduate from FTII, Pune, moved to the mountains of Bir in Himachal Pradesh for his new film Khanaur (Bitter Chestnut). The film, in Hindi, English, and Pahari, is a personal film, as opposed to his two Punjabi films based on powerful works of Punjabi literature. Khanaur is inspired by the stories of people from Bir. Excerpts from the interview:
Tell us about the journey of Khanaur.
Khanaur is a resonance of my life in Bir, where I have been running a cafe for several years. The film is an insider’s perspective of the place, its dynamics, social and cultural dimensions. These are locals whom I have interacted with daily, and my understanding of them that has emerged from my personal encounters. Gayatri Chatterjee, a film scholar, visited my place last year and we worked together on the basic structure and form of Khanaur. Its post-production is just over.
Khanaur in many ways is a departure from your earlier works, as you explore a new terrain, vocabulary and language in this film.
Yes. It is a new approach and vision. In this, I am a writer expressing, through images, the lives of people I have met. Kishan, the protagonist in this narrative, works in a cafe too. I am a Punjabi, but I have never lived in Punjab, so it was literature from the state that became the basis of my films. But in Khanaur, it’s an insider’s view that I draw from, my own relationship with the environment, one that I am familiar with. Through the lives of real people, the film looks at migration and reverse migration in Bir, Barot and Baragraan. It explores the inner beauty and charm of the people who live in harmony with nature, free of the pressure of conformity, consumerism and globalisation.
In the film, Kishan will leave wanting to explore, but Monisha, his co-actor, has come in search of an ideal life that she believes she has found it. Then again, perhaps, one day Kishan will come back, like some others have. There is a couple in their mid-forties, who is planning to settle down here and start their lives, afresh. The film is about three interconnected places caught in the midst of the flux of life, of changes, relationships, and cultural mutations.
As a director, you usually don’t work with professional actors. For instance, in Khanaur people plays themselves. Isn’t this a challenge?
Film is a temporal art, while image and sound are the carriers, creating in time a unique rhythm of emotion and abstraction. I believe actors come with a lot of baggage, their own ideas, successes, perspectives, which they bring along into their characters. Real emotion is what I want, so real people connect with me. Khanaur is a director’s film. It has been a fulfilling experience to see people bring their own persona and perspective to the work. As a director I improvise, and I am never afraid to go beyond and follow my instincts to see the truth. I also enjoy doing workshops with young filmmakers, mentoring them; it gives my practice new layers.
Khanaur is a blend of fiction and non-fiction, the story of ordinary and extraordinary people, with real conversations, incidents, observations. So, I find working with real people fulfilling. The language and experience of Khanuar may be new, but like my earlier films, the themes of the plight of the rural working class and militancy are universal.
How have digital platforms given an impetus to explorative work and space for new experiments?
There is no state support for serious cinema, and so digital platforms are an ideal medium to showcase your work. The kind of cinema I make, a theatrical release is tough. So film festivals and web distribution are the answer. It is very sad that cinema is not considered a serious form of art, a representation of the times we live in. That explains why a large state like Punjab has no film school or film festivals. Punjabi cinema doesn’t go beyond the clichés and actors are not getting a chance to make a serious impact. Film cannot be treated as an industrial form, what we need are independent film schools to support cinema.