Independence Day just passed us by. It is possible you might have heard, blaring on the radios, or looping through television AR Rahman’s iconic Maa Tujhe Salam.
The year was 1997, and India as a country, an experiment in democracy, had turned 50. Rahman with his friend and collaborator Bharatbala decided to release his album of patriotic songs a few days before Independence Day. The cassette would become a bestseller, the song and video playing across the country. The iconic shots of India beyond the urban imagination- deserts, mountains, lush backwaters, camels and elephants- would become synonymous with love for the country.
More than twenty years later, with the democratization of data and easy access, with a more warped meaning of patriotism blaring through WhatsApp forwards, Bharatbala would be back to these landscapes to shoot something more sinisterly grand, his legacy project- he wants to make 1,000 short-films across the length and breadth of our country. I use short-films as a filler. They almost feel like experiential capsules. Broadly under ten minutes, they are cinematically dense, with impeccably produced sound design, modern sensibilities, crisp cinematography, and sync sound, they are immersive visual and auditory experiences. Bharatbala calls it the “Hans Zimmer feel”. He showed me some of these videos in a dark room, with warm filter coffee; needless to say, I was moved. But then, we discussed if this content could be consumed by someone on a Mumbai local, traveling in packed tin compartments rattling off across the city, being pushed, and shoved. He has no doubt in his mind that it would connect.
The first of the thousand films is Thaalam (Rythm), releasing today across YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, set in the backwaters of Alleppey- the story of men preparing for the famous boat race. Bharatbala describes it as “India on a boat”.
“India on a boat came from the original idea of how these 150 people… from all walks of life – the postman, school teacher, carpenter- come together; they are not athletes or oarsmen… they sit on the boat and how they sing to a groove and there is a guy on the boat who pounds with a log to set the thaalam… If they find the thaalam together they win the race so imagine India on a boat… It has the energy, the beat, and the swing.”
Biblical folks songs were recorded, mixed, and produced with lyrics and beats birthed from our modern visual grammar. The film is not interested in who wins the race. It merely wants to document what is it that makes a boat win the race- what does the preparation look like, what does brotherhood and friendly competition look like?
I have a feeling this series too, like Vande Mataram and Incredible India videos will invite criticism of exotifying and romanticizing the non-urban life, trying to look for India in the “traditional” as opposed to the modern and the urban. These criticisms stand; his cinematic vision too, stands.
But he is also not interested in only making films oriented towards social messaging. “If there is a message shaping up, why not use it? But this is a creative enterprise, I am not doing social service. We are not into social engineering- we are saying human stories that talk of life, pain, and joy- something we can absorb, experience, and share.”
Every week he intends to put out a new film, some of them prefaced by influential figures. Next week, Gulzar would be introducing the film of Haldhar Nag, a Padma Shri winning Kosli Poet from Odisha. There is also a film on a village in Tamil Nadu where all the men dress up as Kali for a festival, with mothers padding the bras of their sons, helping them put their anklets, and bracelets, blue paint and a few more heads and a few more hands. Students in Punjab dressed in white would be learning traditional music that has tripped through tongues of generations, with slow motion shots of joy over kulfi and selfies.
He has over 300 film ideas in his pocket, and has shot over 70 of them. Much more remains, and he is in search of both talent and stories to create an archive that can have a wide outreach.
“I want a child from Nagaland to see a story from Odisha, a child from Kerala to see a story from Arunachal, because the kid from Nagaland may never go to Odisha and may never know what the landscape is.”
I have a feeling this series too, like Vande Mataram and Incredible India videos will invite criticism of exotifying and romanticizing the non-urban life, trying to look for India in the “traditional” as opposed to the modern and the urban. These criticisms stand; his cinematic vision too, stands. In the midst, I wonder if he is planning to come back to commercial cinema post his 2013 film, Maryan. He laughs. “We will set this boat sail first, then let’s see. I am also a struggling filmmaker.”