Last year, I spoke to Anand Gandhi, who heads the very cool, very avant-grade Memesys Culture Lab. Memesys' team–filmmakers, writers, philosophers, and others—are creating some of India's most unusual Virtual Reality (VR). In February this year, they finally released their most-touted project: ElseVR (pronounced "elsewhere").
ElseVR is a collection of original, provocative VR documentaries and videos made entirely by Memesys. The videos are short—two to ten minutes long—but they're followed by stories, interviews, and essays that provide context.
Inside Dangal and Dhakkad: Behind the Scenes
A brand-new way to show the making of a film—and it's really fun! I watched both videos on my phone, with Google Cardboard, and felt as if I was actually an extra on Dangal's sets. The Internet agrees: Inside Dangal has more than 2 million hits on YouTube 360.
The scene set-ups are wonderfully playful. In one scene, a song troupe dances right past your face. In another, you're encircled by burly, oiled wrestlers, who seem waiting to fight you. In yet another, you feel like you're meeting Aamir Khan face-to-face (alas, he seems even shorter in VR).
The sound cues are great too. In one scene, I suddenly heard the director talking behind me, and almost felt like stepping out of his way.
Both these videos have the fastest scene changes I've ever seen in VR and it takes some getting used to. I felt slightly queasy watching them the first time. Still, we've all imagined being on a film set, and this was my most realistic experience of it yet.
Right to Pray
Right to Pray, directed by Khushboo Ranka (co-writer of Ship of Theseus), premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2016.
The VR documentary shows how a small group of women activists defied angry priests and physical beating to finally enter the inner sanctum of the Trimbakeshwar temple in Nashik, Maharashtra—thus overturning a 500-year-old patriarchal tradition.
I enjoyed many of Right to Pray's innovations, especially the way it captured news babble. Ranka stitches TV reports, newspaper headlines, and tweets into a 360-degree panorama that left me excited, deafened, and overwhelmed by the news story—just like in real life.
I was sometimes confused by the lack of sound cues. I couldn't tell when I was listening to a voice-over or dialogue, and I'd spin around to find who was talking. Dizzying. I also couldn't fully subscribe to the story accompanying Right to Pray. Its tone kept wobbling between dispassionate fact-telling and barely-veiled sarcasm.
When Land is Lost, Do We Eat Coal?
Two-thirds of India's electricity still comes from coal. How has such large-scale mining changed the villages of India? What is the cost of our coal?
Faiza Khan (director of Superman of Malegaon) captures the life of one woman, living at "the edge of a coal mine," whose house is razed down, and whose family graves are dug up and tossed aside while mining.
It's a quiet film, but exquisitely beautiful. The panoramas of the village and the coal mine—smoky blue skies, scarred lands—have stayed on with me. The dialogue is sparse, but lyrical. (And there are subtitles—in three directions! Very useful.)
I also appreciated the supplementary story by Aruna Chandrasekhar, senior researcher for Amnesty International India. It's packed with research and yet an easy, engaging read that provides great context to the video.
This edition of ElseVR has two more films:
And Memesys promises to be back every quarter, with a new edition of VR films and stories.
ElseVR is a ballsy, beautiful, path-making project. With questions piling up around VR films—how to make them, and why, how to distribute them, how to make people watch—ElseVR is the first real answer to come from India.