Rajesh, one of the three principal characters in Rishi Chandna's short-documentary, Party Poster, is optimistic about his political aspirations. The only problem is Rajesh's vocation is nowhere near politics – running a modest laundry service out of a dhobi ghat in Bandra. However, he is of the opinion that once he appears on the Bandra Laundry Association's poster for the annual Ganesh Chaturthi festivities, some local politician might take note, invite him over to a political party's official poster, and might even give him a ticket for the next election. It might seem a bit far-fetched, but Rajesh's roadmap for success has been decided – appearing on a poster.
Director Rishi Chandna's Tungrus (2018) – a 12-minute documentary on a suburban Mumbai family and how their lives are altered when the patriarch adopts a pet rooster – was selected for the prestigious NYT Op-Docs. It ended up winning the Grand Jury Prize at the 2019 Slamdance Film Festival and played at Hot Docs (Canada) and 120 odd other festivals around the world. His sophomore film had its world premiere in Fribourg (Switzerland) and is scheduled to play at the Palm Springs International ShortFest, later this month. Following up on the accolades of his first film, Chandna delivers a sharp, multi-faceted second film, by zeroing in on the trials and tribulations of getting a poster made during a pandemic. By focusing on the lives of three migrant workers, Chandna's film, in a way, lends faces to the seemingly 'invisible' workforce that was abandoned in the midst of nationwide lockdowns.
Such posters are a typical Mumbai phenomenon, something Chandna recounts during our video call. "If you remember, there was a sustained campaign against these posters almost a decade back. There was a section of society that saw these posters as a nuisance." Going out for a drive in August, 2020, when the lockdown guidelines were eased for the first time, Chandna wondered where all these posters (especially for Ganesh Chaturthi) would come up, now that most public places were encroached by hoardings featuring COVID guidelines.
Look at Bandra – there's a Koliwada community and so many celebrities living a few hundred metres away. It's such a fertile ground for storytelling,
"Thankfully, I have this weird habit of checking people's WhatsApp DPs," says Chanda with a laugh. He had seen Rajesh's DP, which was his picture from last year's Ganpati hoarding, so he called him and asked him what he would be doing this year. Rajesh said they would definitely do a celebration this year too, along with getting a poster that had a symbol of COVID warning. Rajesh followed Chandna on Facebook, and was vaguely aware he was a filmmaker, so when Chandna stated his plans to make a film around their Ganpati celebration, Rajesh was keen to participate. Returning from his hometown in Uttar Pradesh, Rajesh soon introduced Chandna to his colleagues – Munna and Prem, who Chandna 'cast' as the other principal characters in the film along with Rajesh.
Much like his debut, even Party Poster has a static, observational style, one that Chandna calls his "stand and stare" approach. Mumbai city, Chandna's home for 15 years, is an inadvertent muse for both his films. "Mumbai is such a dense location, there's so much juxtaposition. Look at Bandra – there's a Koliwada community and so many celebrities living a few hundred metres away. It's such a fertile ground for storytelling," says Chandna, going on to add that he often refers to the city as an intersection of mundane and insane. "In Party Poster, I think there's a healthy debate about what qualifies as a public & private space. It's not like these people are fully integrated into society, and it's expressed in these posters. To me it's a very important means of communication," Chandna notes. According to him, whenever a filmmaker is entering a possible conflict, they should put aside any bias, and be genuinely curious about all that's happening around them.
Carrying forward the torch for the impeccable year that Indian non-fiction has had with the Cannes and Sundance wins for Shaunak Sen's All That Breathes and the Academy Award nomination for Rintu Thomas & Sushmit Ghosh's Writing with Fire, Chandna's films are as reactive towards 'new India' as much as their feature-length counterparts. Tungrus centres around meat, which has triggered more than one reported case of mob violence in the country, while Party Poster cheekily hints towards 'virulent politicians' on hoardings, during a pandemic. Chandna mentions he has no patience for 'pedantic' political films that deliver sermons about aspirational virtues.
"Allegorical political films are a fascinating space for me. For eg: some people read Tungrus as the story of an 'outsider', especially how the father says: 'Usko kaat ke khaana hai…' (I should be the one to slaughter it and eat it)," says Chandna. A fan of Armando Ianucci (Veep, In The Loop) and Chris Morris (Four Lions) – Chandna drizzles his film with moments like a character stopping to read the publicity hoarding of an under-construction high rise that promises "mask-free living".
However, Chandna is also of the opinion that he has it worse than his feature-length peers. "As a documentary short filmmaker, I think you're at the bottom of the food chain. I've spent five lacs making a film, is there a platform for me to recover my cost? I don't think so. I've been approached by agents who told me they'll be able to get my films on streaming services. When I ask them what the licensing fee is, they say 'independent filmmakers' don't make money," recounts a clearly agitated Chandna.
Next, Chandna is working on a fiction feature-length project, for which he was invited to the Screenwriter's Lab at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Even though talks for the funding of this project are still in early stages, Chandna remains optimistic – "It's not just one tough day, there's an accumulating defeat that you have to face everyday. Every rejection email feels like a punch in the gut. And yet, there's so much reward when you complete a film, and when it gets selected for even one festival. The opportunity to travel to these far-flung places, watching your film with an audience, it's really special." Seems like we have an independent voice to look forward to.