At a film festival, everyone wants to see the next Parasite. I do, too. But that’s the kind of film that is going to be everywhere, at some point. But Ekta Mittal’s Birha? That’s something you’ll catch only at special screenings and at film festivals. This 80-minute slice of docu-fiction is a continuation of Behind the Tin Sheets, which focused on the subconscious of workers migrating to big cities. In Birha, the gaze turns to the towns and villages these workers have migrated from. The synopsis in the festival brochure calls “birha” (which means separation, estrangement) an undefined, ethereal space where “mothers wait for their missing sons, lovers lay awake and follow their impulses and fantasies, and the long departed wander in infinite landscapes of uncertainty”. The film feels like a haunted dream, like a mist of memories that’s forever in danger of evaporating.
A different kind of loss permeates RV Ramani’s Oh That’s Bhanu, which I considered skipping at the Dharamsala International Film Festival (DIFF) because it was going to be screened in Chennai a week later. But I saw it anyway, and it’s an extraordinary account of Bhanumathi Rao, a renowned classical dancer and theatre actor, now in her mid-90s. We ask: Given her memory loss, is Bhanu a very special kind of unreliable narrator, “performing” once again for the camera? But then, what is memory? By employing repetition and playing with time, the film goes deep into what we think we know, how it changes over the years, and how it affects our lives and relationships. Ramani said he felt an instant connection with Bhanu. We do, too.
Listening to practitioners of film craft is always a high, and it’s even better when they talk about filmmaking philosophy: say, that the gimbal is a great tool but it’s also too “smooth” and results in an ad-like quality of visuals
Eeb Allay Ooo!, by Prateek Vats, is a superb satire about a migrant who — through some string-pulling — lands a job driving away monkeys in the capital’s high-security zone. The premise is so outrageous and absurdist (the protagonist has to mimic the animals to do his job) that the instant impulse is to land on a metaphor that ties it all up — say, that the poor have to sacrifice their dignity in order to make money. But this deeply layered film resists easy categorisations, and the “what could be going on?” discussions are going to fuel many, many think pieces. It’s simply a surreal journey. No, it’s about the de’human’ising effects of society. No, it’s about the changing work landscape that requires specialised skills and yet does not give people the time to acquire these skills. No, with all the vérité footage, this is actually a “nature documentary”… about the animal within us. The only certainty is that Prateek Vats is on his way to becoming a major filmmaker. His excellent first feature, a documentary titled A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings, was clearly no fluke.
Many parents make records of their child’s early years. Waad al-Kateab’s version is a little different. She is in Aleppo, Syria, when the protests against Bashar al-Assad begin. She falls in love with a doctor. They marry. A daughter, Sama, is born. Gradually, as the city is gripped by full-blown war, the characters find themselves stranded in an “increasingly apocalyptic landscape”. Those are the words in the synopsis, and there could be no better description for what we see — and the “daily diary” Waad al-Kateab records for her baby girl. One of the most horrific scenes in For Sama has a baby being extracted from a woman who’s faced gunfire and is now studded with shrapnel. Will she survive? Will the baby make it? As the excruciating stretch goes on and on, one part of me wondered if I was watching “war porn”, however well-meant. How can one not respond to such graphic imagery? And yet, the shattering immediacy of this imagery leaves you in little doubt about its importance. It’s a first-hand account from hell. I walked out of the screening wanting a follow-up, like an episode from Michael Apted’s Up series. (He interviewed the same set of people every seven years.) What will Sama make of this carefully curated sequence of atrocities when she grows up? That thought is even more disturbing than this film.
Adil Hussain dismissed stunts like gaining and losing weight for a role. “These are hardware changes. I believe in software changes, which reflect the inner mechanisms of life.”
I also attended two workshops. Listening to practitioners of film craft is always a high, and it’s even better when they talk about filmmaking philosophy: say, that the gimbal is a great tool but it’s also too “smooth” and results in an ad-like quality of visuals. “You don’t always want that quality because life is rough,” said Samuel Weniger, the co-director and cameraman of Golden Age, a documentary that played at DIFF. The film takes us into The Palace, a retirement home in Miami for the super-rich, “a cross between a luxury hotel and an Americanised copy of Versailles”. But what’s behind the gilded facade? Weakening bodies. Memories of departed spouses. A profound sense of longing for “home”.
How does one make the residents of such a place feel comfortable enough to open themselves up for filming? Weniger and his team spent three months in the home before shooting. “What you need for films like this is honesty and time,” he said. “That’s the only way to get to know people and build relationships.” Another tip: “Don’t keep looking at your frame. Look at the people. That’s what’ll make them comfortable.” Someone in the audience asked how one knows when to go wide or close. Weniger said that, during the production, he stayed at a Polish filmmaker’s house, and one evening he showed some footage. This is the feedback he got: “You need to go closer. I want to really see these people.” Weniger said he was really happy to get this advice. “We need close-ups, and not just for the faces. The things you can feel, taste, smell — you can’t capture that in a wide shot.”
As the excruciating stretch in For Sama goes on and on, one part of me wondered if I was watching “war porn”, however well-meant. How can one not respond to such graphic imagery? And yet, the shattering immediacy of this imagery leaves you in little doubt about its importance
The other workshop was “The Art of Acting”, by Adil Hussain. “Let us converse,” he said at the beginning. He had had enough of one-sided lecturing. He wanted an interaction: “dil ki baat, man ki baat.” He spoke of the early days, when, in Assam, he saw two Bengali standup comedians imitate stars like Amitabh Bachchan. He’d come back and reenact the routines to his friends, to impress them. He spoke of watching his first Hollywood film, Pappilon. He thought it was filled with real people picked off the streets. When he learnt they were actors named Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, he thought: “This is the style of performance I want to follow.”
He dismissed stunts like gaining and losing weight for a role. “These are hardware changes. I believe in software changes, which reflect the inner mechanisms of life.” He gave the example of a man-made bonsai versus the natural tree. “I define realistic acting as something that has so much depth and concentration of character that I become the bonsai and looking at me, people should see the whole big tree.” My favourite part of the workshop was when he spoke about not needing to project in front of the camera. “It comes close to you. It comes to the space not invaded by anyone except your mother or wife or maybe your dentist. When I watch Bachchan on screen, I feel like I know him, because the camera has gone close to his face and given me an image as though I am right next to him. That is why people fall in love with film actors but not theatre actors.”