Much like Werner Herzog’s films, this story also starts in an unusual way –at a tarot card reading. One of the many phases in my life involved a flirtation with fortune telling. I bought a pack of tarot cards and managed to get several non-paying clients who, not surprisingly, were quite regular. Among them was a man who was the head of the international airport in New Delhi, which is relevant to the next part of the story.
A friend of my sister’s, who lived in Austria, had emailed me asking if I would assist an Austrian/German crew that was due to film in India. I agreed. As he hadn’t mentioned who the film’s director was, I assumed it was a prank when I received the crew list. It included director Werner Herzog, producer Lucki Stipetic (one of the loveliest men in the world), cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger, assistant cameraman Erik Soeliner (also my sister’s friend) and Lena Herzog who was to do the photo stills for the film. They were to film Wheel Of Time, a documentary about the Buddhist Kaalchakra Initiation – a controversial ceremony at the time – in Delhi and in Bodh Gaya with the Dalai Lama.
My first reaction was elation. How lucky for a 20-something filmmaker living in New Delhi. The mountain was coming to Muhammad. Was Fitzcarraldo’s boat making its own way up the mountain? What followed was panic. What could I say to a man who intimidated Klaus Kinski? What would I say to a man who was arguably one of the best film directors in the world? This vacillation continued, as the days grew closer to his arrival. A sign of how overwhelmed I was that I was unable to tell anyone that he was arriving and that I was to assist him. A part of me was still too busy pinching myself.
On the day of Herzog’s arrival, the New Delhi customs office hinted that it was likely to throw in a spanner or two. If you’re asking why, well the answer is that this is what bureaucrats do the world over. This is where the endless hours of unpaid, semi-accurate, tarot card readings came to the rescue. I called the head of the Indira Gandhi National Airport, and a few hours later, all protocol was broken as I was escorted to the immigration gate to receive Herzog and his crew. I waited. It was winter, but I was sweating.
What was my first impression of Herzog? He was neither excited nor tired nor rude nor jet-lagged. He just seemed aware and attentive. I think I might have impressed him and the crew with the speed with which they made their way out of the airport, but that was quickly undone when the car was supposed to pick him up didn’t turn up. The other cars whisked away the rest of the crew, leaving me with Lucki and Werner. As we waited under yellow airport lighting, slightly diffused with fog, Lufthansa crew members, confused by the Herzog sighting, kept bumping into each other as they whispered his name.
A bag or two rolled off the curb all while Herzog, seemingly oblivious, soaked in the confusion. Almost in a whisper, he turned to ask if I had brought my car. When I said yes, he wanted to know if I could drive Lucki and him to their hotel. I drove a jeep at the time, which was no luxury ride. In retrospect, that was probably what Herzog was looking for. In the days that followed, he often chose to be my co-passenger as I drove him around New Delhi.
After a few days of prep in New Delhi, the crew was to travel to Bodh Gaya, the city of Buddha’s birth, to film the Dalai Lama conducting the Kaalchakra initiation ceremony. Their days in Delhi were busy and our conversations revolved around food and life and were as precious as conversations about art and film. After all, a window into the process of someone as refined as Herzog cannot just come from his approach to filmmaking. While eating a sumptuous Indian meal at one of my favourite restaurants in Delhi, he wanted to know everything about the food. The intricacies of Indian cuisine appealed to him. “You can tell how ancient a civilisation is by its food,” he said. There was some resistance to that idea from his wife, Lena, who is from Siberia. He enjoyed that too.
As we all know, Herzog isn’t easily fazed. But, contrary to his image, he’s patient, gentle and extremely secure. His well of self-knowledge runs deep. You get the feeling that he has very little time to waste on “presenting” himself, his drive for the truth starts from within. He wants to tell it like it is. Consequently, he’s direct, but not unkind. I asked him when he thought I would make my first feature and he answered, “When you’re willing to live and die for it.” In retrospect, that was the appropriate answer for a young filmmaker trying to put him in the position of a filmmaking God. He spoke honestly about the experience of making his first film, saying that he did steal a camera from his film school and practically kidnapped Klaus Kinski. How Aguirre, the Wrath of God was made is the stuff of filmmaking legend. Many have attempted to emulate its bravery, both in the way it was made and in its filmmaking style, but it was a film specific to its creator. It’s impossible to duplicate.
The news coming from Bodh Gaya was that hundreds of thousands of Tibetans were gathering in anticipation for the Dalai Lama’s arrival. The town was not equipped to handle it. Although all the arrangements had been made, I was worried. As it turned out, I was right. The crew landed in the middle of chaos. The place was teeming with people. Not only were there Buddhists, but also needy people, who had arrived in search of alms. The infrastructure caved in. The roads were flooded with sewage. Electricity was erratic. Moving around the town was near impossible. Members of the crew were overwhelmed, but not Herzog or Stepetic. Many of them were sick but not Herzog or Stepetic.
When the shoot was over, I whisked them off to some Lutyens Delhi comfort. When the train pulled in to the Delhi railway station, the other crew members rushed out into the unrelenting foggy Delhi winter, to the cars that would carry them away to luxury. Herzog and Stepetic showed no signs of fatigue. Herzog positively beamed and Stepetic wore his usual cloak of peace. The porters at the station stacked all the luggage and equipment onto trolleys that could only be carried out through a tunnel connecting the platform to the parking lot. I was to accompany the luggage alone but both of them wanted to come along. We walked through this dystopian passageway with green peeling paint, a small flowing drain, fluorescent lighting and a scurrying rat. Herzog looked so pleased that I tried to see the squalor through his eyes. It was real, and it was poetic because it was true.
We started shooting in Delhi and I watched him closely. His lack of imposition on the crew and yet his total control and understanding of the material was a joy to watch. Excellence can be such thrilling viewing.
All this would have been enough for me to ride off happily into a creative sunset but there was more to come. A few days into their stay in Delhi, Stepetic made a request. Herzog and his wife wanted to stay at my house for a few days. Once again, I panicked. I was married at the time and living with my husband, child, house help, dog and a visiting guest from Austria, who was currently occupying the guest room. I couldn’t understand why the Herzogs would want to stay in our home when they could be at a beautiful hotel. But it was an offer I could not refuse. When our visiting guest he learnt who was to occupy the room he was vacating, he almost fell off his chair.
It was in those days that I made Herzog’s real acquaintance. We talked at great length about his work and his life. I regret that I hadn’t yet made the films that I have now, or written the scripts, book and articles that I have now. Today, I would’ve had so much more to talk to him about. But I still learnt so much in the time I spent with him over cups of chai on my sofa. It has stayed with me and informed my perspective in many ways.
I learnt that genius is generous because its well is deep and never-ending. I learnt that creativity is important when it serves to convey something authentic. And above all, I learnt that facts are something that accountants deal with, for storytellers it has to be about the truth. Herzog told me a story about his stepfather, who had Alzheimer’s. He would often wander out of the house, leaving his wife extremely worried. She would spend hours trying to find him. This made her wonder about the futility of loving a man who did not even know who she was. One day, after one such incident, she brought him back to the house after a long search. Fed up and tired, she gave him a stern talking to. The next morning, he began behaving differently. He seemed to be preparing for something. He cleaned up, put on his best clothes, plucked some flowers. He set the table and waited for her. When she arrived, he looked at her and said, “Lady I don’t know who you are, but if I did not have a wife, I would have liked to marry you.” I heard the truth in that story.
Herzog’s constant movement between documentary and fiction appealed to me and has become embedded in my filmmaking since. When I made my second feature, Kajarya, I was able to bring this into play. The film revolves around two female protagonists, one who kills infants and the other, a journalist. It’s a comment on society’s hypocrisy as much as it is about female infanticide. I wanted to make a visceral comment, not pulling any punches. And so I combined fiction with documentary. I picked actors who were close to the characters they were playing. And I threw in people who were essentially playing themselves. I insisted on every location being real, down to the police station. While we rehearsed dialogues, much of it was them reacting to real people. I might have been setting up something too ambitious, because there was nothing that was a given on any day that we shot – much like documentary. It was a physically tough shoot but the content just flowed. It was amazing to see how the truth emerges when you set things up – it elegantly and boldly presents itself. With that experience, I understood exactly what Herzog meant when he spoke about seeking the truth and not facts.
I must also talk about Stipetic, who’s a producer, but also a human being extraordinaire. I’ve rarely encountered this combination of elegance and generosity in one person. He gifted me all of Herzog’s films before they left India. Over the years, I have watched them several times as I put the man and his work together in a new light.
I met Stipetic a few times when I travelled to Vienna and enjoyed talking to him about cinema and politics. My interactions with him always left me feeling special and uplifted. Over the years, he gave me books, Blu-rays and other material about Herzog. Perhaps it was his way of keeping me in touch with him.
Herzog and I also exchanged emails over the years. He even sent me a script of his to look at. I sent him back some honest feedback. The temerity of it occurs to me sometimes but Herzog did not seem to mind – he never does! A few years ago, there was a call to join a workshop in Cuba that he was going to host. I applied and was chosen. I’m told he picked the people who were to attend personally. However, I couldn’t raise enough money to go and there isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t think about it.
I hope there will be more conversations because there’s so much I want to talk to him about. Every day, as I struggle to keep my voice alive in an environment hell bent on uniformity, I draw upon his bravery, his generosity and the secure centre that his work radiates. I’m sure I’m not the only one who wants to emulate him but I feel fortunate to be one of the few who discovered this firsthand.