Gurvinder Singh lives in an old house at the edge of a forest in Bir in Himachal Pradesh’s Kangra Valley. The stone walls and the wooden roof keep the house cosy in winters and cool in the summer. At a height of 5500 feet, it is close to the para-gliding taking-off site in the Dhauladhar range. Sometimes, when Singh is in his verandah, or in the garden, he can hear paragliders in flight talk among themselves. Sound travels strong and clear in the upper reaches of the valley, and in-tandem fliers tend to talk loudly. Once, funnily, he had heard a passenger ask: Does anyone even live here?
About thirty minutes downhill by foot – or if he has his jeep, a fifteen minute drive on a rough, steep road – Singh runs a cafe named after a short film – I have never heard of any cafe that has been named after a short film – by the late, great Mani Kaul, Singh’s teacher, and one of the giants of Indian art cinema. It’s called Cafe Cloud Door.
It’s right next to tea gardens, rows of them. The place is alive with sounds of insects and birds, and the beep of the microwave, and the clinking of dishes in the kitchen. Singh unpacks a slab of cheese that has just arrived from Manali, and he uses a knife to cut off a piece for tasting. It doesn’t feel like a Monday afternoon. The cafe’s resident dog Sultan lolls about the place, stretching and baking in the sun. He is a good dog, a well-behaved dog, only he stares at your food, which makes you feel guilty.
The idyll is disturbed by the rude noise of the vehicles that passed by. It’s a new road, like many other new roads in the village. Bir is changing, and at its centre is the cafe, which has become a strange, poetic point of confluence of life and cinema. Singh has cast the seventeen-year-old boy who works in his cafe as the protagonist of his new fiction film, Khanaur (Bitter Chestnut in English). He comes to work from Baragram, a remote hamlet in the Barot Valley. There were two other boys who worked in the cafe but they left to work in Goa.
Kaul’s sister, Gattu, and Singh, who had a shared desire of living in the mountains and start a small bakery or a cafe, started Cafe Cloud Door in 2015. He’s been running it after she passed away due to a heart attack, at the age of seventy four, last year. There are others like Singh, who want to come to Bir leaving their city lives behind. “Every week somebody new comes and asks about wanting to move to Bir,” he says.
It is these ‘movements’ – the migration of the village folk and the reverse migration of the city people – that fascinate Singh, and is at the heart of his new film. As in his Punjabi language feature films, the National award winning Anhey Ghorhey Da Daan (2011), and Chauthi Koot (2015), which was selected at the Cannes’ Un Certain Regard, Khanaur is also about a place and its people. It will capture the ebbs and flows of a Himalayan village in flux: the rural Himachali culture contrasted with the region’s emergence as a premium destination for paragliding (it hosted the Paragliding World Cup in 2015); the traditional architecture set against the new constructions. “Cinema is all about juxtapositions and contrast, and there is no dearth of them here,” he says.
In the boy, who was sixteen when he joined the cafe, he found the perfect embodiment of a ‘yearning to leave home and go out into the world.’ He reminds Singh of his teenage-self: shy, quiet, always at odds with something, lost.
The filmmaker has become a specialist of sorts in working with non-actors. Both Anhey and Chauthi had a mix of actors and non-actors, but with Khanaur he has gone all the way. The boy – his name is Kishan – plays himself (or a somewhat scripted version of himself) and so does every other (non) actor in the film – from the BSNL linesman to the Tibetan monk, from the tea-picker to the boy’s family. The only exception to the rule is the lady who who was cast as the cafe owner after Gattu passed away. Even Deepu, who drove me to the Chandigarh airport in his rental car next morning, plays Deepu. This is different from the way Singh has used non-actors before, where he would look for suitable faces to play fictional characters. “Here, you are working with a set of people who have already chosen themselves. It becomes a question of…accepting,” he says. Seventy percent of the shoot is over. Singh expects to complete the film by summer next year.
The scenes are staged but there is enough room for improvisation. In one of the shoots, Kishan started telling the story of the myth of the bitter chestnut, the metaphor that gives the film its title, is that despite being available in abundance, this native nut of the Himalayas is almost unusable by its people. In late winter, Singh wants to shoot a hunting scene with Kishan and his father in the snow.
Non-actors have played an important role through film history, ever since the workers left the Lumières’ factory in 1895. They have a way of presenting truth without decoration. Different directors use them differently…“You can push an actor, but you can’t push a non-actor,” he says. He doesn’t want to use the word documentary. “It’s an exchange, between fiction and real life.”
Non-actors have played an important role through film history, ever since the workers left the Lumières’ factory in 1895. They have a way of presenting truth without decoration. Different directors use them differently. Robert Bresson used them as models, like sculptors and painters; he gave them rigorous instructions till they got it right. Singh’s method for Khanaur has been the exact opposite: he has gone for as few takes as possible. Because he cast people who were asked to do things they do in their everyday lives — the women going to the weaver with the yarn they have woven; the men going to buy khacchars, a regular business among the pahari people — he has avoided multiple takes because he thinks doing the same thing over and over can kill the spontaneity. “You can push an actor, but you can’t push a non-actor,” he says. He doesn’t want to use the word documentary. “It’s an exchange, between fiction and real life.”
It’s not just an aesthetic choice. It’s also about making films with available resources, available locations and people, so he has total creative control. Singh’s films examine the idea of temporality in cinema, and in this regard, he carries forward the legacy of the radical, trailblazing ideas of Kaul. Cinema’s greatest power, Singh seems to believe, is its ability to expand and condense time, and as a filmmaker he tries to use it to the hilt. In Anhey Ghore Da Daan, which is about a day in the lives of a poor, landless Dalit family, twenty four hours seem like eternity.
Singh makes painterly, visually striking films, but his use of sound is special (he edits a film by the sound of it, which gives him a sense of rhythm). In Chauthi Koot, set in Punjab during the Separatist movement in the 80s, the incessant barking of Tommy, the beloved pet dog of a farmer’s family makes them a suspect in the eyes of both the Khalistani militants and the Indian armed forces. In a crucial scene, the camera only shows us the farmer Joginder’s face – blank and sleepless – and the dramatic tension of the scene is supplied by the dog’s bark, and a gunshot.
These are formally adventurous and covertly political films, and Singh could make them the way he wanted to, without the pressure of making money, because they were funded by the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC). But the scenario for state film funding in India has changed. The NFDC, which has backed some of the most exciting films in the recent past, has been under the BJP Government’s scanner; the centre has filed a charge of misappropriating funds against its managing director chief Nina Lath Gupta, but the reasons are suspiciously political. Singh has moved on to working with private producers, which has compelled him to think about making films in a way that can generate returns.
“You can’t expect to make big budget indie films. Chauthi was made with Rs 5.5 crores, which is a pretty large budget for an Indian independent film, not even the kind of film that makes for easy-viewing, because there is simply not that kind of recovery possible. So the only way forward is small crews and small budgets,” he says.
Khanaur is made with a crew comprising first-timers from FTII. It is also looser in terms of structure than Anhey and Chauthi, less plot-driven. “I am going easy on things like composition. Not make every frame a carrier of meaning… Feeling over meaning,” he says, “That’s the biggest thing I have learnt from Mani.”
Living in Bir has had an effect on Singh – till 2015 he was based in Pune, because he didn’t want to live in a cramped city like Mumbai. It has made him more relaxed. “Look how the light has changed since the time you’ve been here,” he says, pointing outside as we sit in the cafe. Along with the light, the temperature has changed. Gentle breeze blows across the tea garden. Pink coloured flowers of a tree, whose leaves Singh says are used as cattle fodder but whose name he has forgotten, drifts indoors. Singh looks around, talking about the many hues of green one can see in the autumn.
“There is so much drama in nature here. And I think that is the kind of entertainment I enjoy,” he says.
He prefers this over watching a film or a TV series on his computer. If someone recommends him the name of a director, he checks out one of his films, and if he likes it, he watches all of them. Philip Garrell, Ulrich Seidl, he mutters a few names. He fanboys over Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the Turkish auteur.
“I think Once Upon a time in Anatolia is one of the best films ever made. For me he is a contemporary master, and I completely admire his sense of mise en scène. And the kind of long exchanges his characters have, the art of conversations, which we have completely lost. Now the dialogues are supposed to be short, witty, move on,” he says. With his thick black hair and salt-n-pepper beard, in his sweater, trousers and leather shoes, drinking tea and talking about art, he is looking a bit like a Ceylan character himself.
The cafe makes small profits that sustain Singh’s living in Bir, which is frugal. “You don’t have fancy places to spend on,” he says. It caters to a section that includes a large number of foreigners and regulars – people from outside who have started living there. They don’t serve alcohol but guests are free to bring their own booze (there is a liquor store down the road). They bake their own bread and make their own pizza dough. They use fresh produce; if Singh adds South-East Asian dishes to the menu, which he wants to, they will make the Thai curry pastes themselves, freeze it in batches, and then while cooking, add it with coconut milk, veggies and meat. “There is no question of bottled paste,” he says.
The kitchen, open and functional and inviting, is a smorgasbord of aromas: spices sizzling on the pan, melting cheese, baked potato smeared in olive oil, which will be served with the grilled trout. Trout, I hear, too will have a role in Singh’s film. Right from its beginnings at the trout farm a few kilometres away, to its last remains as bones on the plate, it will capture the journey of trout.
The food is excellent. I haven’t had such good mutton in a while. They follow the recipe of the Kauls, who were connoisseurs of mutton. The dum biryani and the curry (which we have with steamed rice) were prepared in Kashmiri style, cooked in its own yakhni (juices) for hours. The kitchen, open and functional and inviting, is a smorgasbord of aromas: spices sizzling on the pan, melting cheese, baked potato smeared in olive oil, which will be served with the grilled trout. Trout, I hear, too will have a role in Singh’s film. Right from its beginnings at the trout farm a few kilometres away, to its last remains as bones on the plate, it will capture the journey of trout.
The idea of living in the mountains and running a cafe is romantic, but it is also hard. Singh has sincere, hard-working staff in Chandresh, Guriya – the two women – and Kishan, who can run the place when he isn’t there. “I have never received a single complaint from any customer about anything, including the quality of food,” he said. But on short-staffed days such as the one of my visit, he has to spend long hours in the kitchen. Kiran, one of his assistant directors, helps him out. Kishan has gone with his friends over the weekend to help them with their paragliding business, and he isn’t going to be back until Tuesday. Like every other boy in Bir, he has given in to the thrill and glamour of paragliding. He might leave his job at the cafe.
“It is considered a more adventurous and macho thing to do, and maybe nowadays it’s very sissy to work in a kitchen,” says Singh. In a place like Bir, it is difficult as it is to find an employee and spend months on training; when that person decides to leave, there is little one can do. Singh looks worried. The boys of the region, the film observes, move from a small village to a bigger one, when one day they leave for the city. Art was imitating life at Cafe Cloud Door, but now the tables are turning. Singh hasn’t decided yet where Kishan’s character goes in the film. But Kishan, it seems, has: He wants to fly.