Ashmita Guha Neogi’s CatDog: The Only Indian Film In The Cannes 2020 List

CatDog is a 20-minute film about siblings — older sister, younger brother — who face imminent separation. The title signifies how close the boy and girl are, fused at the hip like how the two words (“cat”, “dog”) are fused as one. Their mother — a teacher, who is often seen with a male colleague who may be more than just a “colleague” — is sending the boy away to a hostel, and the girl is hurt. The film plays out as a series of bizarre games between the children.

“I started at a point very distant from the film I have right now,” the director says. “At that time, I was thinking about what it would mean for two people to grow up without the rules of civilisation and to just recognise each other by their biological selves, their genders, like Adam and Eve, untamed by nature. But this idea was philosophical, and I probably wouldn’t have been able to contain it in a film. I would have had to write a book about it. And then, I came upon the idea of incest, which is not fore-grounded in the film but is still something that is socially and biologically frowned upon. Then the idea of a brother and sister — like it is in the film now — kind of became the vessel for those initial thoughts.

Ashmita Guha Neogi’s CatDog: The Only Indian Film In The Cannes 2020 List

 You said that the first idea would be very abstract, but even this was quite abstract. There’s a sense that the old woman at the beginning — the one the girl and boy play a prank on — is the colleague’s mother. 

 I’ll tell you what I essentially do. I start writing scenes, scenes that I think can suggest something about what preceded it and what might follow, and that allows me to create a story where there is not a direct cause and effect. You were one of the few people who picked up on the fact that the man could possibly be the old woman’s son. 

I liked the discomfort this man feels when the girl walks into the kitchen, as the mother is cooking. He senses the girl is not approving of him and the relationship he possibly has with the mother. Did you imagine him to play a bigger part at first and then maybe shear him down?

 Yeah, absolutely. There was a lot more space and agency that the mother’s character had, and also this man’s. I don’t know if I want to put it out there but I do think that there is a certain amount of attraction and anger towards this man that the girl also feels. The man also senses it and there is a certain level of awkwardness. It’s not a natural family unit. 

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 Where is the father?

 I think he either left them or died.

 Let’s talk about the scene where the girl throws the piece of fish on the boy’s mosquito net. What was going through your mind when you wrote that?

 You know, we all talk about this great teenage angst, that period of ungratefulness. So, I was thinking that an adult probably wouldn’t do that. It’s not a rational thing to do, where you are depriving someone of food and then you throw it at someone, knowing fully that they are not going to catch it. I knew it was sadistic. I thought it made complete sense for a 15- or 16-year-old girl to do it when she feels betrayed that this boy is leaving her. She’s also probably punishing him for running away, earlier, while they were playing the prank on the old woman.

 Sending away the boy to a hostel is the mother’s idea, and yet, the girl was acting out against the boy.

 Even in the naming of the film, there was a cartoon when I was young called CatDog, which had a cat and dog attached to a body with different heads. Again, the conversation of the two-headed snake is how she sees him, as a part of herself. And then for him to succumb to the pressures, even though he doesn’t have the agency to  rebel, she does feel let down and feels he is the enemy.

Ashmita Guha Neogi’s CatDog: The Only Indian Film In The Cannes 2020 List

These children are seen in uniform, but they don’t seem to have classmates or friends. It is almost like they are walking in the woods like Hansel and Gretel.

 Yes. That is what I was attempting. I wrote a lot of scenes with the boy and other boys. But I could never imagine the girl being very friendly or liked by other people. And I kept thinking that the girl’s biggest grievance would be that she can never come to terms with him being with others. It was this world where only they existed.

 The bizarre games between the brother and sister — like the one where she leads him like a dog on a leash. If the boy and girl were adults, we’d be talking about their games as BDSM and all that. But because they are children, your gaze changes. How did you devise these games?

 They say children’s games are not just games. They are so much about intent. I’ll tell you about the game where they cover their faces with a plastic bag. The minute we don’t see a person’s eye, I find it very discomforting — even when people are wearing sunglasses and talking to me. At that moment, it’s almost like a decapitated body. It was an image that would freak me out. I love choreographing sequences like dance sequences. I grew up on fairy tales of The Brothers Grimm, so that was the kind of feeling I wanted in the film.

 And that leash game? Where was that coming from?

 I’ve no idea, honestly (laughs).

 Your camera, mostly, is either following the characters or listening to what they listen to. But there’s one lovely portion towards the end when brother and sister are sitting on a branch and the boy is narrating a story about a two-headed serpent (which probably represents this duo). That’s probably the only unmotivated track-in, in that the camera becomes a character of its own rather than following something…

 Honestly, this is something that I shot two years ago — around this time, actually, August 2018 — and it is now a distant memory. Now when I think about it, even if I had not tracked in, I think it would’ve worked. That idea of two heads on one body is where I wanted the emphasis. I guess I was worried that if I don’t go closer to them, I will not be able to emphasise that idea. Also, when you get closer to them, I do think that I wanted a little more proximity to the girl. I was always looking at the world through the girl. There are times when I was looking at the girl but most of the times it is how she understands the world around her. This was the one time I wanted to have a little distance and then move close to her. 

 There’s a lovely bit where at first you just see a tree and then the girl’s arms come from behind the trunk. This visual idea is repeated when you think you’re only seeing the mother but then realise her colleague is “hidden” behind her and he “appears” as they keep talking. Can you talk about the framing?

 I don’t think I was consciously thinking of having a repetition there, but it’s just the sort of framing I like. I am personally very influenced by photographers more than filmmakers. And I do think that a frame — if it’s able to convey something, it’s so great.

 There’s also this soft, kind of dreamy, Vaseline-y kind of quality to the cinematography, when we see the children at home. The colours become more “natural” with the mother.

 I definitely wanted to create a difference and have a definite look for the children’s world. In terms of lighting also, I have not gone for very natural lighting. We tested a lot of filters. There was a very conscious effort to not place this film anywhere, to make the image seem almost unreal and dream-like.

 The fusion of the two words in the title, CatDog, in green and white. Tell us about that…

 I think the choice of the colour was because of the mood of the film: like green, blue, white and monsoons. I definitely think that the girl’s the cat and the boy’s the dog. 

 There was no physical edition of Cannes this year. Did you miss being there, or did you take things with a philosophical shrug?

 Oh, I definitely missed being there. This was the first time I was going to cross the Indian border, and I was thrilled. So yeah, that hurt a bit.

 So what are you up to now?

 I moved to Mumbai about 10 days before I heard from Cannes, and ever since, I’ve just been sitting at home. (laughs) I am talking to a few organisations about releasing the film. I also want to do features, though I don’t feel equipped right now. But this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot. I want to do a horror film, but not just horror with one ras. I don’t have a word for it, but if I could do horror with a mix of karuna [compassion] and bibhatsa [aversion], that would be amazing.

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