Payal Kapadia was shooting a documentary in a remote tribal village in the Western Ghats, totally cut off from civilisation, by which she means totally cut off from cell phone reception. "It was like that Kiarostami film," she says, referring to the running joke in The Wind Will Carry Us about racing to high altitudes in order to make or receive a call. That was how she got the call, the one that said her 13-minute short, Afternoon Clouds, had been selected to compete in the Cinefondation category, whose jury is headed by Romanian auteur Cristian Mungiu, winner of the Palme d'Or for 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. She calls the moment schizophrenic.
"It's a quiet little film," Payal says. "It's still, silent. There isn't much of a plot." What little there is has to do with abstractions. The fact that many Indian women don't really say "I love you." The fact that love isn't always as mad and passionate as it is in the movies.
Payal, who is 30, is a fourth-year student in the direction course at the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune. "A lot of FTII films are really good," she says loyally. "They deserve to be here," she adds. But they aren't and hers is, and the fact isn't lost on her. Afternoon Clouds is the first film from the venerable institution that has made it to a competitive category at Cannes. It's also the only Indian film in a competitive category this year, chosen from among 2600 submissions from film schools across the world.
The bigness of this achievement is at odds with the film itself, which is the story of a 60-year-old widow who lives with her Nepali domestic help. "It's a quiet little film," Payal says. "It's still, silent. There isn't much of a plot." What little there is has to do with abstractions. The fact that many Indian women don't really say "I love you." The fact that love isn't always as mad and passionate as it is in the movies. The script took about two months, and Payal drew from her family of "mostly women."
Payal also found inspiration in paintings, especially those by Arpita Singh. "Her work is gentle, light and melancholic. She is able to evoke so much in one blue line depicting a woman lying down." Payal wants to use cinema as art, "like painting, like poetry." Her mother, Nalini Malani, is an avant garde artist, and Payal's schooling at Rishi Valley furthered what she calls the "alternative" way of thought. "There was no TV there, but on Saturdays, we'd be shown a movie." One of those films, she says, was Mirror, which explains a lot. No child exposed to Tarkovsky is going to end up doing work that's anything but "alternative."
More world cinema came during the college years at Xavier's, where Payal studied Economics, with Film as an elective. That's when she decided she would be a filmmaker. Afternoon Clouds was her second-year project. It began as a dialogue exercise, a part of the curriculum. "I wanted to evoke something with words," Payal says. "I wanted to explore the mundane. I don't mind if people drift off. I hope at least some viewers will think about it, take something away."
The film was shot on… film. "At FTII, we have a 1:2 ratio. We are given 20 minutes of raw stock for a 10-minute film." Payal says this brings about discipline. "You cannot shoot endlessly, like in digital. It forces you to think and design."
Payal is still surprised that a film with such local connotations — like what it means to be a Nepali domestic help in Mumbai — has made it to the biggest film festival in the world. And now, it will travel the world. After the Cannes screening, Afternoon Clouds will be shown at the Cinémathèque in Paris and Filmadrid. At the moment, though, Payal is still coming to terms with Cannes, a festival she followed mainly because it helped her discover new filmmakers like Apichatpong Weerasethakul. "It's confusing being here," she says. "Is it about cinema? Is it a market? I'm not able to tell what this place is.