Ukrainian filmmaker Dar Gai does not like being categorized. That’s why she chose the gender-neutral stage name Dar Gai – an abbreviation of her real name Daria Gaikalova. She believes that when an audience dwells on details like the gender and nationality of the filmmaker, it takes away, to a certain extent, from the narrative of the film.
Upon viewing her film Namdev Bhau in Search of Silence, which follows a 65-year-old chauffeur who decides to leave the cacophony of Bombay in search for the mysterious Silent Valley, you probably won’t be able to tell that it was made by someone not originally from the country. Or that it was made on a micro-budget with a crew of seven people.
What Dar Gai’s films may lack in terms of budget, they more than make up for in concept. Her debut feature Teen Aur Aadha which was set in one house and told the story of its various inhabitants in three different eras, travelled to over 35 international film festivals and won 12 awards.
Ahead of the screening of Namdev Bhau at the 20th Mumbai Film Festival, we spoke to her about finding context to tell rooted stories and directing Namdev Gurav, who has been working as a driver for more than 45 years:
Cinema is a universal medium but for films to really work, they must be rooted in that particular milieu. As an expat living in India, how do you find the Indianness of the stories you tell?
When I look at not just cinema but my life, I feel uncomfortable being bound by nationality or a certain identity. In my childhood I had to decide which language to speak – Ukrainian or Russian. Now I have to decide who I am as a director – Indian or Ukrainian. For me, it kind of creates a very interesting identity crisis because I feel I can be universal, whether it’s the language of cinema or my social or political expression. I am choosing to be marginal – in the middle of everywhere and at the same time, nowhere.
When I came to India, I felt the country. And I guess I have this quirk of a chameleon, I can merge with the society and conditions and feel very comfortable. As soon as I landed here, I started hearing so many different stories from my friends and people I was working with. I was travelling alone a lot in India and I realised that I can relate to it as much as I can relate to Ukraine, where I was born. The nuances are the most interesting things. For me, filmmaking is actually in the details and recreating things I see around me is an interesting process.
You’ve mentioned in interviews that you when you first moved here, you were coming up with at least three feature film ideas everyday. Do you think that being an outsider enables you to perceive things around you more?
For me it’s more about uncomfortable zones. If I would have taken a 3 month solo trip in Ukraine, staying in random villages and speaking to random people, I would have been able to come up with the same number of ideas. But for me at that point of time, Ukraine was known – I kind of created a safe, known environment for me. As soon as I stepped out, it was a completely new language, new culture that I had to understand and learn. And I was inspired by that.
I believe that filmmakers need to be in uncomfortable situations all the time – we need to throw ourselves in such a way that all our senses are awakened. At the end of the day, we are animals and we’re always trying to survive, and therefore notice any danger to us. When all our senses are awakened, we start coming up with many more ideas to protect ourselves.
There’s such a duality to Namdev Bhau. He is extremely stoic and timid but also volatile and explosive. What’s it like working with and directing somebody with no experience in films?
I’ve known Namdev Bhau for 3-3.5 years. I was always fascinated with his nature – how he interacts with people very unusual. I felt like I was the one who had to make the effort to be friends. On the one hand, he’s very introverted. But if you know him, you’ll see an extremely extroverted person. Until the moment when we started shooting, he didn’t take me seriously. But I knew that he’s a very gentle person and you need to earn his trust. I knew that he wouldn’t respect me unless he saw some inner growth that he was getting from the project.
For me, workshops are the most important thing because of my theatre background. I was brought up to believe that acting can happen only through hard work and workshops.
The film looks lavish and beautifully captures the Ladakhi mountain landscapes. When on a micro-budget, what is your approach to making the most of the littlest means?
It was a difficult process. Our main task was to make a film that no one would think is a small-budget or small-crew film. My producer Dheer Momaya said we could do it ourselves and he created a financial structure where all the head of departments wouldn’t take money but a certain percentage in IP (intellectual property).
And then I got the most genius DOP in the country, Aditya Varma. He’s incredible, he can look at a puddle and find the most beautiful frame. The only way we could shoot it would be on a small camera that we could be flexible with and move around. The trust you need to have in your core team is the most important Sometimes we didn’t even have the budget for a monitor so I had to trust Aditya’s eyes to execute what I want on the level of the script.
Namdev Bhau is screening under the Discover India section at the Mumbai Film Festival (MAMI)