‘An artist is not a toy in the audience’s hand’, says filmmaker Umesh Kulkarni

Kulkarni, the maker of contemporary Marathi classics Valu (2008), Deool (2010) & Vihir (2009) on exploring the non-fiction genre and his latest documentary, titled Kumbh, which chronicles the biggest gathering of humans.

Marathi film maker Umesh Kulkarni at his residence. Express photo by Arul Horizon, 17/05/2018, Pune


SINCE his very first feature film, Valu (The Wild Bull, 2008), filmmaker Umesh Kulkarni found his own audience base across Maharashtra and beyond, which only grew with his subsequent films — Vihir (2009), Deool (2011), which he directed, and Masala (2012), Pune 52 (2013) which he produced. But it’s been a long break for Kulkarni since his last release as director Highway (2015), which did not do too well in cinemas.

So where’s this filmmaker who turned the tide for Marathi films in the late 2000s, which were facing both aesthetic and commercial challenges, with Valu? Apparently, Kulkarni (42) is immersed in exploring new possibilities that have opened up in the non-fiction genre. He has spent the last two years making a documentary on the Kumbh Mela and is in the process of making another on the Wada culture in old Pune. At the same time, Kulkarni has also launched a documentary film club with the help from artist Raju Sutar and National Film Archive of India (NFAI), with an aim to showcase best works from Indian non-fiction filmmaking tradition to the general public.

Still from Kularni’s student project Girni which he made while studying at Film and Television Institute of India.

“In 2009, I had made a documentary for FTII called Three of us. It was shown at several international festivals including the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IFDA), which the biggest festival of documentary films in the world. While visiting the festival to present my film, the exposure to non-fiction form opened an entire new world to me. It was there that I realised that feature films and documentaries are not two separate, distinct forms with fixed boundaries. The way films are being made internationally, the boundaries between these two genres are getting merged and filmmakers are trying to explore the area that lies in between,” says Kulkarni, adding that some of the documentaries that he watched at the festival influenced him and left a lasting impact.

Back home, he observed that while India had a certain tradition of non-fiction filmmaking, there were no avenues for these films, with filmmakers struggling with the release and screenings of the films. “In many countries, there are festivals dedicated to non-fiction films, in some places there are television channels exclusively for documentaries. In India, although we had filmmakers like Mani Kaul, Shyam Benegal and others making documentaries and the Films Division funding a great number of them, there was very little exposure to the common public,” says Kulkarni. The film club, he adds, has recently screened Kamal Swaroop’s Pushkar Puran (2017), the first-ever retrospective of Amit Dutta in India, as well as non-fiction work by Mani Kaul.

Meanwhile, Kulkarni also started working on his own non-fiction projects. Kumbh, which he finished recently, was shot over several years chronicling the biggest gathering of humans. The film was selected at IDFA, New York Indian Film Festival and Kerala International Film Festival (KIFF).

“Kumbh is not a conventional documentary, as it tries to explore the space in the margins of fiction and non-fiction. I am at present also working on another documentary on a wada in old Pune where my grandma used to live. I have spent many days of my childhood there. Now, all the families that used to live there have shifted to their own apartments. I’m trying to explore the texture of life that the wada offered to its residents and how it has changed,” says Kulkarni, adding that he has decided to make a documentary or short film between every two feature films.

While he’s following his changing interests, doesn’t he feel that it may take away his fan base which may rather like him to stick to his flair — comical realism with a social message. “As an artist, I feel that I have to keep trying to find newer ways of expression. An artist can’t be a toy in the hands of the audience. If I continue to do what I have been doing, then I become too predictable and it gets boring. Also, we should give an opportunity to a different art form to get established. It may take some time as had happened in other cases such as Impressionism in painting or short story in literature. People resist, ridicule at first but later they accept if the movement has its merits,” says Kulkarni.

Mythology as a political tool

Independent filmmaker Kamal Swaroop talks about his fascination with mythology, Battle of Banaras, and the controversies around the latest edition of IFFI.


FILM director Kamal Swaroop, whose last project Battle of Banaras was blocked by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) in 2015, has returned with Pushkar Puran. It is the opening film of the Non-Feature section of Indian Panorama at the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Goa. In an interview, Swaroop talks about his fascination with mythology, Battle of Banaras, and the controversies around the latest edition of IFFI.

Why did you decide to return to Pushkar again after your previous documentary on the Pushkar Mela?

I go to Pushkar every year, and shoot something everytime. While Image Meets the Shadow (2004) was about myths, and how people interact with them, Pushkar Puran is inspired by Italian writer Roberto Calasso’s Ka: Stories of the Mind and Gods of India. The film focuses on ‘the search for the fifth head of Bramha’, which Shiva had cut and carried away with him, and the Ashwamedh Yajna that happens there.

Since Om Dar Ba Dar (1988), you have been engaging with mythology. Where does this interest come from?

I grew up listening to myths. I’m also deeply interested in archaeology and its relation to mythology. In our country, people use mythology as a political tool. Myths are moulded to suit financial, social and political needs.

Battle of Banaras didn’t see an India release although it was appreciated abroad. This year, Pushkar Puran is opening the non-feature section of Indian Panorama at IFFI so your work is being recognised by the same political structure which blocked you in the past.

It’s a matter of chance. They thought that Battle of Banaras was an anti-government film; it isn’t true. But the CBFC must have thought of blocking it to safeguard the government. In fact, Pushkar Puran wasn’t submitted to the CBFC, before it was sent for IFFI. Now I have submitted it to them, and I am expecting trouble. They might say that it propagates or portrays wrong myths. They might even point out cruelty against animals.

Swaroop at his apartment in Mumbai.

As someone who has had a long association with Pushkar, how have you seen the town changing?

About 35-40 years ago, when I would visit Pushkar, there wasn’t much tourism there. Only the villagers would come to the mela to sell and buy animals. There was little employment. After tourists started coming in, it grew and became a prosperous town. That was also the time when the state government realised that Pushkar is a big tourist attraction. Nowadays, the government pours in money to create a spectacle. It’s become an event which is managed by several event management firms. Homes have turned into hotels and restaurants.

At IFFI this year, Nude by Ravi Jadhav and S Durga by Sanal Sasidharan have been dropped from the Indian Panorama section. How do you see this?

It’s everybody’s own fight. I didn’t get a CBFC certificate for Om Dar Ba Dar for two years, and it was rejected for the Indian Panorama section. Battle of Banaras was blocked from releasing in India. I didn’t shout about it. If it’s not working, it’s not working. I didn’t go crazy about people not accepting the films or blocking them. I just don’t think about these things.

How do you see the controversy of IFFI dropping films?

There’s no need to block or stop the films. Nobody can do much harm specially with films. There’s no need (for the government) to get touchy about it. If the jury has selected them, then respect the jury; their selection is like a judgement.

We hear you are returning to fiction after Om Dar Ba Dar?

Yes. The film is called Omniyam, based on The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien. It’s about a person who is dead but he doesn’t know it yet. It’s a comic-crime thriller.

You are also making a film about Kashmiri Pandits?

I’m shooting in Ujjain, Jaipur, Ajmer and Meerut, where my four sisters live. The film does not focus on the Kashmiri Pandit issue alone, nor on conflict and terrorism. It’s mostly about a family which left Kashmir in 1958, and whose members are now scattered in various cities. Their children don’t speak Kashmiri anymore. What the projects seeks to examine is the sense of belonging and the idea of home. Have they reconciled with their new identity? What happens to the Kashmiri identity when they become a part of the national mainstream?