Category Archives: Cinephilia

My writings on cinema

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.

ATIKH RASHID

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?

Breaking Barriers

Jordanian author Fadi Zaghmout on his popular blog The Arab Observer and writing on subjects considered taboo in his homeland

ATIKH RASHID

IN 2006, Jordanian author Fadi Zaghmout started a blog that discussed issues pertaining to individualism and sexual freedom in the Arab society. The blog, written predominantly in English, proved popular among Arab netizens as it delved into social issues that were not addressed traditionally by the media in Jordan. However, when he decided to write his debut novel a few years later, Zaghmout turned to his mother tongue — Arabic. According to him, the decision was an outcome of his urge to contribute to the discourse in his local language, when there weren’t many liberal voices.

Though the blog was a convenient tool to spread ideas, it had limited audience. “I felt the blog was limiting with regard to the audience I wanted to reach. Since the issue of sexual freedom and body rights was highly censored in Jordan before the internet, I thought maybe I can explore the same themes I talk about on my blog using traditional media. I wanted these discussions to be printed in a book in Arabic to reach more people. The transition wasn’t easy but during my years of blogging I practised writing short stories and short film scripts, which helped me compile a list of ideas and themes that helped me write Aroos Amman (The Bride of Amman),” says Zaghmout in an email interview. The UAE-based author will be in Pune next week for the Pune International Literary Festival.

The novel proved to be an instant success and also raked controversies for dealing with taboo themes such as homosexuality, inter-religious marriage and more freedom to women, among others. The novel has five main characters — four of these are women, each with her own predicament, and a gay Muslim man who is married to a woman — with each trying to cope with the societal pressure to conform to their gender roles. It looks at the institution of marriage as a means to regulate sexuality, which is seldom successful. It critiques the Arab society for still following age-old beliefs, expecting a woman to be a virgin before marriage, while a man is responsible for building and maintaining the household.

While women readers wrote to him saying the book is a source of strength for them, some even went to the extent of calling it their “personal constitution”. The novel’s portrayal of women and their eternal struggle to claim lost ground has earned Zaghmout a sobriquet, from those who hate his work: the feminist mouthpiece. “I take it as a compliment. I really love it when a woman calls me and asks how can I be very accurate in describing the emotions of women. Having said that, to me it is more than being a ‘female mouthpiece’, it is about social justice. I am a mouthpiece for gender equality, sexual freedom and body rights that help us all live a better life. I believe that strict gender roles are harmful for both men and women equally,” he says.

Since Bride of Amman, Zaghmout has written two more novels, Heaven on Earth (2017) and Laila and the Lamb (2018). The latter features a “sexually dominant” woman as its protagonist. As per reports, Jordianian authorities saw it as a work with “a problematic premise” and stopped the entry of the book into the country. Zaghmout, however, feels that the themes and characters that populate his works come from real men and women who exist in Arab society. “There are indeed many homosexual men in Jordan and the Arab world who opt to marry a woman in order to fit in a society where homosexuality is still not accepted and same sex marriage is not legal. The same applies for women who fall in love with men from another religion, as marriage is still a religious institution in Jordan. I usually build my characters by borrowing characteristics from people I know,” he says.

On his maiden visit to India, Zaghmout hopes to learn about Indian society, which he sees as one with diverse cultures and attitudes where women may face the same prejudices as Arab women. “Although I have few Indians friends in UAE, I am yet to know more about Indian society. I have the impression that India is a large country with diverse cultures and attitudes. I understand that patriarchy is a dominant force across modern cultures and I can see that Indian women face many of the same prejudices Arab women are facing these days, especially the pressure to get married and adhere to strict gender roles,” says Zaghmout.

From reel to rail: How celluloid prints of Bollywood movies end up in Indian Railways’ lost property offices

NFAI officials say celluloid prints were often dumped by producers and distributors after they lose all their financial value. After spending months, or years, in lost property offices of Indian Railways many of the prints end up at the National Film Archive of India.

Among the films that have made their way to Natinal Film Archive in this manner include national award winners such as Chandni Bar and even blockbusters such as Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge and Munnabhai MBBS.

ATIKH RASHID

NOT all films have happy endings. A few have endings sadder than others. An RTI query by The Sunday Express shows that as many as 308 films contained in over 3,000 reels have made their way to the National Film Archives of India (NFAI) over the years, after spending long durations in the lost property offices of Indian Railways across the country.

NFAI officials say these are film reels that have been dumped by producers and distributors as these no longer hold any financial value for them. The films include national award winners such as Chandni Bar and even blockbusters such as Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge and Munnabhai MBBS.

Although most of the reels the NFAI has received are of Hindi films, there are Malayalam, Marathi, English, Telugu, Kannada and Russian films as well. These are feature films and documentary films, and newsreels broadcast by Doordarshan in the 1980s.

Says NFAI Director Prakash Magdum, “They (the producers and distributors) book a parcel with the film reels to addresses that don’t exist, or no one comes to collect it at the office. These lie with the parcel office and then finally end up in the Lost Property Department of Railways, where they lie for weeks or months.”

In the old days, when films used to be shot on nitrate, filmmakers would sell the reels that were returned to them after their theatrical run was over to dealers, who would extract silver from them. From the 1990s, most of the films started getting shot in acetate and polyester, which don’t yield the producers any significant financial remuneration. At most the film can be melted and used in bangle manufacturing. Since 2011-2012, filmmaking and distribution has gone almost entirely digital, making physical prints redundant.

With space at a premium, the major reason producers want to get rid of the reels is that they don’t have place to store them.

R Y Joshi, the Deputy Chief Commercial Officer with Western Railway, from where a majority of the reels have come to the NFAI, says, “I remember years ago there was a circular from the Railway Board concerning the unclaimed film reels. It said that if that we have any unclaimed film reels, we should get in touch with the NFAI as they have some use for them. So we follow that instruction.”

The RTI reply shows that the NFAI has received reels from Mumbai (Western Railway), Visakhapatnam, Thiruvananthapuram, Bengaluru and Gaya. The NFAI preserves these films for archival purposes.

Director Magdum says that each and every film shot on celluloid is important to them from archival point of view. “Now, since the digital medium has taken over and almost 100 per cent industry output is digital, every film shot on celluloid needs to be rescued and each holds historical and cultural importance.” Just a few days ago, he was informed about “four-odd boxes” of reels lying with the lost property office in Mumbai, he says.

Some of the film’s whose reels have made it to the NFAI from lost property offices include Shyam Bengal’s Mammo (1994), Amitabh Bachchan’s debut film Saat Hindustani (1969), Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Aks (2001), Sudhir Mishra’s Chameli (2004), Mithun Chakraborty’s hit Disco Dancer (1982), Martin Scorcese’s Gangs of New York (2002), and Anant Balani’s Joggers’ Park, apart from Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995), Madhur Bhandarkar’s Chandni Bar (2001), and Rajkumar Hirani’s Munnabhai MBBS (2003).

Reels of 11 Russian films have come to the NFAI, including that of the 1990 comedies Deja Vu and Pasport.

The Cloud Capped Star!

Meet Parvati Suryavanshi aka Parubai, the waste-picker who started picking roles in student projects at India’s best film school.

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A still from Kamakshi (directed by Satindar Singh Bedi) in which Parubai plays the titular role. The film was screened at Berlinale 2015. 

If she were versed in actorspeak, she would tell you that the story of the lead character she plays in the short film Kamakshi could well be her life’s narrative. She would have drawn parallels between her character who scrounges for water to sell to the needy and her own youth, during the 1972 famine, when she left home to work as a labourer on well construction sites.

But you hear nothing of this when you meet the waste-picker pottering about the sleepy sprawling campus of Pune’s Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). One thing she takes pride in is that she hasn’t stolen a single piece of metal from the campus in the three decades she’s been there.

Along with picking used papers, glass, plastic to be sold as scrap, Parubai aka Parvati Limbaji Suryavanshi, 78, started picking up roles in student projects on campus.

Her IMDb page describes her as “an actress known for Kamakshi (2015) and Makara (2013)”. Kamakshi, the diploma film of Satindar Singh Bedi draws from the mythological figure of the goddess of compassion. It made good noise at national and international festivals: competed at Berlinale 2015, was part of Indian Panorama at International Film Festival of India (IFFI) and bagged four awards at Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF). Parubai plays the titular role of the old, lonely yet determined woman obsessed with obtaining and providing water in the drought-hit terrain. Prantik Basu-directed Makara was shown at 2013 Rome Film Festival.

She has worked in over 20 student films till date. “More, but not less,” she says in Marathi, the only language she is fluent in. With the students, she speaks in broken Hindi.

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Parubai can be spotted at FTII Canteen on most afternoons. (Photo Credit: Atikh Rashid)

The landless labourer in water-scarce Solapur didn’t have it easy even before the 1972 famine. “My husband and I worked as daily wagers in farms. The drought took away all work. There was no food. Our cows and calves died, we had no time for them as we struggled to feed ourselves,” she says.

The family climbed on a truck when a contractor came looking for cheap labour. Taken to Gujarat, husband and wife spent days breaking stones for road construction, digging wells, harvesting crops. Nights were spent in temporary shelters or in the open.

“My husband was reluctant to take me along, but I insisted. We went wherever work took us: Gangthadi, Vapi, Navsari,” she says. “My husband would lift big stones and put them on my head to carry. Bigger stones meant more money.”

“I don’t understand cinema at all,” she says. For her, acting is doing what’s told once the director shouts: ACTION!

Of all the films she has worked in, her favourite is Kamakshi, although she grumbles that she looks terrible in it — “almost like a witch”. The film demanded great amount of hard work from the team, especially the lead.

“That shoot really tired me out. The sequences were really difficult and tricky. I had to climb down the well, sleep in water and even chew stones. All this in one sari,” she says. She had to wear the same sari throughout the film. “I thought I would contract pneumonia. But you have to suffer. That’s how it is during a film shoot,” she adds.

Potachi khalgi bharnyasathi aamhi kaam karto (I do this work to feed myself), since there’s no one to support me. Even today, I don’t have electricity in my house,” she says.

Walking 4 km to FTII is part of her daily routine. Even when there’s no work, she leaves for FTII in the afternoon and spends her evenings on the campus. She says the students mean more to her than her own son and grandsons. Pointing at her sari, with great pride, she says a Bangladeshi student’s mother brought it all the way from Dhaka for her.

While some say she is an ideal actor, does what’s told, others feel she can only fit into roles with limited dialogues. Some think she’s a natural, others feel she overacts. Despite that, roles continue to land in her kitty. She’s just finished shooting for a commercial film in Pune and Latur.

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During an academic exercise at FTII. (Photo Credit: Atikh Rashid)

Makara-director Basu says, “I was looking for good storytellers. She fit the bill. Her scenes were written from her own experiences and anecdotes. She has a peculiar way of talking which I find very interesting as a filmmaker. Also, having been associated with film production process for so long she’s quite adaptable to shooting conditions and physical challenges.”

She lost her husband a decade ago. One of her two sons (she had lost three more to the 1971 famine) died a few years ago. The surviving one, she says, is a drunkard whose wife and sons left him and that he feeds off his mother. “It’s here (FTII) I find some solace. I’m alive only because of these kids (students),” she says.

Over the last four years, she has developed cataract which hinders waste-picking. For acting gigs, the students pay her a fee — often her sole source of income. She badgers students for cash when there are no assignments.

Until 2009, when she earned Rs 11,000 for a diploma film, she stayed in a two-tin-sheet shanty. Her house now is located in Janata Vasahat slum on the steep slope of the Parvati Hill. She’s among the first few settlers there. Parubai and her son live in the rear, hidden from public view. The son sold off the copper utensils, the meagre furniture, the tin sheets off the roof. “I had built this hut from money I got for that film. At least, I have a proper place to sleep now,” she says.

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Another still from Kamakshi (2015)

She reminisces about her time in Gujarat where the husband-wife earned about Rs 10 a day but had to flee after the muqaddam (expediter) started punishing them for helping a co-worker whose family fled after taking an advance. Parubai left with her husband and children, too, and roamed for days, on foot, in buses and trains, until they reached Pune. She did odd jobs until 1982-83, when she joined the Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat as a waste picker. A couple of years later, she got a waste-picking job at FTII and with that Parubai made her modest entry into the world of cinema.