NINA SHIVDASANI ROVSHEN IN CONVERSATION WITH SHAI HEREDIA (JUNE 2005)
In 1975 Nina Shivdasani Rovshen (aka Nina Sugati SR), made ‘Chhatrabhang’ – the first Indian film to win the International Fipresci critics award. This 80 min 35mm colour film was shot by AK Bir over a period of 2 weeks, and edited over 1 year by the filmmaker herself. The film was made within Rs 2 lakhs and has rarely been screened in India. Based on a true story, ‘Chhatrabhang’ explores caste dynamics in a drought stricken village in rural India. This complex film transforms a 3 line news report into a lyrical feature film about the trauma of dilemma, and the processes involved in resolve, change and reform. From a purely metaphysical explanation of human affliction, to an analysis of socio economic conditions in India, ‘Chhatrabhang’ is an extraordinary experiment with film. Filmed on location in Jogiya village and enacted by local villagers, the film created a visual language unique to its photographic shooting style. Termed ‘Imageography’ this form was created by the filmmaker herself wherein she treats each shot as a moving photograph, thus creating a conceptual photo essay. This uniquely personal syntax transcends the genres of fiction and non fiction to create a truly poetic new film form.
The following are excerpts of an interview with the filmmaker Nina Shivdasani Rovshen (aka Nina Sugati SR).
SH: How did the idea for Chhatrabhang originate?
NSR: I wanted to make a film on the essence of India. I read 3 lines in the newspaper about a well that had run dry in northern India, and the caste tension that occurred after that. I immediately realised that I could make that the seed of a film – a true-life incident combined with as much of the reality of that incident along with a certain amount of fiction to supplement where it needed it. So this complex play of real and fiction is what turned it into a really strong work. I went on a research trip, took photographs, did a lot of taping and then wrote a script outline with minimal dialogue and narration – all the rest is free formed, dehati language which the villagers spoke themselves.
SH: Whom were you making this film for essentially? Did you have a specific audience in mind?
NSR: Well I looked at my notes recently and surprisingly found that there’s a lot about the audience. I thought I just wanted to create. But at the time I had clearly written there that I want an audience, I want to cut across all cultures, all age groups, and create a visual language for anyone to understand – a kind of universal language. I wanted to be able to speak to a rural audience essentially, so therefore it had to be pictorial, so they had to understand how it evolved, and the story is so simple you can understand even without listening to the words.
SH: So how did you work with or direct the villagers? What were the power dynamics of that relationship actually? How did you communicate what you were trying to do?
NSR: When I went to the rural areas I didn’t really know how I was going to direct them. I would tell them I’m making a ‘gaon ki kahani’. That it’s a story on a village. I would just explain particular scenes. For instance when Seela went to beg for water from the Brahmin woman I just told her that you are going to go to her, and you must put down the vessel (the lota) and she will fill it with water. Seela had never entered the courtyard area of the Brahmin household. This was the first time she was going there. So to me that was amazing because these people never entered each other’s areas. I feel the actual making of the film brought the village communities together within a different context. Also, for instance in the scene where they collect at the corner & discuss whether they should ask for water or not – I just told tell them to talk about it among themselves and then I filmed them from different angles. In a way, the village was my landscape & I used spots in the area that were visually interesting & would position the characters in those areas & thus compose the frame. I painted over the landscape with my characters.
SH: So were the villagers drawing from their own real experiences in a way?
NSR: Yes. They knew their own truth. Most of what they were saying was in their minds already. I would just give them a gist or a line or the idea and then their own improvisation and spontaneity would take over. This was very interesting.
SH: So considering your shooting style, what was the editing process like? Did u edit it yourself?
NSR: Yes I edited every frame myself. That’s where the film was made. This kind of film is really made on the editing table. I used the movieola & an italian steenbeck and for a short time I used the Films Division steenbeck.
SH: How long did it take you to edit the film?
NSR: It took one year because I used the imageography approach, in that I let the images speak to me. So I had to run it atleast 3-4 times to understand what the images were telling me as opposed to what I intended them to be, because I feel in this kind of film making, no matter how you go into the process or whatever you put in the film, the images are not exactly what you put into it. This might sound strange to a person who is in Hollywood or bollywood or script writing. Alfred Hitchcock used to say that after I’ve written the script and every shot is done exactly like the script to mathematical precision. But in my kind of film making I may go in with something but if the image is telling me something else, I have to follow that & I have to put aside what I am thinking because it is ultimately the image we see.
SH: You said your film shoot took 2 weeks, then your editing process you said was a year long process. Did you get people to see it and get input from people? When did you feel like the film was done? At what point did you feel that it’s complete?
NSR: The editing process is the most fascinating process, it reveals things that you didn’t know about when you went in to film & it gives you little hints on how to put it together. A film can be structured in 10 different ways and come out with 10 different meanings. And you have to really be careful that you do it in a way that the meaning that is the most poignant emerges. I let the images bring out the concept, and then edit it according to that. I think my editing process has come from my painting process, in that I study the images & let the images tell me what they are about. There are so many subtleties in each shot – in maybe one corner of the image there maybe something that is important. So even when I made the rough cut I put a lot of shots in that were not immediately relating to the story because of the emotional content or because of the pacing. If I wanted something to be a bit longer, I would put in some footage so that that scene would take a bit longer to unravel, slow the pacing. Then finally I fine-tuned and got to cutting beginning & ends of shots. The exact rhythm of the film took maybe 3 months to create and at the time I was working on the movieola so I could only work with one track, but on the steenbeck I could work with 2 sound tracks. So I had the sound effects track and I had the voice but the music, there’s some singing part, I did that later in the final rerecording.
————– next part ————– click here for rest of the interview