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.
SH: So lets start at the very beginning. When and how did you get interested in film?
NSR: I did my undergrad in art – painting and photography. For me, practicing art was not just about aesthetics. I felt that you must have content also. There must be something that moves you in society that causes you to create. I was very disturbed by the Bangladesh war, and after reading about it extensively in newspapers and magazines, I created this painting on it. 2-3 months later when I looked at the painting that I thought I had put my heart and soul into, I found that it did not bring out what I felt about the war or the conceptual understanding that I had gathered from my reading and understanding of the Bangladesh episode in history. It became eveident to me that I relate to the medium of painting in a more non-figurative manner, and not really with content. I realised then that I needed visuals, words, characters and people to express the concepts that were becoming important to me. That’s what motivated me to study film.
In 1970-1971 I went to Calarts to do a masters’ degree in film and video production and direction. I had a full scholarship there so I had no money problems and the infrastructure was amazing. I acquired the skills and the ability to handle complex concepts. Non-figurative abstract works could never replace film for me. It was like two sides of the same coin, and two dimensions of the same person. Now I realise that the two are inter related. My understanding of space, composition, colours, how to use them effectively to bring across an idea – all this that I learnt in painting has come into my film work. And my films would not be what they were without that initial training that I had in painting.
I was also invited by Akbar Padamsee to participate in the Vision Exchange Workshop that he had organised with a Nehru fellowship that he had been awarded. He started a darkroom and a vision exchange between artists. I printed in his dark room, and we talked and talked. He opened it out to other people. Mani Kaul was also there. I can’t remember who the others were.
My initial experience of Imageography actually began before this experience. The first photograph I took of myself when I was 12 years old was an Imageograph of what I thought was my spirit. I didn’t know or understand what I had done.
In America, I once met a black girl in the street who had bought a white balloon from this balloon seller. She then held the white balloon to her face. I still have that image. I realised that the young girl had a complex about being black. That’s why she chose the white balloon so dramatically, so emphatically and immediately. It was completely transparent and apparent. I then realised the conceptual worth of visuals. There are so many potential interpretations within an image. To communicate words maybe very good, but to expand somebody’s imagination and to make people see something that you see and you want them to see, some vision of yours that you want to share, only a visual can do that. Visuals are limitless and when I realised the conceptual significance of a visual, that I think was the seed of Imageography.
SH: Can you to talk a little about the first films that you made that came out of this realisation?
NSR: My whole process of observation and curiosity about my environment began in India. I still remember during my schools days while I waited at the bus stop, I used to observe the milkman and the bhel puri wala, and the relationship between them both. There’s so much happening every minute of the day in every inch of space in our Indian environment that I think that’s probably how the artist in me developed. But at that time I didnt have a camera. I just had my head to make the films. And I’d been making films in my head since school. When I go back now to where I grew up, I see the same people sitting in the same corners – the bhel puri wala still in the corner next to the chana walah. They haven’t moved. To observe and to understand began here and then it was just a matter of translating that into a creative medium. So when I went to America, I just went exploring and looking for characters that interested me for some undefinable reason.
Cal Arts had plenty of cameras on offer. It was like a paradise of cameras. So the first camera that I used was an éclair NPR, on my shoulder, handheld of course. I used this and 3-4 other cameras to make Breaking Ground. I also made another film called A World Of All Intelligence. Its a five-layer film. Two layers on camera, one on the oxberry optical printer, one of my paintings, and one of animation.
One day I saw this 9yr old black girl and she was walking in a way that I could tell that there was a lack of vitamin D in her leg. But there was something in the look in her eyes so I followed her. I went to her house and made friends with her family and then the imageography part in me started working. I wanted to understand the interrelationship between this girl and her family. This was a low-income black family. There was chaos inside the house, but this girl was quiet. She seemed to be absorbing all the sounds. She took me to a place where she could go to sit quietly to sort things out in her head, and that’s in the film. I realised that she wanted to go away and make a foundation for herself as she couldn’t make that foundation within the house because there were so many people staying there. In the last line of the film, she’s at the top of a hill looking down at trees, and she says “there are trees down there so there must be a ground down there”. That’s why the film is called Breaking Ground – its her trying to make a foundation. Her logic was that I can’t see the trunk, I can’t see the earth, and I can’t see the ground, but if I can see the tops of the trees then below that there must be a ground. And this nine-year-old girl’s logic was fascinating for me.
My other film, World Of All Intelligence was made with characters I saw looking into a window shop who were giggling and laughing. I found they related to each other in a very sensitive manner, so I followed them and made a film on two of them and two others. They all lived together in a community space. I found this guy on a beach and he was talking to someone and I overheard their conversation. He was explaining to the guy that “we live in a world of all intelligence”, and as soon as I heard that I thought it sounded interesting. So he explained that nobody can do the work for you – if you want to play the violin nobody can play the violin for you, you have to play the violin yourself.
SH: Did you watch a lot of cinema while at Cal Arts? Which filmmakers would you say have inspired you?
NSR: I took a course in film history. I used to sit in the last row of the classroom. I would hear people saying how they wanted to make films like Alfred Hitchcock and Godard, and I remember thinking that I don’t want to make a film like any of these people. I want to make a film that comes from within me. So I used to sit far away. My friend used to sit in the first row because she wanted to be totally enveloped and grabbed by the film. I used to tell her that if that happens I’ll lose touch with what I’m trying to create. I need to be detached and at the back so that I can analyse and learn skills, methods and approaches of other directors in an intellectual manner, and then find which ones I like or don’t. I always used to say – you learn from a bad film more than a good film because you know that you will never do that. Like I know I never want to make a bollywood film. I’m 100% sure of that.
I liked neo-realist cinema. I had tremendous admiration for Satyajit Ray in particular. His kind of realism sprung from literature and books. He would write screenplays from already written works. My work didn’t spring from literature. It sprang from visuals. My stories came from photographs that I took, and from conversations on tapes like this one we are doing. I was interested in actually getting the story from the real life of people, not from something that someone else had written. If I was going to write, it would be self derived. So there’s a big difference. And then the product that comes out is different because the approach is different. Whereas he depended on the writer to give him the truth which he converted into the cinematic truth for himself, I relied on my images to give me the truth.
I also liked French new wave cinema. They wanted to move away from Hollywood and from big budget films. I sensed they wanted to make more mobile, location specific films, rather than films on sets. I felt that that was closer to the reality that I was interested to explore.
SH: How did the idea for Chhatrabhang originate?
NSR: When I got back to India, I organized a screening of my films for my artist friends and people in the film world. A friend of mine who liked my work said that she had a foundation that wanted to encourage projects in the rural areas, and they would sponsor my film if I made it in a rural area. I was of course very interested in her proposition as I had always wanted to make a film on the essence of India. 70% of Indians live in rural areas so making a film in this context was an exciting idea. I began to do a lot of research and 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? 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 and 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 and I used spots in the area that were visually interesting, and would position the characters in those areas and thus compose the frame. I painted over the landscape with my characters.
SH: 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: Considering your shooting style, what was the editing process like? Did you edit it entirely 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.
I shot the film in 2 weeks, but it took one year to edit the film 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. I feel in this kind of filmmaking 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 he’d written the script, every shot was 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 and I have to put aside what I am thinking because it is ultimately the image we see.
The editing process is the most fascinating process, it reveals things that you didn’t know about when you went in to film and 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. 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. My editing process has come from my painting process, in that I study the images and 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 down the pacing. Then finally I fine-tuned and got to cutting beginning and 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. I did the music later in the final rerecording.
SH: Can you talk a little more about your shooting and production process?
NSR: We were a small team. Hitendra Ghosh who had just graduated from the Film Institute in Pune did the sound. Though I usually did all the camerawork on my films, this time I decided to have a camera person because the location was far away, the ratio was going to be 1:4 or 1:5 as we were shooting on 35mm, and I had too many things to think about. I had a clear idea in my head about the visual style and so I asked AK Bir to do camera. We worked very well together. I composed and framed every single shot and told him exactly what he was supposed to do in that shot. He understood that I had my own language, that I was creating a new grammar, a new visual language. He told me that he had never worked in that way before, but was open to give it a try as he understood that I wanted a different tonal quality.
I used to compose on the director’s viewfinder, then choose what I liked and then compose it on the camera. He would then look at it and fine tune. For instance, the shot of Seela running behind the hedges to steal the water. I would tell him just pan the camera. I would tell him what speed even till she got round the bushes and put the ghada on the well. For lighting we had a generator and a satin cloth to reflect light. So at the shoot there was AK Bir, his assistant Debu, Hitendra with sound, my husband Naaz who was the associate producer, Ghulam Rasool our production person, the sponsor of the film, and myself as the director, co-producer.
My research trip was about a month, but the shoot including travel time was 15 days. The film was shot in Jogiya village. During my research I looked for a rock breaker because I knew that I wanted a symbol in the film of a sort of manual activity that showed futility in life. I wanted a symbolic visual image that brought that out. And like a leitmotif in music, a note that repeats itself, I wanted that through the entire length of the film – a sound of that man breaking that rock. A leitmotif to bring out that heartbeat. It had to be the most oppressed image in the film. He’s the most oppressed in the film. Even Seela’s not as oppressed as him. Seela is free. She runs with the ghada and steals, but he was like a rock himself. So to me, we had to hunt for that image because it was in my head. That image was one of the few images that was in my head. I must have seen that image somewhere years ago – maybe on the streets of Bombay. We found a quarry in Banda district which was perfect because there was a huge boulder right down in the quarry in an extreme long shot. They first put dynamite in the rock and then that blows up the whole area, and then the small boulders are manually broken. When I said I wanted to shoot this, the team said no we don’t want to be here because a rock may fall on us. So I didn’t do that.
SH: Its interesting how your process of making the film is quite transparent and visible in the film.
NSR: This incident had actually happened in Sonavni village in Maharashtra. When the Maharashtrian woman to whom this incident really happened appears ¾ into the film, it shatters the audience. In that documentary moment you realise that this is not fiction. When I first read about this incident I went to the place where it happened, but I only filmed her after I shot the film. I think that’s very interesting why I didn’t film her first but chose to film her after making the film.
At the end of the film when you see Seela, the protagonist, clutching the rope at the well and smiling, and then you see the still images which are the imageographs in the film, you understand how she becomes aware that she’s a harijan woman through the film. Up until then she doesn’t really fully understand. It took that incident to make her fully aware. After the awareness, they tried different methods of getting water, like they go to the police, they try to steal, they go forcibly to the Brahmin well. So the film essentially reveals a process of becoming more and more aware.
Except for the dialogue, the words that Amrish Puri speaks was pre-written by Vinay Shukla. For the poetry, I met the poet in Kanpur. He was an intense man, a mill worker who had had a very rough life. He expressed himself through his poetry. I found his poetry was perfect for the film. He had migrated to the mill area from his rural home and had then come back to see if there were any changes. This was really his true story. He was the catalyst in the film. I felt that every aspect of the film must be archetypal of something. For instance, the mill worker was the archetype of the catalyst for change. He provided that understanding of how social change can take place. Social change is not like a river. Maybe there’s a rock in the river and the water has to go around it. Some displacement has to take place for social change to occur.
I was told by the secretary of the I&B Ministry at the time that Mrs. Indira Gandhi saw the film three times to understand how social change can be achieved in rural areas. It’s a compliment for me to know that.
SH: The film was funded entirely by an NGO, and you didn’t get any government or industry funding. How much did a film like this cost to make at that time?
NSR: The budget for the film was one lakh thirty, and I did it in one lakh thirty-five. I wrote up 5 pages which was basically the outline of the film and the framework within which I would work once on location. That was what the film was. I got the money from the foundation on the basis of those 5 pages. I was lucky. This film was completely my intellectual copyright as the director, co-producer and editor. I even have a credit there for visual language because I knew I was creating a new visual language and grammar.
I was not connected with the industry at all. Except that I knew Mani Kaul from the vision exchange workshop days. I think the first films of the new wave cinema was happening at the same time that Chhatrabhang was happening. Shyam Benegal, Kumar Shahani, Mani Kaul, all these people were developing the parallel cinema movement, but I hadn’t seen any new wave films or FFC films. I went straight into researching and filming Chhatrabhang within three months of coming back from America.
SH: The film screened widely abroad. How did this happen?
NSR: I didn’t think even for a second about the distribution and marketing of the film. Since my short films had shown at festivals and won awards in Washington, Chicago and elswehere, I just assumed that Chhatrabhang too would go to festivals. I finished the film in time for the Bombay film festival. At the preview screening for journalists, a French critic from the Cannes film festival saw it and he congratulated me and said “madam I would like to invite your film to the Cannes critics week”. Just like that! I apologized to him that the film doesn’t have French subtitles, but he said that the film was so clear, it didn’t need subtitles. So I accepted, and was invited there for the critic’s week. The first feature film I’ve ever made was going to Cannes!
The film was also invited to the Berlin film festival where it won an award. It got 30 invitations after that from every major film festival – Locarno, Portugal, Canada. The film was picked up by a distributor who was at the Berlin film festival who screened the film across Europe for 12 years after that, but it didn’t bring much money because they were art audiences in art house cinemas. I also showed the film at Universities in America. They called it ‘the definitive film on rural India’ and many even wanted to acquire it. But I didn’t have a VHS to leave behind. You needed money to make those things. I remember a professor from California said “oh don’t worry you don’t have money today, you’ll have some tomorrow, this film is a classic and you don’t have to worry about that.”
SH: What was the response to the film in India?
NSR: In 1976 January there were 3 housefull screenings at New Excelsior as part of the Bombay film festival. A distributor called Rajshree was interested but it somehow didn’t happen. Television stations said they wanted it but they were not paying so well. I didn’t want to expose it to television until it had had its full theatrical because it’s a visual film and I didn’t want it to be shown on a small screen.
SH: Did it get a commercial release eventually?
NSR: No it didn’t.
SH: How did that make you feel at the time? The film is being celebrated worldwide but your own context is marginalising your work.
NSR: I don’t think that films like Chhatrabhang are marginal. It is the ignorance of the people making Bollywood films, and the so called mainstream cinema. They are ignorant about these films that are as important, if not more than what they know. The 80’s and 90’s were much better than today for New Wave cinema and different forms of cinema. At least we had 20yrs when my films and other films were shown. Every Saturday there used be a show on the state Doordarshan television channel of films that hadnt been released in the cinema. I think we have to now make that effort to get these films shown at multiplexes. We have to unearth all these earlier films that were good, produced by FFC, NFDC, independent filmmakers, privately funded films, and get them seen. I feel that multiplexes should show innovative, new cinema. If they have 4 theatres they should keep one for NFDC films, films that you show in your festival, my film, innovative documentaries. The whole motivation for having multiplexes was for smaller audiences like this, and I find that when I go to a multiplex there is a bollywood film showing there.
SH: Yes its very unfortunate. We need at least one art house cinema here. I think its interesting that you keep using the word ‘innovative’ to describe your cinema. With Experimenta, I have been trying to open out the term ‘experimental’ to essentially be the celebration of a new or personal syntax. What are your thoughts on this.
NSR: I think ‘a new syntax’ is appealing to me. I always say I do my experimentation before I begin the production. I do a lot of tests. Suppose I’m making on 16mm or 35mm, I do my experiments digitally. And then more innovation goes into the main work. The words ‘creative’, ‘innovative’, ‘discovering’ and ‘experimental’ mean different things. Discovering is a process within the person. After you discover then you create something. But all creativity is not innovation. Everybody in this world can create. Every single person has a creative gene in them. But that doesn’t mean what they create is innovative. Innovative is what leads to a new syntax, new genres, new ways of perceiving reality. That is the challenge for me.
SH: Which filmmakers do you think could be considered a part of the Indian avant garde?
NSR: We have to first define what we mean by avant garde. I think avant garde is something to do with pure cinema, which means that it relies on all the parameters that are used in films, but in the purest possible way, and then genres are created from that. So a lot can come under that heading. I think many of the early Indian silent films have some kind of avant garde feel. I would say Satyajit Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, Charulata, Jalsagar, were amazing films. Then some Bollywood classics from the B&W era like Raj Kapoor’s Boot Polish for example. Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani, few of Shyam Benegal’s films like Ankur his first film. Some of the Films Division films. Maybe Anand Patwardhan, but his films are another genre. Mira Nair too, though I feel she’s a bit Bollywoodish. When she saw my film at little theatre in Bombay she said she wanted to use my approach, and I was very honoured. Then she made Salaam Bombay. But I feel after Salaam Bombay her films became more commercial. Not to say that commercial films can’t be avant garde. Hopefully all our films will be commercial. If my art is going to give me money I become commercial, but that shouldn’t spoil my approach. I shouldn’t get complacent. I don’t want to do any formula stuff. I just want to keep creating.