SANJIV SHAH directed the cult classic Hun Hunsi Hunsi Lal (1992), the story of Hunshilal, a middle class youth who lives in the kingdom of Khojpuri ruled by the King Bhadrabhoop. Khojpuri is afflicted by a plague of mosquitoes. The symbol of the country is the tortoise. When Hunshilal grows up he becomes a scientist and invents a drug for the eradication of mosquitoes. Made from onions, the drug is successful and Hunshilal is given an award by the king.
SANJIV SHAH IN CONVERSATION WITH SHAI HEREDIA (APRIL 2005)
SHAI: How did you get interested in filmmaking?
SANJIV: After school I studied to become an architect. I quit after the second year – it was a six year course – to work with an organization involved in working for housing rights of people in Calcutta. It was essentially a way of engaging in a process of organizing dispossessed people through their right to shelter. Housing as a process against house as a product was a dominating debate in those years, and I personally saw that as a tool to engage with a politically/socially more relevant practice of ‘architecture’. It was during my work in that period that I was required communicate with diverse people and the audio/visual medium seemed to offer a powerful tool for doing that. From that to films was a natural progression; or so I feel in retrospect.
SHAI: So you studied at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). Can you describe the general atmosphere at FTII at the time – expanding on the key aesthetic and political influences and pursuits? Would you say this was an exciting time? What kinds of films were made then?
SANJIV: I had issues with formal education as was imparted by professional institutes, (mainly the inability of such places to provide a context in which such education occurred; the social concerns of the practice of the profession were absent from the teaching and the training was mainly to impart skills rather than an understanding of the way those skills needed to be used in the larger context)– that was one of the reasons which provoked me to quit the architecture college I was at – and hence I was reluctant to join a formal training institute for studying films as well. Unfortunately my sustained efforts to apprentice with practicing filmmakers whose work I respected at that time were not reaching far and I decided to join the FTII in Pune – that being the only place to learn filmmaking in India in those days.
I joined FTII in 1977, and at the time the institute was going through a phase of transformation. Like most such institutes that were set up in the 1960s. The emphasis was gradually moving from education as a social- obligation-of-the-state to an enterprise of the free market. Not as blatantly as the present times but the process had begun; the state wanted to move out of funding education, there was pressure from the industry to appropriate – or at least determine the direction – the training of film technicians, and over the years the quality of teaching was deteriorating. The film making industry was also moving from being one nourished primarily by the passion for the profession of the pioneers to a money making enterprise, peopled largely by buccaneers and money sharks. It was also an interesting time to be growing up in India. The period was just post-emergency and so the new government had to appear to be liberal in the social/political domain, and FTII, which had been run like his personal fiefdom by the previous I&B Minister during the emergency, was being treated with a certain indulgence, student-power was still in vogue and frequently displayed at the FTII in matters significant and silly.
The faculty at FTII was – as mentioned earlier – on it’s way to becoming fossilized (as it did in the next 15 years) but there remained a few teachers who could still offer a lot to those who were willing, or knew how to take from them. There was almost an obscene excess of resources for a student of films in the Institute, both hardware and software (the word was very unknown then, though) and enough anarchy prevailed to allow the students freedom to do as they pleased; watch what they wanted and generally have a good time. The imparting of skills was however the main focus of all teaching; there was neither the concern nor the intellectual wherewithal to deal with theories, aesthetics or politics of filmmaking.
So also at the same time there was a major shift in the focus of film teaching at FTII. From the previous model of specialized training in different fields of filmmaking there was introduced a course which sought to impart a more integrated training to filmmaking. All students were required to learn about tall the major aspects of filmmaking – sound, cinematography and editing mainly – in greater depth before specializing in any one of the fields. Film direction was only offered as a post-diploma option; something you did after you had a diploma in either film editing or cinematography. This – while not very popular as an idea with the classicists who believed in the director-as-god school of filmmaking – shifted (very subtly) the way in which students learned about filmmaking and the kinds of films some of them later made. Non fiction started becoming significant. Feature films were no longer the only option; indeed it was not necessarily the chosen form in which many of the students from that time opted to work. The opening up of avenues for documentaries outside the Films Division with a period when funding from BBC, Channel 4 etc. and the ability of these filmmakers to work differently meant that several of the students from this period were making independent or funded documentaries unlike ever before.
SHAI: When did you make Hun Hunshi Hunshi Lal? What inspired you to make a film with this hybrid form? Where did your key inspirations/references come from?
SANJIV: I started working on HHH in 1989. During the period I finished from FTII and then I had been doing documentaries mainly about ‘social’ issues; with groups involved with social/political organization. Films were mostly secondary to the actual work and used as tools for information, dissemination, documentation or sharing of experiences across various groups. This was also a period where I traveled a fair bit to various parts of the country meeting people in diverse situations and conditions – dispossessed, disgruntled, despairing, hopeful, angry, fighting.
The germ for HHH lay somewhere in the sum total of my experiences in that period of time. There was a need for me to express what I had seen, what I was feeling. There was also an increasing sense of intolerance that was apparent in the social and political surroundings. Dissent – particularly from the people that I had been working with – was sought to be either dismissed as irrelevant; or worse, sought to be ignored or ruthlessly suppressed as required. To look at this in the context of the history of Independent India; to, in a way, map the path of this growing fascism was the main idea. How does one deal with ‘contemporary’ history? How does one make a film which allows for a multi-threaded narration of events of the past fifty years? How does one tell a story about something which has no story in the conventional sense; only an unfolding? This precluded the use of conventional narrative forms available to a filmmaker. I had also been experimenting with narrative structures in the documentaries I had been doing. Finding the use of purely non-fiction devices limiting, I had been working with the use of fiction narration along with verite or non-fictional devices. The final form that emerged for HHH was therefore a hybrid of assorted forms of narrative structures from fiction and non-fiction genres. It was governed only by the perceived ability of a specific form/device to allow us to state/invoke/provoke within the larger premises of the film.
It is a bit difficult to pin point the influences on the script first and the film later but it ranged from Italo Calvino’s works to Obelisk and Asterix; Wodehouse to Mad magazine, Mughal-e-Azam to Mard, from Eisenstien to Godard. There was also the inheritance of the tradition of Gujarati literature and poetry that I had grown up with, as well as the influences of my social/political activities of the preceding decade or so. The overarching influence, if I was to look at it so, was the time itself – when the last bastion of political alternatives was being dismantled in the easten Bloc; when communal strife was almost at it’s peak in our own country and when I was sensing the increasing pressure of the homogenizing that was to come with the project of development and progress (as the free-market economy was then called), the increasing marginalization of the dispossessed and the total intolerance of dissent.
SHAI: Did you have an audience in mind when you were making the film?
SANJIV: Not really. The age of the multiplexes was not yet upon us and there was pretty little chance for something like HHH to get to the cinema halls. It might have though, if NFDC could have helped with the few theatres they controlled, but that was not to be.
SHAI: What was the socio political scenario/context for the development of experimental / avant garde film in India at the time you made HHH?
SANJIV: Not much was happening in cinema of that kind then. The vanguard of the parallel cinema had already moved on to other things – TV serials and in some cases ‘mainstream’ cinema. For that matter, most of what was called parallel cinema was also only offering different content in conventional forms; except for what Mani Kaul and Kumar Sahani were doing. There were a few isolated attempts like Kamal Swaroop’s ‘Om Dar Badar’ but that was the extent of experimentation at that time – if I remember correctly.
SHAI: HHH is a combination of cinematic forms and genres – both documentary and fiction with folk and urban aesthetics. This is what makes it a uniquely crafted film, with its very own syntax. What are your views on this analysis?
SANJIV: I think it is fairly accurate to say that. As I mentioned earlier, the concerns that HHH was born out of were primarily to work with a form that allowed a multiplicity of ideas to be explored. A single form of story telling was not going to be adequate to deal with the complexity of the ideas that were being explored so a combination of forms. The fact that something like this had not been attempted in India – from what I have seen – did make it unique as an experiment; and the fact that the film was not following any set grammar of a particular genre meant that the syntax in the final form had to be its own.
SHAI: How long did it take to make the film? What was the working process of the film? How much did it cost? Who funded it? How long did the shoot, scripting and editing take?
SANJIV: We started writing the film in 1989. The funding from NFDC was approved in 1990 and we started shooting in January of 1991. The film was shot over 50 days in two schedules. The shooting was completed in May 1991 during which we shot in close to 60 locations all over Gujarat. Most of the shooting though was done in Ahmedabad. The film was dealing with a ‘fictitious’ country, which while so, had to also refer constantly to the real. One option was to shoot on sets, which was not quite feasible financially so we had to look at locations which when strung together in the film would give a sense of land that was both real and unreal. The entire film was to have a very muted color palette so that required rigid control over the framing of shots to keep out unwanted colors – reds were not used at all till the very end – and equal effort was made with the colours that were to be in the frame. All the costumes and props were made keeping in mind the color palette. The props were made to add to the feeling of the absurd; maps and flags of the country; signage, newspapers, posters, the king’s chariot and the canon that kills him – all had to be made at the lowest possible cost.
The film has about 40 songs. These were recorded in a makeshift studio set up in a basement on a two track digital recorder; the music and singing all being done live. And the entire film was shot with sync sound – there was no dubbing of the dialogues at all in the film. The editing took about six months and the film was censored in December 1991. The film cost us roughly 17 lakhs. The funding was through a loan from NFDC – 10.75 lakhs – and personal funds for the rest.
SHAI: Once complete, did the film get a theatrical release? Where has it been exhibited?
SANJIV: Unfortunately, we were not able to get a theatrical release for the film. It did however premiere on Doordarshan, the government television channel, which helped greatly in repaying the NFDC loan. The maximum exposure the film has had has been through the DD movie channel which showed the film some 10 times or more and I have heard from people from Manipur and Nagaland who have seen it on that channel. It was also shown at a couple of International Film Festivals – of no great significance, I suspect – and the Indian Panorama at IFFI in 1992.
SHAI: Have critics and fellow filmmakers been critical and/or appreciative of the film?
SANJIV: By and large, yes. It was written about extensively during the 1992 IFFI as a significant film from India and Fredric Jameson who was in Delhi at that time thought it was amongst the more significant experiments in film form that he had seen internationally around that time.
SHAI: So in your personal opinion, which are the most significant films/filmmakers of the avant garde / experimental genre in India – both historical and contemporary? And why?
SANJIV: It is obviously a bit difficult to look at a body of work from filmmakers in India in the same manner that one may in Europe or America; even Latin America. I am presuming that we are looking at the definition of avant garde to films in India in the context of the film traditions of India. For example, to my mind, some of the films that Manmohan Desai has made defy categorization in the conventional modes. They do border on the ‘absurd’ in that sense and could be considered avant garde. Or could they? His films – some of them in their storytelling methods – defied logic even in the context of the mainstream cinemas on India. I haven’t seen much of the work that has come out of the South but again some of the commercial films are fairly ‘unconventional’ and take fantastic liberties with aesthetic and narrative norms. (This is not to comment on the merit of the experiment or the film in itself.) As a sustained body of work – avant garde or other wise – the filmmakers who have persisted with experimentation of form have been Ritwik Ghatak, Kumar Sahani and Mani Kaul. There would also be individual films that have been made over the years which could be considered experimental (we are talking of fiction films here) like Bhavni Bhavai and Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron; both experiments in narrative structures; and Om Dar Ba Dar; which was an attempt to look at both the narrative and form in a different way. I understand there are some newer films which are ‘different’, but unfortunately I have not seen much of the newer work coming out of India so I cannot comment on that.
SHAI: Do you think there is a future for experimental film in India? If yes, how do you see it moving – in terms of the kinds of subjects, filmmakers, style etc?
SANJIV: In a sense there is a whole lot of films and filmmakers who are making films ‘outside’ of the mainstream framework of film financing in India. That in itself can constitute as a shift. To the extent that this new kind of film-making (also called the ‘multiplex’ film) has emerged out of the economic compulsions of a different kind (in some cases informed by the more ‘modern’ corporate culture; or often as an offshoot of enterprises involved with television) it still conforms to a set of norms; but there is a shift in the subject matter and sometimes (when it is not downright shoddy or amateurish) in the form. Unfortunately the mainstream (which seems to be desperate to become a sort of force in the International arena) is loosing it’s identity and the changes that one sees in the form is more imitative of the worst of Hollywood. The fact that the large part of the revenue these films earned is Abroad (in NRI territory) also means that these films, while being different and more ‘yuppie’, also pander to the most regressive of the cultural imperatives set by these audiences. (Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gam, Mohabattein, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge etc.)
So, a movement sure. Which way? I do not know. In a sense this also leads to/contains the answer to the next question. What is an exciting possibility is the fact that we are unburdened by the compulsions of genres and even within a single film there has been the freedom to move from one to the other. Film literacy, in that sense, is rather unique in the Indian audiences which can comprehend the most absurd suspension of disbelief, which can decode cultural references to the vast folk lore repertoire and are fairly tolerant of badly made films as long as they are understood and enjoyable. Unfortunately, even as the indigenous cinema survived the onslaught of Hollywood over the past few decades it is willfully succumbing to the worst of that tradition in a major ‘wannabe’ attempt.
This interview was conducted as part of the Independent fellowship project ‘Excavating Indian experimental film’ supported by Sarai – Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in 2005.