The Short Fictional Journey - Part 1
(My foray into the short fiction format)
The short fiction movie format, like the short story its counterpart in literature, is a very powerful mode of expression; and a tricky one too. The maker will have to be precise, the luxury of meandering or dwelling on multiple aspects of the subject matter does not arise, the extra detailing might have to be cut off; and many a times like in a typical O. Henry style, a twist in the end is what is longed for. Mention the word short film and the 1962 black and white film from The Netherlands 'Big City Blues' directed by Charles Huguenot Vander Linden, the 1964 French movie 'An Incident at Owl Creek' directed by Robert Enrico or Julian Bigg's Canadian film '23 Skidoo', immediately pops up in one's mind. So, do the films of the Dutch film maker Bert Haanstra or the one and only Norman McLaren, the prolific Canadian short film maker.
But the short format, like the documentary genre of movie making, is always the bridesmaid and not the bride. These films are normally shown before the main feature length fiction movies. Once a director makes a feature length fiction film, a re look at the shorter format is hardly the norm for him / her. Normally, we see a Andrei Tarkovsky short, a Satyajit Ray short or a Roman Polanski short mainly because we have first seen their feature length films and now want to grasp their graph that lead to the longer format. There is hardly a 'market' for short fiction films. Worldwide, only a few organizations like the National Film Board of Canada funds and promotes such movies. Even in the Indian National Awards ceremony, the short film awardees are always seated in the last rows behind the longer films awardees!!! And yes, graduation films in film schools are most often shorts.
'Gotala', was my graduation film at the Film & TV Institute of India - a film school situated in Pune, Maharashtra. Three years in this school had got me roasted by freedom, liberty, European cinema, Louis Bunuel, G. Aravindan and Natyashastra. 'Gotala' was a culmination was all these. Briefly, the film was about Lord Krishna coming down to earth through a film poster to woe a married woman and take her back to the heavens, leaving behind a distraught husband and a puzzled group of rigid secretive religious fundamentalists called 'Pandurangists' who seem to be in a perennial state of waiting for a glimpse of their beloved lord.
The year was 1990. It was a time when the Shiv Sena, a political party in Maharashtra, had already identified itself with the 'Hindutva' agenda, leaving behind its anti South Indian plank. The shift had enabled it to form a government in Maharashtra from 1995-1999. Three years of my childhood was spent in Mumbai, earlier called Bombay, in the early seventies. That was when the Shiv Sena's earlier avatar was almost at its peak. I still remember the expression on my father's face, as he often narrated stories on how he and his South Indian office colleagues escaped the wrath of the violent anti-south Indian protesters. Two years after 'Gotala' was made, the Babri mosque in Ayodya was demolished by a frenzied mob - some would say in a systematic way; and the subsequent Mumbai riots occurred - the Sreekrishna Committee report indicted the Sena Sena for its role in the later.
Niraj Sah, Manisha Kamath in 'Gotala
None of these super serious elements are or were supposed to be reflected in 'Gotala'. The highly motivated group of fundamentalists in the film are planning a major secretive operation for which they wait to seek for an appointment from Lord Krishna, who unfortunately for them, is more interested in romancing with a bored earthly housewife. It was a surreal story that bordered on parody and the burlesque. So, I decided not to shoot the film on real locations, instead decided to build a surreal set in one of the studios at FTII.
Central to this set was a wide road. On one side of the road at one end was a house which just had a door and no walls. Opposite it was a stall that sold cigarettes and paan, near which the ancient poet and saint Sant Tukaram sat and prayed piously to Lord Krishna. By the side of the other end of the road were the waiting 'Pandurangists', sitting on a few steps that led to nowhere. That side of the road ended with a painted perspective ridden scenery of the theatrical kind - it had a picture that seemed to suggest the extension of the road set. All events in the film - happening in the episodic but non-dramatic narrative structure - occurred on and around this road.
The 30 minute film was shot in black and white 35mm film stock. We had an option to shoot in colour, but it would have had to be in 16mm stock and for twenty minutes. Thanks to classmate Rajiv Katiyal, I got two National School of Drama graduates to act in my film, Niraj Sah and the late Nirmal Pandey. A day before the shoot, Nirmal even composed a multi-lingual post-modern song for the film extolling the virtues of their beloved lord that which was to be used as an anthem for the 'Pandurangists'. In the end of the film Lord Krishna goes back to the film poster along with the lady he romances with. The poster takes off to the skies, on to space where an astronaut is amazed to see it. Will immense help from my cameraman Mathialagan in executing the special effects, it was fun recreating the outer space within the walls of the studios.
The film was sent to the Second Mumbai Short Film Festival, as the Mumbai International Film Festival for Shorts and Documentaries was called then. It was not even sent for the statutory certification process, as the authorities in FTII were apprehensive of the 'sensitive' subject. If I were to make this film in present times, I would have probably been lynched by now - the times that we live in. For quite some time, I did possess a VHS copy of the film, but fungus on the tape had made the cassette unwatchable. Despite all these years, the FTII has not yet digitized many of their graduation film including this film, which is officially my first short fiction.
Technically, my first short film was an eight minutes one that I had called 'Happy Birthday'. The film happened when I was still studying in college in Udupi, in the early part of 1980s. By then I had attended a few film appreciation courses in Karnataka led by Satish Bahadhur and Girish Kasaravalli and had thus decided that I too can make films - that is when a friend promised to lend me his rare imported VHS camera that his Dubai stationed father had gifted. I wrote the script, for whatever worth it was and formed a team. Before the shooting, we hunted out for a marriage video editor and asked him if he could edit the film for us. He suggested that we shoot the film in a scripting chronological order so that the film gets edited on camera itself. My cousin Ravi and his neighbor Prasad were my partners in crime, apart from Ziyad, the camera owner.
|Location for 'Happy Birthday'|
The apparent story was about a priest - working in a different town - who comes back home on his young son's birthday only to find him dead. Later on, police investigation reveals that the priest himself is the murderer - the motivation for which is not clear to me to this date. After the completion of the shooting Ziyad, if I remember well, on his own took the on-camera edited film to the same marriage video editor whom we had seen during our pre-shooting days. The editor volunteered to insert some 'suspense' and 'sad' sounding music happily taken from mainstream movies whose VHS copies he had in his collection. I was very upset with the choice of the music, but the technologists had their say, that day. Fortunately, no copy of the film exists. If it did, the world would have known that the traditional 'priest' had uncharacteristically worn a posh saturated red coloured T-Shirt, a brand new jeans pant; and had horned a huge flashy goggle - all borrowed from Ziyad's personal collection.
Immediately after graduating from FTII, I had sub-produced and directed a few 'stories' for the T.V. cultural magazine called 'Surabhi'. From the leftover money, I purchased some 16 mm film raw stock and decided to make a short film. The resultant was a five minute short called the 'The Hot Shot'. I went to Poona and based myself within the secure confines of the FTII campus and started working on the production. Film school classmates Manoj Nair and Gauri Patwardhan too decided to make their own short films. Manoj was still in the campus and Gauri was based in Pune. Those days, one had to get a permission letter from 'The Indian Documentary Producer's Association' for the purchase of film stock. By then I had become one. So, I took permission for the raw stock purchase of the other two films too.
We hired a 16 mm camera from National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) Mumbai and completed our shooting one after another. My production manager for the 'Surabhi' shooting Sirish Joshi volunteered to execute this film too. He brought in a very talented Marathi stage actor Vinay Edekar. Sirish also arranged for the interiors of a house in Pune. Classmate Jogendra Panda agreed to do the camerawork. He had just finished shooting his graduation film and was thus willing. Post shooting, a super senior from the Institute Chandita Mukerjee through her Comet Foundation was kind enough to let us use her editing faculties and thanks to yet another senior working in the film industry Padmanabhan 'Paddy' we completed our sound mix at Aradhana studios. When we saw our films in the Adlabs preview theaters, we were sure that we had become 'independent' short film makers.
|Vinay Edekar in 'The Hot Shot'|
'The Hot Shot' was about an office going blue collared guy who finds a still camera in front of his house. He clicks some photos and pins them on to his board at home. As he satisfactorily watches them, on the beat of gun sounds mysterious holes appear on the photos - on all of them except the one which has a washerwoman in it. Glad that at least one is intact, he goes back to the washerwoman, clicks many photos of hers and comes back home to pin them on his board. Just when he is satisfied that all is well, the mysterious holes appear on these photos too. Disappointed, he puts the lens cap on and clicks a photo. The resultant blank photo is pinned on to the board. He expects the holes to appear on it. It doesn't. So, happily he starts clicking black photos. More and more of them appear on the board.
The film had no dialogues and only music. Holes appearing on the photographs all by themselves was a very unrealistic thing to attempt, in fact it was 'Bunuelistically' surreal. And normally films deal with relationships between people. Here we had a relationship between a man and his camera. I was dealing with the absurdity of process of art. Many times wacky ideas need uncanny forms. It worked, the film went to the Second Bombay Short film festival, Dhaka Short Film Festival and a couple other Indian film festivals. 'The Hot Shot' was made with the leftover money from the TV work that I had done. The idea was that I'll follow the same production and funding pattern in the later years to make more short fiction films. But that simply did not happen.
It took almost twelve years for me to make my next short film of the fiction kind.
(To be continued...)