As the 68th annual Cannes International Film Festival kicks off today, this year carries with it a unique distinction for Indian cinema enthusiasts: there are better reasons to get excited about the world’s most prestigious film festival than those that involve agonising over outfits worn by Aishwarya Rai Bachchan or Katrina Kaif.
For the first time, two Indian films — 'Chauthi Koot' and 'Masaan' — shall compete in the festival’s ‘Un Certain Regard’ (A Certain Regard) category, which seeks to honour international films that possess unique voices and styles. Filmmakers compete for the Prix Un Certain Regard, which includes 30,000 euros. The section runs parallel to the festival's main competition. In terms of prestige, it is several notches higher than when films are screened out of competition or in other sections such as Director's Fortnight or Critics Week (which have previously seen Indian entries).
HuffPost India spoke to the two filmmakers who will be representing the country in this prestigious category, whose top prize has previously been won by acclaimed filmmakers such as Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (who, incidentally, will be competing against them in 'Un Certain Regard' this year as well with his latest, ‘Cemetery Of Splendour’).
Gurvinder Singh, 40, director of ‘Chauthi Koot’ (or 'The Fourth Direction')
Director Gurvinder Singh during the shoot of 'Chauthi Koot'
Gurvinder Singh took 50 days to shoot his sophomore Punjabi-language film, ‘Chauthi Koot’, but only 10 days to write its script.
“This German director — I think it was Werner Herzog — once said something along the lines of ‘It’s only worth making if it can be written in 7 days’,” he says with a laugh, during a phone conversation. “Plus, it was an adaptation of a story by [Punjabi writer] Waryam Singh Sandhu, and I’d already been thinking of it for a while.”
This was in 2012, roughly a year after his debut film ‘Anhey Ghorey Da Daan’ premiered at the 68th Venice International Film Festival, under the Orizzonti (Horizons) category for first-time filmmakers. A quietly powerful piece of cinema, it captured a day in the life of a family in a small village outside Bathinda persecuted by the vagaries of their immediate environment. ‘Anhey Ghorey…’ went on to win three National Awards, including Best Direction In A Feature Film for Singh, as well as Best Punjabi Film and Best Cinematography.
His follow-up, ‘Chauthi Koot’ (which means ‘The Fourth Direction’) is also set in Punjab and is adapted from two stories written by Sandhu called ‘Chauthi Koot’ and ‘Hun Main Theek Haan’. In an interview to The Indian Express, Singh said he found that these stories complemented each other.
The two stories — one about a bizarre militant diktat that prohibited family-owned dogs from barking and another about two friends travelling to Amritsar in a nearly empty train, with one of them recounting the first story — attempt to paint a picture of a post-Operation-Blue-Star Punjab. “The film is set at an unspecified time during the ‘80s,” he says. “The idea was to show the fear and paranoia that existed in those parts at the time.”
A still from 'Chauthi Koot'
Singh’s distinctive directorial style includes ‘arthouse’ elements such as long takes, usage of mostly ambient sounds, and a cast of non-professional actors. In this film, he has taken this style a notch further. “I wasn’t completely satisfied with the editing of ‘Anhey Ghorey…’, amongst other things,” he says. “I’ve tried to correct these mistakes this time around.”
A criticism leveled against his style or, more accurately, his kind of style — that leads to films being classified as ‘festival-bait’ — is that it is deliberately slow and obtuse and, as a result, inaccessible. “When someone calls my film ‘slow’, I consider it a compliment because that means it has succeeded in capturing a rhythm of life that our cinema usually doesn’t,” he says. “If you’re feeling the time passing by, that’s the film’s achievement.”
He also doesn’t get why a film needs to be ‘understood’. “We’ve grown up on a certain kind of cinema that spoon-feeds audiences and that isn’t how it’s always supposed to be. Sometimes a film takes longer to reveal itself… a little more effort; perhaps multiple viewings,” he says.
His approach stems from his days in Pune as a film student, when he studied direction from the famed Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) between 1997 and 2001. Unimpressed by what the faculty at college had to teach them about films (“It was more about stories and hardly anything about the understanding of cinematic craft,” he says), Singh learnt more by absorbing the work of iconoclastic filmmakers such as Luis Buñuel and Robert Bresson. “That’s when I understood that cinema can be more than just than about entertainment or highlighting social issues,” he says. “It can be high art.”
With ‘Chauthi Koot’, he continues telling stories of a side of Punjab that is rarely seen in Hindi or Punjabi cinema. “It’s a syncretic society that is more than just about farmers, Sikhs, and Jats,” he says.
Neeraj Ghaywan, 35, director of ‘Masaan’ (or 'Fly Away Solo')
(From left) Cinematographer Avinash Arun with director Neeraj Ghaywan, during the shoot of 'Masaan'
In 2010, Neeraj Ghaywan did something most people would consider foolhardy. An electrical engineering graduate from Hyderabad’s Chaitanya Bharathi Institute of Technology, he quit a corporate job that paid him a cushy six-figure salary per month to work out of a plush, air-conditioned office. He then went on to assist on a film-shoot in Bihar for roundabout the same amount of money per annum.
The reason: Ghaywan was an acute cinephile who contributed actively to the now-defunct film website PassionForCinema.com, through which he knew many people in that line. One of them was director Anurag Kashyap, who would blog enthusiastically on the site.
In a moment that (ironically) sounds like it’s straight out of a movie, Kashyap called him and asked him if he’d be interested in assisting him on ‘Gangs Of Wasseypur’, an ambitious, generation-spanning crime drama that would eventually be screened at the Cannes International Film Festival.
Ghaywan, naturally, said yes in a heartbeat, but not before asking Kashyap, “What kind of CTC will I get?” As an engineering grad, this was a question he was used to asking before accepting any job offers.
“What is a CTC?” was Kashyap’s perplexed counter-question, according to Ghaywan.
This week, his directorial feature debut ‘Masaan’, starring Richa Chadda and Sanjay Mishra, plays at the same festival as the film he cut his teeth on. “That was my film school,” says Ghaywan, in a phone conversation. “I learnt the ropes of everything from pre- and post-production to filmmaking and even marketing over two-and-a-half amazing years. I didn’t take a single day off, but it didn’t matter because I was so happy with what I was doing.”
After making an award-winning short called ‘Shor’, he was intrigued by the idea of making a film set in Varanasi, where he had spent some time during the shoot of ‘… Wasseypur’. “I wanted to stay away from all the clichés — temples, sadhus, ganja etc,” he said. “I wrote a draft but I thought it was really shitty. I was scared that I was going away from reality.”
To fix this issue, he roped in his good friend Varun Grover, lyricist and stand-up comedian, who had spent four years in the city studying civil engineering at Benares Hindu University (BHU) between 1999 and 2002. “Benares is a crazy place, full of weird characters,” says Grover, in a chat at the Phantom Films office. “You’ll see people talking to themselves, counting stars, perhaps roaming around stark naked on the streets. But amidst all that, not to mention the culture and the general vibe, there is something incredibly special about it.”
A still from 'Masaan'
Despite this, Grover maintains that the film — a meta-narrative set along the banks of the Ganga river — is not an homage to the city and could “have been set in any small North Indian town”.
‘Masaan’, say both Ghaywan and Grover, attempts to portray the modern side of traditional India. With three stories, it explores themes related to the moral baggage of, and existential crises that people face with while adjusting to changing norms in a traditionalist society. The first story focuses on a boy from the Dom community, ‘outcastes’ who are traditionally considered the custodians of the city’s famed cremation grounds. The second story deals with a young girl who has a sexual encounter and is shamed for it, while the third one is about her father and how deals with the situation.
In preparation, Ghaywan and Grover travelled to Varanasi in mid-2012 and stayed at the BHU hostel as they interviewed “between 50-60 people” and came back with several fresh insights.
For instance, a conversation with college-going girls about sexuality was, for them, an eye-opener. “We had assumed that it was definitely going to be difficult to go to a small town and talk to girls about such a topic, but to our surprise, after two hours of knowing us, they started opening up to us about things such as watching porn and masturbation,” said Ghaywan. “We were quite stunned by that.”