Last October, thousands of people in different parts of India spent the second Saturday of the month shooting videos about a single day in their lives or of someone they knew. The result -- India in a Day -- is a fascinating, crowdsourced 90-minute documentary feature film that aims to capture a day in present-day India through the eyes of its citizens.
Backed by Google and produced by Ridley Scott's company Scott Free Films and Anurag Kashyap, the film has been directed by Indo-Canadian filmmaker Richie Mehta. It also includes in the credit, the line "filmed by you". The film has a limited commercial release today, but will be released on YouTube for free viewing in a few weeks. Last year, the filmmakers invited Indians to document their daily routine on the date 10 October, 2015.
They ended up receiving 16,000 entries shot in 50 languages by 4,000 contributors across India.
"Some people talked about the past and how India has evolved. Others spoke about India going to Mars, the future, where we're going and why. That ended up becoming the spine of the film," Mehta told HuffPost India.
Mehta, who has directed three fiction films, faced the challenge of condensing 365 hours of footage that he had never seen before into an 86-minute feature length film. It was a little bit like putting the pieces of a puzzle together. First, the videos that had been uploaded on a Google website, were delivered to Mehta and the film's editor, London-based Beverly Mills, who has never actually visited India. Google also physically procured footage from remote pockets of the country with poor internet access, using hard disks.
It took the team three months to watch the footage, another five months to edit it, and a couple of more months to add sound and music. The process began with 15 loggers going through the entire footage, with Mehta himself seeing about 250 hours. Videos that were not in English had to be translated and viewed with subtitles.
The logging team rated each clip on a scale of 1 to 5, with Mehta and Mills viewing the shortlisted videos, also randomly checking the 'worst' videos to ensure that nothing was lost. They also had weekly meetings to discuss and shortlist the special stories. The criteria for rating and shortlisting clips also evolved over time. Initially, the focus was on aesthetics, but later the team also began to include stories that were compelling but lacked strong visuals. Often, one outstanding clip would lead the team to look for other submissions by the same contributor.
"People are revealing stories that no filmmaker can ever get."
Though Mehta had to grapple with uneven video quality, he was struck by the honesty and realism. People used anything from a camcorder to a motion picture camera to old mobile phones, and sent both vertical and horizontal videos. There were people who simply spoke to their phone camera and others who filmed with as many as six cameras. "There were many clips shot in low quality by people who didn't know the technical aspects of filming, but they were genuine because they were telling their own stories," Mehta said. "People were revealing stories that no filmmaker can ever get."
The concept behind India in a Day was first used in the 2010 film Life in a Day, which was also produced by Scott and YouTube and comprised of videos filmed in a single day by people from 192 countries. Like the original, the Indian film takes a chronological trajectory, starting and ending at midnight, but Mehta says it differs from it in several ways too. "Of all films in the 'In A Day' series this is the only country that we call developed and developing. We didn't get any submission from the wealthy class, but from the middle class and below, which begs the question why they contributed and why they didn't," Mehta said. "These were people who had something to say."
The final narrative arc of the film emerged from the footage itself. "It was important to do justice to what the contributors were trying to say without manipulating it," Mehta said. "So we began on a light but compelling vein, and then placed the heaviest dramatic and emotional moments in the second half.'
Some of the contributors told issue-based stories, other filmed their family members or personal stories, and many filmed mundane aspects like moving traffic. For instance, one of Mehta's favourite sequences is of a father telling his four-year-old daughter to recite a speech. "She says, 'When I grow older, I want to learn karate because I have to defend myself'. She is having fun, but it has tragic overtones too. He is making a profound statement about what is going to happen to this girl when grows older and training her to be a fighter," Mehta recalled.
Most of the contributors were young people in 20s and 30s, but there was also an occasional video from elderly persons trying to figure out how to use a camera. While the submissions were skewed towards metros like Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata, there were also contributions came from Assam as well as the Andaman and Nicobar islands. "I suspect that a lot of people who work in the film industry went back to their villages and shot these videos, because they look so professional," Mehta said.
"I have been trying to figure out this country through my films, but after making 'India in a Day', I don't think I can."
The longest submission was over 17 hours long, and shot almost like a "mini-documentary. Its story of a farmer in Dehradun became the focal point of the film because of the questions it raised. "So many people in the videos talked of where India was going, but this farmer was the antithesis of that. He didn't use technology, he lived in a place he described as paradise. His life was about giving back to the world, when the world itself was moving forward," Mehta said. "Where do people like him fit in? That became one of the central questions of the film." The farmer's story was also an example of how the film was trying to narrate both personal stories and larger comments on India.
"India is a country where you can measure the past and the future in certain regions," Mehta said. "You can measure the progress of humanity within the borders of the country, from the last 100 years to the future."
The film's scale made it even more important to include a diversity of perspectives and scenes from across the country. The final version includes videos shot by 330 contributors in 15 languages. There are stories of rhinoceroses and elephants in Assam, a dhaba in Karnataka that is owned and managed by transgenders, and a single mother in Delhi talking about her life choices, challenges and unfulfilled dreams in the space of her sole five-minute break in a day.
"I have been trying to figure out this country, to get a handle on it through my films, but after making this film, I don't think I can." Mehta said. "You can understand your mission or goal, but to understand the big picture is almost impossible. It is too epic and complex for that."
India in a Day releases in Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru on September 23.