Supriyo Sen with Ira Bhaskar

Ira Bhaskar: Supriyo Sen is a prolific filmmaker, he is also internationally acclaimed, has won over 25 international awards and his films have been screened at various international film festivals. They have been funded by Sundance, The Amsterdam film festival and so on.

It will be very difficult to list everything Supriyo has done so I am going to try and categorize them in broad ways that will help me deal with his work systematically. The most recent award that he has received is the Berlin Today Award. He is an alumnus of the Berlin Talent Campus where his script was selected and shortlisted for production with aid from German producers in Berlin. It’s a twelve-minute documentary called ‘Wagah’. In regards to this film, Wim Wenders actually said that this was a film that works as a manifesto for bringing together people and bringing down walls that are unnecessary between people.

Supriyo was a journalist before he began making films in 1995. Like most contemporary documentary filmmakers, Supriyo’s work too combines different modes of the documentary; the expository, the observational, the reflexive, the interactive and most interestingly the subjective and the poetic. Several of the films that we are going to talk about today work at a very interesting level, combining the poetic, reflexive and subjective modes.

There are six films in this festival, where for instance ‘The Nest’ works as an environmental documentary; ‘The Dream of Hanif’ and ‘Rupban the beautiful’ are driven by the impulse to record and celebrate expressive and aesthetic cultural forms that seemed to have vanished. Both these are films are about scroll painting and Patwas who not only paint but also narrate the stories that they paint. The third group is what I call border films, ‘Way Back home’ about Supriyo taking his parents back to Bangladesh, and ‘Hope dies last in War’ about 54 prisoners of war who have not returned even 40 years later and the struggle of their families to keep the memories of their men alive, deal with the theme of partition.

Lets begin with ‘The Dream of Hanif’ and ‘Rupban’. What is very interesting for me is the way in which Supriyo has worked with Dukhushyam Chitrakarand and through the work of the Patwas he brings together folk art, visual art, performance art.

This is also an art form, which combines visual story telling with a performative act, where the story is sung as well as narrated. So it brings together, several traditions – oral traditions of folk and fairy tales, along with visual traditions.

To begin with, I would like to talk about the genesis of this project. It’s interesting that you have returned to the same area in ‘Rupban’ so clearly this is a concern of yours, how did this project begin and how did the encounter with Dukhushyam begin.

Supriyo Sen: It was very simple; my first film got a little success. It was about a stone-crushing factory in a tribal village where people went to work and finally they ended up getting affected by silicosis and people died. We saw a small article in a newspaper and went there to discover that it was a huge tragedy where everyday people were dying and there was no measure to check the pollution. That film served the purpose where some activist organizations went to the Supreme Court and fought for the right of the people and the film was used as evidence.

It was a tragic story, but we (a team of 4 of us worked together) wanted to get over that tragedy and work on something in the same area. We knew the Poatwas as they were also living in the same district as the earlier film and as we were traveling we used to see them work in their village.

We thought it was a very interesting colorful project but when we got involved in their society, work and painting we realized that this society too in a different way are also going through a tragic journey. This ancient art form has lost its popularity and patronage in the village because of television and other media and they are trying to find a new market in the city, but they are not very sure of it.

The new generation of scone painters is trying to capture the urban market, which is only interested in the painting not the whole performance in its complete form. In fact I think it is an ancient form of cinema, where you have audio and visuals and a grand narrative, but the urban people were only interested in the paintings, that too in a very small way. For instance, they would like a frame, to put it in their drawing room. Many of the younger generations, because of the hard times, were trying to cater to the needs of the market and that was reducing the whole impact of the artist.

Then I found this old man, Dukhushyam who is a real artist and is still trying to stick to the ancient traditional version of it. We got involved in his journey because at that time, in the city, we were also practicing a marginal art form, which doesn’t have any market, so we could soon relate to his crisis and try to portray what it takes if you want to stick to your own journey and if you are very passionate about your art form and its originality. We started exploring and relating to the ways in which you confront the market, the society and even your family. This man really inspired us to embark on this journey and relate ourselves also with his identity and the crisis he was going through at that point of time.

In this new cultural economy that you are talking about where the artwork has changed radically, there is an urban market, which demands only the visual dimension of the form. Has that in any way improved the lives of the Patwas (in the sense of giving them more work) while depriving them of the kind of enchantment that the oral tradition accompanies this? Has is given them a means of livelihood that has improves their situation or not really?

After ten years I made another film, ‘Rupban – The beautiful’ which is on the same community. But to answer your question, yes very much, but that’s a different story.

When we approached this story, we were a little rigid. We had an almost subjective idea of the crisis of an artist, and how the market is very bad. We addressed this with that kind of a preoccupation so I feel that at some point this film was a little judgmental. We wanted to prove that the market is very bad and everybody has to stick to its pure art form.

What is fascinating about this community is that they have been nomadic tribes, although they have settled down in this place for quite sometime, but they have this nomadic instinct in themselves, so they can accommodate the change in times in themselves and in their art form.

Thus, after ten years, when I visited in the same village, although I met them in the cities very frequently, I realized that they took the challenge of the times and evolved themselves but at the same time retained their traditional form. It was a fascinating journey to observe and I might even end up making another film after ten years.

I wanted to ask you about the way the Dukhushyam actually articulates his aesthetics: he talks about the vision of the artist and the condition and how suffering is very important.

He’s also very aware of the form that he is using, and it seems to me that you are also very deeply influenced by them. Your camera, very lovingly lingers over those colours and images and in a way sort of attempts to generate an enchantment that his narrative does at the level of the oral performance. It seems to me that the paintings themselves, and the songs, are a very interesting mark of a post modern moment, because that is the moment where the folk cultures and folk forms and aesthetic expressions get fore grounded.

In your discussions with him, he is very keen to stick to his traditional form. In many other Indian forms, like Classical Indian dancing or music, this whole question of modernity and traditionalism is a very important discussion. How do people respond to modern moments, if there is a bomb blast, should the traditional dancer ignore that, or is the musician supposed to ignore it?

In that sense, would you like to share with us some of the conversations that you had with him about his practice itself. How aware is he of his own aesthetic form and its location in the present moment?

For this community, especially scroll painting, they always tried to remain contemporary, which is why they could also survive and remain relevant to the time.

But Dukhushyam Chitrakar himself, used to paint scrolls on Colonial India and the independence struggle, but his stand was that he was inspired by the situation, which is why he painted that particular scroll. It was not related to the market, he wanted to get contemporary stories from society. What he preferred was that society should inspire him to tell a story, not the market, so he did paint contemporary stories but only when he could differentiate between this source of inspiration and avoid the influence of the market.

He seems to be very committed to disseminating his art through training other people, for instance the other film that you have made, Rupban, is on a student of his who is gone and done wonderful things herself. Was this something he was conscious of or was it something he embarked on because there was a lot of interest?

For this community it’s a traditional art form so he must pass it on to the next generation for the tradition to live. Also he wanted to teach the old songs which the new generation either don’t know or don’t care about. He wanted to train these little kids with those songs so that he can pass them on in the pure form. This was a third generation he picked up, because the second generation was totally into market, and the later one wasn’t polluted so to say. He tried to train them in the ancient authentic form, which only he knew.

In ‘Rupban’ I want to talk about women and gender and the role women are playing in the community as they seemed to have been able to get together and consolidate the interests of the community.

When we made the first film, the community was really undergoing a crisis, where they hardly made any money to support their families and they didn’t know much about the other professions like farming and so on: they could only paint. Some of them were also reduced to the status of a beggar because when you lose the prestige, people don’t regard them as artists anymore.

Especially the women, they had to run the kitchen so they faced the crisis in a bigger way. At that point, this new generation of women took up painting. Initially there were a lot of problems in the community because although some women were painting, there were some restrictions on other women. It was not very easy to come out from the village and go to the city, but this generation took up this challenge.

It also helped because they were very patient and the male generation didn’t have the patience to learn the art of the scroll painting. The men were also given to drinking and other such stuff. Many of the women also had beautiful voices, and at some point they also emerged as better performers than the men. In the city, they were sometimes they were invited to perform at a function and so on.

Apart from this, I feel that they were intelligent enough to understand urban scenarios and how to sell and raise a soft corner among the buyers. Gradually, because this generation had the voice, skill and the patience and they also had to run the family and support the children, they took the challenge and traveled out and also inspired even the women who were not painting. They inspired the whole community of women to paint. Many of them were scared to travel to the city so these women formed a cooperative and took their paintings to the city, to sell them and share the money. So that way they not only helped themselves, they also helped the community of women as a whole to grow.

The other thing that struck me about this film is the way in which you also foreground the fact that many of them are Muslim. For instance, in Rupban’s family, when you look at them, they seem that they could move between these two cultures. It seems to be a very interesting example of synchronous forms of both social and cultural living. They are singing songs of both Manasa and Sant Kabir.

So can you talk a little about this identity question and if there was an existing problem of Hindu – Muslim identity?

The Hindu community doesn’t accept them because they are practicing Muslims, and the Muslim community doesn’t accept them because they paint and their women are going out.

But this is in their tradition for a long time. They are very intelligent people; they know how to cope with situations. They changed their religion and settled down in the kingdom of that time and told stories of the glory of the kings.

Some of them do go to the mosque but its very flexible, so it’s this mixed kind of identity that they have. They are also very secular, not from the point of view of Western Secularism, but they do respect other religions and move between the two religions also.

Being a Muslim, a painter, you are singing about Shiva, so it’s a fascinating example of how our history doesn’t have to be written in such a rigid narrow way because such a society where members from both religions do exist.

I was quite fascinated with the conversation between mother and daughter at the end of the film, where she tells her mother that the painting she had done was very beautiful and the mother says that you can do that too, but then she says that I cant dare to paint like the Kali Ghat painters.

Here it seemed to me that there is a very self conscious way of painting, maybe their travels in Calcutta has introduced them to Kali Ghat forms and Usman himself has had some connection with that form.

So there is a very give and take, fluid movement between different styles. There is also an aesthetic sense of what their art is about where you see the mother telling her that if you do this like this, it will look much better, or when the son is being taught the song, it’s a self-conscious dissemination, almost like creating a gharana.

Now its almost like they are creating a matriarchal gharana.

Exactly, they are destabilizing patriarchal traditions in terms of religion and in handing down art and tradition. I was also interested in what you said about continuing with this engagement and that you may make this film again.

I have also been growing and you can see it in these two films, as a filmmaker, I am completely a different person when I approached this community after ten years.

I have also found this community to be so dynamic: so definitely after ten years you do get radical changes. Also this is the oldest audiovisual art form so there is a special connection. It’s a fascinating journey for me and I am sure that if I keep recording this community, I will make sure to get something very rewarding.

Now we will deal with a group of films that I have called the border films and we will begin with ‘Way Back Home’.

These are films that are directly connected to the partition of the subcontinent and in many ways, just as in the first two you have an engagement with the art form as a filmmaker, here I see an engagement with the filmmaker and history. These films to me reveal a relationship between cinema and history and in what way can cinema actually archive history, in what way does it relate to history and what way does it narrate history.

There’s a favorite phrase of mine by Denise Youngblood, who talks about cinema as an alternative discourse of history telling and your films seem to make that point very strongly.

I think this works, especially in ‘Way back home’ as coming out of a revisionist movement, where you move away from official discourses to much more nuanced personal narratives and personal stories. Tracing this movement back to 1984, after the Sikh carnage, partition seemed like a live experience, the nightmare wasn’t over and since then partition has become a very important aesthetic, historical and discursive subject. This new historiography that I see, central to this subject was the place of memory.

When I decided to be a filmmaker I wanted to take back my parents to their homeland and I wanted to make this film. My father wasn’t too keen to go back because when he left he was twenty-five years old, took part in the ’42 movement and had some kind of left wing leaning also. In the place that they lived, in East Pakistan, they had the worse massacre in 1950 so he was quite cynical.

My mother on the other hand used to tell me a lot of stories about the place. So many instances I discovered from my father only after making this film, he didn’t even tell me about it during the making of the film because he had a completely different experience being very actively involved in the politics of the place.

But my mother was only eleven years old when she left and her vision is of a beautiful village and a culturally active educated community, but there was a certain kind of enmity between the two communities. So her narrative is completely different and that is what draws me towards that imaginary homeland rather than my fathers. When we decided to go my father also joins us and the film juxtaposes these two narratives and two experiences.

Those narratives are immediate and personal to both of them and there’s this other narrative that I call the narrative of space, which your film or your camera and the way it is exploring and relating to the misc en scene of the landscape.

Also the landscape plays a very important role in your film and also the memories because in many ways it embodies the land that is lost. I was wondering, how did your parents respond to being on camera. For instance, your mother is speaking and she’s very moved, so did the camera in any way inhibit her, or were there new things that came out when she was on camera?

I try not to manipulate my characters in all my films. Especially in my later films you will see that the characters are very spontaneous and it’s an almost real kind of situation where the camera becomes very transparent. In this case it was my parents and I already have a good rapport with them, but with my characters I really work towards building a strong bond otherwise I can’t make films.

Here I just followed them, especially in Bangladesh, as they were in a trance. It was a completely different journey for them and they were not bothered about anything, because they had longed for too many years to reach there. So I didn’t have any problem there. Besides I just followed them, I didn’t ask them to do anything. I might have taken them to places, but they were interacting with people and reacting to things themselves and it was amazing.

What I always say that if you are very passionate, very serious, very honest in documentary situations and magic happens. But we never expected to unfold so many significant interactions. A two-minute interaction tells you so many things and takes the film on a different level. Like the old postmaster, or the boatmen. So magic happens in front of the camera.

I also always work with the best people, like Ranjan Palit, he is a master so we had a lot of discussions before but when he started shooting, I didn’t interfere, I just followed him.

The way in which the camera is moving here, seems to be a duet going on between you and your cameraman. Does Ranjan have a similar background, is his family from East Bengal, or was he just moved by your story and project.

At one level what you are saying about following your parents makes sense, but the aesthetic choices, for instance in this sequence, your mother is speaking but you use her words along with a song and your camera that is panning over the landscape and you dissolve her face on the river bank and the landscape. So those choices, in terms of the imagery and songs matched the rhythm of the song.

He’s a sensitive artist so he knows the issue of partition, he worked in Karba as a DOP and he’s very easy to communicate with. He knows his job and he knows what the director wants. When I decided to work with Ranjan Palit many people told me that he is a big time cinematographer and it will be very difficult to work with him. But when we worked together, it was such a great experience. Sometimes he even went out with his camera and shot something very brilliant and I was sleeping!

In documentary, especially the kind I make, there is a great importance of human relationships even off the camera. I need an editor with whom I can really communicate and have a great friendship, so that we can together create these kind of films. That level of collaboration is required for the level of impact I want to achieve with my films.

In interviews you have spoken about how it was difficult for you to shoot in many instances openly and that you had to do clandestine shooting. Can you tell us why that was so and what was the context in which that happened?

I was trying to make the film since 2000, but I didn’t have the money and finally when I did have the money, I tried to get permission because I wanted to shoot it on 16mm so we needed a big team of technicians. We formally applied for the permission and waited for one year, and then realized that we will never get the permission.

Then the worst happened, Hasina Government left and Jamat-e-islam came into power so it was a horrible time for the Hindus there and we had all these riots and everything. The riots are low-grade riots, not like Gujarat riots, its always there, it will never erupt into something like the Gujarat Carnage or anything, but it will always continually happen on the low. There is always a tension, and it is very difficult for the minority community to live like that for a long time.

During this period, especially in Bodishal, where Jamat-e-islam is very powerful, a lot of things were going on, rape, killing, threats; so we just couldn’t be Hindu filmmakers, taking our parents back to their homeland and talking about partition at that point of time.

We had to pretend to be tourists, with a very small camera, with no special sound recording system and Ranjan did a fantastic job as a sound recordist too. But I also didn’t want to stress that fact, because it’s a completely different journey.

Did the atmosphere affect your parents?

Partially, because people were also very welcoming. Everywhere they went they had some fantastic interactions, with young and old people. Even in the town hall in Bodishal, there was a meeting going on by a very hardcore religious organization and they were still very welcoming, they showed us around the town hall also.

People were very friendly, one old person who looked like a Maulvi, came up to my father and said that we still miss you. All this was very touching. Maybe this person will never say it on record but in a one to one situation, where there is no politics and people interact as human beings, he shared his real feelings.

So I wanted to explore these fragile moments, this film is very different from any other political narratives that we see. These communities stayed together for a long time, something was there that bonded them together. Although they had castesim and Hindus were really controlling the economy, there were relationships also and that is what I wanted to explore.

Through this film there is this memory of your aunt and from the very beginning your mother speaks of her, remembers her and like this yearning for home there is a yearning for her lost sister which is very very deep.

It’s quite a spectacular moment when you find her daughter, even though she is no longer there. How did that happen?

It was magic, I didn’t have any expectation. In my mothers’ village, although we were going there after fifty years, we could only spend seven hours because this was a very very sensitive area. People had warned us not to stay there till late evening and so on.

We had heard that our aunt was no longer there and her people had moved far away from that particular place. But the people who were guiding us, gradually told me that they are not living that far but are still staying in some villages close by.

So they took us to those villages, but we didn’t have any idea that this lady is actively involved in secular politics and has a certain kind of understanding of the whole thing. It happened like magic.

The aunt was the one who had a relationship with a Muslim man so her family didn’t accept that. But she was a very accomplished woman; a very good singer, very beautiful, the little children used to love her. When the partition happened and the whole family left that place, Komoli stayed back because there was a taboo if you get married to a Muslim, especially for the upper caste Hindus.

So when they left the village, they never got in touch with her in the next fifty years. In my mother’s childhood, when she was only eleven years old, she used to idolize my aunt. So she had a strong urge to see her and meet her, so added to the drive to see her village, it was also a desire to see Komoli Didi that took her on that journey.

Audience: In the bringing in of 2002, the latter half of the narrative, was too compressed and statement like in comparison to the earlier subtle presentation of that desire which is after all a latent desire in so many of us. But since you were making such a direct point, it seemed to take away from that language itself.

That’s the point where my identity as a citizen of India overwhelmed my identity as a creative artist. I wanted to make a statement. I had just returned from Bangladesh and I saw the Hindu minority there being tortured and when I returned here, Gujarat happened.

Cinematically, I didn’t have any option to connect these two things through the same kind of language that I was using to address my main narrative. So in a way this became an intervention where I even knew that the whole style doesn’t go with the whole narrative. It was very conscious and I knew I would be criticized but there is another side to the story.

A certain kind of audience believes that ‘way back home’ is predominantly a Hindu narrative, so thank god I at least left that portion of the Gujarat riot. I didn’t know that memory or suffering could be divided like that: into Hindu and Muslim.

In the film ‘Hope dies last in War’ you are actually continuing your exploration of memory where you are focusing on families that are living with memories of war. For me what was very intriguing is the way in which you used the photographs.

In “Way Back Home’,  it’s the landscape but here it is the photograph that you use very systematically and cautiously. It is the photograph that bears the burden of memory. The photograph is also a trace of life, but interestingly it functions like the sign of death in the film.

In this project, how are all the families that you are working with, continuing to accept the fact that their lost ones aren’t coming back. Also do you see this film as an activist film in some way as the film seems to be carrying the project of your search forward?

Although it deals with one of the worst human rights violation case in our country, very few people actually know about it. Again to tell this story I had to go through all these press conferences, permission and all that stuff.

But for me what was very important was that in this whole human rights violation situation, how do people reconcile with the fact that someone they love is raped, someone’s family members are killed and so on.

So I tried to go through the heart and minds of these people and this whole process of reconciliation. They actually couldn’t reconcile, they are still fighting for their case and they still believe that someday they will come back. It is a very fragile situation between hope and despair and in a way is a tight ropewalk for them.

That was a very important quest for me and I had to take a certain narrative style to tell the story where this kind of silent protest although being important, I did not want to make a regular issue based activist film, rather than I wanted to enter the mind and space of these people where they try to reconcile with whether they can or cannot accept this fate.

After finishing ‘Way Back Home’ I realized that partition is a multilayered event and one can even make films on it all his life: there are so many stories and so many layers in this huge tragic event. We also know that we still face the fall out of partition, its not over yet and had further worsened the relationship between these two communities and so on.

This I why I wanted to carry out this discourse and address a contemporary history, explore the result of a fall out and a bitter relationship of two countries that used to be one before.

In that way “Way Back Home’ was the past and “Hope dies last..’ deals with the present but I wanted to look forward also, so ‘Wagah’ looks through the eyes of the children at their wish to crossover.

You also used a very interesting phrase in Wagah, ‘border centric film’: it is both related to the border but also has a desire to go across the border.

The relationship that exists for the people who live close to the border is very different from people who live in the mainland. We don’t know what the meaning of border is.

In the bordering district they can see the people and they are the same, they have the story of the other side of the village. They used to celebrate together, but now when there is some kind of tension, they all have to evacuate the village. So their experiences are completely contrasting to the kind of experiences that we have in the cities.

The absurdity of border and nationalism at its best is the most ridiculous thing that I can imagine and that is what I wanted to explore through Wagah.

And what are you currently working on? And what has inspired you as a filmmaker?

It is a film about reality shows and the changing mindset of the Indian society. Once again I will deal with little children, but in the world of reality shows.

All the filmmakers inspire me, I like the partition films but I don’t have any distinct impact of those films in my style or language and I never learned filmmaking from any institution but somehow I managed how to tell stories this way. If you see my other films, they are all different and I try not to repeat the story telling style in more than one film.

27 February 2010, Conversations on Documentary Practice, Persistence Resistance 2010