I don’t feel it’s necessary to quote numbers to establish a fact we all know – this country produces the largest number of films. We are also proudly told that Hollywood has never, will never, colonize us. What does this mean? To condense a long convoluted history, it suggests that we have worked out a ‘taste’ for cinema that is quintessentially ‘Indian’. And no one has been able to successfully alter this ‘taste’. We may submit a slice of the pie to our competitors but the bulk will always go to us.
Now, who make up this ‘we’/‘us’? In Nationalistic rhetoric, these hammer strokes of claiming a unified identity (in order to mask the vested interests of a few), beat out of shape or out of existence the many little cultures and voices that make up this country. And I write this to let you know that we do exist. For some of us, making films is not about money changing hands and clinking into the box office – we would be in fact very happy if we could earn and earn well through our métier. But that’s not the starting point.
So what do we want? We want to constantly evolve a language of cinema (or ‘digima’!) to (re)present and imag(in)e the ‘reality’ around us, in a way that empowers, that engages us deeply and meaningfully. In 2001, I completed a film based on the works of Sadat Hasan Manto. The short story ‘Kali Salwar’ was the backbone, but I wove in other short stories and brought in the persona of Manto as well to create a meta- narrative. I transformed the story (set in 1942 in Delhi during the Quit India movement) into a contemporary context. In the original story, the red-light area is adjacent to a sanitary ware market. Keeping that irony in mind, I set ‘Kali Salwar’ in Bombay, in locations where prostitution inhabited contiguous with textile mills in Lower Parel, locations that were declared ‘sick’ and shut down.
I painted a canvas that telescoped history, referring to traditions of colour and costuming, the spoken word, and cinema itself. The film was screened at festivals, was even nominated in one. It was released without any publicity. And now it is available as a DVD as a NFDC classic of the Indian Cinema series. It has been viewed widely on the internet, and has been favourably commented upon. I thought it would make it easier to make my next film.
In the last few years, I have tried to continue making films. I have approached different agencies for funding – this happens after long research, scripting, presenting a treatment with visual references, and then finally submitting to institutions that provide grants abroad or in India. I have not been successful. Perhaps the scripts do not fit into notions of what an ‘Indian’ film should be like, or what they should talk about. I don’t know. I tried to enter the market with an adaptation of Manohar Shyam Joshi’s ‘Kasap’. A truly modern novel in its concerns and telling, it is ironic and tragic. I bought the rights from Mrs. Joshi for a period of two years. But as I fished around in the industry, I was told that ‘tragedy’ was not ‘in’. I was also told to bring in a big star. I tried that too, and ended up not going much beyond their agents, those who mostly manage star careers. Two years went by, that avenue didn’t take me very far either.
Now, I’m trying to make this film again. It is titled ‘Ilhaam’, formed (is forming) in a political scenario of suppression and discontent. In chemistry, I remember being taught that if a fluid is ‘supersaturated’ and you put in just a tiny bit of salt then crystals begin to precipitate on their own. Maybe something like that happened – the students’ strike at FTII was that additional bit of salt around which ‘Ilhaam’ crystallized. I had been pre-occupied with violence (both personal and social), quietude in violence, the (im-)possibility of love, the fore-sight of Ritwik Ghatak, the insurgency in Myanmar. I had been haunted by the work of an artist. As she moved on in years, she did away with all that was superfluous – volumes, shapes, colours, lights and time were all transformed into precisely crafted lines, in tones from black to the lightest grey And I had been haunted by a writer – old, sick and dying, she loved a beautiful young homosexual man. She raged against death. I feel inspired to transform these private predicaments into a reflection of the times we live in. A passionate attempt to affirm life, in a world where the desire to know meets with humiliation and repression – where old males try to emasculate the young who protest. In our aesthetics, they say that the Shringar and Vibhats rasas (the erotic and odious sentiment) do not go together. I look around me, and I see the two collapse into each other all around us. I want to create a cinema-scape of these improbabilities.
Ilhaam means Revelation. Why do I want to make this film? I don’t know if that’s the accurate way to phrase this question. Still, I want to make this film as I think it’s possible to create a cinescape in which images can trigger memories of the past and future – one where we confront the catastrophic within, and return thoughtfully to the outer world. With thought, we can change the world.
I shot a bit of it, to let you see what I’m trying to politically and aesthetically engage with. Some of the actors who knew of me or had seen some of my work before, pitched in, shooting a day or night without a fee. And students of cinema, with whom I had been working at FTII, contributed with their labour and skill. I shot for 2 days and a night, edited some material together. I have got in about 20% so far with 30 days to go, and about 17 lakhs more needed. As per the crowd-funding platform rules , I have to get the full amount by mid-October; if I don’t, the money will have to be returned to those who have funded. If it speaks to you, and if you’d like to support this effort, please do contribute and tell others.
Fareeda Mehta is an independent fim maker. She directed a movie Kali Salwar based on a short story by Sadat Hasan Manto. Presently she is a faculty member of the cinematography at Whistling Woods Film School, Mumbai and is trying to make her new movie Ilhaam. This article was originally published by Eye Art Collective.