Chauthi Koot is set in Punjab during the time of the Khalistan movement. Do you have any memories from back then?
I was in Delhi then. I was about 10 years old. At the time of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, we were in school. Going back in the bus that day, a teacher looked at me and said, “These Sikhs should be taught a lesson.” A schoolteacher saying that! That remark I can’t forget.
What drew you to Waryam Singh’s stories?
I’d read Waryam’s work before. I think his short stories are some of the finest written, and not just in Punjab. It just so happened that after Anhey Ghorey Da Daan, I picked up this book (Chauthi Koot, 1998). I was already thinking about making a film on another story of his, set during the time of militancy. But I knew he’d written more about that period. He himself was affected by it. He was a schoolteacher in a place called Sur Singh. He used to write in the Punjab press against the movement, so he had a lot of threats from the militants and had to go settle in Jalandhar.
He wrote about a curious meeting the two of you had in Canada.
I’d met him in Toronto, where Anhey Ghorey was being screened. I was on the stage post-screening, and strange comments were coming—why did you do this, we didn’t understand the film. I think he got restless because he got up and gave a speech for 5 minutes and then everybody was silent.
His writing has a similar quality to ‘Anhey Ghorey Da Daan’, in that the atmosphere he evokes informs, even drives, the plot…
In a film, you could have one level of narrative going on, but then the mood is creating its own narrative, or the off-screen is creating its own narrative. Art is not just about what you see, but what you don’t show—how it evokes what is unseen. It’s easy to show things, but does it evoke anything outside that? I think that’s the difference between good cinema and ordinary cinema.
People say that my first film is esoteric, abstract. At least in the first viewing they don’t get the links between the characters. Of course, the links are very clear in my head. I want to make a film like a piece of music, which changes depending on the number of times you listen to it.
Did you work on the screenplay yourself?
Yes. I like to adapt. I’m not a writer, but I’m a film-maker and I can imagine how it’ll unfold on screen. And I don’t think I want to leave it up to anyone else to imagine that. Writing a screenplay is writing the film, in a way. And then when you start to shoot the film, it takes a totally different dimension.
My teacher Mani Kaul used to say that what you shoot should have nothing to do with what you write in your script, and what you edit should have nothing to do with what you’ve shot. He said you write scripts to basically raise funding. He used to joke about how he submitted Siddeshwari (1990) to Films Division as a two-page script. He was told that it was too short, so he asked his secretary to type it again with three-line spacing, which made it 10 pages long.
A key element of Anhey Ghorey was its sound mix. Chauthi Koot’s trailer suggests that similar care has been taken in this film. How do you approach this part of the process?
The relationship between the image on the screen and the sound that’s on screen and off, that is for me the most fascinating aspect of cinema. Not many people pay attention to sound, cinema is largely seen as a visual medium. In popular cinema they hardly use any ambient sound. (Robert) Bresson used to use a very beautiful term: relay. He said that like a racer passes a baton to another, the image passes the baton on to the sound, and then back.
The process starts with the script. What you’ve written gives you an idea of what all possible sounds it can generate in the scene. There’s a scene in the film with a procession. The script will say just that—but you know there’ll be chatting and singing, the sound of the tractors and the passing traffic. Sound has to become music, and vice versa. That’s what I told my composer. If it’s music, then it imposes its medium on the cinema.
You and cinematographer Satya Rai Nagpaul have developed a very specific visual aesthetic over the course of two films. Tell us about your collaboration.
I don’t discuss too much of visual scheme beforehand. There’s not much to discuss before we go to the location. We work very spontaneously once we’re there. A lot of directors do storyboards but I don’t use them at all. That’s the worst, they just kill the spontaneity.
With Satya, I normally discuss the lighting, which is the most important thing for me; precise movements and composition we discuss once we take the shot. Now we have a good sync, so he’s able to anticipate what kind of composition I’m looking at, or what will be the angle of the shot. But normally I give him the input of where to put the camera and his job is to create that mood and feeling with light. You can say that I do a sketch and he’s the painter.
Do you show him films as reference points?
I normally don’t show much, but sometimes I’ll share a film or two. Like before this film I shared Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon A Time In Anatolia with him. I feel spiritually close to Ceylan, among the contemporary film-makers. For Anhey Ghorey, I showed him a Sri Lankan film, The Forsaken Land. That film opens with a pre-dawn sequence, which is how my film was also going to begin.
Are you working with a non-professional cast, as you did in your first film?
It’s a mix. This time, the casting was done in Amritsar, so there are a lot of people from the theatre scene there. Amritsar has a very rich theatre tradition actually; it doesn’t travel much, but within Amritsar there are lots of theatre groups, with some very talented people.
Four years after its release, how is Anhey Ghorey viewed in Punjab?
The film has had a lot of influence in Punjab, especially on the young film-makers. Young people are actually learning film-making from it. After it released, it got on to the cable TV circuit. They show it on cable every week. It even shows in the villages. In fact, the people I worked with in the film told me: “When we were making it, we didn’t know the story. We didn’t know what to tell people, so we had to see it again and again. Now we understand the film totally.”
This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.