Walk in Between: A Cinematographer Reflects

Filmmaker Kumar Shahani talks about form, curiosity, continuity and the evolving technology of cinema

LILA: You work with different people as well as different technological instruments when creating a film. What starts as an idea in one person’s mind, spreads across these participants, and everybody works towards bringing that idea into being. When so many minds are working on a creative project, is there a unified or independent mind of cinema itself that emerges?

KS: That’s a huge question.

My entire work has been conditioned by the interest in culture that I fancied myself as belonging to. So my answer will naturally be limited or governed by the whole body of history, both personal and collective that has gone into questions which impinge upon the content of your question.

In my childhood, my greatest teacher was my mother. I refused to go to school. I was a milksop. She knew how to read and write two languages, Gurmukhi and Sindhi, but she could follow many more languages which were spoken around. The two which were spoken around a lot were English and Urdu; and later Marathi and Gujarati. All these languages in a sense began to form me.

I was at the end of a long line of children that she had.I didn’t go to school, but I was keen, like every child, to learn things. Not only my mother but my elder brothers, their wives and children, and the people living around were constantly giving me a sense of curiosity about things. So that was itself a very formative thing in my own notion of what the mind might be. This was along with the disruption of partition, which took place as I was growing up. So, if you ask me what my mother tongue is, I won’t be able to tell you. I respect all languages in the world. I regret, of course, not having one mother tongue, but I don’t have one and I have to accept that.

In a sense, for me, the major reason to make films was to be able to express with the same intensity, my inner feelings, my objective view of the world, and everything else, through a language that I would develop myself. Much later I discovered that a lot of people who go into the cinema actually go there for the same reason. They are displaced people, like I was, but passionately interested in suffering through the trauma of being a filmmaker. This includes people like Chaplin, Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, or a whole lot of people in French cinema – because in a sense, French cinema was funded initially by the aristocrats of the Soviet Revolution who had to come away. So there was a proper exchange in France, and therefore French cinema is quite extraordinary. And much of American cinema is cinema by refugees and for refugees. So what is autobiographical in this sense is also very historically true of collectives. I was looking to develop something that gives you insights into the mind. Not merely something which mirrors the world.

LILA: Your own work is well known for its aesthetics. Can you tell us a little more about your ideas and views on aesthetics and form?

KS: Yes, some people have been calling me India’s first formalist filmmaker. I can’t judge that statement, but I do believe in a total unity of form and content, that which works only through a realistic mode of copying reality. I am also a realist of sorts. But a realist in the sense of Proust or James Joyce, not in the sense of Zola or Prem Chand. So, looking at relational things in reality. I am interested in all modes that you can think of, in figures of speech, in music, etc. For example, in Khayal you have Murki and Khatka, which are not allowed technically in Dhrupad. On the other hand, Murchanas are allowed in Dhrupad, not in Khayal. But I am interested in both. And I am most interested in the form which is in between, called Khayal numa (performed by the Gwalior Gharana, that I know of). I’ve been able to create something like that in my film, The Bamboo Flute(2000).

LILA: You have said before that you are trying to understand this kind of continuity, and at the same time you are trying to find modular ways of understanding things. What was it that you were trying to do back then, because it wasn’t something that was appreciated or understood by Indian critics and audiences, even as it gained high recognition in the international sphere? Was there a novelty or change that you were trying to bring to the Indian space?

KS: Yes, it was a change so that we can create in such a way that it doesn’t exploit the viewer. Rather than trying to control the mind of a person, or a mass, it is addressing the person. Like, as we are speaking to each other now, I have no reason to believe that you are trying to control me, and I’m sure you have no reason to believe I am trying to control you. So I am very interested in that aspect.

Now, not only on film, but even through languages that have developed – like English, French, etc. – I am most concerned about loss of the subjunctive. Some people are really appreciative of this concern; others think it’s a purely formal concern. It is not. Because if the subjunctive is not there, there is no room for desire, wish, prayer or love. After I realised that, I tried with my little knowledge of languages to go back to Sanskrit, or to translation practices, and to look at the popular level as well as the innovations that are being made, and see how the human capacities of the mind are not attacked, but elaborated. And it’s a horror to say so, but there are more modes of expression in the tribal and classical languages, than in the language of today. It’s horrible to have to come to know that. In fact, now I want to move towards that study. I don’t have much time left in my life, but I’ve got to do this. It’s a pressure to try and let all modes of expression exist, which are outside of violence – that means they are not raping and killing but yet allowing the deepest anguish and aggression to exist, which are there in human nature. For our survival and for the survival of civility of any kind, it is necessary that we let all these modes of expression be there and expand them. So that is the main concern.

For me, that is what is spiritual, that is what got me to have the gurus that I’ve had, like (Damodar Dharmananda) Kosambi, Ritwik da (Ghatak), (Robert) Bresson, etc. They have been my choice. None of them ever asked me to stick by a line. On the contrary, every time they would say you tell us what you think. I believe cinema is fantastic for that kind of dialogue. It can actually bring together, almost weave together, something from visual thought into music, and music into words, and words into something else. My whole thought process is like that. When we come together – the sound recordist, the cameramen, etc., and the technologies, the changing ones – we try to get that kind of movement, perpetual change, and something which is very much made of the moment, is transient, but is immortal, too. That is what photography is about.

LILA: When you talk about this, of all the people coming together and bringing something like this about, working in that transient mode of organically collaborating with each other, is there some kind of insight that you can give into human collaboration? What is the approach that you bring when you are working with so many minds and trying to build something which is meaningful?

KS: It is a very strange thing, but you have to sometimes spend a lot of time with your collaborators. One would spend time together doing nothing, because it is not only linguistic, one has to sense it. I very strongly believe in synaesthesia. I have no way of proving it, but I do not look at anything or smell anything or speak about anything as just that concrete thing. I do not believe that this green does not have any other resonance. I believe it has resonances not only in terms of the senses, but each sense then develops a kind of autonomous structure, like music, for example. Music is an autonomous structure. On its own it may lead to further melodic, or further harmonic elaborations.

In France, when I was researching the Amrita Sher-Gil project, I met a number of her lovers and colleagues. Some of them had not seen quite a lot of her work, so we were carrying cards. When they saw the card, they discussed colour for hours. That culture is what we have inherited, and when we go into the cinema, we have all of it. Not just the technology that is there at the moment – most of it is digital now, and that also changes every hour–but it is all that which is coming in.

LILA: Is there a way to train people to think, engage and understand their craft like this?

KS: I want to. I wanted to have a school/centre for advanced studies, where all these questions are at the centre, and they can be approached from any discipline – like anthropology, neurophysiology, etc. Immediately I can see that in anthropology Claude Levi-Strauss has done some of that kind of work, like in one of his books called ‘The Raw and the Cooked’. In neurophysiology, my brother Manik Shahani has done such work. Some books on evolution have been very significant as they tell you how, through the use of the senses the development of the senses took place. For example, initially only the inner senses develop – like the inner ear, the inner eye, etc. Then, through contact, and also the need to escape from the predator, the vision develops to a certain extent, and then there is a regression. In fact, I would consider that some of the great steps inevitably involve a regression. Like the rational mind at different times feels that every change is not knowable. So there was no idea of a continuum in the West, until Einstein came along, perhaps, Partly, this made us know and understand reality well in a visual sense, like from the Renaissance to the Cubism, but partly, it suppressed the idea that actually the mind is capable of converting reality into a continuum; that there is an array. So there is a possibility of musicality in the visual and the visual in musicality. But it is a different kind of musicality, not just interposed or positioned with visuality. Like in music, you have counterpoint, which is simply a spatial way of describing temporality. Actually you must go beyond counterpoint. Once you go to something beyond it, then you would have to think about it in a different way altogether. For instance, I don’t know how else I could have talked to you about how I can leave something in visuality and then get into another mode. Obviously the only way we have at the moment to talk about
this is formal. Maybe in future there will be names given which will absorb the entire content of multi-dimensionality.

LILA: It seems like in the larger ecosystem of thinkers and people engaged in art or craft, or anything else that they are doing, there is an uneven balance, which is not favouring this sort of thought or practice. Is there something we can do to bring that out more? Like the school you wanted to open, for instance. What is the way to do this?

KS: Historically, yes, I believe it is possible. And also through evolution –from the amoebae, or a single-cell being, to a multiple cellular being – it seems evident that we should carry on with this effort, otherwise life is not worth living. The problem is that there is a kind of entropy which we have entered. So there is not only minor regression, which is usually helpful, but there are major regressions. The most significant regression in our region and our times, I think, is the fact that profit motive has become the only motive, so the suppression of any civility is now the most applauded thing. If you are civil, you are considered a loser. That is something I don’t know how to counter.

Actually, in a sense, I am more worried about the children now. I have seen how far these negative forces can go in many little episodes. They can go too far. After all, I have lived through very violent times. When I was born, Hitler was ruling Germany and I can assure you that there are far greater monsters than him even in our country. I sometimes have had the misfortune of even shaking their hands. So there is that, and if I don’t recognise it, it will be almost immoral in the larger context. I can’t believe that just because a man is a man, a woman is a woman, a person is in a suit or in a dhoti, that they are different. We have to overcome all these issues around class, gender, race, etc. I think it is just ridiculous that we are still trapped in them. I know that I can’t do anything much about it, nor can you, nor can a lot of people who say that they can. So how does one go about it? It is through one’s ability to work and collaborate. You need to call upon other people to help you through it. The unfortunate part is that I have been fortunate enough to have people to call upon. But how can I say it, for example, to my student who is not getting the opportunities?

LILA: As we talk about the staccato way of looking at reality, we realise how deeply ingrained that is in the present time. Even as technology has made possible things we couldn’t have even imagined some years ago, it has also in a way furthered or deepened the staccato mode of thought – for instance, with its limitations in the form of presets. Now that we have come this far with technology, is there a way to take it forward through the human intervention of innovation?

KS: Kodak was here recently. They announced that they are coming back. Tacita Dean, who is a wonderful artist, and Christopher Nolan, who is a wonderful artist in his own sphere, both of them have convinced Kodak to come back. They have done a lot of homework, and I too want to help. I am hoping that we will together be able to understand the dimensions of what the digital can bring to the photo chemical and vice versa.

Normally people, under the rubric of progress or generation gap… I have never believed in generation gap. That’s how I got along so well with my gurus. They were my friends and treated me with utmost respect. Kosambi I can understand, because he was in Pune, starved of film, and I was a bright student there and I would invite him over. Bresson, for whom I was a stranger, used to drop me at my home after the shooting. He was a much older man, but he went out of his way to be extremely gracious. So I feel that ifI have had these opportunities, I would like to bring them to the younger people. And of course, it always meant the coming together of the latest with the ancient, almost. Because in all these three cases –for example, Ritwik went to the Oraon tribe and lived with them, much of his cinema has grown out of that contact; Bresson who was a devout Christian, would trace his form of Christianity at least to St. Augustine, the early Christian saint, who was peripatetic like the Sufis and has a lot of that influence (the Sufis has further learnt from the Buddha); Kosambi, of course, took me to the other part of the hill (in Pune), where he showed me the very origins of civilisation. So that is my approach. In every case it is like that, and that is what we should try to bring here also.

Like, I was reading a book on evolution called ‘The Inner Fish’, which my brother had not given to me, but I had picked it up somewhere. I jumped out of wherever I was as soon as I saw a sentence that said cells in our body which perceive colour can re-purpose themselves to perceive smell. Just one sentence, and I jumped out thinking “My God, so wonderful!”And this is something I sense all the time.

There was a guy I knew called Harmit, very curious chap. Once he told me that his father used to talk about how C.V. Raman had thought that his mathematical explanations, trying to understand the nature of light and colour, would have led him to understand that vegetation should have been red, like blood. So I said “saala, mujhe bataya nahi itne din!” (All these days, and you never mentioned this!), and he said “but I have no more information.” I would try and tell him “why did you not investigate further? Red is also the complimentary of green. So why did it acquire this other colour when all the mathematical equations are leading to that one?” He said “I have no idea.” Neither did his father tell him, nor did C.V. Raman leave any clue. So sometimes I try to ask other people why it has happened like this. I have not yet received an answer. Similarly, about all the senses. There are these mysterious things which sometime or the other people give up investigating further, out of sheer frustration. But that is what keeps us going, that frustration. “I’m intuiting it, but I’m not able to do it. Why is that?” But that frustration then becomes unbearable when, by and large, people think your thinking is outrageous and that you are not a practical man.

LILA: So how do we convince people to be open to ideas that don’t necessarily align with their thought process? Our education system today is more focused on ticking certain checkboxes instead of nurturing a sense of curiosity of the mind. How do we bring that kind of training into the educational and public spaces today?

KS: It is becoming very tough. One has to just keep at it, I guess. Recently for instance, somebody had expressed interest from another area of India to set up an advanced studies centre. So I went and lived with them, and I discovered that even at the primary school level, people are thinking of setting up something where children can have their own mind. I was very glad to see that. But they said there is a lot of resistance from the parents. They only want those ticks. So I came back feeling very depressed. Because, if the adults can’t even wonder at this fantastic capacity of children to play with all these senses, to play with words, images, gestures and everything, then how the hell are they going to begin to show support as a community? If all of Delhi decides not to breathe good air, we could never have. If all of America decides Trump will be their President, what can we do? It is absurd. I am not able to understand this at all.

I started thinking about this long ago. I was watching a television debate between two important people – I think it was France or England, somewhere on that continent – the kind of debates that happen between contenders of power. Both of them were insulting the viewer, that is, their electorate; and both of them were asking for votes from them. One of them was eventually given votes. He went onto to become the Prime Minister or President (I can’t remember which country this was). But I thought, how can they do this? Why do you vote for a person like that? They should have rejected both of them, said we want something else.

There was a moment like that which I lived through, when people actually did that, in May 1968. I was in that demonstration in Paris. All leaders had wanted to join that procession, and all of them were told to walk at the end. They had to. At that time Charles de Gaulle was ruling France, and had run away to find refuge in Austria or Germany or something. That swine – he was a great hero of the Second World War – had called a student leader,Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a German Jew. So we did a demonstration where we said we are all German Jews.

LILA: What was it about that time or that space that made something like this happen?

KS: Well, one of the great things was the courage that Vietnam had shown, which infused everybody with hope for change. There were also other things. There was a crisis which was global, though it was located in Vietnam. People like Chomsky and others have analysed that crisis very well – Why did Vietnam win? It did not win in a conventional way. It won in a totally unconventional way – America had to withdraw – and it was just their second war of independence from global forces. But, viewed from today’s perspective, it is obviously the failure of the global system to sustain whatever this form of economy is. I don’t even know what to call it, it’s so ugly. It doesn’t deserve the name of capitalism, because capitalism was great. The most important thing it brought about for me, as an artist, poet, filmmaker, is it opened out this idea of transcending race, gender, etc. and privilege the anonymous relationship, after a long time. The only time it may have been so earlier, from what little I know of history, is the Buddhist times. I think the Buddha’s message was very strong. It was probably stronger than that of capitalism, because it asked you to respect all life, animals and trees included. Whether he himself did it or not, I don’t know, but certainly Buddhist art does it. For me, it’s the greatest art. Not in a fossilised way, but in a way that it carries values of transience, for example, and individuation and so on; things that I would love to work with. I think in the best of Buddhist art, each leaf has a being of its own in a tree.

LILA: How can cinema contribute to such thought, like Buddhist art has presented a metaphor or reference for us to bring these ideas into the discussion today?

KS: When you are looking at a film, or when you are constructing a film, you take into account all this, and question all of it; enter into a dialogue with it and let it enter into a dialogue with you. But, because of the profit motive being so important, that doesn’t happen. You don’t look at that or yourself, but at a transient, series of responses. So it works with a very fake kind of catharsis, most of the time.

It is really about purging yourself of reality and its relations, and love and everything positive, instead of purging yourself of pity and fear. And I think this is possible, because there’s a whole lot of things that people have tried since.

LILA: How do you view the re-introduction of Ektachrome in this context? Do you see that playing a role in developing such a practice?

KS: Yes. I am in fact trying to find out the nature of bonding between chemicals, and molecular bonding, which supposedly makes Kodachrome and Ektachrome better. I have asked a few people, but they have not yet come up with a good enough reply. Maybe I’ll ask Kodak themselves, because they will have all the information. See, that’s another problem. When Kodak was sort of receding into its shell, I went and met their technicians, along with my cameraman, K.K. That time, they would not even admit what I knew, because they had to transit to the digital. So they said, “no, no, digital is as good in resolution etc.” The point is not resolution alone. It is our neuro-system that responds. Ultimately that is what has to matter. So even when I will know the molecular bonding and soon, I have to go beyond that. And then, once I go beyond it, I will not look for a literal translation mode from a chromatic scale to the non-existent scale of smell, for example, perfume. There is no way. It cannot be a literal one-to-one thing. There is no dictionary; there are sets of relations. But, for example, once something develops an autonomous being of its own, and has taken off to some other level of abstraction, people become resistant towards that.

Once I told a group of European tourists, amongst them were musicians, that in our musical system we don’t have a tonic, we have a shadj. It makes a vast difference of shrutis and murkis and gamaks and everything else. So the content naturally changes. And they accepted it, because I’m an Indian. Then, some dancers and sangeetkars (musicians), singers came there, and they told them that shadji is a tonic. So I said, how can I argue against it?They are the practitioners, they know definitely more than me. I’m not a practitioner of music, but my musician gurus told me that shadj is not this –it’s not A B C D E F. And both systems have validity. That’s how they create whatever they have created. If one has these misunderstandings, they are very deep misunderstandings.

So what happens is that Chinese musicians living outside of China, for example, were beginning to accept the notion that their music is atonal, which is not at all the case. It is multi tonal! So it is absurd. And when you say that we are A B C D, you are rejecting thousands of years of an autonomy, which our music had developed here.

Recently, a year or two ago, an American was speaking Sanskrit very well, more than I can ever aim to do. He enunciated it very well. He read out a passage from Abhinavagupta and said that Abhinavagupta says we create one rasa at a time, and everything else is wrong. So I told him I’ve worked with some of our greatest musicians, actors; I am no mean filmmaker myself; I have even known painters who have been inspired by the Rasa theory; and I can tell you that no such thing exists. There is no rasa which can be created by itself. If you want to have any experience of rasa, you’ve got to think of all the rasas, at least two or three, being there simultaneously, to know first of all what rasa is. At the end of this talk, democratically of course, he said I hope we meet again but he stuck to that theory, and with the authority of Abhinavagupta. What does one do about such resistance? And whatever the system is, it’s backing them to the hilt, so what can one do?

Knowledge is power, and our intention is to bring the power to you. We have initiated a thought movement that aims to strengthen democracy by bringing to you direct voices of important trailblazers and pathmakers, and reclaim deep and patient reflection as an important seed for relevant and sustainable action! Help us take this movement forward. Support Inter-Actions today for as little as Rs. 100.
Donation to LILA is eligible for tax exemption u/s 80 G (5) (VI) of the Income Tax Act 1961 vide order no. NQ CIT (E) 6139 DEL-LE25902-16032015 dated 16/03/2015