Kesang Tseten, is a filmmaker and writer based in Kathmandu, Nepal. He wrote and co-directed ‘Listen to the Wind’ with Tsering Rhitar, a fictional short for teenagers. His original screenplay, ‘Mukundo’ (Mask of Desire), co-produced by NHK/Japan was Nepal’s official selection to the Academy Awards (2001), and was also awarded the Best Script Award by the Nepal Motion Pictures Association. He wrote the screenplay of ‘Karma’ in 2004. ‘Yudha Chitra’ (Frames of War), with co-director Prem B. K., won the Best Film in the Nepal Panorama section of the Kathmandu International Mountain Film Festival ’08. His most recent film ‘In Search of the Riyal’ is about Nepal migrant workers in the Gulf. His films have won several national and international award. His stories have also appeared in anthologies, such as An Other Voice: English Writing from Nepal, which he also co-edited, and Secret Places, New Writing from Nepal in Manoa, published by the University of Hawaii.
Samina Mishra is a documentary filmmaker and writer based in New Delhi. Her work includes ‘The House on Gulmohar Avenue’, a film that traces the filmmaker’s personal journey to understand what it can mean to be a Muslim in India today, ‘Stories of Girlhood’, a series of three films on the experiences of being a girl child in India, ‘Hina in the Old City’, a photographic book for children on the Walled City of Delhi and ‘Home and Away’, a multi-media exhibition on British Asian children in London.
The following conversation took place at Persistence resistance, Delhi in 2010.
Samina Mishra’s introduction to the session
Let me start by saying that Kesang’s films to me are about human stories that reflect ideas, and not the other way round. It seems to me that he is interested in the stories and so the ideas that come out through them. In many ways they are not just a single idea, but also perhaps a more complex web of ideas.
Often I think documentary films begin the other way round – there is an idea that spurs the filmmaker to look for a story to talk about that idea, and perhaps it is also that way for you, maybe sometimes. However, as a viewer when I am watching Kesang’s films, I’m completely engrossed in the stories and the lives on screen, and the ideas come to me through that, so it is this layered way of telling the story that I think is quite important.
In terms of subjects for the films, I think his work reflects a concern with what I am going to call the fragility of the human emotional landscape. There is an engagement with ideas of growing up and childhood, and memory of loss and making connections. We Homes Chaps is a very clear account of all of these, but even in other films like We Corner People and In Frames of War these ideas can be seen.
In We Corner People for example, there is a story of a girl who is washed away by a flooding river and of connections that emerge from living this life and from the building of the bridge. In Frames of War again there is loss that connects, but also the hope of building new connections through the traveling exhibition of photographs from Nepal’s long years of armed conflict. In Listen to the Wind, which is a fiction film, he deals with the fragility of adolescence and encounters in childhood, which goes on to shape lives. Even as Kesang looks at the inner lives of the characters in his films, he also looks at the collective.
However there are larger ideas: like History, Colonialism, Identity and Development in his work that shape what the collective experiences. I think what his work manages to achieve is a balance between the individual story and how that can resonate for the collective. Achieving this balance is not easy and nor is the resonance a simple one. It can mean different things and be different things to different people.
I think Kesang’s work is actually concerned with that difficult edge that makes human choices and actions grey and complicated and not easily explainable in a linear cause and effect way: and so completely human. He looks for those grey areas and looks at those grey areas and he does it with an extremely gentle gaze that allows the viewer to experience that difficult edge in a very sensory way. We all have a difficult edge in our lives and I think his work touches that part of us, and then therefore resonates for us.
So, let me start with this: How did you really come to documentary film making, especially because you say you only started that in 1999?
Kesang Tseten: I tried to be a writer. I was a writer or at least, I called myself a writer, and spent eight years writing a book that finally didn’t even get published. I generally tend to respond to questions by often looking at the circumstance of situations. I feel that the surface is as important as the essence as there is no real difference between surface and essence. Therefore circumstantially, when my book didn’t get published and I was asked to make two little films- Lechas of Sikkim and the Nagas of Nagaland, I agreed to it not knowing exactly what it entailed and believing that I had roped in someone who knew more about films than I did.
So off we went and did these films in Sikkim and Nagaland, with absolutely no idea what we were doing and the films came out, in a manner of speaking, simply as films – they had a beginning, middle and end.
A few years and a few films later , I continued to do this. But perhaps now, I have some sense and some sort of clarity of intention and an effort in being deliberate towards what I was trying to do.
So, it was really circumstantial that I began making films, as I reached a dead end in my other pursuit of writing, and then the chance came to me, and so I made films.
Samina Mishra: So when you started, or even now, do you follow your instinct about a hidden story, or is it an idea that spurs you? Or, is there a bit of both? Is it wrong for you to make these distinct compartments?
Kesang Tseten: It’s not wrong, but it is hard to differentiate between what an idea is and what an instinct is. An instinct perhaps is a lesser-developed idea. To be very honest, some of the films that I made were commissioned; somebody asked if I would you make a film and I did, and I don’t feel any shame in saying that.
I feel that I have a job, just like anybody else, and my job offers me a certain privileges. To me if there’s any creativity, it is to do with the given. And what are you given? You are given the constraints, and you have to see how you treat it. So I don’t really talk about films that are close to my heart and so on.
Some films are close to my heart but I tend to be more circumstantial and matter of fact in my responses on why I do a certain film. In reality, some films were commissioned but that doesn’t mean the commissioner scripted the films, or that I didn’t put my heart into it, or find out how I wanted to personally create that work.
Samina Mishra: In that process, because your story telling is quite layered, even when its a commissioned film, how do you go about making it yours?
Kesang Tseten: In the film called We Corner People, a development organization asked me to make a film about a suspension bridge that was being made in a village. For about a year, I didn’t want to do it because they had built 3000 of such bridges.
Now when one talks about documentary practice, I think, in a sense, we’re cousins of journalism. But again, that really depends on how we do our films. So we try to do something that is unique, and find a bridge that is the shortest or the tallest or the most bizarre in someway. In this case, I very much hesitated to do the film because 3000 bridges had been built and I was thinking- how do I make a film about the three thousand and first bridge?
At the end, however, to sustain my livelihood and so forth, I agreed to make it and went to the village. As it happens in reality, when you sit in a bus and make conversation with the person next to you, something happens which is always new, something totally unaccounted. And that is what happened to me.
In a sense, depending on where you’re speaking from, once you travel to a village that is a day and a half away and you realize that specifics are different, just like the person sitting next to you on the bus.
So I thought, well, let’s see what happens. Deep within, you have a feeling that something will develop. When I went there for the first time, we asked the routine questions – why are you building the bridge? What’s it for? What are its benefits? etc. The idea was just to capture the conventional thing. Then you look for the so-called layering, if that’s what it is.
In that first meeting, I overheard someone saying that a girl was swept away in a flood and that’s why the bridge was needed. This created an unconscious impression on me and I took a mental footnote of that the story.
The second time I went there, the filming, as it happens in such projects, had some constraints. The village was far away and the bridge was being built in a certain formatted manner- Stage one, stage two, and so on and so we had to go with the organization that was helping to build the bridge.
However I accept those constraints completely; in fact, I am happy that I had them because within these constraints, you can eliminate certain choices and look for possible avenues of your own.
The second time it came up, that the river had struck the girl, I thought – Okay, now I’ve got a film! Because besides what might come about in the building of the bridge and knowing the people in the village, there was no element in it. And I thought that the story of a bridge coming to a village might be a profound thing in reality, but in form and story, it doesn’t necessarily work. There is a difference between reality and representation of reality I think, and in films or stories what we are try to do is to stylize and confine this representation so that it has a shape and so that there’s compression and revelation through which some kind of meaning that comes out.
I felt that I was in good position to tell the story because there’s a person who died, a person who she was close to, there were people who have been affected, and this gave me the confidence that this village is not just a village that’s getting a bridge. Something happened to somebody, some emotion resides in some individuals, and that’s where I felt the film came alive.
The rest of the idea was to try to interweave and balance the collective, because we live in a century where we think- So what, if a bridge is coming to a village; it’s the 3000 and first one. But for the village folk, it is important, so I wanted to try and look for ways to decentralize myself.
Before I make a film, I live a certain way and I’m located in a certain place. In embarking on a film, how do I question or alter that? Do I trigger a change in looking at the situation?
And so the story of a person dying, which you might see as a report in the newspaper, might be met with “Oh a bus falls down the road every second day, or someone is swept by a flood every second day”, but for me, my encounter with this began to change this attitude, and I decided to take on a different task at hand.
Samina Mishra: In the film, ‘We Corner People’, we hear the story of the girl who got swept away many times – once in the opening, where its just mentioned through the people recounting it that establishes their connection to it, and you follow it up through the course of the film. Is the individual story of the girl getting swept away or even the memory of that incident, also an attempt of connecting that to the collective?
Kesang Tseten: It’s a story because we were talking about an impoverished village that needs a bridge but what’s more compelling or what brings more sympathy is seeing somebody who dies because of a bridge, rather than the benefits from it and this of course, means a lot. There are, no doubt, clear advantages for the village- they can take their animals up to that part of the land, when it rains, they don’t have to detour for four hours and so on; but again in film and in representation, we are bombarded with so many situations that are sad, that it doesn’t affect one anymore. So, I think the filmmaker must look for the emotion residing in the story.
Also, this village is very poor. They were impoverished and there is this moment in the film when a woman comes into the stream where she was bathing and then suddenly she started to throw things on her hair and threw off her shoes and so forth. To me, that gave the sense of a village that was not only poor but also had fear of death with the floods. It was a fact that they don’t have many advantages and to top it all, they feared nature. We see the moment where it turned out that 60% of the village converted to Christianity, It gives one a sense of their vulnerability. They are the people who have borne an onslaught of many kinds- from nature, ideology, to the lack of resources. So in that sense, it’s quite apparent that the would be overwhelmed by something as emotional as a young girl being swept away by the river.
Samina Mishra: Is there an intent behind why we hear this story so many times? Was it included because you wanted it to work as a kind of a reminder? Or, is it that you’re trying to make a connection by opening out that one story to the larger body?
Kesang Tseten: We do hear the story many times, but we always hear it from a different perspective. There is a circumstance in which the girl died and that’s obviously important for the person whose wife she was, particularly as they were shifting to a new house. Imagine, they were dancing and partying and then suddenly, a flash flood came.
All this partying was happening in a village where there were 60% Christians and there was no work. It was far from any tourist trekking trail and while the party is going on, this girl disappears because she is on the wrong side of the river. So the story does develop in the sense that even though there is no dramatic quality in the story, there is an emotional quality depending on who’s telling it.
This is again, I think, what I wanted to do, which was to try and get it to the level of the people of that place and show it in the way that they see the incident. For me, in a sense that incident and the culture there reflect the belief that there are spirits in the rivers, and that they can haunt people and so forth. The image that I have of this village is one that is sort of haunted by the death of the girl, and the practicality of building a bridge in a way, salvages the village and wards off the spirit.
Samina Mishra: It’s a film about how a bridge can bring change and is sort of a development idea, and still you include the conflict in the process of bridge making in your film. You also show the conversion to Christianity in detail. Why was it important to show those layers?
Kesang Tseten: What you put in the film is obviously what moves you in real life. A film to me is just putting out what reaches out to you, onto the screen. That’s why, I sort of object to the division of words like visual as opposed to something else. You are sitting in front of me – that is not merely a visual that I am encountering – it is something much more than a visual. Of course there is a discipline with the aesthetics of visuals and all that, but for me its what affects me in real life and I would, obviously, choose to put it in my film.
So the conflict was there, and there is always an argument that goes on inside your head on why you choose to put something in and what you leave out. We all have certain preconceptions, certain assumptions about life, about the village, about where we are, about others and so, in a way, there is always an argument and a counter argument.
There’s this village that’s receiving aid and the villagers come out to volunteer, when in fact they are too poor to even volunteer. so they end up contributing only about five percent, rather than the equal donor cum village partnership. The reality is different and I think of a line that is written by Shiva Naipaul, brother of V.S Naipaul, “The greatest respect you can bestow on people is to accept them with all their specificities”, and to me, that is a great guide.
You let whatever happens, happen. It’s your job as a filmmaker to try and make use of it rather than, saying that it doesn’t fit into my visual scheme. Why would anyone want to start with an idea that they will paint a pretty picture? You encounter whatever comes your way, and you’re lucky as a filmmaker to see some reality, which is conflict!
Samina Mishra: This is a question that is often asked to makers of documentary films: How do you start the process of interaction? How much research and preparation went into it and what kind of relationship do you need for it to work for you?
Kesang Tseten: That’s a very interesting question, because I have my views on it. It’s a little bit of what Gargi often says, that because in a sense documentary filmmakers are laden with this extra social purpose attached to them, they are often questioned.
I didn’t really go to film school and all that, and for a long time I don’t know how I made films, but my sense is that the real strength and the real uniqueness of the documentary is to capture actuality.
To capture it, it does not matter where the person is sitting, in his or her office, or at home. It doesn’t matter, because at that moment, just that particular quality of the voice, of that gesture that matters. That is what is really special of the documentary, I think.
I remember a conversation I had with Ranjan Palit, who was talking about some reservations as a documentary filmmaker. He said something to the effect that maybe, we all want to be fiction filmmakers and that’s why we are looking for images and forms that seem like fiction.
I thought about that and I realized that I am not really interested in that. I maybe interested in following the principles of fiction, in terms of dramatic elements, but I use actuality. Therefore I am not particularly good at it and I don’t particularly care for pretty visuals but it is really the story line. The story line here doesn’t mean just the story, in terms of the plot, but here it means the actuality of the moment. For me, that’s what is really interesting.
Maybe its just a different way perhaps, as some people might want to enhance reality and say that there is not real difference between documentary and fiction. That’s fine, and I do love some of that stuff as well. Errol Morris’ Thin Blue Line ,for instance, was wonderful; it opened my eyes to documentary.
But I particularly like the actuality of the situation and therefore I don’t really like to do much research; I don’t think its necessary. Because when you say “actuality”, then you’re sympathetic to them and all of that stuff. That for me is an extra curricular activity as a filmmaker. I think the encounter is really the most potentially yielding thing that the documentary situation awards to the filmmaker.
Audience Question: When you, as a filmmaker, choose your subject, how do you look for the dramatic in the story or the responses that are closer to fictional form and can very easily be scripted in the case of the latter?
Kesang Tseten: I don’t think I see it separately, essentially. Because when we film a documentary, as in the case of We Corner People, and moment I heard the story of the girl who was swept away, I immediately thought of it as potential a dramatic element. So as I see it, this is quite similar to the process that a scriptwriter goes through when he is thinks up situations in his own room.
But the only difference I see is that of the surface; the surface of the documentary is preoccupied with a situation that is embedded in a specific time and with a specific people. I think that’s where you might get something that is replicated in fiction, but in documentary, you’re not doing fiction, right? That’s where the true yield comes from.
In my mind I might have been worried, whether I was going to get a film or not, but in the process of filming, something happens and there’s a little gauge in your mind that’s tells you whether it is good, or bad. You also get to know when you get the flow. So you are not really scripting it but rather, responding to it, like a scriptwriter would, till you feel – Ah! there’s an element that can be used in the film!
Samina Mishra: So it is like your gaze is that of a scriptwriter and you’re attuned to looking, in that way. Is it?
Kesang Tseten: Well, your gaze is like that of a writer, of a storyteller, yes! But whether I’m a storyteller or not, I’m Kesang, a human being. My interests and my work and writing come from that, right? So when I encounter a situation like this, my interest is drawn, then is it drawn as a storywriter or as me? So you see, it’s not like I’m thinking in a formatted sense- to think like a scriptwriter. What I write about is also things that just interest me in real life, as I am. Maybe because as I am, I’m interested in those things, whatever they are. And then you think –oh! How would this fit into a film?
You need a body, you need images, and you need a manifesto of things that is going to be firm, or captured on audio or video. But what you are really looking for is something that will provide you with a pulse, which will change the configuration of that work.
So when you say that you’re going to do a film on a bridge, then obviously you have to ask what the purpose of this bridge is and so forth. But, you also find out about other things that are being said, and that may mean something to them, but might not be profound to you. If someone says, for instance that because of this bridge, they don’t have to walk an extra four hours – for us hearing it doesn’t really create any impact. I think that’s just the way we hear or view anything. Even in a regular conversation, your attention is only perked up at times, otherwise it is on a passive mode or a cruise mode. But when you hear that being said, you think- “Oh! Right!”
Audience Question: You mentioned that you did not script the story beforehand, how then did you put the story together? Was it just footage that you formally structured at the editing stage or, did you write a script as you filmed?
Kesang Tseten: When I said I didn’t prescript it, it meant that until I heard the story, it was not scripted. But once I heard the story of the girl, I began scripting it and therefore I went looking for those views and stories. When I went to investigate the issue of the bridge people obviously didn’t come forward on their own to narrate the incident of this girl’s death. So I had to excavate that story. In that sense the script was being written in the process of forming that story, as well as, during the process of filming.
Samina Mishra: What exactly do you mean by research?
Kesang Tseten: By research I mean, spending a month in advance in the village, finding the contours of the village, talking to people and seeing who later on, with the camera crew will let you shoot. That’s what I mean by research. I didn’t do any “research” per say. Following this thread, I went to the village and began filming.
Here is another very interesting element that became evident to me, which is that I try to film as a way of research. Because again the point of actuality is that you don’t know what you will get when you talk to whom. So obviously, you do make a decision by looking at what all is potentially worthwhile. It’s like casting a safety net as wide as possible, and filming and looking for the matter, as it exists.
I think the important thing is not make the mistake of diffusing potentially interesting situations and emotions, because you just can’t get it back. This to me is the crucial difference between enactment or a fiction film and a documentary.
I’m not saying that one is superior and the other is inferior, but in doing documentary, what I want is to try and capture the pieces of actuality. The first time is as good as the second time, just as in real life.
Say when we meet, our relationship takes on a certain form. There’s no seniority whether you say something three weeks ago or later; there’s no value to what someone might say on the first day as opposed to the fifth day of knowing him or her. Sometimes, no new information is exchanged when you know people for a long time. There’s no hierarchy in terms of what you get based on how long you know somebody.
Especially if a documentary deals with doubt, or perhaps has to do with a non-conclusive conclusion, then it seems as if you are interfering with your process of research and going to the villages, getting to know them and then suddenly going with the camera and saying, oh, now we are going to shoot you!
Samina Mishra: A lot of films do happen in that way, maybe because we start the other way round. There is an idea, and then you are going out to look for a story, so your research often is about finding a story. Whereas what you are saying is that you just landed up there and waited for the story to happen.
Audience Question: Somehow I feel that the minute my attention is gets peaked, it becomes my story. And with this engagement, I might interfere with the process that the subjects of the documentary are going through. Every documentary filmmaker has that dilemma, where he wonders if he is just telling a story that is his or is he telling the story as it exists? So at what point can we say that what I am doing is really their story and I am just an observer to what is happening? Or do I need something that peaks my interest and then I can tell a story from that place?
Kesang Tseten: When I’m film something, I don’t see it that way- that it is their story and now it’s becoming my story. Literally speaking, it is their story, right? If they say something happened in the village then that’s their story.
I don’t think documentary filmmakers are ever neutral. I don’t mean it in terms of the values, but we are also responding to the situation at hand. I usually keep quiet and try not to interfere with the situation as much as possible, but as you suggest, you are already interfering with the situation, just by being there and choosing to film that particular thing.
But actively interfering is very different from responding. You are responding to the situations, which does not necessarily mean you are interfering. That is the only guide you have to make the form- to decide if you should shoot more or stop. Your only guide is your sense, which is absolutely not neutral and actually, it cannot be neutral.
Audience Question: My question is about the individual stories and the collective, so what spurred and drove the film, We Homes Chaps and how?
Kesang Tseten: This was a story that was waiting to happen. The story was already there; the film was also there, in the sense that everyone was so in love with the school. I know that everyone is fond of his or her school and everyone feels that their school is to be cherished. But I felt that the Homes guys were more in love with their school than anyone else was with theirs. I also had the experience that Homes was a very difficult place to grow up in. I don’t regret it because it was a very special place; I think difficult things are always special. I think it was so because people came from very difficult and broken and sad backgrounds. There was really a shame in it.
I think you have a very complex and special relationship with experiences that mark you, and generally experiences that mark you are the ones that impinge on your sense of identity. In a way, your own ego is drawn to your own self. This may sound like a lot of psychobabble but I felt there was this tremendous love but in a very edged relation to the school.
Therefore, I sensed that all I had to do was go there, take a crew, and though it was very early in years of filmmaking for me, I had the privilege of having some really good people there. It made me be myself because it can be really tricky, being in your own film. Of course, you are not sure how much you’re going to be in it, but it is certain that this is the story and you have to be in it. Once that decision was made, I think it was just a matter of again casting the net as wide as I can. So, the film really didn’t have to be made in a sense of the stories.
Sameena Mishra: There is a bittersweet mix of memory in ‘We Homes Chaps’. Were you already in that space or did it reveal it in the process?
Kesang Tseten: I think I was already in that space, and frankly speaking, I don’t think there is a huge difference when it comes to the other people. A lot of people feel the same way but it’s just a matter of having a slight degree of articulation and deciding that to know the nature of what you feel and where it is coming from. So maybe, the fact that I made the film or decided to make a representation of it means that I felt it was worth telling and that it would mean something.
Once the camera was put out to people, they all spoke in the same way, in their own words, of course. In the scene with class of 1971, you feel as though you are watching a confession or a session of some sort. They were all talking about love and how much they love their school; so obviously, it was already there in most people’s minds.
I think you do have some extreme people who later reacted to this film, for instance, with feelings that the image of their school and what it meant for them in their hearts was violated by the suggestions of this film that it was a cruel place. Not the place itself, but that our childhoods were difficult, and that the place had something to do with it.
So, is the film totally about the school? Not really, it’s also about the meaning created by you and your history in that school.
Samina Mishra: How did you pick the people?
Kesang Tseten: Well, I wrote to a few people and after one or two emails, I did not want to delve into “research”, as I mentioned earlier. So I just got a crew and went there. I didn’t originally mean for my brother and sister to be a part of the characters so to say, but they were sticking to us and they were there with us and so we filmed them as well.
What I feel is that lots of people who came back and lots of people who didn’t come back have that story, and it was just a question of circumstance. I just had to consider things like –who do you know with whom one can begin filming, how to begin filming without difficulty etc.. There are two or three people whom we interviewed but we didn’t use them in the final film. But otherwise, everything was very potent in terms of film material.
Samina Mishra: Was there anybody who wasn’t comfortable with the idea?
Kesang Tseten: There were some people who said they didn’t want to be filmed; but I think, they did want to talk and broach the subject. When they came back at the reunion, they came with a certain emotion and I think the emotion was about all the things that were there in the film. So I think anyone who has emotions, is dying for a chance for that conversation, to talk about those things.
Samina Mishra: What was it like to put yourself in your own film?
Kesang Tseten: During the filming, I felt the same as most of these people did. I felt the emotions they felt, and more or less to the same degree. But when we were editing, of course, issues came up and I didn’t want to be in the film that much . But that is of course, of a different order.
As long as your part of the reality that the camera was citing was real, then there’s nothing easier than being a part of things, in a way. Something is happening, and you are encountering it, you don’t have to rehearse, it’s as simple as that!
But in the making of it, you are constantly reconsider and think that don’t want to be a part of it because either you feel that you don’t look good or you don’t want to reveal yourself etc. At the end, hopefully, the filmmakers’ considerations emerge as the more dominant ones.
Samina Mishra: You knew in a sense when you started out with the film, that it would include all these things, right? How much did it actually change from what was in your head when you started out?
Kesang Tseten: It’s a complicated thing because the fact that I went to film it and decided that I would make a film at that level, I was sure that material of this kind would come out. But when you’re actually going through day by day, and deciding what to shoot or how to construct a certain thing, obviously, it becomes more confusing and you don’t quite know what to do.
It’s not like it was all heard before and it was just going to be a rehearsal. It’s just that you know enough to feel that there are things that are potent and in the air, in people’s minds, almost spoken.
The film is a form that completes the expectations, the completion of the idea of an unusual upbringing, an unusual place. Actually going and filming it gave that reality a form. Reality once given a form becomes an objective thing and when you give it a label, as objective things have, then it becomes better known to you.
Samina Mishra: One often feels sometimes, when you are in the process of following your instinct and your sense but only at the end when its all done and wrapped up, do you get a sense of what it is really all about. Does that happen to you?
Kesang Tseten: Absolutely, but in the process, you do begin to get a sense of the emotional terrain and the shape of it becomes evident fairly early on. It was very easy for people to start talking so you get a map of the terrain. Of course when you actually construct the piece, then you begin to know your terrain better and give it a shape with an intention of giving it a level of precision.
Audience Question: In this film, you do have a presence, but you are otherwise absent in all your other work. Why is that so?
Kesang Tseten: I think in the other films, for instance, On the Road with the Red God: Machhendranath, there is a huge cultural subject that we filmed, so really, I felt that there was no room for me, but there was room for me in the form of my eye! So it’s not really a personal view at all, but I don’t think there is any room or any emotionally reflected sense or relation to the festival that needs to be brought out. So in those cases, what we do is that we construct the film through our view of it, but we don’t have to be in it. But in We Homes Chaps, there was a need for it.
I didn’t feel that personally connected to any other film or any of the issues to be directly present as a role in them. Although every film is personal and that is problematic because when we say personal, we mean that there is some sort of inflexion of you in the film. So that distinction, I think, exists when you are bodily and emotionally involved and your objective position is also intricately related with the subject.
I think when I say personal as I talk about We Homes Chaps, I refer to the process of putting myself upfront as a part of the film, rather than my intellectual outlook and my ideas about the presentation of the subject.
Samina Mishra: Why didn’t you use your own voice in ‘On the Road With the Red God: Machchendranath’?
Kesang Tseten: Here again, I don’t think it’s a very personal film, because I think personal is not just your perspective, but where you stand in the make up of the film. I used that voice because I thought it was an easier way to access a kind of everyman who perhaps belongs more to the modern sector than the traditional devotes and so forth. I thought I wanted the perspective of someone who doesn’t know the festival, and who is not a devotee in the strict sense of the word.
I tried to read up several books on it and tried to understand the rituals but I understood very early on, that that was not the kind of film I could make or I wanted to make and that once again, what was on the surface was exciting enough.
Samina Mishra: Where does your interest in character driven narratives come from, and are you trying other forms of storytelling now?
Kesang Tseten: Everybody is interested in character driven narratives because that’s the classical way and that’s the effective way. Also, when you encounter a character so strong, the story is embodied in that character. However, I don’t think, I’m particularly only looking for that and I think you are lucky if you find a character that fits the bill.
In my film, In Search Of Riyal, many people were disappointed by the disruptions of the characters and so forth. I feel that each production of a film is very much constrained by its own circumstances.
In Machhendranath, the guru was the nerve centre of the jatra, and I had good access to him and so, he came in. In the case of the migrations to the gulf, it was impossible to stay with any character, or find one that was powerful enough; so that’s the way, the material shaped out to be.
It needn’t be that way; somebody else might have done it differently. They might have had a character, for instance, but my attitude on the subject was that it was really sociology in a way and lots of people want to go out and work, it involves thousands, millions and therefore, I didn’t look for a character and neither did I want to centre on one person to tell the story.
Samina Mishra: When you are working on a new idea, are you consciously striving towards or thinking of these things simultaneously or are you letting the material guide you?
Kesang Tseten: Definitely, the latter. There is nothing to think about until you encounter the subject or material. As we discussed earlier, as you film, things come up and you script it in a sense and shape the filming thenceforth.
In that sense, you are scripting it in very lose way and while thinking about it and you really are very imprisoned, at least I am. Maybe I am a bit of a passive filmmaker, but I go about trying to understand, at least on my level, especially the subjects that are external and political, which I don’t necessarily have a close affinity to. I just feel like capturing and hearing, and capturing and hearing, and seeing where the story might create some sort of rhythm or might add up to something larger than the individual parts.
Samina Mishra: Thank you so much, Kesang and we look forward to more interesting work from you in the future.