Supriyo Sen is a journalist turned independent filmmaker, an alumni of Berlinale Talent Campus, Supriyo Sen has produced and directed feature length documentaries like “Wait Until Death”, “The Nest”, “Way Back Home” and “Hope Dies Last in War”. His films have been widely screened in India and abroad and have won several national and international awards at film festivals including Amsterdam, Nyon, Berlin, Pusan, Yamagata and Mumbai. He has also received prestigious grants like the Sundance Documentary Fund, Jan Vrijman Fund of the International documentary Festival of Amsterdam, Asian Network of Documentary Award of the Pusan International Film Festival.
Ira Bhaskar is Associate Professor of Cinema Studies at The School of Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University. She has critical interests in “historical poetics” cinema and modern subjectivities, literature and film, and historical trauma, violence, memory, and representation. She has currently co-authored Islamicate Cultures of Bombay Cinema (Tulika Books, 2009) with Prof. Richard Allen of New York University.
The following conversation took place at Persistence Resistance, Delhi in 2010
Ira Bhaskar’s introduction to the Session
Supriyo Sen is a prolific filmmaker. He is also internationally acclaimed, and has won over 25 international awards. His films have been screened at various international film festivals and his projects have been funded by Sundance film festival, 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 short listed for production, with aid from German producers in Berlin. It’s a twelve-minute documentary called ‘Wagah’. With 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 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’ is 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 you have 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. We discovered that it was a huge tragedy where everyday people were dying and yet 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 rights of the people and the film was used as evidence.
It was a tragic story, but we (a team of four worked together) wanted to get over that tragedy and work on something in the same area. We knew the Patwas 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, is 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 framed painting, to decorate their drawing rooms. 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 in a way, we could relate to his crisis. We tried 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, society and even one’s own family. This man really inspired us to embark on this journey and relate ourselves with his identity and the crisis he was going through at that point of time.
Ira Bhaskar: 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 it given them a means of livelihood that has improved their situation or not?
Supriyo Sen: After ten years, I made another film, ‘Rupban the beautiful’ which is based 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 a very 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. Though they have settled down in this place for quite sometime, but they have this nomadic instinct and so they can accommodate according to the change in times, in themselves and in their art form.
Thus, after ten years, when I visited the same village; although I had 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, they retained their traditional form. It was a fascinating journey to observe and I might even end up making another film after ten years.
Ira Bhaskar: I wanted to ask you about the way Dukhushyam actually articulates his aesthetics; he talks about the vision of the artist and the conditions 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, in an attempt 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 very important – 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?
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?
Supriyo Sen: 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.
Ira Bhaskar: 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?
Supriyo Sen: 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 doesn’t know or doesn’t care about. He wanted to train these little kids with those songs so that he can pass them on in the pure form. For this, it was the third generation that he picked up, because the second generation was totally into the market economy, and so the later one wasn’t polluted, so to say. He tried to train them in the ancient authentic form, which only he knew.
Ira Bhaskar: In Rupban, I want to talk about women and gender and the role women play in the community, as they seemed to have been able to get together and consolidate the interests of the community.
Supriyo Sen: 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 prestige, people don’t regard them as artists anymore.
Especially the women; they had to run the kitchen and 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 a few 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 men didn’t have the patience to learn the art of the scroll painting. Also, they were given to drinking and other such stuff. Most of the women on the other hand had beautiful voices, and they also emerged as better performers than the men. In the city, they were times when 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. They even inspired the whole community of women to paint. Many of them were scared to travel to the city and 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.
Ira Bhaskar: 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 question of identity and if there was an existing problem of Hindu – Muslim identity?
Supriyo Sen: 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 has been 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 as well.
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.
Ira Bhaskar: I was quite fascinated with the conversation between the mother and the daughter at the end of the film, where the daughter tells her mother that the painting she had done was very beautiful and the mother says that she could do it as well, but the girl responds by saying- I can’t dare to paint like the Kali Ghat painters.
Here it seemed to me that there is a very self conscious way of painting. Perhaps their travels in Calcutta has introduced them to the Kali Ghat forms and Usman himself has had some connection with that form, right!
So there is a fluid movement between different styles. There is also an aesthetic sense of what their art is about. When you see the mother telling her how to make the painting better, or when the son is being taught the song, there’s a self-conscious dissemination, almost like creating a gharana.
Supriyo Sen: Now its almost as if they are creating a matriarchal gharana.
Ira Bhaskar: Exactly! They are destabilizing patriarchal traditions in terms of religion, and also in handing down art and tradition. But, I was also interested in what you said about continuing with this engagement and that you may make this film again.
Supriyo Sen: I have also been growing and you can see it in these two films. As a filmmaker, I am a completely different person when I approached this community after ten years.
I have also found this community to be so dynamic that after ten years, you definitely see 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.
Ira Bhaskar: 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 films, you have an engagement with the art form as a filmmaker, but here I also 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 narrate it?
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 well in ‘Way Back Home’ which comes out of a revisionist movement, where you move away from the official discourses to a 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.
Supriyo Sen: When I decided to be a filmmaker, I wanted to take my parents back 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. He took part in the ’42 movement and had some kind of left wing leaning also. The place where they lived, in East Pakistan, experienced the worse massacre in 1950; so he became quite cynical.
My mother on the other hand, used to tell me a lot of stories about the place. There were so many instances that 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 memory is one of a beautiful village and a culturally active and educated community. Yet, 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 father’s. When we decided to go, my father also joins us and the film juxtaposes these two narratives and these two experiences.
Ira Bhaskar: Those narratives are immediate and personal to both of them but there’s this other narrative that I call the narrative of space, which is the way your film or your camera explores and relates to the mise-en-scene of the landscape.
Also, memories and landscape play a very important role in your film 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, when 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?
Supriyo Sen: 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, where the camera becomes almost 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. Particularly in Bangladesh, it seemed like 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.
I always say that if you are very passionate, very serious, and very honest in documentary situations, then magic happens. But we never expected it to unfold so many significant interactions. A mere two-minute long interaction tells you so many things and takes the film on a different level; like the ones with 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.
Ira Bhaskar: The way in which the camera moves, it seems as if a duet is going on between you and your cameraman. Does Ranjan have a similar background? Is his family from East Bengalas well? 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 the sequence, when your mother is speaking about her memories, you use her words along with a song and your camera pans 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.
Supriyo Sen: He’s a sensitive artist, so he understands 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 while I was sleeping!
In a documentary, and 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 with, so that together we can create these kind of films. That level of collaboration is required for the level of impact I want to achieve with my films.
Ira Bhaskar: In interviews, you have spoken about how, in many instances, it was difficult for you to shoot openly and that you had to do clandestine shooting. Can you tell us- why that was so? What was the context in which that happened?
Supriyo Sen: I had been 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 16 mm, so we needed a big team of technicians. We formally applied for the permission and waited for one year, and then I realized that we would never get the permission.
Then the worst happened, the Hasina Government left and Jamat-e-Islam came into power; it was a horrible time for the Hindus there and we had riots. These riots are the low-grade riots. It’s not like the Gujarat riots. In this case, it’s always there but it will never erupt in the way the Gujarat Carnage did; it will always continually happen on the low. There is always tension, and it is very difficult for the minority community to live like this 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, killings, and threats. So, we couldn’t just enter there as 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. Ranjan did a fantastic job as a sound recordist. But I also didn’t want to stress that fact, because it’s a completely different journey.
Ira Bhaskar: Did the atmosphere affect your parents?
Supriyo Sen: Partially, because people were also very welcoming. Everywhere they went, they had some fantastic interactions, with both the young and the old. In the town hall in Bodishal, a meeting of a very hardcore religious organization was taking place and yet unexpectedly, they were still very welcoming to us. In fact, they even showed us around the town hall.
People were very friendly, one old person who looked like a Maulvi, came up to my father and told him that they still miss him. 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. There was something that made them build this bond amongst themselves. And although they had castesim and Hindus were really controlling the economy; there were relationships also, and that is what I wanted to explore.
Ira Bhaskar: In this film, there is a memory of your aunt, and from the very beginning your mother speaks of her and remembers her as if, similar to this yearning for home, there is a yearning for her lost sister, which is very deep.
It’s quite a spectacular moment when you find her daughter, even though she is no longer there. How did that happen?
Supriyo Sen: It was magic! I didn’t have any expectations when I went there. In my mothers’ village, although we were going there after fifty years, we could only spend seven hours because this was a very sensitive area. People had warned us not to stay there till late evening and so on.
We had heard that our aunt no longer lived there and that her people had moved far away from that particular place, but the people who were guiding us, gradually told me that they were living in a village close by.
So they took us to those villages, but we didn’t have any idea that this lady was actively involved in secular politics and has a certain kind of understanding of the whole thing. It happened like magic.
My 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; she was a beauty and a very good singer. When the partition happened and the whole family left that place, Komoli stayed back because marrying a muslim was considered a taboo, especially amongst the upper caste Hindus.
So when they left the village, they never got in touch with her for 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 that added to the drive to see her village. In a way, it was also a desire to see Komoli didi that took her on that journey.
Audience Question: I felt that the latter half of the narrative was very compressed and statement-like in comparison to the earlier more 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, I felt it took away from that language itself.
Supriyo Sen: 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. Imagine, I had just returned from Bangladesh where I saw the Hindu minority 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 even I 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 that simply into Hindu and Muslim.
Ira Bhaskar: In the film ‘Hope Dies last in War’, you are actually continuing your exploration of memory where you focus on families that are living with the memories of war. For me, what was very intriguing is the way in which you’ve 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. Its also a trace of life, but interestingly, it primarily functions like a 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, since it seems to carry the project of your search forward?
Supriyo Sen: Well, the truth is that 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, permissions 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 has been raped, or murdered.
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 still believe that someday they will come back. It is a very fragile situation between hope and despair and in a way, it is a tight ropewalk for them.
That was a very important quest for me and I had to adopt a certain narrative style to tell the story where this kind of silent protest, although important, would not end up being a regular issue based activist film. Rather, I wanted to enter the mind and space of these people and see if they try to reconcile 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 throughout one’s 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. It’s most evident in the way in which the relationship between these two communities has further worsened.
This I why I wanted to carry out this discourse and address our contemporary history, in order to explore the results of the fall out and the bitter relationship between these two countries that used to be one before.
In that way, Way Back Home was the past and Hope Dies Last in War deals with the present, but I wanted to look forward as well, so Wagah looks through the eyes of the children and their wish to crossover to the other side.
Ira Bhaskar: 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.
Supriyo Sen: The relationship that exists for people who live close to the border is very different from people who live in the mainland. We don’t really know what the meaning of border is.
In the bordering district, they can see the people from the other side of the border and they look the same. It’s like they have a story of the other side of the village. They used to celebrate together, but now when there is 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 the 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.
Ira Bhaskar: And what are you currently working on? And what has inspired you as a filmmaker?
Supriyo Sen: I’m working on 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. The style is very different here. I’m inspired by a number of filmmakers in my work. So, for instance, I like the partition films but I don’t have any distinct impact of those films in my style or language. Also, I never learned filmmaking from any institution but somehow I managed 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. I’m excited about the film.
Ira Bhaskar: Thank you, Supriyo and we look forward to the film as well.