Interview: Prashant Bhargava, director of Patang
Patang was presented at the Berlinale Forum early this year and now has been selected to be part of World Narrative in Tribeca Film festival. An interview with Prashant Bhargava:
What was the starting point of the film Patang?
The seeds for the movie Patang were planted in 2005, when my trip to Ahmedabad coincided with the city’s annual kite festival. When I first witnessed the entire city on their rooftops, staring up at the sky, their kites dueling ferociously, dancing without inhibition, I knew I had to make this film.
Inspired by the spiritual energy of the festival, I returned for the next three years, documenting my experiences with over a hundred hours of video footage. Slowly immersing myself in the ways of the old city, I became acquainted with its unwritten codes of conduct, its rhythms and secrets.
I would sit on a street corner for hours at a stretch and just observe. Over time, I connected with shopkeepers and street kids, gangsters and grandmothers. This process formed the foundation for developing the characters and story. As I began to write the script, I realized that capturing the spirit of the festival and the city-its beauty and flow, joy and strength, healing and transcendence-would require multiple narratives. And so Patang found its shape as three interwoven stories centering on a family that reunites for the kite festival.
How was the experience shooting in Ahmedabad?
So hard to summarize a six year journey! After three years of research, the city and people of Ahmedabad welcomed our cast and crew with open hearts and open arms. It was a community effort.
But India is a tough place to make a film and Ahmedabad has its special challenges. Having the blessings of the grandmothers and the politicians was equally important. Without the support of the local gambling bookie or the shop keeper, we would not be able to shoot on a street corner.
The toughest challenge during the shoot was inspiring my experienced crew members to embrace the way we made Patang. The shoot required letting go of conventional methods and working with one’s heart and instinct. The process of preparation involved hours of observation, long takes with improvisation based on the script, a small crew, shooting synch sound on location, working with non-actors, shooting handheld with HD cameras without storyboards; this presented countless challenges to our seasoned professionals who were used to having more control over their environment during filming. Much of my time and effort was spent defining a means to pursue this style of working. The film’s naturalism is a direct outcome of this approach.
Did you find yourself familiar enough with the milieu in Ahmedabad to shoot the film?
I was born and raised in the United States. It took me time to let go of my assumptions and perspective to see Ahmedabad in the same light as its people. Many times those lessons came through making mistakes. I had to learn how to be open and honest with my own life, shortcomings and faith. I had to learn that above the film, respect is first given to family, community and God.
How would you sum up the experience of making your first feature film?
An exhilarating, painful, long journey! A humbling learning experience. A magical ride of personal transformation. We made this film completely independent of the system. Every cut, every shot, every decision is our own. From every aspect of film making – whether it be writing, casting, shooting, editing or the music – we learned by jumping head first into the fire. Insanity and an undying sense of belief is all we could rely on. So many times it felt the film would not happen – obstacles and comprises at every corner. I had a wonderful group of people behind me – whether it was the investors who believed in my past work and the vision of the film, the relentless support and love of my family and my producer Jaideep Punjabi, our committed and talented cast, the love and ingenuity of my crew. I treasure the friendships and collaborations that I’ve had making this film. Sticking with the project through thick and thin and finishing it is a personal milestone for me. With the experience of making this film behind me, I know that I will do future films and I have something to offer to the world as a director.
How has the response to the film been so far?
We’ve screened the film to colleagues in New York, to our cast and crew in Ahmedabad and in Berlin.
Returning to Ahmedabad to share the film with our cast and crew and the community was a magical experience. I felt honored and humbled when people from Ahmedabad embraced the film as their own story. Audience members remarked how the film gave their lives and city an identity and a voice and captured the living heritage of their home.
The film has been very well received in Berlin. How does it feel?
Indescribable! It is a great feeling to have invested my life and heart into this film for so many years, and for it to have such a warm reception by festivals and audiences.
Could you share some of the audience’s reactions with us?
We had four sold out screenings. Over 2000 people watched the film. We had great Q & A’s. The Germans are wonderful audiences – open, patient and insightful. Here are some of the comments I heard from audiences at Berlin:
“The film has given us an insight into an India we never knew.”
“The acting is superb. I feel as if I am living with the actors, as if I’m peeking into their lives.”
“I cried. Its one of those films that will always live with me.”
“Though the film was set in Ahmedabad, I found the characters to be very familiar. The film was authentic but so universally human.”
“Visually it’s stunning and lush. Pure poetry. The colors, the rhythm of the edit, the camera – its beautiful.”
“Its one of the best Indian films I’ve seen in years.”
“Can’t wait for your next film!”
And now Patang is 1 of 12 films invited to the World Narrative Competition at Tribeca.
I feel honored to be included amongst other films of great caliber. It is a heartening endorsement of Indian film which focuses on the brightness of the everyday. It is an honor for all of us who put in years of love and effort. It is a tribute to the spirit of the old city of Ahmedabad. Tribeca is also in New York – my producer Jaideep’s and my home!
When will the film release in theatres in India?
We will release the film in India. We have just begun our festival journey and are exploring the right distributor in India. Sooner than later!
Having studied theatrical direction, how do you reconcile it with film direction? Does it pose any difficulty?
I began as a motion designer for television. My background stems from the artistry of the image. I first studied how to work with a camera, shoot on film, edit a film before I did anything else. It was later in my career that I studied theatrical directing. I believe studying acting and theatrical directing is a must for any director. The way you work with the camera, the way you direct your actors, the way you integrate music begins with the conflict on the page. Studying theatrical directing allowed me to understand how to breakdown a script and how to communicate to an actor. Communicating with a good actor is the same as communicating with a good director of photography.
Theater is theatrical. Film is subtle. The tiniest gesture can say volumes on screen but has little impact on stage with your audience seated at a distance. In film, we have the opportunity to do several takes over many days.
I found, however, during my three year research period that what I did with the cast of non-actors and actors in Patang was completely the opposite of how I directed studying the method technique. Rather than rooting the actors by fueling them with high stakes objectives, pushing them to dig into the darkness of their own past, and utilizing sense memory, I gave them very simple physical objectives. I never did rehearsals. Everyone already had a past, their own way of speaking and walking, their own joys and struggles. I strove to preserve rather than create their natural environments. From there, the actors would just be themselves. We would at times do takes that would last an hour. Friends who celebrated the kite festival for their whole lives would just celebrate as they do. It took some adjusting to, but if I were to put Patang in a theater framework, it was akin to bringing in a real doctor and perform real surgery on stage rather than having a actor play one with props.
It’s known that your interest in the arts began as a graffiti artist! Could you share more with us on that? How did you get into filmmaking?
I grew up on the southside of Chicago. I loved science fairs and computers. And I loved hip hop. Graffiti is one of the four principal means of practice in Hip Hop. I would put up some stickers, steal some spray paint, do a piece on a wall once in a while, but for the most part, I was known for my sketches in my book. Hip Hop is a culture, a means of expression, a pathway to realization and self-empowerment. Graffiti is how I discovered my interest in the arts and how I grew to be proud of my own culture. Everything I do now, in terms of putting two colors together or the rhythm of how I construct a scene emerges from the hours spent tagging and piecing.
What is the next project in the pipeline?
It’s been a long journey making Patang so savoring the completion! I have a few ideas for my next project. Early in the development. Seeking new scripts as well. Seeking commercial representation once again to direct music videos and commercials.