[A]jita Suchitra Veera was named the Best Director in the Indian Competition at the recently-concluded 12th Osian’s Cinefan Film Festival. Ajita tells us more about her debut film Ballad of Rustom in this interview:
Ballad of Rustom comes from my life. The film is a classic and contemporary work and the mis-en-scene follows traditional cinema in many ways-specially the techniques. I am very old school when it comes to cinema. I have very deliberately shot the film on 35mm Cinemascope with sync sound since it was an intentional aesthetic choice for me as a director. The 35mm negative has its own beauty and richness. There is also a very poignant story in Ballad of Rustom– however, I use certain devices which break the regular way of telling a story-which are perhaps new for Indian Cinema and these cinematic tools make the experience of cinema different. I don’t believe in strictly delivering messages; rather I like the play of ideas, emotions, the human experiences, feelings, moods, associations, philosophies. You need not say everything in cinema.
2. What was the thought behind the character of Rustom?
Well, Rustom comes from my own life: my father comes from a remote township but he did several things in his life–learnt photography from a box camera in his village, he is also an artist and I would say an innovative craftsman–he was always making things with his hands. I have come across people who come from small towns and who often seem very ordinary, but they are extraordinary in many ways-imaginative and very intelligent-they can do several things. For instance, an electrician could be fixing cables, repairing a bicycle, farming and moving from town to town. They have amazing wandering lives through the towns.
3. What was the idea behind setting the film in the countryside? Did you think of it as a contemporary story?
Well in my family we all have roots in the countryside, although now we all live in the cities. So there were always these stories at home and I wanted the film to happen in the countryside undoubtedly. And yes in India we still have places which are in a time warp, where things move at their own pace and they are different from our cities. I wanted to have characters who are in the countryside and not cities as we have in regular films-because their lives and ideologies are important.
I wanted to break the clichéd perception of people coming from small towns and let people see that they can also be artists, innovators, have intelligence and imagination and a zest for life.
I think Ballad of Rustom is contemporary in many ways- it is subtly talking about the changing Indian landscape: the growth of cities, the disappearing natural worlds which are rich and mysterious and so important to India and the agrarian communities with their own folk stories, music and myths-the farmers and other town folk. The people of the soil who come from these very spaces and who can be silent, imaginative, innovative and full of ideas, are often overlooked
4. How did you secure funds for making the film?
I had to raise funds for over a few years. I took loans on interest and it was not easy as I struggled with finances and my own work to sustain myself. I was very restless, especially since the kind of cinema I wanted to bring to life is not familiar to India, so there were several roadblocks in convincing people. But I stuck to my vision all through.
People do take time to understand or even relate to something which is new or unique and it is a responsibility to make them see something new rather than give up saying they don’t understand. My family and friends strongly backed my creative endeavor since they saw my vision and they had a belief in me as a craftsman -my short films had travelled a lot internationally earlier to several festivals and, one of them was also an Oscar entry in the shorts segment.
I have no qualms at all since I followed my passion and when people saw the vision taking shape, those that had not come forward initially also started contributing to the film. My family and friends have contributed immensely in my journey!
5. Why did you opt for the “bleach by-pass” technique?
I have used the “bleach by pass” during my student days while working on smaller films and I did quite a few things with the negative during those days to create a very unique colour palette. For Ballad of Rustom, I deliberately wanted to create a unique look which is desaturated. With high contrast and the colors look very different, subdued in fact. I wanted to make the audiences see the Indian landscape in a very different light than what has been seen in Indian cinema up until now.
6. What do you think is the state of experimental cinema in India today?
I think I would rather say “emerging cinema” since “experimental” cinema has several associations.
I think in India we must have more and more new and unique cinematic experiences which is important to have a vibrant film culture. We do have a small beginning somewhere now with some new films but that is not much and also it is not about merely making a “film”. It is the ideas, philosophy and vision one brings forth in cinema and with a certain craftsmanship that will make our cinema richer and special.
7. Have you any plans for the distribution of Ballad of Rustom yet?
Yes, very much so. I definitely want a release for Ballad of Rustom in India and I want Indians to see my film more than anyone else.
8. Who are the filmmakers that inspire you?
I have found inspiration always from life and people in my life –specially my parents. I also love literature and music -so my inspiration is from various sources. I love paintings. My favourite is Van Gogh. I love western classical music and Indian classical as well. In literature-French, German and Russian writers and Indian writers like Tagore, Premchand to name a few have always been a major inspiration and several World classics of course. Of the filmmakers for their vision I appreciate-Federico Fellini, Andrei Tarkovsky, Jean-Luc Godard, Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, and Bimal Roy.
9. Please tell us about your background.
I come from south of the country and from a very liberal family. My father is a photographer cum artist and my mother has been the philosopher in my life. Since childhood I’ve watched world cinema classics, Hollywood classics, and several Hindi films of 50s and 60s. At home we always had conversations centered on cinema. So it was potent ground and cinema was always part of my life since my grandfather too was a writer, a theatre guy and an encyclopedia on early Indian cinema. But the decisive move to follow a path in cinema came in 2000 when I left my education in science and briefly did theatre. And soon I joined Film Institute in Pune to practice the craft of making films.