Production Posts – Chauthi Koot
As Gurvinder Singh’s highly awaited film Chauthi Koot, which is the first Punjabi film to premiere and compete under the Un Certain Regard category at Cannes Film Festival (2015), and has brought home several awards including the Best Asian Feature Film at Singapore International Film Festival, Best Film in the India Gold category at MAMI and the National Award for Best Punjabi Film, hits theatres today, we bring you excerpts from our conversation with its cinematographer Satya Rai Nagpaul and additional dialogue writer Jasdeep Singh.
While FTII alumnus and National award-winning cinematographer Satya, who has earlier worked on films such as Gattu, Anhe Ghore Da Daan, and Aligarh talks about the different nuances of his camera work, the film’s additional dialogue writer Jasdeep, a software engineer turned writer, shares how his writing is based on his imagination and understanding of the reactions that would occur in real situations.
Satya Rai Nagpaul
What were the discussion that took place between director Gurvinder Singh and you for the treatment of the film? Did you read the original stories by Waryam Sandhu before you started work on Chauthi Koot?
Gurvinder’s scripts are extremely atmospheric and are the starting point for conversations, and then everything grows from there. I did not deliberately read Waryam Singh Sandhu’s original stories, because it’s important for me to stay with the perspective that the director has created in the screenplay.
Though there are many non-actors in the film, explaining the technicalities of the camera to them would’ve still been easier than capturing the dog who is an essential part of the film. What other challenges did you face while shooting?
Although it may seem that filming Tommy would’ve been the most challenging, it was the easiest as far as the camera work is concerned. If you notice, the shot taking around Tommy is very simple. What was most challenging, cinematographically speaking, was doing the extensive night exteriors in the very limited budget that we had. There was no way that we could have hired helium balloons, which are usually used for night work of this scale. To be able to light the night, sometimes for almost 270 degrees, I had to design the lighting, improvising with standard lighting fixtures. This was both, the most challenging, and exciting part of the work for me.
Although it may seem that filming Tommy would’ve been the most challenging, it was the easiest as far as the camera work is concerned
In Anhe Ghore Da Daan, the camera was almost like another character in the film. Was a similar process followed for Chauthi Koot?
Even though the camera is meant to do very different things in Anhe Ghode Da Daan and Chauthi Koot, the similarity in both these films is Gurvinder’s very clear intentionality in deploying the image. The image goes beyond the requirements of the plot and can therefore truly occupy narrative space without being encumbered by anything else. This is what primarily gives it that ‘almost character-like’ presence.
What role do the seasons play in the mood of any film? Be it Aney Ghore Da Daan, your last film Aligarh or Chauthi Koot – all of them are shot during winter. And winters give an impression of sadness. Were the films deliberately shot in these seasons to showcase the trauma and pain?
It cannot be emphasized enough as to how critical a season is to the image-making in a film! If you don’t have the right season, you don’t have the film!
Anyone who has grown up in Punjab will relate to the way that you have captured the place in both the films. But the ones who find mustard fields synonymous with Punjab (courtesy most Bollywood films) may find it a bit alien. After having worked on two films featuring Punjab, how would you describe the place?
There is not one Punjab! The Bollywood Punjab is overdone and cinematically dead. The Punjab we were working to represent is the subaltern Punjab. It’s rich with history, folklore, struggle and people’s movements. It’s the Punjab that I relate to.
The Punjab we were working to represent is the subaltern Punjab
How does sound and silence in a film affect your work?
Even though sound and silence are designed much later in the process of post production, because one has a clear idea of the idiom/s one is working within, one approaches the image-making keeping these in mind. In films like Anhe Ghore da Daan and Chauthi Koot, it becomes very very challenging; e.g. silence makes a viewer look deeper into the frame and there is nowhere for the cinematographer to hide! Everything in your frame, every tone, every color and every moment of the camera movement will be under the scanner of the discerning viewer.
What are you presently working on? Would you like to explore any other subject related to Punjab, perhaps something that you came across while shooting Chauthi Koot?
No recent script has excited me enough to sign-up. As a cinematographer, I cannot be attached to a geographical location for its own sake, even though being a Punjabi, Punjab has a very special place in my life. What finally gets me is a script, and the director’s vision for that script!
When you first read the two stories included in Chauthi Koot, what impact did they have on you?
I had read Chauthi Koot way back in school. When Gurvinder mentioned it, I re-read them. I have been reading Waryam Sandhu’s stories for a long time now. Two of his stories – Bhajiaan Baahin and Nau Baraan Das are the more popular ones and also two of my favourites. For me, it was nice that there was someone who had captured the nuances of the time of insurgency. More than two decades after the insurgency period also, there are still debates happening – people are either pro-Khalistan or anti-Khalistan. There were no human interest stories. Waryam Sandhu was a figure who added those nuances and made it possible for people of our generation to understand (that period).
When you are a teenager you don’t read it with detailing but when I re-read them I could understand things at a deeper level. I picked up things that didn’t strike me back then. Since my training and learning has also changed, I could relocate them in a different way.
Did Gurvinder give you a specific brief for the dialogues?
The story was written by Waryam Sandhu, therefore, the primary work was already done and most of the dialogues were present in the story itself. The script was then finalized by Gurvinder. There were no particular instructions as such. We already had the basic blueprint. All the other additional details for recreating it for the screen were done by me.
There are some passages where there were no dialogues at all. There are some missing links – dialogues which are not there in the story itself. I was present on the sets as well because at times there are some changes that are required according to the character or the actor who is saying the dialogues. Since we employed non-actors as well, if they couldn’t say the dialogues or there was a change in the dialect, such kind of changes were required too.
The only challenge was the language because I hail from Jogewala village which is in the Malwa region and the language spoken in Amritsar (where the film is set) is Majhi
And did you have any references while writing the dialogues? Or the fact that you hail from Punjab made the dialogues come naturally to you?
The fact that I’m from a rural background, and am well-versed in Punjabi literature, helped me a bit. The only challenge was the language because I hail from Jogewala village which is in the Malwa region and the language spoken in Amritsar (where the film is set) is Majhi. So there are a few variations in the pronunciation of words. When a person is speaking in Punjabi, I can pinpoint the district he hails from.
The reason why I was asked to work on Chauthi Koot was because I had earlier worked on Anhe Ghore Da Daan. And Anhe… was set in the Malwa region for which they needed a Malwayi person as they had to interact with the local people. For Chauthi Koot, besides the dialogues, there was a lot of research that was my responsibility, for instance scouting newspaper articles etc.
Is there also a difference in the character sketch of both the regions, even though both are part of Punjab?
Yes, there are differences because of the historical and cultural differences. Majha has been more of a fertile land and has been close to Lahore and Amritsar, which are cultural hubs. Whereas Malwa region was more of a jungle till about 200 years ago. And it has been away from cultural centers like Lahore. There are also stereotypes that Malwayis are simpletons while Majhalis are smarter.
I’m also a man of few words. Perhaps that is why Gurvinder chose me
Often in Gurvinder’s films, the characters have very few dialogues. In such a case, do you say things in few words?
It is just natural because I’m also a man of few words. Perhaps that is why Gurvinder chose me. (laughs)
The thing is that I don’t consider myself as a writer. It is mainly Gurvinder who involved me in writing. Like he has employed non-actors to act, similarly I’m not a typical writer. I just write from my imagination and things that a person would say in a real situation. I’m well-read in Punjabi literature so I can say it in a better way. I’m just an apprentice to the huge direction team.
Tell us about your journey from being a software engineer to a film writer. How and when did films enter your life?
I was into reading literature when I was in school. My family had a library so I had the habit of reading. During my engineering days, I started watching Hollywood movies and soon find out that even they make formula films just like the Hindi industry. I was looking for realistic movies so I started following world cinema.
And then Gurvinder and I met when he had made a documentary called Paala and came to Chandigarh for its screening. My literary heroes like Nirupama Dutt, Amarjeet Chandan etc. were also present there. I then emailed Gurvinder and told him how I really liked the film and wanted a copy of it. That is how we started interacting. And when I did Anhe Ghore Da Daan, in addition to Gurvinder, I met many people who were complete cinema buffs. Most people in Gurvinder’s team are from FTII. And I took a lot of cinema from them.
I started watching Hollywood movies and soon find out that even they make formula films just like the Hindi industry
You are writing for films that are unlike contemporary Punjabi films. In fact, they belong to two completely different worlds. But still is there any Punjabi film that has managed to intrigue you?
I haven’t been able to watch too many Punjabi films because they are too loud for me. Whatever Punjabi films I get to watch are only when I travel by bus to my village, as there is always a Punjabi film playing. And I have a good laugh. I have some friends who are working in the contemporary industry. For instance, Jatinder Mauhar is one of them. He directed Qissa Punjab which I wouldn’t say is a great film but it has its moments. I think Qissa Punjab was much better at the content level than Udta Punjab, which was more polished. It captures the essence of the issue in a better way. Though I haven’t seen Angrej and Bambukaat yet, they are said to be good films.
Since you are based in Punjab, you are aware of the subjects and the treatment of most Punjabi films. Where do you think do they lack and what needs to be done?
I think most Punjabi filmmakers need a little bit of exposure to what is happening internationally. They should be well-versed in both commercial as well as art house cinema. There have been some experiments at the story and content level. Like Ardaas was said to have combined a social cause and yet do so in a commercial way. They tried to package it well.
What are you presently working on?
I have been doing some translation work. I have recently translated Punjabi poet Jaswant Zafar’s work, on which a book has been published. I recently worked on Gurvinder’s 15-minute film Ghuspaithiya, which is a story about borders. The film, which is based on a news story, revolves around a pigeon that crosses the border and the police investigate if he is a spy.