Social Films Today Cannot Be Preachy
Biswanath Rath, an award winning director, has a special penchant for making impactful, hard-hitting short movies with a social message. His 90 second film The ‘Right’ Glass has made stirs in the film festival circuit as the Official Selection for the 6th Jagran Film Festival.
Your job descriptions include that of a script writer, content writer, lyricist, director and event manager. You do seem to have your plate full! Walk us through your journey till this juncture in your life.
I have always felt the making of a film was more enthralling than the film itself. I have been fascinated by the ways and means of storytelling rather than the story alone. I can never forget the experience of watching ‘Terminator 2’, which was the first instance of me falling in love with filmmaking.
I studied mechanical engineering at NIT Warangal but only creative forms of expression have been my biggest source of inspiration. I joined the Dance and Dramatics Club and never before did I feel so alive. Time and dedication knew no bounds when I wrote, cast, acted and directed several skits and plays. My creative thirst led me to shoot, direct, edit and create several motivational corporate AVs and start a movie review blog.
In 2010, I committed myself to pursue a career in film direction because I not only enjoy story-telling and directing actors, but also believe that it’s one of the best possible ways of creating a positive impact in the society.
What followed was my decision to pursue a professional course in filmmaking at the LV Prasad Film Institute in Chennai. Over the next two years, I completed formal courses in Screenwriting and Film Direction.
Out of all of your professional hats, which one do you love to don the most?
It’s writing-filmmaking. For me, one can’t exist without the other. I thoroughly enjoy writing my own stories and scripts and that’s where I get all the motivation to translate them into films.
In your words, ”The story of ‘making of a film’ is always more interesting / inspiring than the story of film.” While ‘The ‘Right’ Glass’ is 90 seconds of a hard-hitting story, what is the story behind making that story?
Film festivals are a new, upcoming concept in Odisha. When I got to know about the Kallola Short Film Festival on Child Rights organized by UNICEF in Bhubaneswar, my wife insisted that I take up the challenge as she understands my inclination towards socially relevant subjects. I roped in my friend, Suryakanta Pradhan, who has played multiple roles of a producer, assistant director, casting director and actor in the film. A Bhubaneswar based NGO ‘We 4 You’ agreed to produce the film.
With Suryakanta and his team’s support, I set out the challenging journey of finalising the sub-theme (child education), location hunt, setting up a fresh team of actors and crew, set design etc. With the shooting set to begin in just two days, I was still lacking a technically well-qualified, professional cinematographer. We finally roped in Divya Ranjan Samal, a young but experienced cinematographer working full time for an Odia TV Channel.
The last minute turning down by a roadside fast food centre (for shooting) just a day before the shoot, the anxiety of shooting the film in just 4 hours, my sister and her family visiting the set to watch me in action are stories which made the journey an exciting one.
What are the challenges behind narrating a story in just 90 seconds? How do you overcome them?
The first challenge is the conception of an idea that fits the time duration. However, a film is a creative product and it’s not easy to estimate the exact time duration by just looking at the script.
In case of TRG, the time limit of 90 seconds was inclusive of start and end credit timings. It was a unique challenge for us to think of a concept which will translate into roughly 75 seconds of screen time.
Second challenge is the shot division, where freedom ends and rules overrule. Unlike bigger short films (more than 3-4 minutes), here there is zero scope for adding or deleting a shot during editing because each shot conveys a certain part of the story and becomes so unique and crucial that it cannot be deleted. There is a near zero scope for making mistakes during shot division. This is addressed by deciding the approximate time duration of each shot and maintaining flexibility in its exact duration.
Third most crucial challenge is the emotional flow. In the balancing act between shot timing, shot plan and execution, it’s very easy to lose the grip on emotional flow. We must understand that at the end of day, a film is not an engineering product with specified dimensions. The emotional impact of the film should be not for few minutes, but for a life time. To achieve this, we must maintain the balance between shot duration, its emotional impact and its effective transition to the next shot.
What are the nuances of silent storytelling?
Silent storytelling relies heavily on visuals. Since there are no dialogues, it’s mostly the actions, body gestures, expressions and their subtle changes that are crucial to depiction of emotional content or information in a shot. Unlike a sound film, the content here is to be seen so as to be understood.
However a silent film is technically never 100% silent. Music or sounds play the second most critical role. Be it the shot or scene transitions or any action, music is almost always a necessary element to enhance the impact. However it doesn’t mean that the entire film should be filled with music. It all depends on the requirement of individual shot or scene.
‘Kar Bhalaa’ too is a social film and has been the recipient of several awards and official selections to film festivals. What sort of a thought process and structure do you follow while conceptualizing social films?
The bi-lingual short film, ‘Kar Bhalaa’ was my diploma film. I made it solely with the purpose of evaluating my own learning and never imagined it to receive two awards and Official Selections in 12 International Film Festivals.
‘Kar Bhalaa’ is a short film based on a true story in Chennai. I was a part of the incident, felt an emotional impact and knew that it was a simple but strong social message for everyone. It was my first film and I deliberately tried to keep the story and it’s telling really simple.
TRG is the first social film which I conceptualised from scratch with a specific subject in mind. The first step was to come up with subject-related real scenes from my daily life to get me emotionally invested and dig deeper. I started ground-level as well as internet based research to collect facts and figures. Then came the most creative part of the journey – the generation of story ideas that will bring out the message most effectively.
Today there are so many preachy social films where the message is a rolling text-based title which bluntly says ‘do this as this is good’ or ‘don’t do this as this bad ’. However, I believe that film is a visual medium and strongly try to refrain myself from those direct approaches. For me, the message has to come out through visuals, actions or sounds. The lesser the dialogue or text, the better.
With ‘Feel the Passion’, you also tried your hand at directing a music video. How is the process different from directing a movie? Tell us about some exciting/defining moments from the shoot.
The process is very different. For a movie, it all starts with a concept or idea, but for a music video, it is the lyrics that kick off the journey. Subsequently the music plays the most critical part in a music video.
In case of a movie, the story leads to conceptualisation of songs, background music, sound design etc. In a music video, as the name goes, music leads the visuals. Unlike a movie, there are many shots that are taken during production phase which are not directly related to the story but are required during post-production to enhance the styling, feel and production value.
What role do you feel film festivals play in the journey of short films?
In my opinion, film festivals are a mammoth movement for independent films and their makers and short films are a BIG part of this movement.
Even in the age of Social Media and YouTube releases, film festivals remain the most significant and valuable platform to showcase short films to a quality audience who can appreciate its content without having any prejudice to its technical quality, production value or budget. In spite of the visible creative compromises that are made in a short film, film festivals in general are appreciative of the effort, boldness and honesty with which a subject is approached, making them a filmmaker’s delight.
Since the competition is huge, if a film gets selected for screening in a film festival, or better yet, gets an award, the filmmaker gets tremendous confidence and motivation as the ‘Official selection’ acts as an evidence to the quality of work.
Strictly speaking, today there are hundreds of online platforms available where short films can be released and monetized. But practically, when it comes to producer’s ROI (return on investment), these platforms are still in their nascent phase and trying to find solutions. In such scenarios, Film Festivals are a big relief to the filmmakers where they at least get critics’ reviews of their short films. Genuine, honest, blunt feedback. That still remains the biggest return on investment for most of the short filmmakers.
When and how did you form BnR Films?
‘BnR Films’ as a brand was started back in 2006 in my NIT Warangal days. I developed this brand by making short corporate videos while I was working in Gurgaon.
This year my wife Archana Rath and I registered ‘BnR Films’ as a company, which is now into production/direction of ad-films, TV commercials, corporate videos, documentaries, music videos, promotional films, short films and feature films. Currently our company has got presence in Chennai, Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Pune, Bhubaneswar, Kochi and Guwahati.
How do you procure funding for your projects?
It’s simple – through our portfolio and networking. I believe that our work should speak for us. With this philosophy, I approach my clients with a certain project in mind. Fortunately, this has worked so far with amazing results. Networking at film festivals, screenings, award events etc can be very fruitful too.
What filmmakers do you draw inspiration from?
Ashutosh Gowarikar inspired me with ‘Lagaan’, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, Mani Ratnam, Madhur Bhandarkar, Priyadarshan and Rajkumar Hirani – who has got amazing ways of presenting social messages in his films using humour as his weapon. Sanjay Leela Bhansal for the craft of lighting and art direction. Anurag Kashyap is one new age director who is very active in film festival circuit and inspires every filmmaker to think beyond the stereotypes, instilling confidence in the fact that ‘content is always the king’.
In Tamil Cinema, my biggest inspirations are Balu Mahendra, Kamal Hassan, A R Murugadoss and K V Anand.
Short films have now started to receive their long due recognition. Mindful of this, what are your plans for the future? Is there also a feature film in the pipeline?
As they say, shorts are the new big. As far as my plans go, I have so many ideas which I would love to transform into short films. While the priority now is TV programmes or feature film projects, I always look forward to opportunities of making short films or social ad-films like TRG.
I do have plans for making feature films. Currently I am working on my first feature script. Hopefully it will take off soon.