We approach non-fiction like a fiction – Rintu Thomas
“It wasn’t easy – people looked at us and said that we are too young to do the kind of films we were pitching. We decided to start making our own films – and see how the journey unfolds!,” says Rintu Thomas on challenges she faced while co-founding her productions ‘Black Ticket Films’ with Sushmit Ghosh. The documentary filmmaker’s film Timbaktu has also won 60th National Film Awards for the Best Film on Agriculture, in the Environment category. While Rintu Thomas talks about her film making journey, she also divulges into the details of Timbaktu’s making and what Black Ticket Films’ recent 30 seconds video project “Only 18 and Above…!” is all about. Read on –
How did you get into filmmaking and then Black Ticket films?
I was always interested in the arts and writing was my first love. Filmmaking happened quite by chance. I enrolled for a Masters in Mass Communication from the AJK Mass Communication Research Center and an entire universe of un-exhausting possibilities opened up! Those two years pretty much changed everything for me – essentially because I discovered the art and craft of translating words to images. Moreover, the journey of creating our Masters’ thesis film, Flying Inside My Body was phenomenal. That film (created with Sushmit Ghosh, Sumit Sharma and Ajita Chowhan) and the whole experience of creating it made me fall in love with filmmaking.
During this film, both Sushmit Ghosh and I realized that apart from being good friends, we also shared a great working rapport. The joy of collaborating with a friend, who is also a sensitive story-teller, is that it is a continuously enriching process of learning and un-learning. We discovered that despite being strikingly different as people, our core aesthetics were joyfully similar. After our Master’s degree, we both did independent freelance projects for a year before coming together to create Black Ticket Films in 2009.
What objective are you trying to achieve through your films?
Since the beginning, our core idea has been to tell stories. Stories that are missing from the mainstream discourse and need a new, powerful, entertaining voice. When Sushmit and I founded Black Ticket Films, one of our core focus areas was (and remains) to constantly challenge the way we tell our stories. So ‘form’ for us is as important as ‘content’. We’re constantly mixing media and using high- definition live-action, still photographs, archival video, graphics, music and text to build on our stories.
What subjects interest you?
Our areas of interest have been diverse. Our films have explored issues around the lives of refugees, street children, public health, agriculture and climate change, gender and sexuality, sanitation and hygiene. It is the story that brings us closer to its world. We are inspired by positive stories of everyday people who are changing the world in their own small, silent, resilient ways. We are continuously expanding the horizons and the canvas of the stories we tell.
Documentary is and will continue to be our first love but we are also now moving towards diversifying our portfolio and doing TV programming and fiction. The next six-eight months look very exciting and I promise this is going to be a new phase for us!
How did Black Ticket Films take off?
It has been an interesting journey! Like all start-ups, it was very difficult in the beginning – we were absolutely fresh from the film school, had no contacts in the industry, had no networking skills and looked “too young” to pull off the kind of ideas we were pitching!
Despite pitching for a slew of projects/fellowships, for first six months, we had no client-based work. This is when we decided that to start working on the ideas we had to make the kind of films we believed in – in our own style. This slowly led to the creation of a show reel, which later on became a strong reflection of our ability and vision.
One of our first projects was the UK Environment Film Fellowship, a prestigious fellowship awarded to only to a handful of filmmakers from India. In our first project, we made a film called The Miracle Water Village, which explores how an entire village in Maharashtra reversed its fortunes from being a drought-hit village to transforming into a water-surplus village, by the sheer application of wisdom in sustainable water and land practices. This village, Hiware Bazar, today has 54 millionaires! The film was later broadcasted on National Geographic Channel and in many ways, this was an important turning point for our careers.
How do you raise funds for your films?
There are multiple channels for raising funds: fellowship projects, corporate and institutional projects, broadcaster fees, among others. For the fellowship projects, we pitch project concepts that go through several rounds of screenings and interviews and finally are awarded for funding by different agencies. In the case of institutional projects, we have been designing communication strategies using films, multi-media and print designs for numerous national and international non-governmental organizations. Corporate clients mostly want films to build on their branding and we’ve been fortunate to work with some brands that have given us total creative freedom to interpret their briefs. Also, whenever our films are aired on a TV network/channel, we receive a broadcasting fee. Though raising funds is not easy, but we’ve sort of figured it out.
How did the journey of Timbaktu begin for you?
In 2010-11, while researching for a project on sustainable livelihood practices, we came across the name ‘Timbaktu’ and were fascinated to know about its existence in India! We dug out the website for Timbaktu Collective and wrote to Bablu Ganguly, the Chairperson of Timbaktu Collective. We didn’t really hear back from them and that year we went on to make The Miracle Water Village. Somehow, Timbaktu stayed on with us. It was particularly because of a patchy video on Youtube that we saw – it had Bablu talking about agriculture as an ‘art’, as an ‘act of love’. It was so simple, so profound – at the same time. We decided to write to Bablu again and this time a quick response came through. Apparently, the first email had never reached him! Like all visionaries, Bablu is extremely humble and was not sure they were ‘big’ enough to be profiled in a film but I decided to visit Timbaktu and get to know their story more deeply.
What was the research behind Timbaktu?
It was a story that had to be told. After the initial discussion with Bablu, I flew to Anantpur, Andhra Pradesh for a recee to understand the scale and depth of their work they had been doing for two decades. They had converted deserts into forests and have been working with farmers in their journey from switching from chemical to organic agriculture. Their work had several layers of interconnected aspects such as water management, land-water management and community participation. Organic farming was one of the aspects of their stellar work and interested us most in the context of sustainable ways of growing food and living with nature. Their work was a solution that the world could follow to combat effects of climate change and the predicted food scarcity and so we were convinced to pitched this story for the PSBT fellowship, which we won eventually.
What was the process of creating this film?
We take the pre-production process, which includes research, scripting and visual strategy very seriously as this informs the production and post-production work flows. After the recce, we went in for a seven day shoot and began the post-production process soon after. We later decided to go back for another six odd days since we didn’t want the film to look like it’s just peppered with shots of cows and farmers and fall into visual trap of an ‘agricultural film’. The post- production period spanned over four months and we cut about four or five versions of the film with Vishal Chauhan, who edited the film for us. He is someone we collaborate with a lot and it was great to get a more ‘objective’ perspective on the narrative from him as sometimes, when you’re spending too much time immersed in an issue, you tend to get a bit attached to it. So, overall, it took about seven to eight months for the entire project from scratch to end.
Timbuktu collective’s work is vast and deep. Apart from working with farmers on organic agriculture, they also work with the local communities on issues of education, women’s empowerment, livelihood avenues for people with disabilities, regeneration of the forest land, micro-financing avenues for landless farmers, among others. With this vast canvas of sustainable models, our primary challenge was to choose that one aspect that we wanted to highlight through the film! Eventually, we decided to tell the story of the land and the farmer.
What is your approach towards shooting a film?
We approach nonfiction like a fiction, organize our storyboard; decide our scripts and visual sequences before going for the shoot. It gives us headroom for executing our plans and unplanned incidents as films are a mix of both. As filmmakers we give priority to both – the discipline of planning everything to the very last detail during pre-production and also having the flexibility to let things happen on shoot. This is when magic happens. One such example in Timbaktu is walk-the-talk sequence with Bablu, which was completely unplanned. Sushmit and I were both running high fever on the day we were leaving for Delhi after the second shoot schedule. We dropped by at Bablu’s home for morning coffee and he suggested we talk a walk and see the water structures in the vicinity. Sushmit decided to roll this walk and we got one of the most critical sequences in the film!
What was the film shot on?
We’ve been filming with the Canon 5D Mark II. We prefer playing with natural light on all our shoots.
What were the challenges in making of Timbaktu?
Timbaktu lives completely on solar energy. And the batteries charge just enough energy to operate a few bulbs at night. After a day’s shooting, our camera batteries would need to be charged and we had no option but to switch off all our lights and use every bit of that energy to charge our batteries. Because that would still not be enough, every location we went in Anantapur, people eventually got to know that this film crew is always on the look-out for charging points!
Being a city dweller, life out there was different in our view. Our biggest challenge was to tell a story on organic farming and the solution it offers instead of depressing the audiences by talking about the chemical-laced food that we consume everyday. We wanted the film to be interactive and hence used graphics and new forms of story-telling to prevent becoming it a monologue of one person.
As a filmmaker, what transformation, have you seen in yourself while working on this project?
The film has made me alive and aware to the most basic, simple things. For example, I realized how the rice on my plate is! thanks to the back-breaking labour and love of one nameless farmer who tilled and nurtured his land under the scorching sun for many months. I think farming is the most under-paid and thankless job. And now with the GM food threatening to enter our economies and food systems, our famers will be robbed of their independence and self-reliance. She/he will have no choice but to buy company seeds and pump more chemicals. We usually do not connect with these things to the food on our plates. We are taking the film to as many film festivals as possible and also to a multitude of schools and colleges – it is important that our young people know where their food is coming from and demand their basic right to have clean, healthy and nutritious food. The idea is to stir discussions and sensitize everyone, far and wide.
Recently, you have also launched a short video called Only 18 and Above. Please share your thought process behind it.
This is a short 30-second video that compels you think why as a country we are very reluctant to cast our most powerful right on an election day – to vote!
We wanted a thoughtful, entertaining little video that prods people to think about elections in a non-cynical, non-preachy way. The message is simple – its our right to decide who comes to power and leads the country. If we are choosing not to exercise that right – then perhaps we need to stop and wonder why. As a form, we chose to use the Indian Book Depot’s Hindi flip-charts which have been a part of our generation’s collective childhood memories. When you see something so familiar telling you a completely new story – you will sit up and take notice. I think that aspect of the messaging has worked very well and people have been sharing the video across multiple online platforms.
The video is free to access, download and share. Online forums have taken it and are including it in their online campaigns around the elections. A lot of bloggers have embedded the video in their posts. A leading Hindi newspaper has shown interest in taking the video and sharing it across its networks. We are in conversations with TV channels and Radio stations who might want to use the video/audio. The idea is to spread the message across platforms and spaces.
What other projects are you working on?
We just finished working on a UN Project where we need to study the health and hygiene in the three Asian countries of India, Pakistan and Nepal. There are quite a few concepts we’re incubating that are radically different from Timbaktu, both in terms of form and content. We’re also expanding the scope of Black Ticket Film’s work and the team so it’s a pretty exciting place to be in!