Gautam Singh, Al Jazeera's award winning documentary filmmaker, shares with us his experiences surrounding the making of his first Bollywood Feature - Gaon : The Village No More

Gautam Singh is a well known documentary film maker with Al Jazeera.

He has recently entered the world of Bollywood with his debut feature film – ‘Gaon | The Village No More.’ This film is inspired by the true story of writer/director Gautam Singh Sigdar’s own village in Jharkhand, India.This film is an attempt to pack 200 years of India’s history into two hours of cinema.

We had a conversation with Mr. Singh about his own journey leading up to the film’s release. Read along!

During the shoot of ‘Gaon’

After years of filming documentaries which gained global praise, what made you want to make ‘Gaon’ as a Bollywood feature film?

“The first reason for making this a feature film instead of a documentary is that the events that are seen in the film happened in my own village, the place I spent my childhood in, but I couldn’t capture it. Villages around the world are disappearing and cities are creeping into the villages in the name of smart cities. So that was the main reason – I wanted to share the story of my own village. 

The second reason is because I always wanted to be seen as a filmmaker in the eyes of the people from my village but they don’t quite accept me as one, since the documentaries don’t reach that audience. They don’t play those in the village’s nearest cinema hall. So I decided to make a Bollywood film that will play in the cinema theatre where they can for once, see my name on the screen.

In fact I’m having a screening in the cinema hall I used to go to watch films in my childhood, and I’m taking all my villagers to go watch it with me.”

What changes did you personally witness in the community you were once a part of?

“I could see it from the outside. I left the place in class 10 but since then I have been observing from the outside. The villagers couldn’t see it because they were a part of that change. It used to be a community based society, completely self-reliant, depending on an agricultural and traditional way of life. Now everyone is more dependent on government support.  Someone from each family is going out to the city to make a living for their family back in the village. So almost everyone now has an individualistic life unlike the collectivist one that once existed. There is no feeling of living in a community anymore. Like in the cities, people don’t reach out to their neighbors. I saw that happening in my village and it was truly painful.

I remember being excited for and really looking forward to celebrating festivals when I was a child back there. Today everyone is celebrating within the walls of their own homes, leaving the streets empty.

People are fighting, often taking matters to the court. Of course there is no denying of the fact that there is development given the advancement of technology that is making their lives easier. What troubled me was that the feeling of harmony and togetherness that was once a huge aspect of the village community, is disappearing.The film is all about these elements.”


What was the biggest difference while making the switch from the documentary film industry to the Bollywood industry? What challenges did you face?

“It was completely different. While making this film, I knew I had to make sure to keep everyone entertained for two hours. Unlike the stories I cover in my documentaries, this was completely fictional. I have used various elements of humor in hope that the viewers will hopefully stay strung for the entirety of the film. Once they step out after watching the film, the message behind making it will hit them. They will leave the theatre and then give it a thought.

Second – The size of the team. There was almost no crew while shooting a documentary. We would only have around 3 to 4 people helping out because we shoot things in their reality. Here, I was shooting with a team of around 600-700 people for a film that I was directing and producing. In the end, very often, it becomes about managing these people rather than focusing on the story.

Third – The most important thing is the market viewing my work. I know the documentary market and I’m familiar with it. My documentaries have been filmed globally and won awards internationally. But this is Bollywood, for the Indian audience. So I think it works completely differently, there is no transparency here, things happen by luck. I find myself having to depend on all these things.”

How was your experience working with the actors?

“The actors were very co-operative because they felt connected to the story. The main lead actors were sent to the village almost 25 days ahead of the shoot because there were certain things I wanted them to truly absorb. Things like body language. Sitting on the ground and sitting on the chair are two different things. The way the villagers walk is different and had to be shown as realistically as possible. It can only happen once you are with them and live like them.

The village we shot in was completely cut off from the main roads, there was no cell connection . So they left their ‘Bollywood lives’ and cooperated. It w as definitely hard for them. There were no vanity vans – we had a make-shift toilet which everyone was using, they were drinking the same water as the villagers, eating food which everybody ate. It was an amazing journey. The commitment the actors showed was extremely overwhelming and meant a lot.”

Do you plan on sticking to making more Bollywood features or going back to documentaries?

“I will never stop with the documentaries. Movies, I plan to keep making these kinds of films with a strong social message yet finding a way to keep it entertaining as well. I have already started working on my next feature film – it’s about the relationship about a father and son. My father an myself, actually. Almost 35 years long. With the advancement in technology and all he finds himself to be completely obsolete in my world. while i feel differently in his world. it relates to every father son /daughter relationship. It factors in a lot of changes that are happening in today’s world. I’ve finished the first draft already!”

What kind of a reaction are you expecting from the viewers? Do you think there will be a difference in the way it is perceived by them and people from the city?

“As far as my villagers are concerned they will be able to see my point because even the character names are real ones from the community – so I expect them to maybe even get a good laugh out of it. But in other villages, I’m not too sure. I had a screening in a village recently and it was a full auditorium. Once the film was over, it was almost like a riot! The entire hall was divided into two groups – one which was in favor of the film and the other which was completely against it.

This was probably because the story shows how the banks are coming in to play such an important role in giving shape to development in their area, how every human starts getting corrupted and slowly the whole purpose of their lives becomes paying off their loans. So I am sure that it will have different reactions at different places. There will be many people who may not agree with the idea. But another thing I am sure of, is that every single person who watches the film, will leave with a longing thought. It is most definitely going to start a debate.

When it comes to people living in cities, I believe we all have roots in villages. This film will make them nostalgic – it will take them back to those roots. It will make them stop for a second and think what a mad race we are all running for. so whether in the village or the cities, people will watch it and get others to watch it. Whoever has seen it so far, said they have never seen anything like it. So I’m very hopeful that the film will reach out to everyone.

Villages are known for their harmony, peace, and spirituality. We should empower them through the growth of their already existing tools like agriculture, but what are we doing instead? Making them dependent by getting rid of forests and putting up factories, removing them from their own land in the name of ‘development’. This is leading to a lot of chaos in their lives. There have been so many cases recently in villages that were once city crimes – rapes, riots, thefts – these never happened in the villages before. This is because the villages are trying to emulate the city way of living without knowing the consequences of it, and that is leading them nowhere – neither the city nor the village.”