Award-winning documentary filmmaker Sourav Sarangi of ‘Bilal’ and ‘Char..The No  Man’s Island’ fame, talks to Pandolin about the art of documentary filmmaking.

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How did you choose your protagonists Bilal and Rubel for you films ‘Bilal’ and ‘Char..No Man’s Island’ respectively?

Protagonists are the backbone of any movie. They take the story forward. For me it’s pretty much the same as casting for a feature film. I look for the right characters and spend a lot of time selecting my protagonists. It’s not arbitrary or random.

Do you prepare a shot in advance or is it spontaneous?

It is always spontaneous. Unlike fiction, non-fiction is about taking things as they are and exploiting the moment, reacting to the moment. If you take spontaneity away from it, the material is dead. It loses its charm. So I always try reacting to the moment. Of course there are certain technical considerations such as picking the right time to shoot or making sure the lighting condition is right and the weather apt for the shoot. These things need planning but these are not minor details. There are no prior calculations as such and I try to capture the moment as it is.

Did you guide your characters through their performance in the movie at any stage to get a certain result or were you just being a fly on the wall?

I was not at all a fly on the wall in any situation because it was very interactive. It was a territory we shared with the characters. Sometimes we play with the form and the audience thinks it’s observational but I like to play with that form and bring in interactivity. I strongly believe that whenever there’s a camera present, the character becomes conscious and you can’t avoid that. No matter how normal or natural it may look it’s still a performance. They are very aware and conscious that they are sitting in front of the camera the whole time so I try and develop a relationship with the character to make them comfortable in the setting. This helps make the camera a secondary element. It becomes more about the character and the director. This is the design I normally follow.

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How did you get to know Bilal and Rubel?

I knew Bilal’s parents because they were working in a theatre group where my wife worked too and my wife told me about Bilal who had an accident and been admitted in a hospital. We went to meet him at the hospital and he was just eight months old at the time. He had fallen from a height, which caused head injuries. Something happened when I first met him with his blind mother. I found a religious story between his blind mother and him. I got inspired after this first meeting.

For Char, I met hundreds and thousands of characters. I spent a lot of time with people living in erosion prone areas. I came across many more interesting situations and people but with Rubel I felt very comfortable. He was very composed, sometimes shy and didn’t talk much which brought out the right emotions of an adolescent but at the same time he was also more responsible than a grown up. I found this quite interesting and that story I had reflected in his life.

While with Bilal, it took only one meeting at the hospital, with Rubel it took more time to work through his character.

Tell us about the experience of shooting Char. How did you manage shooting at night with all the difficulties posed by the environment you were shooting in?

I knew it was going to be difficult especially at the international border. It was cut off from the mainland, there was no place to stay, no hotels or restaurants. We were living like the islanders which was a big challenge but exciting at the same time. There was no connection with the world outside; my mobile wasn’t working most of the time. I was living in isolation and that helped me understand how the people in that territory lived. Their isolation was more profound while mine was temporary and experiential. The mornings were very cold and I could not move but the people living there would wake up and their work. It was very inspiring and that’s why I concluded the film with hope.

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What kind of equipment did you use for your films?

All the erosions shots in Char are pretty old. They were shot in 2003-2004 in a cam format which was the documentary format back then. But when we started filming the rest of the movie, we decided to make it high definition and used high definition cameras. We had to use different kinds of cameras including X3 Standard cameras. For the night shots especially, with no light and no electricity we used the night vision camera and infra-red lights, which are not visible to the eye but the camera can record it. I could not cross the India-Bangladesh border because I didn’t have the permit. The team that went had been given a button hole camera so that we got continuous shots. It was a mix and match depending on the situation and the kind of visuals I wanted to create. We also used DSLR cameras for the landscapes with a cinematic view. So it was really a combination of different formats and different cameras. I think we did a good job of colour correction to maintain coherence and continuity between sequences.

For an aspiring filmmaker, what according to you does he/she need to know before a topic for a movie is chosen?

The journey of a filmmaker be it documentary or fiction, is a journey nevertheless. He/she has to find his/her own way on how to go about the process. Documentaries are normally perceived by people as being issue-centric.  It is looked at as addressing an issue and finding solutions but this sometimes reduces the issue. I personally feel that one has to be neutral without preconceived notions be it fiction or documentary and enjoy the process of watching it and making it.

Sometimes there are limitations while shooting a documentary film. These can be time-related or equipment related. How do you suggest one overcomes these difficulties?

These issues become more and more easy to handle with experience and as time passes. Initially there were 16mm films and 8mm films and you had to go to the studios and use the film equipments but now you can shoot in the digital format which is much more accessible and much more democratic. You don’t have to go to a studio to edit, you can edit on your laptop. These are technological developments that are immensely helpful. For instance a lot can be done with a DSLR. Mobile cameras are also great sometimes but we don’t have a strong support system in our country for these newer approaches to work well. Documentary filmmaking is considered a non-commercial activity. While mainstream films have all sorts of systems, proper production and distribution, it doesn’t extend to documentary filmmaking which is very frustrating for filmmakers and more so for up and coming filmmakers with no track record and awards under their belt. The talent goes unnoticed. I feel like the state organisations should take care of these things so that non-fiction filmmaking comes alive. There’s a lot of talent, a lot of new ideas and our country needs to be viewed from a youngster’s perspective.

Documentaries can be scripted or made on the editing table. what according to you is the best format and which category do your films fall under?

I call it reverse-scripting, because in a fiction film you have a script and get the shots accordingly. Here, I get the shots first and then formulate the story while  finding  the connection between the shots. So it’s essentially the shots, the scene and the plot structure that work the script technically and that’s what I do on the editing table. I call it reverse writing because it’s not  documentary in the conventional sense. There are  lots of manipulations of situations, shots and sounds which are not completely real. I take full responsibility of telling the truth. But creating a story around the subject and the script is done on the editing table.

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It’s said that in the movies, the story comes first, performance comes second and then comes the technical aspect. Do you follow the same pattern or do documentaries in general follow the same pattern?

Not exactly. For documentaries, the concept comes first; the filmmaker has to be convinced with the idea. This is the first step followed by the filmmaker immersing his mind and body into the process of telling the story. Then the other processes come in ie. developing the story, locations scouting and meeting the characters in the story. The style of filmmaking for Bilal and Char were very different from each other. The concept which is the premise leads you on to how the story needs to be told. The most interesting part while making a documentary is that you are not bound by a structure or a script; you can be more experimental and tell the story differently- in a linear or a non-linear manner. It is I suppose more complex in terms of the language of the film and the storytelling as compared to fiction but sometimes we don’t exploit the potential of this form and make it very flat, boring and structured. These are scripted documentaries which make a lot of people think that documentaries are boring and it creates a wrong notion about this form of filmmaking. But I hope that changes.

If you had to sum up your advice in a few words to students and amateur filmmakers, what would it be?

I’d say just believe in yourself and make your own film.

-By Kratika Sharma