‘The concept of Belly of the Tantra is to break the order of convention’ – Jeremy Weaver
Associate Producer, Jeremy Gram Weaver talks about his association with the Indian Film industry as he ventures into Indian documentaries with Belly of the Tantra.
What prompted you to associate yourself with documentaries in India?
I think overall, I was fascinated by foreign environment. When I go to a play or experience any art, I’m fascinated by being transported to a place that’s so rich with things that I don’t know about. I think that the closest kind of connection that I have ever had with India was meeting Pankaj (Director, Belly of the Tantra). In 2006, we met in Los Angeles, then years later we continued to collaborate on projects and it became more and more fascinating to me. I very much enjoy seeing stories that are foreign to me. I’m attracted to that and India is full of cultural elements. India is the opposite of what I know growing up in the United States. I remember when I went there for the first time, I didn’t understand how anything worked. I was totally overwhelmed with how it shocked my senses and I think India demands that of you. It’s a place that you can get really lost in and a place that requires you to trust in just being as opposed to demanding some sort of organisation or method.
How did you decide on the subject for Belly Of The Tantra and how was your experience working with Pankaj Purohit?
In 2006, Pankaj and I made a film called The Twilight’s Grace and that was the first time we really collaborated. He was really helpful in my process with that film and from that point on, we always spoke about projects we were interested in doing. So when he returned to LA, he told me about Corpse Eaters in India, people who would dig up corpses and eat the flesh and I asked him more about it. At that time, I wanted to do a horror/thriller film that had to do with religious cults and was fascinated by how people get involved in them. So he spoke to me about a sect of Hinduism-the ‘aghoris’ that were very eccentric in their beliefs. No one really knew about them and there were a lot of stigmas around them. Since they were so looked at only on the surface, there was a whole world that was interesting to explore and we wrote a film called The rope in the Darkness, our feature length thriller, that deals with how far and how extreme religion can go. And ‘aghora’ is definitely very extreme on the rituals; almost so extreme that people don’t really look at it, don’t really get into it and consider it as being too bizarre, strange and weird. They are frightened by it. If you look at some of the Indian deities, gods and goddesses like Kali Ma, for example, there are some really frightening and epic visuals of these deities and you know if you only look at it on the surface, you can’t possibly understand what goes in to why that picture is the way it is- why there’s blood coming from the mouth, or an ‘aghori’ is holding a skull. All those things were fascinating to me because they are so extreme and unknown. As we were developing the script we got very interested in what it stood for. After an intensive research it was pretty fascinating to understand that behind all of that frightful exterior, the whole point of it is love. When we look at something and confront our fears straight on, we realize that they’re not as bad as we initially perceive them.
Pankaj actually travelled and experienced their words, their voices, how they spoke, what they spoke about and that’s as close as you can get, you know face to face, and that was a very intriguing journey to take. It’s also something that hadn’t really been done, even in India and I was surprised how people really knew about the ‘aghoris’ and what they stood for and believed in . What’s really interesting is that they all have their own perspectives of the religion. So, like any other religion, you can make it and structure it so that it suits what you really believe. They’re all going to tell you a different story, give you a different perspective. That’s a fascination with this group of people because it’s unheard humanity. It’s easy to stand away and look at it from the surface because it is intimidating. I was really surprised and impressed with Babita (Modgil) and Pankaj’s ability to be able to sit there with them and go through some very difficult situations that I’m sure made them very uncomfortable and I had never seen anything quite like that. I was watching it and you feel like you’re there, the way it is filmed, and you’re face to face with things you’ve never seen before, so regardless of the story, that becomes the story.
Documentaries have become increasingly popular all over the world. What according to you has given way to this recognition and what are the changes you’ve seen in the documentary film industry?
First and foremost, we live in a time now where having the ability to film, edit and go through post production is more accessible to anyone than it’s ever been. There was a time when writing music was considered an artistic outlet because you needed an instrument and your fingers and if you draw or write you needed a pen and a paper. But now, having access to a camera and the lenses and the ability to shoot is similar to having a pen and a paper. I think the amount of films and documentaries in India and around the globe are expanding rapidly because of the accessibility to these filmmaking tools. I’ve seen a great growth in the cinematic capabilities and the films that have come out of India and I think that’s attributed to the internet. There was a time when India would simply make a Bollywood film or they would take a Hollywood film and remake it to suit India but it doesn’t work anymore because there’s a an audience of young filmmakers and film fans who already have access to the American films. It’s not enough to just remake an American movie thinking that your audience hasn’t seen it.
Ship of Theseus was very interesting in the way it was filmed because I have never seen an Indian film shot in that way. Alejandro Innaritu, director of Babel for example, shoots in the style that the director of Ship of Theseus has shot his film. I have seen those films, so it wasn’t necessarily new in terms of cinema but for India, I think it was a very new concept. I think that’s really exciting because India has been a bit behind the curve unless you’re talking about Bollywood. They are masters at that. Thank God for beautiful Bollywood films but again it’s almost like when India first experienced Salaam Bombay. The way it showed poverty and it held a mirror upto certain cultural aspects of the city gave me goosebumps. When I watched it in 1996 I felt like it was aesthetically in tune with studio films and Hollywood films. It’s fascinating that there’s such a growth because we’re becoming a world that has access to so many other cultures and finally with people having tools, they can shoot at the spur of the moment. I think that’s really important because there’s no other way for me or anyone else to see those stories. That’s where documentaries or films in general have become tools to learn. There are more people using cameras and sharing and we’re looking at each others perceptions.
What was the budget for Belly Of The Tantra and in general how do budgets work for documentaries?
Belly of The Tantra is a unique documentary. Unlike any other documentary, the way in which it was produced had been on almost very little budget. The aim was to capture the authenticity, the responses and to sit with the people who for the most part are greatly apart from society. These people were not going to accept lights and big cameras. There are no rules to it and when you tap into a subject such as ‘aghora’, there are no rules anyway, there’s no real order to it. The whole concept of it is to break the order of convention. Belly Of The Tantra does not represent your typical budget on a film by any stretch. Documentary is the reality you just have to put a camera on it. Certain documentaries are very polished and they go through great effort to be constructed and pre-planned, but you have to be careful because if you pre-plan a lot you’re not really documenting anything you’re simply creating something. So the difference between a film where you’re creating an illusion or a reality is very different than a documentary where hopefully you’re capturing a moment of reality without interfering with that moment.
When you’re given the budget; the higher the budget, the more the money and more technical grip you’re going to place on the product. With Belly of The Tantra that was impossible because nothing that was experienced and captured on camera would have been possible to capture if it were planned or set up. That’s the interesting thing about it. You are really walking a fine line. You’re risking a lot because you don’t know what you’re going to get and most of the time that’s what you’re dealing with in a documentary and you amplify that by a hundred and you get Belly Of The Tantra. We had no idea what the people we were filming were going to do and how they were going to respond. It was very unique in that way and it was extremely bold of Pankaj. At times you feel very concerned for the situation at their end but you know everything’s okay because the film came out but it could have gone in different ways.
With this experience would you be interested in taking steps towards fiction, Bollywood films?
We’re stepping into a fictional story based on elements of Belly Of The Tantra. We want to film it very authentically and we want to make sure we choose the right actors and the right style of filming so that it’s something that people experience and make a journey into. Anyone that enters the cinema for that film is going to a place they’ve never been. This film will have a very authentic and gritty style of shooting because you really have to be immersed in it. You have to feel as if you’re experiencing what our protagonist in the film is experiencing, involved in a world she’s never seen.