Farha Alam talks about her debut documentary film The Superstars of Koti that tells the story of three boys and their relationship with the Mountain God.


A still from The Superstars of Koti

Tell us how you came up with the idea for The Superstars of Koti

The Superstars of Koti came about as an extremely frivolous idea about deitydom, faraway culture and other phenomena that seemed attractive to us. As outsiders it all seemed glossy, but we learnt to keep these ‘concepts’ (deitydom etc.) at the back of our heads and zeroed onto emotions and ideas closer to us; faith, coming of age and friendship.

My uncle who hails from Dehradun once told me about Koti, which served as the instigation point. Next week we packed our bags and left for the area but with no focus whatsoever. Our focus on Koti happened by chance when some kids playing cricket next to the forest guesthouse where we were staying, came in and interacted with us. One of them was Kuldeep, our character. He was our first friend from the village and that’s how simple it was for us to narrow down on Koti.

What kind of research went into making this film?

We conducted a simple research. We read up everything that was available on the Internet, eBooks, thesis, papers, etc. We didn’t have a clear focus but the extensive research helped us narrow down our theme. We also regularly visited the Archaeological Survey of India. Anandana Kapur and our Prof. Mahesh Sharma helped us with other details.

I also loved visiting the neighbouring villages where we stayed for weeks. One of our friends, Vivek, is from around so he used to invite us for village celebrations etc. Even though we narrowed down on Koti, we visited other villages and interacted with the locals. It was a humbling experience.

The title of the film is interesting. How did you come up with it?

Part of a prose that the kids sing during inter-village cricket matches goes like this — ek do, teen, chaar, Koti waale superstar (one, two, three, four, we are Koti’s Superstars’). We spent months trying to find a title, completely overlooking the perfectly fitting one staring at us. The terrain hardens the people emotionally and the boys are a characteristic mix of soft and steely. The title of the documentary reflects the magnanimity in their characters.

How did the collaboration between you and co-director Anuj Adlakha happen?

Anuj and I have been collaborating since college. Both of us have an almost obsessive affection for sounds and images that are in constant need of translation. Fortunately, what made our collaboration sufficiently healthy was the kind distance that both of us as individuals could give each other.

Our individual styles came together for this film and differed at a very fundamental level. Anuj likes to work with character intricacies, vulnerabilities and personal fancies. I, on the other hand, like to take the character across  to another world and explore the kind of vulnerability it then faces and the shape it then acquires. This is all done while harboring an extreme love and obsession for the character.

This collaboration was met by our needs, conditioning and thoughts. For example, on the edit table, Anuj would leave me at a point where he would require character advancement and I would take it forward in my own way. The next day he would carve that portion up and I would then take it to another dimension. So it worked well for us.

Directors Anuj Adlakha and Farha Alam

Directors Anuj Adlakha and Farha Alam

How was your experience of working with kids in your first feature?

I have a deep attachment for kids this age (pre-puberty, coming of age). Emotions can guide even the strongest ideals; it is like magic. What was most worrying was the sensitivity with which we had to film. Given their age and the surrounding, we had to be careful to not get too attached to them since we knew we would be leaving after the shoot was over. The experience was a strange mix of freedom and restriction, love-hate, gratitude and above all, a sense of familiarity that we all left with. The city seldom gives us that. Each visit gave us a new trajectory and view into their lives, which also made it extremely challenging to edit the film. The entire film is like a little epoch—a time where the characters transition monumentally, giving the audience a sense of a sketched story from the beginning to the end. The children made the film happen and gave us all unsaid lessons in honesty and innocence. They revolutionised us. They were fantastic teachers.

Did the families of the kids have any reservations in having them as part of the film?

They didn’t, and we got lucky. We made sure to meet them every day while we were shooting. We would also stay close to their homes and their routines.

You are the Cinematographer, Editor and Co-Director of the film. Did it give you more creative liberty?

The way we shot the kids involved no pre-thinking or scheduling for most parts. Over time, I realized that there was a style or motion that I had developed with the camera. So this liberty acquired over the latter part of the production was the only one that I had full control over. Anuj trusted me and we both believed that with kids, the cameraperson should attain creative liberty almost at par with the Director. The other cameraperson was Raju Biswas, who shot some parts of the film. He had his individual style and we adjusted that to fit the other parts.

Apart from this, editing was an overwhelming process. I had envisioned the larger skeletal narrative but Anuj’s word took precedence as a Director and mine as an Editor’s. I edited for almost a year and the process made me so vulnerable and close to the narrative that I would always need him to flesh out the intricacies. Anuj was distanced from the film in his own way with a view that was very different from mine. This gave us scope in terms of perspectives.

As a cinematographer, what visual treatment did you adopt and how challenging was it to shoot in a small village like Koti?

The visual treatment is exceptionally raw. The camera managed to get close to whatever was happening and we knew that with kids, we would have to go in close first and then portray the exterior. We wanted to capture the dynamics of their lives and so we focused on a lot of close-ups and mid shots with few wides. There is plenty of motion in the film, which includes the kids dancing, running, jumping where the camera simply followed them. This was a daunting task for me since this is my first film and with Canon, focusing can be an issue at times. But that sort of worked to the film’s advantage because there were multiple dimensions and depths in a single frame. With motion shots, Canon 7D’s lightness helped. So the image making was at times too spontaneous, as there were a number of live elements in one single frame. The visual treatment grew from an array of close-ups emoting private lives to a style that captures exteriors and provokes distance. In all, we kept it earthy, raw and only let it magnify towards the end.

We spent two-and-a-half years shooting the film. It was challenging to shoot because of the terrain in Uttarakhan. We were there during the floods, when neither the villagers nor we knew anything about it. The sound of the heavy rainfall still haunts me. There was no electricity for days and we had to charge our batteries with a bank’s generator supply. On our way to another village, Raju suffered a 200 feet fall from the top of a mountain, injured himself badly and had to be taken to Delhi immediately. The entire village rose to this situation and helped in every way possible. Apart from some other hiccups, the shoot went smoothly. The villagers were supportive and we are grateful to them.

Koti is a beautiful village with grasslands, dense forests and clear sunshine. With these elements in your frame, there is not much that can be tampered with. The beauty of the village has been transported through the children themselves, in their laughs, their friendships, their fights, and their dreams. They take the audience through the entire village in the film and that is how we have shot it too.

production 2

What is the importance of music in your film?

I’ve always thought of music as the sounds in the movie so it is difficult for me to define it. But yes, if I could talk in terms of enhancing one particular mood or an emotion, then the music we were looking for was minimal, almost to the point of being hidden, which is completely opposite to what we have done in the trailer. We weren’t looking to get another worldly feeling or sensitivity through the film but something that accentuates certain impressions and sequences. Just like the ways light falls on an object and simply accentuates it without converting it into another object altogether.

Taj (Tajdar Junaid) is a sensitive musician. The fact that we wanted something that wouldn’t overpower the film’s attitude gelled with his perceptivity perfectly. Since the narrative has some routine repetitions and occasions, we had to construct sequences based on familiar visuals and audio with music that would help resonate. At a subconscious level, there are characteristic silences in Taj’s  work—a wave of sounds and visuals that doesn’t hit the audience, but settles in. Working on music was the easiest part of our production since there was a lot of help from Taj.

Being an indie film and your debut too, was it easy to get financers? How did Films Division come on board and what is the kind of value they added to the film?

We went for a few recces with no idea about funding. We then applied to Films Division and got a positive response. We were glad to have someone such as FD on board. They never interfered with our creative process and we always received great feedback.

What was the most challenging aspect of the entire film-making process?

Editing was the most overwhelming part because that is when we saw our film and thought we might have to hire a professional editor. It is a process you can’t afford to mess up— something that scared us in the beginning. But in time, we figured that editing has the power to make you reflect. We have seen the film grow from a useless hodgepodge of sounds and visuals to something that is now uncluttered and coherent. It is such a demanding process and you come out reformed, disciplined, patient and much more educated. Since film-making can be an unforgiving task at times, going back to the edit table is like going back home—finding peace in all the madness.

Where and when is Superstars of Koti slated to release?

The Superstars of Koti will have its first screening in Koti on a cold winter night in the village courtyard. We will apply to film festivals soon and hope to start touring next year. We have been told that it will be tough since we don’t know many festival programmers or distributors. Regardless of that, we want to take it to small towns, our own ancestral villages and some friend’s too. We are not sure about a theatrical release; that is something we are yet to explore.