Filmmakers Photo-1

Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh

“In this city, a dream is born every day. Simple dreams. Patient dreams”. This is exactly what documentary filmmakers Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas have captured about Delhi and given a new perspective through their camera. Called Dilli, the film made to official selection in 60 international film festivals and won 18 awards including ‘Best Film’ and ‘Best Cinematography’. On a candid chat with Pandolin, the talented documentary maker Sushmit Ghosh revealed the thought process behind re-documenting a story on this city.

What inspired you to document the condition of dislodged slum dwellers and underprivileged faces during common wealth games preparation?

During the Common Wealth games (CWG), we saw Delhi being sanitized and a visible social divide was constructed by the State. The citizenry began lapping up this idea – the city belongs to us and not them. We were curious to know who defined the ‘us’ and the ‘them’. We wanted to explore the idea of public and private space and to whom does a city really belong. All of these questions led to the birth of Dilli. The film explores the notion of ‘home’ through the narratives of people who are typically the outsiders when it comes to the idea of claiming this city as their own – street hawkers, beggars, migrant workers and the likes. That was how the idea for this film evolved.

You shot the film by yourself. What was the principal idea that you employed to achieve this particular look or feel for the film?

We didn’t want it to be a classic observational documentary with the camera hovering at a distance while someone went about their daily chores. Neither did we want to shoot interviews to the camera with subtitles ticking at the bottom, which is a very conventional approach. The film actually is a series of candid conversations with people shot against the visual backdrop of the city. So Delhi itself becomes a character in the film. The idea was to create a visual style that would not only supplement what is being said but also get an audience thinking what is being shown.

Also, we wanted it to be a short film because audiences in India run away when they hear the word documentary. Hence, to implement the idea of engaging the audience, it had to be visually distinct and unique – so we broke the film down into multiple little stories. Dilli consists of five short stories, each located in a distinct space of the city. One story is set in Gurgaon, Haryana, which is the next metropolis under development and that’s how the situation became our background. The other one is based around the Yamuna River that is the lifeline of the city. The third story is set in Old Delhi, which is the oldest part of the city while the fourth one around the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, that became the centerpiece of the CWG and so on. Each of these stories was held together by characters who are intrinsic to these spaces – from migrant workers to street children, from a boatman to a garbage collector. Dilli was consciously constructed to become their story.

Was there any pre-scripting involved before you went out to shoot? What camera did you shoot with? What was your approach like?   

Our vision was clear. We identified the specific parts of the city whose stories we wanted to tell and then we identified the characters through our research followed by spending a lot of time with them and that’s what let us to visually sort of figure out how the stories would look like. For instance, the segment shot in Old Delhi is the story of two children living on the streets. It’s about five minutes long and has been shot hand-held, with a pacey edit to give it a really gritty look. It works well with the narrative of the boys. On the other hand, the Yamuna segment was shot on a tripod, with one shot slowly flowing into the other and the duration of each shot is also fairly long. It lent to the mood of nostalgia and loss that complemented the boatman’s tale. So as far as the technique was concerned, we knew exactly how we wanted to attempt each story.

I think what really helped us was our idea of moving away from using bigger cameras and to shoot with a single camera set up using the Canon 5D Mark II. It was fantastic shooting with it because being a very portable camera, one works with minimal paraphernalia and people naturally feel less conscious of being recorded. When shooting public spaces, the invisibility that the DSLR gives you is brilliant because it just breaks away from traditional conventions of carrying a bulky camera and sound equipment. So we were able to pull off some very interesting visuals in the film because of the kind of equipment we decided to shoot with.

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What were the lenses used? 

We used a 28 block, 50 block, and the 70-200 zoom lens. I prefer working with prime lenses because you can play with depth really well, which is something we wanted to do in Dilli. The only time we used the telephoto lens was when we shot in Bawana, which is amongst the largest slums in Asia. To shoot there, we climbed up to the tallest building and shot frames of women cooking, kids playing on rooftops, men playing cards and talking to each other – candid images that worked really well towards the end of the film. But apart from this, everything was on a prime because the challenge was to present something that you see everyday in a visually engaging manner, which the prime helped us achieve.

[pullquote_left]If you just change the angle a bit it changes the perspective beautifully.[/pullquote_left]

How much time did it take for the whole project to complete?

It took us about seven months. We started our research around October 2010 and the edit was completed sometime around April 2011. Production and post-production were parallely going on.

When was the documentary first released?

The film premiered at Times Square in April 2011 and has over the last couple of years done really well in the international festival circuit. It has picked up 20 awards and mentions and screened across 90 film festivals so far.

Did you consciously decide on the framing of the shots?

Yes it can be called a conscious choice!  When you look at the film, the way the subtitles appear is not conventional because we decided to integrate them into the composition of each frame. So that was something that had to be kept in mind while I was shooting.

This approach with subtitling pushed me to think of newer ways of doing things with the same elements. For instance, one of the early visual metaphors in the film is that of a migrant worker holding a bucket of blue paint as he talks of leaving his village and landing up in his city of dreams in search of work. A traditional approach would be like a long shot, mid shot, close up while he is working and find appropriate match-cuts of action on the edit. But if you just change the angle a bit it changes the perspective beautifully. So I ended up shooting his staring into the camera, without ever revealing his entire frame and his entire narrative plays on close-ups of his paint splattered hands, legs, face and that really made it look much more dynamic. We consciously tried to let some space remain in the frame for the text to come in.

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What were the main challenges involved into shooting this documentary? Was it any difficult to be at location dealing with non-actors?

Initially, we started off with the idea of a 15 minute film but as we began shooting and editing, we realized that to keep something that tells the story of a city just curtailed to 15 minutes was really a challenge but it ended up being a 22 minute documentary. We over shot the film by 150 percent and the challenge was to keep it tight and tell the story without making it boring because the issues that have been talked about have been covered in mainstream media and many other documentaries.

The fundamental challenge was to shoot Delhi itself, which is so vast, both in terms of geography and history. What do you shoot and what do you leave out? These were critical choices and became challenges at the pre-production stage.

The actual production with non-actors was not really the challenge. Having been making documentaries for some time now, we went in with a certain experience and were clear about our politics and messaging for this film. We were upfront with everyone we talked to about this film and told them what we were trying to do and I’m happy that every single individual we approached to be a part of this film understood what we were trying to do and consented to become a part of this film and our journey. So the challenge never really was consent but more about how to do you conceive of and tell a story that is mired in complexity – there aren’t any simple answers and solutions and we didn’t want to present any either.

[pullquote_right]The best part about shooting with Canon 5D camera is the fact that people are not aware that you are making a video. They think that you are shooting stills. [/pullquote_right]

Can you tell us about your team?

We decided to keep things very simple so on the ground, we were a team of three. I did the camera work, Rintu (who co-directed the film) was responsible for the interviews while Pulkita doubled up for location sound and line-production. In the post-production phase, we had Pratik Biswas as the sound designer and three musicians (including Ishaan Chhabra, whom we have collaborated on all projects ever since) worked on the film.

Graphics were really important in the film as each of the stories was interconnected through a montage of photographs. We decided to create a sort of a virtual wall which has photographs of the city with stickon-post-it images and when you move through them, you zoom in to one story and when the story ends, you zoom out back to the wall, fluidly moving into the next story. Ashutosh Guru, who worked on the graphics did a great job and the film was the end result of a very good collective effort.

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What was the purpose for making the film?

We had been meaning to tell this story since 2008 but due to logistical and budgetary constraints, did not work on it before the latter half of 2010. I think it turned out to be a blessing because technologically, the film would have looked flat had we gone in with the standard video cameras that were available in 2008.

When we started our company, Black Ticket Films, the idea was to tell stories that would really engage someone watching the film. The other aspect has been to ensure that we use a range of media, from still photographs to text to music to archival video and mix it with high definition footage to create something that looks visually stunning and interesting to watch. For us, content and form operate on an equal plane.

I think most documentary filmmakers in India focus a lot on the story but not how to tell them and that’s a burden on audiences. But thankfully, with the new crop of filmmakers who’ve come up, things are slowly beginning to change. Films like Superman of Malegaon and Rat Race are redefining the documentary language in this country! It’s a pity that distributors aren’t picking these gems up but things are definitely opening up and a lot of spaces have opened up for non-fiction in India.

Is it really difficult to market a documentary film? What challenges are involved?

If you go to a distributor and say that you have a fantastic feature documentary and ask them to release it in 1 cinema hall each across the 4 metros, they won’t. This is simple because there is an opportunity cost involved of losing out on revenues – they’d rather have a commercial film playing there that ensures them a minimum footfall that a non-fiction won’t. But how do you get footfall unless you market a film? There are absolutely zero marketing budgets for documentaries so it’s an absolute catch-22 situation. I think unless there is a conscious effort made by both the government and private players to fund, market and distribute documentaries, the scale of the industry will remain small. There is no contesting that we have some great filmmakers in India but processes need to be put into place to make documentary filmmaking, funding and marketing much more engaging for all parties involved – that’s the way to visibilize documentaries in this country and that’s when you’ll start seeing Indian non-fiction authored by Indian filmmakers reaching out across the globe.