Your studio is called Coloured Glass Films. Why did you choose that name?
Very simply put, I just like glass that is colored! You know how those old houses in Delhi had those windows up high, roshandaans, which would be colored pink or green or blue? I would find that embossed glass very pretty. The way you look through a camera lens also adds a certain hue to what you are seeing. I liked that double take on colored glass.
Your work gives the viewer a lot of room to think. How do you manage to achieve this?
I learned the importance of this when I worked with documentary filmmaker and artist, Amar Kanwar, who is very poetic in his use of images and film. I got to work with him for two years in Delhi. He uses images of actual locations and spaces as witnesses to tell an event’s story. When you intersperse your editing with such images, it actually transports people to that space. You will see in my films that you’re not only moving from one event or sequence to another, you are given spaces of reflection - a few seconds or a minute to think about what is being seen while you’re still seeing it.
That pause forces you to reflect upon the series of images that you have seen before it. I keep working to create and arrive at these zones of reflection. I think it has been the strength of my work.
Do you allow yourself the time for self-reflection?
Ever since I had my first child three years ago, I find I don’t do enough of it. But definitely when I decided to make filmmaking my career, it was something that I created moments for. When I was at the San Francisco Art Institute, I wanted to be in a space where I could just be with other arts and study experimental film. It was abstract stuff and very out there. I was living on my own and alone, far away from home. As an Indian kid from the middle class, you can’t just do something that’s indulgent, so I somehow had to make something out of those two years. I used to think about things like this. I also thought that maybe I’d never get this kind of time to read, experiment and create ever again. A lot of those two years in San Francisco was spent sitting, looking out the window, sitting in parks, sitting in places to think about what I was making.
What was the film that you made while in San Francisco?
I only made a fourteen minute film but it took me a long time to make that fourteen minute film. It was about Isadora Duncan and how she came upon a new language of dance - today’s modern dance. I didn’t want it to be a historical, biographical film. How could I get into her mind to understand what forced her to come out with this new art form? What made her believe that she had the power to do this? She was a very tortured soul herself. I took a long time trying to understand - reading and thinking about how to communicate what I had understood. That was almost ten years ago. I look at it now and see that it is quite cryptic, sensorial and simplistic. There is a lot of silence in that film. Those who see it for the first time, especially other filmmakers, wonder why I don’t go back to that style of filmmaking.
You featured a quote by Rudolph Laban in that film, “Space is a hidden feature of movement, and movement is a visible aspect of space.” I feel that space in your work.
A lot of the films that I made earlier did not have interviews or people. It was all about concepts and feelings. I was just shooting spaces and putting words on top, giving meaning, and making the viewer look at that space in a certain way. In documentaries as in most art, we talk about content and form. I was very obsessed with finding new languages of form. But while looking for form, I was not patiently listening or truly present in the space itself. That only came to me after I made a few films.
How do you develop empathy for the people whom you feature in your films?
Empathy comes when you slow down, patiently observe and listen. When you are making a film, every location is teeming with information and emotion. The risk is that you can end up just documenting information, like a news report. If your film can contain the essence of the subject, the saar… that is where the magic of the visual image happens.
Unfortunately, the way a camera records is very two dimensional. So how do you capture emotion? How do you capture sensory feelings? I am constantly trying to see if I am able to do that. Shooting is one part of it. But when you are editing, it’s like a fine chiseling of a stone sculpture. You have to keep on trying different permutations and combinations to get to the essence. Is what works for me going to work for the people I feature? Will it also work for a viewer? You just have to go through the process over and over. You cannot stop until you have arrived at the essence.
What part of that process is most exciting to you?
I don’t know why but making a film is a very churning process. I thought it would get better over time but I’ve come to realize that it does not. I spend about a year working on one film. I do the research, I direct and edit my own films. Unlike in fiction films where you are editing to a script, documentary films get put together on the editing table. It’s the nature of documentary work to question yourself all the time. You’re always wondering whether it’s going to click. Somebody once said that you’re not even starting from zero, you’re starting from minus.
But as you edit and as the picture starts coming together, you create a visual language which goes beyond the first layer of words to the second layer of emotion. Meaning gets made and it is like magic. You have to go through this process year after year just for those few weeks of that high.
What about your work has been most rewarding?
Recognition in terms of awards is one aspect of it. But when a film screening is over and people from the audience tell me that the images in my film are exactly the ones that they had in mind, that makes me feel very, very happy. When I made the Isadora Duncan film, a dancer told me that she was taken aback when she saw the images on screen because they matched the images in her mind. Even the way the light fell felt similar to her. I feel very gratified when somebody says something like that.
What part is the most difficult for you?
I’m very nervous on a shoot. My stomach is clenched and I have butterflies. It’s become a state of being now and I’ve gotten used to it. It’s not like I’m freezing, my mind is working. I just want to be able to capture what is most important. You don’t want your film to be a question and answer session. You want to make the protagonist feel comfortable so you can shoot them the way they truly are. You don’t want to miss anything so you have to be very quick on your feet. And then you have to put all of that together so that it looks like it’s flowing. Just being aware of everything can be nerve wracking.
Is it ever hard to manage your crew?
I wouldn’t say it’s hard to manage my crew. I work with a rather small crew but yes, sometimes I feel that I am not able to communicate clearly with them. I wonder what they are thinking about the film, I wonder whether they are judging me and that’s not a nice place to be because it occupies so much mind space. You need to be honest about these things.
How important is it to have a sounding board?
You have to be lucky to get a person who will get into the film the way you are. For one of my first films, I partnered with Justin McCarthy who is a well-known Bharatnayam dancer from Delhi. It was really useful and we would have very concentrated periods of work. But it was on and off because I moved to Bangalore. I recently hired an assistant director. She was with me for eight months. Because now my time is so precious, she would do a lot of background work and I’d use that time to intensely brainstorm about what to do next. It was very useful to have another sounding board thinking with me throughout. That’s a practice I’m going to build now.
How do you keep your confidence up?
I carry what Robert Bresson said with me, “Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen.” You have to believe that you are special and that you have it in you to do what you want. I operate from the heart and am intuitive.
Most of my films have been about stories that I feel need to be told. How can a story be told only by me? I keep believing that there is something about me and that is the reason that I have been made to choose this subject or to arrive at this place at this time. I have to give it my 100% or else it will never be seen. You just have to believe in that, however pompous it may sound. It’s because of this attitude that I end up going for things maybe others would be tentative about. I don’t worry about a lot. I just focus on what appeals to me. This makes me more extroverted and fearless.
Do you ever feel self-doubt?
Yes, of course! But I realize that it’s important to recognize this self-doubt and learn to embrace it.
I have always felt from a very young age that I need to be my own best friend. I need to be kind to myself, like a best friend would be. If I don’t look after myself and I’m not sympathetic to myself then I cannot expect anybody else to be.
How would you describe your artistic voice?
I cannot answer that. I am always finding my voice. I feel confident that I have some kind of voice… in being able to give those pauses. But each film is very different, and the way I approach each film is different. Non-fiction is a part of my style of voice. I am very satisfied when my protagonists feel that their voice is being heard. I find fiction so different. I can’t write dialogs or think of a plot. For me, it’s much more exciting to be in a real location with real people and then try to put the story together.
How do you handle criticism?
I don’t handle criticism very well. When it’s given, I don’t react or try to defend myself. I go very quiet and listen. Then I take time to process it. Since you’re not likely to monetize a documentary film, your gratification and reward come from what other people think of your work. That’s not a very good place to be in. It really matters what fellow filmmakers and others say about your work. During a Q&A session, when somebody criticizes the work, it doesn’t bother me because I can defend my position. But when journalists criticize, I get upset because what they say is in print and permanent. On the other hand, I’m very receptive to criticism when I’m in the rough cut stage. At that time, I organize serious screenings with a mix of filmmakers and professionals. When you’re working on your own, you can lose perspective. When others bring a different perspective then you know what changes to make in your final film.
Did your own perspective on work change after having your first child?
Having a baby made me much more of a compassionate and empathetic person. I associate maturity with patience and I think I have become more mature.
Also there are a lot of things that are outside your control but you just have to let things settle down and everything becomes okay. Nothing ruffles my feathers as much anymore.
What’s it like to be a mother who travels to shoots for work?
Parents have so much guilt about whether they are good parents doing the right thing. The other day somebody asked me whether I would do anything differently now that I’ve had my second child. I’m like, “No. I always thought I did everything right with my first child and even if I didn’t I’m not going to go back and change anything.” We think of ourselves as indispensable but actually we are not. A lot of things will happen on their own if you just let them happen. I have to do that because I go away on shoots. I have to trust that my child’s father, nanny, grandmother, whoever is there at that time, is going to look after her and that she’ll be fine.
Do you see yourself in this line of work forever?
No. But I don’t know why I say that. I still have many more films to make. Filmmaking will always be a part of what I do. Somehow living in Bangalore makes me feel that I can do anything. It’s a very entrepreneurial city. I have no idea what it might be yet. It will come to me by and by.
You’re very comfortable with not knowing!
I’m much more of a short term planner. After I had my first child, I put down a few things that I wanted to do - running a 10k marathon for the first time, getting my own office, setting up my website, getting an assistant director. I put it all down and planned it and said, “I want it to happen.” It’s not so hard with small changes and small commitments.
What I’m now looking at is a more long term goal that has to come on its own. It’s not something I can just put down on paper. I think it’s okay to take each day as it comes, for now.