Gurvinder Singh won a National Award for Best Direction for his debut Punjabi film, Anhey Ghorhey Da Daan, in 2012. The film went on to win many awards at many international film festivals. Singh’s second film Chauthi Koot was recently screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival. Singh shares the secrets of his craft with Rohini Nag
What prompted you to become a filmmaker?
I took up filmmaking because of my interest in painting and photography. And while studying for my Master’s at Pune University, I started visiting the film archives and watching mostly European cinema. That opened me up to the possibilities of cinema as not just a means of telling stories, but also as a medium of reflection, like painting or poetry. Even at the film institute in Pune, I used to spend hours on the streets taking photographs and then nights in the darkroom developing the negatives and printing them. You could say that photography was my first love. As such, I was seduced by films which were visually striking. But, slowly, I realised that cinema is not just a visual medium but a temporal art unfolding in time, like music. How to combine visual depiction with a temporal sensibility is what I took long to learn and understand.
How do you choose your stories?
I would say the stories choose me. I had read Anhey Ghorhey Da Daan as a student in FTII. It opened up an idea of Punjab which I had no clue about, but which I engaged with deeply after finishing film school. During my travels through Punjab, I could associate with the people who reminded me of characters from that novel. That led to my first film. As for Chauthi Koot, I had vivid memories of 1984 as a boy growing up in Delhi and the disturbing news that would pour in daily from Punjab. I was aware that Waryam Singh Sandhu had written stories about that period and they immediately stuck a chord when I read them. He is one of the finest short story writers in any Indian language.
Your first feature film Anhey Ghorhey Da Daan won you a National Award for the best director. It was also the first Punjabi-language film to have travelled to numerous international film festivals and won awards too. How did the film shape up?
Anhey Ghorhey Da Daan was produced by NFDC. I did not approach any other producer with the script as I was sure nobody else was going to fund it. And luckily NFDC approved it. I worked with a first time crew and mostly with non-actors. I was convinced that the faces I needed for the film could not be found among actors, either in Punjab or elsewhere. I cast mostly people from village near Bathinda where we shot the film. A few others came from theatre in Patiala and around.
Anhey Ghorhey Da Daan was different from the novel in terms of space and time. Was that deliberate?
Structurally, it follows the novel. But while shooting, the idea of time and space changes. It’s not a conscious thing, but something you are compelled to do in response to what you see on location where you are shooting. While shooting, what’s in the story or the script becomes secondary. The reality around becomes the material for the film, whether people or spaces, or even the weather and its vagaries. I look forward to improvising and wait for accidents that bring the film closer to life rather than just an illustrated reconstruction of the story, which most adaptations are.
Your second film Chauthi Koot was screened at Cannes recently. How did that feel? What kind of springboard do festivals like Cannes provide new filmmakers?
Cannes was a great platform to screen the film. It gets noticed by the who’s who of world cinema, whether critics, festival programmers or distributors. The film got picked up by Elle Driver for international sales and Epicentre took it for French distribution. Slowly, requests from other territories are also pouring in. Recently, it got picked up by a company for Canadian distribution. North America is a key territory for the film also because of the large Punjabi population there. Critically, the film had a mixed response. A lot of people don’t know about the backdrop and the events of 1984 in Punjab around which it is based, and which I don’t try and explain in the film though there are enough cues to them.
Also stylistically, although it’s a strong film, it’s not conventional in its approach. I don’t expect Hollywood critics to get it, fed as they are on explanatory and sentimental cinema. I think the world over there has a preference for simple narratives which can be easily grasped. But the audience is more intelligent than the critics would like us to believe. My films provoke adverse reactions, which I like. But with this film, I have hopes for a very good response from Indian audiences and look forward to its release later this year.
What was the inspiration behind Chauthi Koot? How did you combine these two stories – Chauthi Kootand Hun Main Theek Thaak Haan.
Though each story was complete in itself, I decided to combine them as they supported each other and evoked a similar feeling of fear, paranoia and mistrust in those times, through public spaces like railway platforms and trains and a personal space, the home. The entire space seems under siege, caught in this atmosphere of mistrust and fear. My idea was to evoke this sense of insecurity which permeates spaces and minds in such troubled times. The film works as a relay, one character passing on the the baton to the next set of characters.
Considering it is set in a bygone era and the fact that it is a sensitive topic, you must have done a lot of research.
The research was mostly done through newspapers of that period. We looked at the archives of Punjabi newspapers like Ajit and Punjabi Tribune, looking at the photojournalism of the times. And also collecting personal photographs of people, to see how people dressed and what homes looked like. A lot of photographers had documented the Khalistani militants. Even they shared their photographs with us. It was important to find a house that was built at that time and remained unchanged. Most people have renovated their homes with marble and tiles. We must have visited at least a hundred houses in and around Amritsar district before I found the right one near Tarn Taran.
Was it tough to find producers for the film?
Chauthi Koot is an International co-production. Kartikeya Narayan Singh was the line producer of Anhey Ghorhey Da Daan and decided to do Chauthi Koot as his first film as a producer. We have a very close working relationship. NFDC supported the project from the word go. That gave us the impetus to look for funding overseas. The project got invited to various co-production markets like Hong Kong Asia Film Finance Forum (HAF), the now discontinued Paris Project, Cinemart during the Rotterdam Festival and the Film Bazaar, Goa. Catherine Dussart from France came on board as co-producer and we got funding from the World Cinema Fund of the France’s National Cinema Centre. Olivia Stewart became the creative producer and she helped get funding from an arts fund in UK. Finally, Sunil Doshi pitched in as a co-producer from Mumbai. The entire process of fund raising took almost two years.
What is your take on commercial Punjabi cinema?
I don’t see much Punjabi commercial cinema. I can’t relate to their concerns and cinematic sensibilities. I’m sure Punjab deserves better films! Recently, films have dealt with the themes of 1984 and issues like drugs and female foeticide, but stylistically they remain very conventional and melodramatic in their approach.
Will you now venture into the Hindi space?
A lot of people ask me if I will make a Hindi film. I don’t dismiss the possibility, but as of now the ideas I am working on are all in Punjabi and set in Punjab and even overseas. If I am excited about an idea for a Hindi film, I will surely do it in the future.
Which are the mainstream actors you would like to work with?
If you mean ‘stars’, then I can’t think of anyone as I don’t see a need for them in my kind of films. If the need arises, I would surely approach one. But I would love to work with an actor of the calibre of Pankaj Kapoor or Abhay Deol, if they are open to the idea of working in Punjabi!
The next film will be a comic fantasy about the aspirations and dreams of a young amateur Punjabi qawwali singer who comes from the underprivileged class. I am going to cast a real qawwali or sufiyana qalam singer for the role. I would like to shoot it next year, depending on how the financing materialises.