We lost the print in India. But the Berlin Film Festival, where it was screened in 1978, has restored it for a special screening this year. Chennai’s K. Hariharan, part of the political film Ghashiram Kotwal, talks to Sudhish Kamath about how the movie took shape

Life has come a full circle for K. Hariharan, director of the L.V. Prasad Film and TV Academy. He had taken his landmark debut film Ghashiram Kotwal to the Berlin Film Festival in 1978. The print of the film was destroyed after the lab where it was being preserved shut down over 10 years ago. But Berlin Film Festival has restored it to its original glory for a special screening this year.

“It is very touching to see that they have restored a film that does not belong to them,” says Hariharan, excited about the picture quality. “Thirty six years and not a single scratch.”

Ghashiram Kotwal (Marathi) was a unique collaborative film, when 16 technicians got together. “Four directors (Mani Kaul, Saeed Mirza, Kamal Swaroop and I), four cinematographers (Binod Pradhan, Manmohan Singh, Virendra Saini and Rajesh Joshi), four sound recordists, three editors and one actor (Om Puri) formed a cooperative to make films. It was the first and last of its kind,” Hariharan begins his story.

“Emergency was declared when I was in my second year at the Film and Television Institute in Pune. Indira Gandhi had introduced a 20-point programme, and student films had to be within those issues,” recalls Hariharan.

Through a cooperative

“I was deeply involved with Marxist studies, and we decided that the film should not have an author. We would not take individual credit for the film,” he recalls. “So we decided to form a cooperative and go Socialist. When we were going to register, Mani Kaul who was 10 years our senior, came to the campus and said: Can I join your cooperative?”

It was serendipity that Vijay Tendulkar’s play Ghashiram Kotwal, a musical production featuring Mohan Agashe, that had done over 80 shows around Maharashtra, caught their attention.

“We asked Vijay Tendulkar if he could make it more political. It was about the last days of the Peshwa rule. A little kid was King, while Nana was just the accountant, the Prime Minister. We saw in this a political metaphor, Nana Fadnavis was Indira Gandhi. We were dealing with history, but talking about contemporary times.”

“Ghashiram, the policeman, is the alter ego of the ruling body. We become spokespersons for our masters and mirror our masters more sincerely than the masters themselves. The story goes that when a few Andhra Brahmans had come to Pune, Ghashiram put them behind bars. They suffocated and died. This created a huge uproar. People demanded that Ghashiram be sentenced. Nana Fadnavis obliged. The system sacrifices pawns because people believe that the pawn is the problem.”

“Playwright Badal Sircar did a six-day theatre workshop with us. Forty actors plus 16 of us were put through a body language workshop. How do we tell stories with just our bodies? The film runs for 108 minutes, but it has only 500 lines, including 14 songs. It was semi-theatre, semi-musical, semi-film,” he continues.

They were also influenced by the works of Hungarian filmmaker Miklos Jancso, who did films with long single shots.

“We used to sit and watch it with fascination. The way he would use lensing, camera movement, angles... It was a combination of all these factors — Tendulkar, Badal Sircar, Jancso, and one-and-a-half-lakh rupees that we borrowed from a nationalised bank — that resulted in the film.”

“In my mind, I’m more producer than director. So I had decided that we had to shoot over three weekends. We would start at 7 a.m. Friday and go on to 7 a.m. on Monday, and I would keep awake all through. We shot at Wai, the second weekend in Satara and the third in Junnar. We wanted to shoot on location true to the period and yet give people the idea that it was a stage play,” he says.

“When we calculated the cost, we realised we would have no money left for dubbing. Getting actors again would be a problem. So Padmanabhan, our sound recordist, suggested that we record lines and play them back on location for lip sync since we were anyway going to do that for the songs. We achieved sound consistency.

“We wanted to have a unique shot that represented the cooperative spirit. The last shot was 11 minutes long. The Mitchell camera is bulky. We mounted it on a MOY gear head, placed on a stool, kept on a dolly with wheels. We had to take two 360-degree turns during the shot. This meant all four cameramen had to coordinate and operate the camera. One would pull the focus, one would turn to a certain axis and the other would continue while the fourth would duck to make sure he is not in frame and this happened for 11 minutes. We got it canned in a single take before rains hit us and slathered the whole place,” Hariharan recounts the adventure. By May, just when they were nearing completion, Emergency was lifted. “It was a personal moment for all of us. We felt our film had done it.”

The film was slammed and initial reviews were “uncharitable”. It was criticised for having no director or any “message”. The crew was downcast. They split.

Chennai, for the first time hosted the international film festival of India, called Film Utsav, in January 1978. Ghashiram Kotwal was screened in the National Panorama.

“Ulrich Gregor from Berlin Film Festival came to the festival. He saw the film and said it was going to Berlin. We made a copy for Rs. 11,000. That’s how I went abroad for the first time and represented the cooperative. It was a snowy, icy country. I came back and tried releasing, but... kuch nahin hua (nothing happened)... and we had to get back to our own lives.”

(Ghashiram Kotwal will be screened at the International Forum for Young Cinema on February 11 at the Berlin Film Festival)