Delhi-based filmmaker Spandan Banerjee talks to Budhaditya Bhattacharya about home, his films and the arbitrary distinctions between documentary and fiction cinema.
Filmmaker Spandan Banerjee has lost count of the number of times he has shifted houses in Delhi. His current house in C.R. Park could well be his ninth, in less than twice as many years. Although remarkable in itself, this situation isn’t unique to Spandan. Delhi is a city of many such tenants, for whom home is just a portable illusion.
His latest film To-Let, produced by PSBT and winner of the best long documentary award at the recently concluded International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala, looks at Delhi through the eyes of tenants. A poetic mosaic of “moving, renting and living”, the film tries to understand what home means in a city defined by flux. It gets into the lives of two couples, a music band and a single man, at different stages in the process of shifting and settling in the city. The landlord is an absent presence throughout this process.
Spandan was in a position of relative stability at the time of shooting this, but got an eviction notice as soon as the shoot was finished. “As we were editing the film, the house was going away,” he says. But the filmmaker, who has trained as a chartered accountant, worked in an advertising agency and designed T-shirts, is quite patient towards the city that has treated him thus, believing that it has turned him into a filmmaker. “For a Kolkata Bengali to believe this sincerely is akin to treason,” he smiles.
“1996 was when I came to Delhi. I came fresh off the boat from Kolkata and I hated it. It was a rude shock. It was also almost like I was following a cliché because any Bengali would not like Delhi. I hated it so much that it made me curious,” Spandan remembers.
The curiosity gradually turned into interest and Spandan found himself eager to tell stories about the city. One of his first films, a six minute short film called Thekey Pe Kya Karte Ho?, tells the tale of young boys near a liquor theka in Sheikh Sarai. “They would hang around next to the theka with a bottle opener in their hands, helping people who come for a swig by opening their bottles. And they would hang around till you consumed the beer, after which they would take the bottle and sell it the next day to the kabadiwala, and earn 40-50 bucks in a day,” he says. “It got chosen in an anthropological film festival in Finland, so I went and I was known as ‘the guy with the smallest film’ because all anthropological films are huge.”
Beware Dogs, 2007, which takes an intimate look at the band Indian Ocean, is also a Delhi film. It looks at the relationship the band has with an old house in Karol Bagh, that doubled up as a workshop and an adda. The same house figures in To-Let at the time of its sale.
Apart from Delhi, music has been one of the axes of his films, both overtly, as in Beware Dogs and subtly, as in Chitromala, another short, where old Bangla music becomes the memory of home for a man who moves from Kolkata to Delhi. “Whenever I use music I don’t use it as a filler or as something that takes you from one point to another. It is almost a part of the story because you can convey a story by telling it in words or through images,” Spandan says. “Music is also a set of images…I am not a musician and I think that helps me, because I can look at it from the consumer’s point of view.”
His National Award winning film You Don’t Belong also originated from this point of view. The film draws its name from the verses of a song that Spandan and an entire generation of Bengalis grew up with. It looks at the way the song evolved, through interviews with the poet who wrote it, as well as a host of musicians who have rendered it, adding their own inflections along the way, sometimes blissfully unaware of its origins. “The research was quite extensive, but in the way I wove it I just wanted to retain the beauty of the song, which was the core of the film for me.” The song is performed over 10 times in the film, by Baul singers as well as Bengali rock bands. It talks about the feeling of being out of place, and urges the listener to go to the country of red hills and coloured soil (Lal paharir deshe ja, ranga matir deshe ja. Hethake toke manaichhe na re, ikkebare manaicche na re).
Although Spandan has tended to favour the documentary format, he doesn’t subscribe to the rigid separation between documentaries and feature films. “We are all taught to look at it that way — that a documentary will be badly shot, heavy on information, and will be shown while you are buying your popcorn in a cinema hall. And once you settle down there will be a fantastic looking colour film which you have paid for. I don’t make a film like that. To-Let has real people, and I can fictionalise it, but the form and story will not be different. I believe in the free form and the cinematic qualities of any film, because when an audience goes to watch a film there are certain things they should be given,” he says.
Spandan’s next, titled City of Dark, will crystallise these beliefs once again. “The film is about meetings and absences. It’s about three characters who meet in different circumstances in the city over a certain period of time. Two male characters, one female character and an inordinately fantastic city.”
“To me the biggest problem of independent cinema is that it is too independent,” says Spandan. “If independent filmmakers come together and create a platform, for creation and distribution, it will only be good for independent cinema.”
He runs the independent outfit Overdose Films, which comprises musician Rahul Ram, comedian Sanjay Rajoura and script writer Rupleena Bose among others. Shortly, they will be launching Overdose Local, “whose purpose will be to create a space for new filmmakers to come together and make films in Delhi.” Through this initiative, Spandan hopes to create the production, distribution and exhibition infrastructure that independent filmmaking lacks in Delhi.
“Independent cinema doesn’t get a fair chance to run on its own merit. We try to make it compete with PVR releases and then say whether it is a hit or a flop. Our products are not made for that machinery so why try to fit them in there?”