Filmmaker Vipin Vijay is currently working on two documentaries.
Filmmaker Vipin Vijay’s prolific oeuvre encompasses fiction and documentary; in fact, his work blurs genres with its ever-morphing creative energy. As cinematographer Shehnad Jalal, his long-time associate, once said, Vipin “breathes and lives cinema 24 hours a day.” Even as we see an explosion of film images and film discourse all round us, it’s hard to find the combination of passion, care for craft, and intellectual curiosity that makes Vipin one of the most dynamic filmmakers in India today. From the Tiger award at Rotterdam for his documentary film, to the Incredible India award at the International Film Festival of India, Goa, 2012, to develop his new feature project, Vipin’s work has won international recognition all the way. His films, Videogame (documentary), Hawa Mahal (documentary) and Chitrasutram (feature film), have travelled through a bunch of international festivals from Rotterdam to Karlovy Vary. In this interview, he talks about his present works.
Your feature film project, Chavunilam, won the Incredible India award for the best project in development at the IFFI film bazaar. What is the film about?
The film is set on an island in the Kochi backwaters. Against this backdrop, the film traces the mysterious roots of ethnic and cultural memory, weaving the song of imagination about three generations of a family. The family survives in a state of self-imposed exile on an island surrounded by the sea, beliefs, word, myth and memory. It’s not a costume drama or a period film… but a sort of genealogical map of an “imagined community”, their history of observation, gaze and reception, their mode of encountering an ‘icon’.
Your latest documentary, Vishaparvam, features extraordinary characters. Why do you always search for the strange?
Yes, a toxicologist, a convict, a traditional healer, and a herpetologist. For example, ‘vishaharam’, or indigenous toxicology is a written, codified field. It is our duty to connect ourselves to a lineage like the Indian healing traditions. But the point is how to make the new from the old… I look at Vimala Thampurati, the toxicologist, like an artist – for me, she does a passing vanishing act. She is attuned to time and space in a peculiar mode; for example, it’s fascinating that she’s preparing cures for the new patients whom she can sense will arrive in the next few days, and who may not yet even know their fate.
To engage with events like this that occur in an unexplored register of life, that’s the opportunity this documentary offered, and to do justice to such an event, there has to be reverse trafficking, or rather, real dialogue with the characters than an informational portrayal. It’s important, at least, to imagine the emotional prospect of life around you with full blown disbelief, to see the edge of it…‘Vishaparavam’s preoccupations will be followed by a one-hour video essay I am finishing, titled ‘Retail Paranoia’.
What draws you most about your documentary on filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan?
It’s the idea of exploring the question: who is a modern Indian filmmaker? When I got the offer from IGNCA to make this film for their ‘Great Masters’ series, I started researching the project. I was fascinated by his oeuvre, not to mention the insights Adoor shared with us during the process of filmmaking. In every sense, the Kerala of Adoor’s films exists outside all official versions of Kerala’s history. His films seemed to me powerful narratives about displacement that document the cultural and social history of Kerala’s modernity.
I do not have any craving for “modernist individualism”. Instead, when I collaborate with my friends on a project, we tend to work like the medieval artisans, whose specific skills and specific roles had their unalterable status in the path to reach the “whole” of creation, the totality of the artistic work. I usually try to link the narrative to a concept, more parabolic in its connotation with respect to image making. That way, we often push and pull with our own material and try to shake each other from comfort zones. In fact, it’s the unknown, the unfelt domains, the uncertain terrain that draw me to the themes I chose, in both fiction and documentary.
Is there really room for what once was art cinema today?
I actually like the binary of art and market cinema. I like the challenge that art faces: in an age of excess of images, can art still create illusion? The mainstream has always borrowed or appropriated from the margins. I feel that something new can only emerge from a radical marginality. To appreciate a good film you need only one shot, one gesture, one composition that would open the door of uncertainty for you, and you can take over the rest to make your own mind flow.