After putting Punjabi cinema on the world map, "Anhe Ghorhey Da Daan" is all set to woo cineastes at the ongoing Osian’s-Cinefan Film Festival. Gurvinder Singh speaks on his association with Malwa and Mani Kaul

If you think Punjab is only about mustard fields with soniyes and heeriyes indulging in “balle balle” and Punjabi cinema a paean to Jat Sikhs who have made it big in Canada, have a look at Gurvinder Singh’s Anhe Ghorhey Da Daan (Alms for the Blind Horse). Based on renowned Punjabi litterateur Gurdial Singh’s novel, the film is making heads turn on the film festival circuit for capturing the trauma of a Dalit Sikh family in a way which is elegiac and tenacious at the same time. Last week it was on show at the Habitat Film Festival and this Wednesday it will be screened at the ongoing Osian’s-Cinefan Film Festival of Indian, Asian and Arab Cinema before its limited theatrical release on August 10.

Reflecting on the catalyst for his effort, the National Award winning director, says, “I read the Hindi translation of the novel when I was studying at FTII (Film and Television Institute of India). After the course I went to Malwa region of Punjab to study the folk ballads of the region on a grant from the Indian Foundation For Arts. For three years that I was there I understood the socio-political issues of the region. Though theoretically Sikhism doesn’t believe in the caste system, in the villages you could easily see the caste hierarchy. People who have converted from other religions like Islam or Christianity and low caste Hindus are treated as outcastes and they live on the periphery of the village. They are called mazhabi Sikhs and they have separate gurdwaras. There is no prohibition on their entry in upper caste gurdwaras, but you can easily make out that they are unwelcome. It is a daily battle to salvage dignity. Some of the people I met looked like coming straight from the novel. By that I time I had learnt Gurumukhi, so I went back to the original work and felt like it has a screenplay waiting to be adapted. The film tries to evoke the effect of years of subordination in the struggling classes.” He says instead of resorting to rhetoric he tried to enter the being of characters and his sympathetic camera was in search of dignity, its own and the people it photographs. The film is driven by largely nonprofessional actors. The main lead Mal Singh used to work as a farm labourer whom Singh found playing cards with his friends around a bonfire one winter day in a village near Bhatinda, where the film is shot.

“Mani Kaul gharana”

Singh uses the human face as a landscape and the sound design as a vehicle to take us to the inner sanctum of his characters. It is something that he draws from his mentor Mani Kaul, who was the creative producer of the film. Singh puts it differently. “Like music, cinema also has gharanas. I come from the Mani Kaul gharana. Kaul was a student of Ritwik Ghatak who used to say, ‘Always gherao (surround) the image with sound. Sound opens up the world. There is a scene when the landlord destroys the house of a low caste Sikh, the members of the community walk in the lanes to meet the sarpanch. There is a unique sound that plays in the background. You don’t know where it is coming from until the camera focuses on a mason drilling a hole in the wood through an instrument. I found it during my stay. The visual image leads to one interpretation but the sound could mean different things to different people.”

Satya Rai Nagpaul’s cinematography is another outstanding feature of the film. There is a scene where the protagonist Melu walks on the railway tracks and the train passes by. We only hear the sound of the train and Melu’s face is captured through the window of the moving train with light and shadows playing their game on Melu’s face. “I told him the effect I want and he created it by making a wooden window and letting the light pass through a rotating reflector. Here again sound creates a dynamic effect because you don’t know what the train is going to do to Melu until it passes by him.”

Produced by NFDC, it is rare to find a Punjabi film winning accolades at the National Awards and that too in categories like best director and best cinematographer. In fact Singh is the first director to have won it for a Punjabi film. “Both Bollywood and Punjabi films have shown only the sunny side of Punjab. Earlier it was about taking on the dacoits, these days Punjabi films are about NRI Punjabis making it big abroad or returning to the homeland. The state has many serious stories to offer. There is rampant casteism in the countryside and farmers are facing health hazards because of indiscriminate use of chemical fertilisers,” says Singh adding the people are not used to realistic portrayals. “They are so used to seeing crisp kurtas and beards that they couldn’t identify with people whom they see every day around them.”

Singh insists the film is in Punjabi but what it is saying is something universal and the treatment will evoke the interest of anybody who is curious about cinema. “Perhaps that’s why the Germans lapped it up recently in Munich. Before that it was well accepted at Venice and Abu Dhabi film festivals. Later this month it will be on show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as part of the monthly exhibition, ‘Contemporary Asian’. There are places where cinema is still treated as pure art and not something whose value is judged on one Friday.”

His next is again a Punjabi film set against the backdrop of Operation Bluestar.

Salt effect

Interestingly, Gurvinder Singh first met Mani Kaul at the Cinefan Film Festival in 2005. “He had just returned from the Netherlands and was on the jury and I had just translated a long interview Udayan Vajpeyi had done with him. It was called ‘Abhed Aakash’. He liked the work and offered me the job of his teaching assistant at FTII. After that we started meeting regularly.”

Reminiscing on his association with the auteur, Singh says Kaul learnt Dhrupad and fine-tuned his cooking with Ustad Mohiuddin Dagar. “While cooking he often used to say what Ustad told him about the usage of salt: adding salt to a dish is a three-step process. If you try it in one go you will end up with either a salty or bland dish. He applied the three-step process to adjusting the zoom lens.”

Singh recalls how Kaul never liked to talk about his films. “Whenever a student said something about his film, he would invariably change the topic and focus on what that student wants to do with his film. He always maintained that it is important to have an original voice, that everybody has a swabhav, what we call nature, and one should try to get as close to it as possible. For him every being was like a tanpura.”

As for the charges levelled against Kaul for interacting with his audience through beautiful codes which proved almost indecipherable at times, Singh asks, “Why do we feel cinema is meant for immediate consumption? Why every film should be measured on the scale of flop or hit? Why should somebody dilute his art or the medium to reach out? Over the years his films have been interpreted and reinterpreted. The DVDs of his films are in demand. Some of the techniques that he used in Uski Roti in 1969 are being used now in European and Latin American cinema. I believe he was ahead of his times.”

“Anhe Ghorhey Da Daan” will be shown as part of the tribute to Mani Kaul section at the Osian’s Cinefan Film Festival at Siri Fort, August 1.