Delhi-based filmmakers Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas tell Budhaditya Bhattacharya about finding Timbaktu and why their documentaries ‘look good’

Bablu Ganguly is strolling through a forest with a friendly mongrel, when he decides to get his hands dirty. Scooping up a bit of earth, he says, “This is really rich stuff…all over here, the soil is pristine soil.” This wasn’t the case a few decades ago; the land was dead, and the forest Ganguly is standing in was a wasteland.

In 1989 Ganguly and fellow activists Mary Vattamattam and John D’Souza bought 32 acres of barren land in Anantapur, Andhra Pradesh, one of the driest regions in India, and called it Timbaktu. The Timbaktu Collective was born soon after that, with “the idea of developing alternative, practical and sustainable models of development.”

A small, but by no means insignificant, part of their expansive work, and the intimate relationship between farmers and their land, forms the scope of a documentary called Timbaktu. The film, made by Delhi-based filmmakers Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh, won the National Award in the Environment film category recently.

“As a theme, we are very interested in stories about sustainable lifestyles through grassroots, community-driven initiatives…Our interest and research led us to the Timbaktu Collective’s work…As we researched more, we found an amazing story of an entire community living an organically sustainable lifestyle, where living with nature is simply a way of life. With its focus on nurturing and respecting the land, the philosophy of the Collective was a story that became impossible not to tell,” Rintu says.

The duo earlier made The Miracle Water Village, which tells the story of Hiware Bazar, a drought-hit village in Maharashtra which reversed its fortunes “by the sheer application of wisdom in sustainable water and land practices.” This village is home to a few dozen millionaires today.

They have also made Dilli, which “questions the notions of ‘development’ and ‘urbanization’ in the face of imploding, unsustainable cities” and their thesis film (co-directed by Sumit Sharma and Ajeeta Chauhan) Flying Inside My Body examined the life and work of queer photographer Sunil Gupta. Explaining their eclectic range of genres and subject-matters, Rintu says, “It is the story that takes us into its world.”

In relaying the story of Timbaktu, they also take recourse to text and music at critical junctures, informing the audience about the Collective, the district it operates in as also the disastrous effects on food security brought about by the Green Revolution there.

“When Rintu and I founded our company, Black Ticket Films, one of our core focus areas was (and remains) to constantly challenge the way we tell our stories. So ‘form’ for us is as important as ‘content’. We’re constantly mixing media and using high-definition live-action, still photographs, archival video, graphics, music and text to build on our stories. Quite a few well-known film theorists and academics in India have asked us why our documentaries look so glossy, almost like advertisements – and in my response, I’ve always wondered why shouldn’t a documentary ‘look good’,” Sushmit says.

The film was finished in about eight months, starting with a week-long recce trip by Rintu. “We went in for a seven day shoot after that and began the post-production process soon after. We later decided to go back for another six odd days since we didn’t want the film to look like its just peppered with shots of cows and farmers and fall into visual trap of an ‘agricultural film’,” Sushmit adds.

One of the challenges they faced while making the film was the community’s reliance on solar power. “…the batteries charge just enough energy to operate a few bulbs at night. After a day’s shooting, our camera batteries needed charging and we had no option but to switch off all our lights and use every bit of that energy to charge our batteries. I think our equipment sucked all their solar energy dry at night! Because that would still not be enough, every location we went to in Anantapur, people eventually got to know that this film crew is always on the look-out for a charging point,” says Rintu.

Nearly 30-minutes long, Timabktu is an insightful and moving document of a “mad, mad experiment” that paid off. For their next few projects, the duo want to focus on the short film format, specifically films that don’t cross the five minute mark.