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Poetic touch to propaganda

Documentary film maker Anwar Jamal chose a real life incident that took place in Madurai as the subject for his first feature. He shares his views in an interview.

WHEN DELHI-based documentary film maker Anwar Jamal read a report in The Hindu in 1997 about a woman panchayat member's tragic struggle in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, how could he know that it would inspire his first feature in 2002? Or that his "Swaraj" (The Little Republic), which shifts the scene from Madurai to rural Rajasthan, would make a commendable debut in the Indian Panorama section of the International Film Festival of India (Oct 1-10)? Or that he would get wordless handshakes of appreciation from audiences in Latin American film festivals?

Striving to retain poetry in propaganda, "Swaraj" brings in Islamic imagery to emphasise the values of compassion for the downtrodden and harmonious co-existence. The joyous songs of Sufis and saint Kabir become calls to resist oppression and unite for freedom.

The film has its technological inputs from Chennai. Processed at Prasad Labs, "Swaraj" has Chennai-ites S.Chokalingam for cinematographer, A. Sreekar Prasad for editor, and A.S.Lakshminarayanan for sound design. Wildlife photographer Alphonse lent a special camera for some panoramic outdoor shots. In an interview, Anwar Jamal tells us how crucial their contribution was, and how the desert film was made on a minimal budget with maximal co-operation from the team. Excerpts:

With four National Awards for documentaries, why did you decide to make a feature?

When you make a film because you have a socio-political perspective to share, it is disheartening not to be able to reach out to viewers. Documentaries have no distribution networks. Features are better distributed and financially, the returns are better. Besides, fiction gives me a chance to put in elements of literature and poetry into the work.

Your budget? Did the research on village panchayats daunt you?

I made "Swaraj" with just Rs. 30 lakhs, lower than the NFDC budget of Rs. 45 lakhs. The hurdles in getting anything processed through government channels are too tiresome. I also wanted complete freedom, which I got from my producer George Mathew, the Institute of Social Sciences. Initially, Mathew wanted a documentary on women in village panchayat. The institute had an enormous amount of material on the subject. But I said that I would use the concept only as a doorway to present things my own way. After two and a half years of research, I made the film in 35 days of continuous shooting. It was tough on the girls who shared a room and helped each other to get ready for the shots. The team was wholly committed, all of us worked for an ideal, money came second. And no assistant director. I made mistakes too. I used live sound for the whole film thinking that dubbing would be too costly. Imagine how I felt when I learnt that cleaning up the track would be more expensive! But sound designer Lakshminarayanan told me that my film challenged him, it had life only because it had live sound!

With so many facts and projects to study, was it tough to arrive at a focussed script and shape the characters?

I had to change 40 per cent of the script on location, using whatever I found to the best advantage. The actors were used to more traditional methods of shooting. I improvised a lot. The outdoor shoots were all done in natural light, no reflectors. But Nature is with you if you are sincere. The visual of the moon swimming in the sky that you liked was the reduction of two hours shooting to 10 seconds! (I had to be very careful with the moon's phases in Muharram. Any mistake would be noticed by Muslim viewers). To show how Leela was different from the other women because she had her husband's support, I replaced three pages of the script with a single visual of the husband helping her to serve tea to visitors - something men in village patriarchies will never do.

Did you deliberately avoid complexity in your narrative?

You know they say it is most difficult to draw a straight line. Besides, I couldn't create complexity where it didn't exist. I respect simplicity when it has emotion. The story of the real Leelavati in Madurai was quite simple. She promised to bring water if she won the election, which she did after a two-year struggle. The morning after the pipes were laid in her village, she was found chopped by the tanker mafia into six pieces. Didn't Samuel Beckett say that dead people are more dangerous? She has become an inspiring symbol now.

You are a docufilm maker used to a more leisurely and diffuse narrative. But your film has a unified, taut story line and a brisk pace.

I owe it to my editor Sreekar Prasad. He created that pace and avoided slackness.

What thought or feeling guided you in making your first feature film?

Remember the documentary made by the Spielberg Foundation on holocaust victims after "Schindler's List"? I was struck by the way the camera was used to capture the moment. Virtually a single shot for all the long interviews. It brought out the explosive emotions so much more forcefully. I thought then that I should learn to avoid fussiness, too many changes in the camera movement. The camera has to reflect the pace of the situation, and the rhythm of the society I am depicting.


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