An empty India: How director Bharatbala conceptualised lockdown film ‘Uthenge Hum’

The ‘Vande Maataram’ and 'Maryan' filmmaker has come out with ‘Uthenge Hum’, a cinematic representation of India and its citizens during the lockdown

We must never forget.

Those are the words filmmaker Bharatbala finds himself repeatedly using, in a telephonic interview. That is what he hopes to convey through the visuals of Uthenge Hum, with a tinge of positivity.

While most of us stayed inside our homes owing to lockdown restrictions, the filmmaker and a devoted team of 117 crew set out to capture the unique visuals of our unseen nationwide lockdown. What resulted was a film that captured a lingering sense of emptiness across 14 states, notching up thousands of kilometres, to document this watershed moment of global history.

“When the pandemic and the lockdown happened, I felt that it was my responsibility as a filmmaker to document it. In the West, we see many filmmakers devoting time and energy to work on some amazing documentaries for the world to see in the future,” says Bharatbala.

He wanted Uthenge Hum to be something like that. “There is TV news but that is not a creative, emotional engagement. I wanted to have a cinematic documentation of the sights of an empty India. Many years later, once normalcy returns, viewers watching this film might just wonder: Where did all the people go?”

An empty India: How director Bharatbala conceptualised lockdown film ‘Uthenge Hum’

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Putting together a film that covers the entire length and breadth of India might be a nightmare for most directors. But what helped Bharatbala was the well-oiled, pan-Indian filmmaking crew he had assembled in the last few years, having made more than 80 films as part of his ‘Virtual Bharat’ project. “Thankfully, I have built relationships with amazing talent across the country. It was a humongous challenge, but when people realised the importance of our work, we got unprecedented access.”

Sitting with a team in Mumbai, Bharatbala oversaw shoots happening across the country. “I would direct through WhatsApp video calls. This is a new school of filmmaking, but the craft has not changed,” he feels. Every crew that he was coordinating with would do a recce before the actual day of shoot. “Thanks to technology, we also got shots done in multiple locations. Sitting in Mumbai, I could get shots done in Guwahati and Lucknow in a single day.”

The images he saw were overwhelming: empty villages, shuttered shops and deserted malls. Bharatbala has travelled to most places in India but had never seen something like this. “Can you imagine the ghats of Benaras empty? Or the Mumbai railway station, which sees several thousands travelling every day?”

When he went to the Mumbai CST (Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) to film, all that he saw were a few pigeons. “It was important to document the silence and emptiness.”

An empty India: How director Bharatbala conceptualised lockdown film ‘Uthenge Hum’


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The future is here

With lockdown being eased in a few states, what lies ahead? Hope and positivity, feels Bharatbala. “We recorded the voice of a migrant who knew her life had changed forever, but still looked forward to the next day. That’s the spirit going forward,” says the filmmaker, who has roped in personalities like Seema Biswas, Manju Warrier and Kalieswari Srinivasan among others to provide voice-overs in different languages for the project.

The coming few months hold a lot of uncertainty for filmmakers, but Bharatbala is clear that he wants to continue what he has been doing: tell stories through cinema. With his previous iconic projects like Vande Mataram and Jana Gana Mana, the filmmaker has re-imagined India for every generation, and he hopes to do the same with Uthenge Hum. “We have tried to present an honest film, one that shows pain but also looks forward to a positive future.”

Uthenge Hum will be telecast in TV channels and digital platforms starting June 6

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Printable version | Jul 8, 2020 10:29:35 AM |

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