Improbable as it may seem at first flush, India-born British filmmaker Dheeraj Akolkar’s partnership with Liv Ullmann, one of Europe’s greatest-ever actresses and Swedish master Ingmar Bergman’s lifelong muse, has the ring of a perfect creative match. It has yielded not one but two remarkable documentary films about the iconic Norwegian actor’s life, work and activism.
Their second documentary together, Liv Ullmann — A Road Less Travelled, which captures the multifaceted life of the Persona, Cries and Whispers and Autumn Sonata actor, premiered in Cannes Classics 2023. It is a flawless follow-up to Akolkar’s Liv & Ingmar (2012), a vivid portrait of a relationship that had its ups and downs but ended only with the director’s death in 2007.
“I was in Marche du Film with Liv & Ingmar 11 years ago,” says Akolkar. “This is my first film in the festival’s official selection.” The decade that elapsed since the first film was inevitable, he says. “I have known Liv Ullmann for more than 15 years, but this film could not have come any sooner.”
Her personal world
“Having travelled with her, I observed her in silence and in conversations, and sought to grasp the subtle layers of her personality,” says Akolkar, who knew “the big details of her life and career” but had to give time to the process of acquiring a greater understanding of Ullmann’s personal world.
Liv Ullmann — A Road Less Travelled began streaming on Viaplay as a three-part docu-series a couple of days after its Cannes premiere in the form of a 132-minute film that played to a packed Salle Buñuel.
Besides Ullmann reading passages from her two books, Changing and Choices, the documentary features a few of her closest professional collaborators — Cate Blanchett, Jessica Chastain, Jeremy Irons and John Lithgow among them — throwing light on aspects of her craft and personality that have left an indelible mark on them.
“The aim,” says Akolkar, “was to present a portrait that would capture the sheer range and impact of Liv Ullmann’s work as an actor, director, storyteller and activist. With her help, I wanted to reach the core of what it means to be human.”
A teacher-student bond
Ullmann lets Akolkar into her world without a semblance of inhibition. “Our relationship has evolved over a period of time,” he says. “It is more respectful than chummy or pally; it is more a teacher-student bond. I have been learning from her although she has never ever sought to teach me.”
Akolkar was one of the 20 guests that Ullmann was allowed to invite to the Academy Award ceremony in 2022 when she won an Oscar for lifetime achievement. “At her table were her best friends of over 50 years. I was there too,” says the director.
Akolkar, who founded Vardo Films in the U.K., is currently working on The Other Side of Silence, a documentary about children born of conflict-related sexual violence in six post-war societies.
“We have already filmed in Germany, Bosnia and Uganda. We are due to film in Colombia, Vietnam and Iraq next,” he says. For the film, Akolkar has teamed up with 80-year-old Gerd Fleischer, a child born of World War II. The filmmaker is one of the founders of a charity that works in war-affected regions, the Global Reconciliation, Advocacy and Community-building Engagement.
Akolkar graduated in architecture from Pune University. Filmmaker Nachiket Patwardhan was one of his teachers. He went to Mumbai in 1998 to intern as an art director. “I worked in production designer Nitin Desai’s team to erect the set for the ‘Nimbooda nimbooda’ song in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam,” he recalls. He then went on to work in the production design teams of Bhansali’s Devdas and Black, and Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan.
Interestingly, Akolkar had not seen any of Bergman’s films until he went to London to study screenwriting and directing. Actor Zul Vellani (who had a role in Black) was instrumental in indirectly introducing him to Bergman. “Zul was my neighbour. His house was full of books. That is where I stumbled upon Liv Ullmann’s autobiography Changing. I discovered Bergman through Liv.”
“When I began to watch his films, they were mostly those that he had done with Liv,” he says. “I had no preconceived notions of who they were.” Liv & Ingmar was written by Akolkar with the use of passages from the book, excerpts from Bergman’s personal letters to Ullmann and the filmmaker’s autobiography, The Magic Lantern.
Does India still beckon him as a filmmaker? “My first fiction story is set in India, but I will make it only when I have the right people to collaborate with,” says Akolkar. Having worked in the Mumbai movie industry for six years, he knows how things work there and is, therefore, wary of plunging in.
The writer is a New Delhi-based film critic