'Madness in the Desert': The sanity behind the madness of filmmaking

Satyajit Bhatkal’s documentary on the making of Ashutosh Gowarikar’s 'Lagaan' reveals the inherent insecurities of art and how the life of a film artist is a nomadic assembly of farewells

June 12, 2020 10:37 pm | Updated June 13, 2020 12:30 pm IST

Onscreen history: A still from Lagaan.

Onscreen history: A still from Lagaan.

Every life is a passage of unrepeatable rhythms. In the future, these rhythms are known as memories. In the present, they are remembered as phases. Some phases of time, like seasons, have a definition to them. School-life, for instance, ends at a specific point. Goodbyes are papered over by new welcomes. College-life, too, with its distinct set of liberations, ends on a specific day. The goodbyes are pronounced, because the mind is developed enough to understand the permanence of them. But some phases, like time itself, slip away through the cracks of evolution. We merely move on from them without knowing they’re gone. They simply exist as nostalgic echoes of the past. I spent my childhood playing with friends from my apartment complex. There was a foreverness about those days: I have vivid recollections of summer holidays in empty swimming pools, winter mornings on cricket fields and monsoon evenings cycling across the neighbourhood. Weekends were spent with my grandparents, featuring old adults feeding my afternoons with food and naps. I rode their giant vacuum cleaner when I ran out of toys.

Rediscovering art

But when did these phases end? I can’t pinpoint the exact date I “grew up”. Was it a slow fadeout or an abrupt collapse of adolescence? I can’t recall when I last hung out with the society gang, or the last night I slept in a netted tent on my grandparents’ balcony. How wonderful would it have been if we were warned that time was being left behind? I can’t even pinpoint the beginning of this pandemic: the precise moment life became about avoiding death. (Was it the day Tom Hanks contracted the virus? Or was it when flights were cancelled?). Caught between phasing out memories of home and memorising phases, I rediscovered Madness in the Desert on Netflix, Satyajit Bhatkal’s documentary on the making of Ashutosh Gowarikar’s Oscar-nominated Lagaan . Maybe I was missing the movies, maybe I was missing cricket. Or maybe I just needed to feel the plurality of people physically collaborating to create a communal experience. But watching it felt different this time.

This film about a fabled film is just as fabled, responsive in its coverage and restrained in its courage. Bhatkal, who quit his law career to work in the production department of Lagaan , is the narrator. His letters home to his Mumbai-based wife – written from the endless shoot in the torrid nowhereness of Kutch – personalises a journey of visual anecdote. His perspective allows the “making” to emerge in real-time through the luxury of hindsight. The pain and pleasure of a passion project are laid bare: Aamir Khan’s first home production, his then-wife Reena as a no-nonsense producer, a brutal schedule, a vacant building being converted into living quarters for the 400-strong crew, Gowarikar with slip disc directing the cricket scenes from a cot, an English actor dislocating his shoulder while diving for his crease, a crowd of 10,000 locals being managed across one day to evoke a “stadium” atmosphere, an ailing AK Hangal braving a hip injury to deliver a line.

But it’s Bhatkal’s introspective gaze that reveals the inherent insecurities of art. Paul Blackthorne, who plays the villainous Captain Russell, remarks on his last day that irrespective of this once-in-a-lifetime experience, he is likely to never meet his Indian colleagues again. Everyone will soon go their separate ways. They will work with new people and form new equations in new environments. This phase is ending, soon to dissolve into a memory.

History on screen

Blackthorne’s words made me wonder if filmmaking, not unlike films, is the act of modifying life. The life of a film artist is a nomadic assembly of farewells. They go everywhere without belonging anywhere. The nature of their work requires them to love and let go, connect and forget. Moving on is an integral part of moving forward. Creating art together – and leaving behind one project to start another – is perhaps their way of composing repeatable rhythms. Filmmaking is perhaps one way of defining every phase with the power to say goodbye. Jumping from one crew to another offers them the luxury of absolute beginnings and ends: a tangible chance to control the uncontrollable. This sleeplessness allows them to formalise the slipping away of time.

Most of us tend to remember life through the lens of art. Memories have background scores, drama transpires in high frame rates, wise thoughts reverberate in deep baritones. But filmmakers remember art through the lens of life. The night before the shoot of a crucial sequence, the crew stands in as family for two British colleagues having a Hindu wedding in the set-built temple. After the final shot is canned, this family, after living and waiting for half a year, sheds tears of joy and separation. For a fleeting minute, this documentary’s viewers represent a small part of the big group photograph. A few months later, the deadly Gujarat earthquake reminds the artists – and the artists in us – that Lagaan was created in Bhuj. Several shattered souls had once combined to tell an unbreakable story. It’s time to make history on screen. It’s time to become history off it.

Madness in the Desert is currently streaming on Netflix

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