For some years now, we are listening how young Indian filmmakers are working to break the formula. But more often than not this experiment is about the content, not the form. Prantik Basu’s “Rang Mahal” quietly affirms how cinema is a visual medium. And that visuals can decide the form of storytelling. Produced by the Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT), the film works as several levels. It tells a Santhal folk tale on creation myth through paintings made by locals on rocks, hills and trees. It captures the cogent bond between nature and culture touching upon the ecological and geological concerns along the way. Without employing the stereotypical privileged look at the loss of tribal culture, Prantik allows us to find our own meanings in a tale which at times sounds mysteriously realistic and at times realistically fantastical. The film is garnering attention in the festival circuit and is the only Indian film in the International Shorts Competition at Berlinale.
What was the catalyst for “Rang Mahal”? What attracted you to Santhal folktales and what are you trying to achieve?
Most of my ideas stem from landscapes or locations. I have been making a feature length documentary in Purulia for the past three years now. It was during that shoot, I came across the colourful chalk stone hill where rocks are used by the local Santhali community to make murals and paintings on the walls of their houses for their annual festival of Sohrai . My film takes a micro look at this unique correlation of nature and culture and attempts to present a parable like tale of an existing ecological art at the threshold of extinction.
The film works at various levels. Please tell us about the form and layers of the film.
Every film brings along its own inherent form and rhythm. As a filmmaker, I try to recognise it and work towards it. I am intrigued by folklores and often try to interpret them in my work. There are many different versions of the Santhali creation myth. I asked some people from the community and they revealed that since these myths pass on orally, they vary in their telling and retelling. I was fascinated by this idea, of having various versions of the same story. While this became the aural layer, I started to build upon the image layer with rocks, hills, trees and the village, sometimes in direct relation to the story, and sometimes leaving it open ended for the viewer to interpret their own version.
The film explains the formation of the earth through tribal folklore but there are elements which are pretty ‘scientific’ like the ability of earthworms to carry soil. Similarly buffalo/cow skeleton inspiring roof and fish scales for roof cover. Please explain how difficult was it to arrive at the match between visual and background storytelling
The creation myth as a story was quite a visual one, almost fantastical. I could have gone the literal way, depicting its events through illustrative visual representations. But that would have left very little to the imagination. So I chose not to.
Instead, I put little visual clues, almost like a game of treasure hunt. In some parts, the connections are quite obvious, like the skeleton, or the fish scales and roof, or the part about the egg. When the viewer is lost in the almost abstract textures, one sudden, literal visual connection to the story brings about a certain joy. There is a thin line between showing and letting one see on their own.
Where did you shoot? The rock faces become interesting metaphors to explain the story. At one level it almost becomes a geological study!
I shot the film in quite a few villages in Purulia - Icharih, Amruhasha, Malti, Dungridih to name a few. And, of course, in Khori Dungri, the chalk stone hill close to the Bengal - Jharkhand border. The rock patterns there are so unique; they are artworks in themselves. The impending impermanence of this little known structure saddens me. While we hear the story of how the earth was formed by putting layers upon layers of soil, we see men digging and taking away soil in their gunny bags. Will the hill seize to exist one day? What will happen to the ecological art of making paintings on the walls of the huts with natural pigments? To an extent, it is our privileged, urban gaze to lament on the loss of tribal culture. That is why I chose to stay away from the anthropological concerns and took a more ‘geological study’ approach in my visual narration. It also added an interesting contrast to the fantastical way in which the story is narrated.
The film shows how the good old dissolve hasn’t lost its value in storytelling...
I am glad you pointed that out. I love classical cinematic devises. Since they are not much in use these days, they come across as more stylistic or ‘experimental’. On the contrary, they are the most effective transitions, if used well. It goes well with my theme as well for I am telling a tale that is primitive. Hence using these ancient techniques were a natural choice.
Is accessibility of form and story a concern for you, while making a film?
All my works are very accessible, I feel. One just had to be patient and devoid of judgement while viewing them. For me, cinema is not about understanding, or decoding a formula that will derive the same result every time one watches it. It is more to do with feelings and evocations, things that words often fail to express. It goes beyond storytelling. If I were just to tell a story, I’d rather write a book.
If I am not wrong, your previous film “Sakhisona” was also based on lore... Tell us about your influences and how do you see cinema as a form of storytelling.
When I started making films in 2007, I was very interested in classical storytelling. Intense human drama, the complexities of human emotions and our ability/inability to express them was what I was interested in. Then my interest gradually meandered to the other forms of storytelling; how a story can be told in different ways or what is the most appropriate tonality to render a particular narrative is what excites me now. My work has become more about storytelling, than just telling the story as it is. For example, ‘Sakhisona’ was inspired by romantic folklore that haunts an excavation site in Bengal.
In archaeology, one never finds the whole at once; things only surface in parts. As an artistic choice, I kept the narrative fragmented, punctuated with texts and photographs. We also processed the negative in a way to make the footage appear almost archival.
Tell us about your conversation with narrator Balika Hembram. Did you direct her?
Honestly, I didn’t have to. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Santhali language at the Sidho Kanho Birsha University in Purulia and has a very artistic mind. She instantly understood what I was trying to achieve with the film in terms of storytelling. So instead of a few technical inputs that my sound designer explained to her in terms of modulations and range, I did not have to brief her much.
What does the selection for Berlinale mean to you?
Hopefully, now my work will reach out to a wider audience. There is not much exposure for short films, and even lesser for the ones which are more ‘experimental’ in form. Festival selections can help in creating awareness about the kind of work I do and some more people might get curious to see it.