Table for two Metroplus

Filling the trust deficit

MAKING A SUBTLE STATEMENT Filmmaker Gurvinder Singh at New Town Café in Noida’s Park Plaza Photo Sandeep Saxena.

MAKING A SUBTLE STATEMENT Filmmaker Gurvinder Singh at New Town Café in Noida’s Park Plaza Photo Sandeep Saxena.   | Photo Credit: Sandeep Saxena

Gurvinder Singh brings the punch and patience of a painter to cinema

Gurvinder Singh’s films are like slow oven cooking that suck you in bit by bit. They make you toil with your conscience but ultimately set you free of the prejudices. If Anhe Ghorey Da Daan poignantly captured the othering of Dalit Sikhs in Punjab, his latest work Chauthi Koot revisits the Punjab of 1984 and delves into the growing atmosphere of suspicion between Sikhs and Hindus, where a dog becomes a metaphor for silencing the truth.

Once again, the National Award winning director has found inspiration in literature. Set in the post Operation Blue Star period, it is based on two short stories of noted Punjabi writer Waryam Singh Sandhu. “When I read ‘Chauthi Koot’ (The Fourth Direction), I found the feel of a thriller in the story. Then I read another story in the collection, ‘Main Theek Thak Haan’ (I Am Feeling Fine Here). It is about this family which is being threatened by both the terrorists and the police. The first one was too short to be made into a film and the second was too linear. So instead of choosing one, I decided to combine the two.” And he found an organic link in Sandhu’s writing itself.

As I enter New Town Café in Noida’s Park Plaza, the swelling monsoon wind reminds one of the distinct visual imagery that Singh has created with nature in Chauthi Koot. The first Punjabi film to be screened in the prestigious Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Festival this year, it has been shot in two distinct seasons: winter and monsoon. “I use weather as an element impacting the events or as a silent witness to the events. Anhe Ghorey Da Daan would not have been the same film had it not been shot in winter. Here again for the opening story winter played an important role in connecting the chill inside with the one outside. Similarly, we waited for a month in August for the skies to open up.”

Talking of the chill, Singh says, Sandhu’s characterisation was such that you constantly feel that something bad will happen with these people. “There is a constant sense of suspicion. That period was highly polarised. I was in Delhi at that time and I could sense it. The way Muslim community feels today, perhaps, the Sikh community felt at that time.”

As for the dog becoming the bone of contention, Singh says it is a fact that militants asked people to eliminate dogs. Ironically, it is the loyal animal and the old woman of the house who are vocal in the film. “Perhaps they are fearless. Men are more ambivalent. Interestingly, it is the old woman who negotiates both with the police as well as the terrorists,” Singh leaves it to viewer to read between the lines.

Like his guru Mani Kaul, Singh is a foodie. Here we warm up with an array of kababs – from galouti to irresistible chaapli. He could cook many things but what he really likes is baking breads. “I just can’t stand the factory-made bread. I learnt by watching videos and read some books on artisan baking. It is almost like pottery. It took me almost a year to get it right but still you never know till it comes out of the oven. It is the same with all the creative pursuits.” The only difference, Singh says, unlike painting and cinema cooking is a quick art. “What you create is what you eat and what you eat is what you are. So it is the most satisfying art.”

On off days, he likes to cook for the whole crew. “This time I prepared mutton biryani for 40-50 people.” Again very much like Mani Kaul. “Oh! He was a connoisseur and would go to ridiculous levels to get the recipe right.” Very much like his cinematic idiom. “Yes, once in Pune, he spent two hours with a butcher telling him how to cut the right pieces of muttons. He would never use ready made spices.” Singh still remembers his rogan josh and saag methi and palak. “He used to gift me cookery books. Once when I visited his home, he had put the handi on tawa for six hours to get the right flavours. I imbibed his fondness for cooking and classical music was something I was always interested in,” reflects Singh.

Singh lives in Bir now. Known as the second most popular paragliding destination in the world, the quaint place in Himachal Pradesh still retains its natural beauty. “Two years back, we leased a house there for ten years. It is not very expensive. Facing the valley, we are positioned on Dhauladhar around 5000 feet above sea level. We were lucky to find a house and we leased it for ten years. There are nine houses and many of the people who live there have never gone out of Himachal Pradesh. They often request humein Dilli to dikha do and I say what is there to see in Delhi!” Singh laughs.

With the Dharamshala airport just two hours away, accessibility is not an issue. So is security as Singh, sipping chicken clear soup, says for the last 10 years not even a single leopard has been sighted. The positives are many. From fresh vegetables to freedom from anxiety that city living breeds. “The feeling that this mine and this is not mine vanishes there. There, till where ever you can see, belongs to you. You never feel alienated.”

It is perhaps important for Singh, who as a 10-year-old in Shalimar Bagh saw the city on fire during the anti-Sikh riots. While the riots pushed many youngsters into orthodoxy, Singh moved away from the colours of organised religion.

Talking of colour, we move to buffet and Singh returns with ravioli and dum ka murgh and memories of shooting at Ferozpur Cantt., which he picked because the script demanded a station where there was no electric line. “But we could not find a maroon train. So we hired a blue one and painted it maroon and after the shooting painted it back to blue.” Permission for shooting in train don’t come easy in India. “We had to pay around Rs.4 lakhs per day for using the train and shooting on the platform. We shot for 8-9 days, so a big chunk of the budget went into it.”

If you feel, it was tedious; training Tommy, the gaddi dog in the film was excruciating. The producer offered him to hire a foreign trainer, but Singh wanted to keep it simple and Indian. “I wanted a gaddi dog which is common in Gujjar settlements in Punjab. But the trainers told me that it can’t be trained unless I give them a two-three month old pup.” In doubt, Singh got two gaddi pups trained – one by a Bollywood dog trainer in Mumbai and another by a BSF trainer in Chandigarh – and waited for a year. It is almost like grooming an actor. “The Chandigarh one looked the part and made the cut. Still we could not completely control its mood swings. It would not bark when we wanted it to.” With barking a crucial element in the film, Singh had to come out with a solution. “Ultimately, we brought in a female dog and put it next to the camera. It worked and we never had a problem with barking scenes after that.”

As he asks for black coffee to wash down the main course, the conversation shifts to his interplay of sound and silence. “In our mainstream films sound is usually used as filler or for making an extra impact. It is like the scripts, which move from one dialogue to another with little regard to time and space. There is no sound without silence. Silence creates sound. In Turkey, they take their coffee very seriously. So if you go to have coffee, first they give you a glass of water to neutralise the taste so that you can appreciate the beverage’s quality. Similarly you need silence for neutralisation of sound, only then you would get the desired emotion.” As the film finds space in theatres a week after Dishoom, let’s hope audience appreciate silence!

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Printable version | Apr 2, 2020 12:32:31 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/Filling-the-trust-deficit/article14511366.ece

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