SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Line, gesture, rhythm

DIALOGUE

GOWRI RAMNARAYAN

CLEAR VISION: Thorough research and planning.

CLEAR VISION: Thorough research and planning.  

Thorough research and planning.

"ABYSMAL," says Arun Khopkar, when you ask him about the budget allotted by the Films Division for "Pravahi", a documentary he has just made on Bharatanatyam artiste Alarmel Valli. "The struggle is to figure out what your choices are, so that there is no compromise," he muses, adding mischievously, "With lots of money you get glossy lighting, but with no budget at all you can have Subroto Mitra. The challenge therefore is to say, I'll make a bloody good film inspite of Films Division."

Khopkar should know. Had he not made a remarkable "Colours of Absence" (1994)? Had he not refracted the grandeur of Hindustani classical music with a reverent non-conformism in "Rasikapriya" (2001)? Made the gentleness of the poet "Narayan Gangaram Surve" (2002) shine in the fire of his verse?

Graduating in Mathematics, with a Pune Film Institute diploma in direction, linguist Khopkar sees no boundaries between the arts, traditional and modern. "If you know the fluidity of the line in painting, you can intuitively grasp it in dance or in cinema."

A passionate rasika from boyhood, watching Lachchu Maharaj in class, gate crashing into dance performances by leading artistes, "Sanchari", Khopkar's first film on Bharatanatyam, explored its organisation of space and changing repertoire "with a three-dimensional view as with sculpture," he explains. But "Pravahi" is all flowing currents and frontal representation, with the liquidity essential for the mercurial style of Alarmel Valli, founded on the Pandanallur school.

Khopkar gets technical as he explains how he achieved the effect he wanted. An editing pattern was developed to cut during the movement itself, instead of cutting at the point where it ended. "We presented the visual with practically no change in the camera angle, violating `normal' cinematic grammar."

Though his research and planning were thorough, the filmmaker found the need to be open to what happened on the spot. Valli and her art throve on improvisation. "In a sense this freed me to concentrate on the purity of line, gesture, rhythm ... To make counter moves after every move of the dancer." Lighting was the key. With Madhu Ambat for lensman, lighting could do much, even capture Valli on the brink of visibility in the stormy night of the Sangam poem.

Except for a brief garden interlude, the film is shot indoors in Valli's home studio. "I'd drown the film maker who makes a dancer perform on the sea shore," Khopkar fumes. Parks and gardens are taboo. "The dancer's hands can shape a lotus convincingly only in the absence of the real lotus on the screen, a pre-requisite for the creation of rasa in stylised art."

Alive to the hint that match cuts had posed a problem in making the film, you ask if it was tough to be confined to a single camera.

Khopkar pauses to answer, "Every film maker knows there is only a single, ideal viewpoint for a shot. Multiple cameras mean compromise, they're mandatory only for expensive `unrepeatable' shots ... Like the parting of the Red Sea?" he laughs.

Television relies on many cameras for live action, fearing that it may miss the target. But Khopkar is clear about his line of vision. "In a film you know where the jackpot is — aim straight, you'll get it."

* * *

Doing justice to dance

I'VE had terrible experiences of having to dance for filming on uneven surfaces, on rocky heights, with glass splinters on the floor. Once I shared the space with a billy goat that refused to move. Great setting for comedy, not for dancing. In "Pravahi" I had space that was comfortable, intimate. I didn't know a film meant so much preparation, I thought I had to just go up and dance. But Shanta (Gokhale) researched so much for the script, Arun had all the dance written on sheets with stick figures, matched with sollukattu and word.

Initially the idea of switching on and off for each shot, stopping and repeating bits of abhinaya at random, was new and hardly palatable. I'd be immersed in the mood before shooting began, — and someone would shout "touch up!" "make up!", "check lights!"... No, film making is not pravah! But Arun (Khopkar) and Madhu (Ambat) did get the flow. To me this flow is not just the dance on the screen, but also the tradition I represent, roots intact, ever changing.

I know it's tough to film the dance. Some filmmakers go in for mysterious, clever angles, at the cost of Bharatanatyam. Austere and minimalist, "Pravahi" brings the two art forms close.

(Alarmel Valli as told to Gowri Ramnarayan)

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