Award winning filmmaker and writer Brahmanand Singh talks to Anu Singh Choudharyabout his irregular, yet compelling, journey as a filmmaker. He also unravels the truth behind independent filmmaking in India, and passionately talks about “Pancham Unmixed”, documentary for which he won a National Award.
Thank you so much for taking out time for us. Feature Films, short films, documentaries, poetry, short stories, novels, articles… Well, that is indeed a profile of a true maverick! Tell us something about yourself. Where did you grow up? What is your background like?
Well, there’s nothing maverick about them. It’s just some of the things I’ve gotten excited about in the process of living and growing and ended up expressing a few of them in terms of works – films and writings, and intend doing much more in the coming years – now that I seem to have found my bearings after meanderings of all sorts.
It has taken a long ride to reach this stage filled with trials, experimentations, disappointments; and at the same time, hope, excitement, passion and success. I grew up in Purnea, Ranchi and Kolkata. Kolkata was where I practically discovered that there were endless avenues to grow, learn and express. That is where, while in College, I played around with everything – all sorts of experiences and exposures – throwing myself headlong into the stimuli that the world had to offer, my metaphysical and poetic side started mingling with the humorous and the mundane. There was an interesting kind of sensitivity that started taking shape, somewhere between passion, fascination, seduction and creativity … not necessarily in that order (smiles).
From an erstwhile estate of Banaili in Purnea (Bihar) to filmmaking in Mumbai – that must have been one interesting journey. Did you face resistance from anyone back home? How did your family take to your wish of becoming a filmmaker?
Filmmaking, I feel, is invariably a very compelling journey. Most people you’ll get to know have their own irregular journey which had landed him or her into filmmaking.
The extended Banaili family is an interesting lot of people to grow up with. It’s huge and like any joint family from the bygone era, it seems like the microcosm of the world – in the sense that you have all sorts of people – from those who are the very best in their chosen field to those who have languished into oblivion to those who live 200 years in history and refuse to accept changed times! Yes, I grew up surely with the reassurance of a prestigious family so to say, but I was quite sure that one can’t do much by merely basking in the glory of whoever we were a hundred years back and how we lived. I felt it was important to move on, test new things and do something meaningful with yourself and with and for the rest of the world. The interesting part was that the laid-back Banaili genes perhaps ensured the lack of desperateness for any sort of goal or achievement. And I feel you grow most and do the most remarkable work when in a relaxed state of mind.
There was the occasional resistance from the family … actually not exactly resistance … but more of a lack of approval. Gradually, however, they started becoming somewhat accepting and even proud sometimes whenever they heard about something I did which was well spoken about, well-received or got some recognition, awards etc. However, because I haven’t done much mainstream work, most from the large family still don’t know what I exactly do but they know that I’m onto something and something rather exciting which they’ve not quite understood. Irrespective of this, however, the vibes are always great because as a person, I get along fabulously with all my folks.
What really made you get into filmmaking? Did you always plan to become a filmmaker?
I think it was more of one thing leading into another. I never had any goal or plans that I’ll become a filmmaker one day. My father used to indulge me often, read my palm and point to a few lines saying I’d always be in creative field and that my Jupiter and Sun (lines and mounds) were very strong. I always took these forecasts with a pleasant and amused indifference. In the process, I became a writer first, published a lot (over 2000 write-ups big and small), then started writing screenplays and got exploited in the process. But I also went on learning something or the other about the craft and the medium and felt drawn to the hidden dimensions of Cinema, actually good cinema (the regular, nutanki cinema hasn’t much impressed methough I love it often for its sheer entertainment value).
At some point of time, a friend of mine and I decided to do a documentary on Ahsgari Bai, an octogenarian dhrupad exponent languishing in Tikkamgarh in Madhya Pradesh and that sort of set the ball rolling. I did many films thereafter like A Burden of Love, Uncaging the Body, Ragpickers – Scavengers of a different graveyard, Pancham Unmixed: Mujhe Chalte Jaanna Hai … to name a few and a whole lot of commissioned documentaries and short films. They all had their own challenges but were also extremely rewarding, every single way.
It is not easy to survive in the mad world of art and craft, where funding doesn’t come easy. Here, you are considered successful only if you have the potential of creating something that is commercially viable. How do you survive this rat race? Did you ever have a day job to support yourself or have you always been making films independently?
I feel funding, though certainly not easy, is much too overrated a problem. I find there is a lot of funding available for all sorts of films. Yes, it’ll not come to you but you have to go to it. Make a compelling project which they will feel sense to fund and so on. Any project can be funded. One has to look for it, identify and work towards it in a focused way.
I also feel it’s possible to make most things commercially viable, again you have to work for it. Maybe, it’s not possible for the same person always to raise funds, make a great film and also make its commerce work out. But the right people with proper efforts can always make all these things happen.
The only way to survive in this so called rat race is to stick to your vision and don’t go by rule books because no one knows the rules exactly (if they knew, they all would have been successes). What really matters at the end is your quality and your expressive voice, mixed certainly with the business acumen. One cannot survive without the partnership of the other. Maybe, the same person cannot do all. But then, filmmaking is a team effort anyway. Show me a single filmmaker who can make the same film by doing camera himself or editing or sound or music or any of the various critical departments by doing them all by himself or herself. Then, why they don’t apply the rule to partners who can raise funds and do the marketing just like you need a top class cameraman and a superb editor (among other top class collaborators) in order to create a great film. The vision and the ideas can be yours but you need good and right people to actualize your vision.
You have often said that “Pancham Unmixed” took four years to make. How do you keep yourself going when a dream project takes this long, or sometimes even longer?
It took me that much time probably because of the nature of the film (so many big names… getting them all wasn’t so easy for sure). But it took such a long time also because I was doing a lot of things myself, also because I didn’t have all the money to do it in one go. Today, if I were to do it, I’d do it much quicker and in a much more streamlined sort of way. For the first year and a half or so, of course, I did keep doing many commissioned corporate documentaries etc which used to be my regular bread and butter of sorts. But, a little later, I realized it’d take me maybe 8 years to do it if I continued to be in my comfort zone. I also realized that whatever you do, if it is quality work, it’ll eventually pay you, even if for some time you may go through all sorts of problems. It’s the typical case of being in Stephen Covey’s quadrant of work that’s not important but urgent rather than focusing on work that’s important, prioritizing them over things that seem or even are urgent. There are many ways of keeping yourself going. Best, I feel, is to concentrate on work and dreams you love … everything else falls in place by itself. Javed Akhtar’s line, “kadam uthao toh manzil rasta ban jaati hai’ is something that’s made a great deal of impression on me.
Other than winning a National Award, your film is hugely popular on youtube and other networking sites. It is being screened all over the world. Did you anticipate the kind of response your documentary eventually received?
No I hadn’t. In fact, I had no idea it would be received with this sort of unanimous appreciation (from some of the great cinema people to fans to lay people, middle aged, elderly, teenagers and sometimes, people tell me, even five-year olds) It’s unbelievable), with an unending shelf life. Everyday I receive mails, text messages, phone calls telling me how, with my film, I’ve touched their lives, uplifted their spirits, inspired them etc. It’s very gratifying and reassuring. But when I spent those dark hours with my editor working on a seamless edit for 5 times the size of a feature film, I didn’t have people’s responses of the wah-wahs in mind. I just concentrated on what I felt was to be done. I’m so grateful to each and every one of you who have now made me feel it worked at a very universal level. It’s seen over 70 screenings worldwide (festivals and informal ones where I have been present) and the end result is the same overwhelming one, what I experienced at ArcLight Hollywood during its world premiere in Los Angeles!
Many emerging filmmakers have no idea how to apply for funds or even go about making a film. Would you like to share the secrets of the trade with our readers? There are many aspiring filmmakers out there who want to understand this whole dynamics of getting your ideas funded. How does it really work? Could you delve into that a bit?
I feel the internet has made things very easy at a certain level. However, one has to go beyond that and access information and contacts. The whole dynamics of funding, I feel, rests on the idea and execution clarity more than anything else. If you have a great subject and you want to make a film on it (documentary or feature), I feel one has to work endlessly in making it look really sparkling. There are funding platforms, there are the film festivals which have market (EFM, AFM etc). Closer home, there’s the Film Bazaar run by NFDC every year in Goa as part of the IFFI (planning starts 2-3 months before for any of these events). And then there are unconventional ways. If you want something to get done, you will get it done. There are a whole lot of ways in which it can get funded. There’s no one definite way or formula but there’s a certain dynamics which can be understood.
What are the other challenges that an independent filmmaker faces in India?
I feel more than anything, distribution. And the fact that everyone on board meddles with the creative vision till the time that most films become a mess and caricature of its own vision. One has to have the openness to listen and adapt but also the courage of conviction to stand by and not adapt or change if not required, no matter what. You don’t make films to please a funder or a financer or a producer. You make a film because you believe in it. And I feel one should stick to that belief without any embarrassment, unless of course, it’s so trashy that you yourself start realizing it in no time!
It is often believed that there is a caucus of filmmakers and you can’t break into that. Is that true? Also, how important is networking and do we have any such platform in India for independent filmmakers? What has your experience been like?
Networking and platforms are important but only to an extent. It’s your voice, your story and your style that’s far more important than all these. I feel a filmmaker can make it on his own without belonging to any camp. Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee, Imtiyaz Ali, Sriram Raghavan, Sujoy Ghosh, Shoojit Sarkar … I could name many more … they have stood out on their own with no Godfather in the industry. May be it takes longer, harder for people like these, but today they are prominent talents in the cinema circuit in Mumbai and quite deservedly, gradually becoming strong forces.
Do you believe that Indian audiences are coming of age, and are willing to explore new ideas and stories? Please comment.
Of course they are … They’re coming of age because a few good filmmakers today are giving them varied and original fare. When you get a platform, you can create awe … if you keep making presentations for approvals, you’ll keep getting only feedbacks … most of which means nothing. I feel too much feedback spoils the originality and purity and simplicity of vision and it becomes very mishy mashy. Most films today are being made like this and the results are there to see … some film works well in the first half, some in the second … some inconsistently in parts and portions, some in their potential and idea. The one, where the filmmaker, however, stands by his conviction and vision have begun showing that they are doing well. Audience is always intelligent. Popular filmmakers, in their attempt to play safe, invariably underestimate them. How is it that audience was richer in the time of Gurudutt, Bimal Roy and Raj Kapoor and today they are not? How come audience of regional cinema today – Bengali, Marathi, Malayalm – where some good cinema is still made throughout the year, are of age? It’s what you give them. They are obviously hungry for quality content well-told.
Which is your favourite medium of expression? Is there any other way you would like to communicate?
Poetry, humor and visuals. I like subtexts. I find a great amount of pleasure, satisfaction and excitement in not telling each and every word. That’s when I feel I’m communicating well. I don’t see me burning water in a lake in cold weather. I’d expect it to freeze, in heat evaporate and in rains, come back again to the same lake.
What next from Mobius Films’ stable? What does Mobius mean, by the way? What’s the significance of this name?
Mobius Strip is named after the German mathematician who pointed out that when a metal strip, if given half twist and joined will have only one surface … this had thrown many topological mathematical equations in the early part of the century haywire. To me it represents mystery and a certain cyclic element – that everything returns sort of thought. There’s lots that’s coming out from the Mobius stable. It clearly intends creating quality entertainment and in a way, redefine entertainment as seen in this country. All its lined up projects vindicate the ‘more than just entertainment’ tag that all of us here at Mobius Films are so passionate about.
Thank you, once again for sparing time for us. One last message for the aspiring filmmakers you would like to give.
Do what you dream and believe in. Do it well. Be open to feedback and communication but be confident of all that you’ve set out to do. Dream big and have a larger purpose to your works, not necessarily the grand ones like I’m going to change the world but tiny ones which create a mosaic of your imprint. Discover your voice and be steadfast to it and keep growing, don’t lose passion no matter what the setbacks. … People grow old not by the years they have lived but when they stop being passionate about their ideas and their execution. And whatever you direct your attention to grows and will happen. It applies very much with everything, including films. There are many steps in between … merely wishing is not enough. We have to discover these steps ourselves or take someone’s help. But it’s important to recognize these steps and traverse them. Quantum jump is always around the corner but only when you are not looking for it.