Images by R V Ramani. Originally published here
I first met RV Ramani, in Delhi, April 2015 and collected some DVDs of his films. Recently, I watched the film Hindustan Hamara (2014), and I decided to ask RV Ramani some questions about this, and his films My Camera and Tsunami (2011) and Nee Engey (2003).
In Hindustan Hamara you follow the filmmaker Anand Patwardhan as he travels the country, organizing screenings of his film Jai Bhim Comrade. I watched an interview you gave for the Hindu Lit Fest 2015, you were on a panel discussion with Deepa Dhanraj and Venkatesh Chakravarthy (it’s on Youtube) You said you find Anand Patwardhan’s films problematic. What do you find difficult about his work and why did you want to make this film?
It is not easy to make a film on someone like Anand Patwardhan who rejects the idea of me making a film on him. In 2003, after seeing his film War and Peace, I wanted to make a film on him. War and Peace starts with a long narrative using Gandhi’s principles on non-violence. For me, Gandhi discovered a form to deal with the violent society. So my expectation was Anand would discover a form in dealing with the nuclearization of the sub-continent. I wanted to engage into a cinematic dialogue with him, trying to understand, for myself and with him, what would be the idea of non-violence in cinematic treatment. But before I could even discuss the idea with him, he dismissed the idea that I could make a film on/with him. I have had issues with Anand’s films, though I like him as a person and his social concerns and persistence. One of the primary issue that I have is that his films ends up strengthening status quo and polarization, though his intentions seem to be to reveal or expose the differences. He passes judgment and asserts his righteousness through editing techniques, juxtapositions, using voice over narrations or subtitles. He rarely works on nuances of characters he portrays and they get slotted. In his filming, I have observed that he doesn’t reach intimacy with his characters but rather comments on their situation. There are, of course, a few exceptions. In 2008, at a film festival in Madurai, when his retrospective was presented, I decided to film the event, as it was anyway a public event. I followed it up in many other screenings and filmed almost all the beginnings of the screening events of his new film Jai Bhim Comrade. He cooperated but he never remotely suspected that this could lead to a film. But for me I only shoot with the idea of a film. Documentary cinema was getting defined by his kind of films. Taking up hardcore issues, he and his films dominate film festivals, where my films were also screened. I too make films similar to him, but his pre-occupations and my pre-occupations were different. I wanted to address my dilemmas with him. I wanted to come to terms with him. I wanted to engage with his kind of approach in films. I wanted to give him my perspective on his work as a film of mine. Hindustan Hamara is the result of this.
In the same interview you said you are against the consumption of images. Can you expand on this?
Bollywood or Kollywood and other ‘Woods’ are all essentially commercial cinemas. They are based on the idea of consumption and profit. Alternate cinema, Avant-garde, New Wave cinema, Art cinema are all inventions against dominant mode or commercial or consumer oriented films and works on the area of expressions and replenishing the form and stripping it out from being consumed outright. This process also leads to consumption after a point. Any art form will sooner or later get consumed. So as an artist one has to constantly renew our working methodologies. Even genuine acts of activism using cinema as a tool are also in the same danger. In my opinion Anand’s films too have fallen into this trap of consumption.
There’s a brief moment in the film when you, Anand Patwardhan and Sanjay Kak are together. You’re all filmmakers roughly of the same generation, is there a common philosophy or approach?
Yes we do, that is, to remain fiercely independent in the way we make and screen films. Both Anand and Sanjay, engage largely with their own specific concerns on various political situations of the country. They take enormous risks and go about their jobs with very strong determination. I do get worried, just like in Anand’s work, about status quos in Sanjay’s works too. Both Sanjay and Anand work largely with activist groups, make films in support of struggles, protests, people’s movements and try to screen the films for these people and in support of these people and create awareness, discussions and debates among the larger populace. While in my case, I do not do any of these as I stay largely within the comfort zone or vulnerable zone of personal politics and form is the content and expression of it. Both Anand and Sanjay are good friends of mine and I have warm affectionate feelings for them.
I watched Nee Engey, a film about shadow puppeteers in South India, after Hindustan Hamara, in both films protagonists use image and sound to tell stories and organize screenings or performances. Suggesting perhaps the past and present are more mutable than we think?
While making Nee Engey (Where Are You), I was literally putting myself in the shoes of the shadow puppeteers and felt very much a part of their family. I treat shadow puppeteers as the original filmmakers, much before photography and cinema was even invented. They ‘projected’ images on the screen with vibrant sound design, while the audience saw it from the other side. Everything that we filmmakers are doing today, they have done it. Even the ideas of cuts, dissolves, tracks, zooming all are similar. The only difference is the screening, distribution and the idea of audience has become much more complicated and ‘sophisticated’.
Near the end of the film “Nee Engey” artist Arumugha Rao says:
“The whole country has forgotten this art form”
Do you think it has, and does it matter?
It does matter and he says so in a metaphorical sense. It is also a statement that everything dies and has a graph. I suppose everybody, in general, feels like that. There are exceptions of course.
My Camera and Tsunami, is a film about your camera lost in the ocean and the images held within it. In the film you and the camera seemed to be welded together. It’s a montage of images and words, observations of the mundane, the filming through windows, of time passing, of friends and family but with a narrative. In deciding the structure of this film, how did you approach it, do you work with a script or storyboard?
It took me some 5 years to figure out how to make a film on this Tsunami experience. I had held onto the camera throughout the drowning experience when the Tsunami struck. The camera got damaged and the footage also got destroyed. There were many requests from friends that I should make a film on my experience. I decided to work on the absence of image. Also on the idea of displacement, from the notion of reality, which was central to my experience of the Tsunami. On the back of my mind, I was trying to break the structure of documentaries, that is based on trying to create visual evidence and arguing out a case. My point was there is nothing you can prove, claim or even assert as reality. I wanted to pitch the film on the ambiguous surreal, the absence of the image, with an abundance of image, to evoke multitudes of possibilities. The film is also about my relationships, rather my struggles with relationship and how I use my camera as a companion, as a confidant, to engage with my dilemmas. It is an homage to a camera who was my partner. I didn’t want to show images of the Tsunami as I myself do not associate with images filmed by others. My experience and my imagination of it is different. But I wanted the audience to experience Tsunami in their own way. Also, for me Tsunami functions as a metaphor and is a visual and energetic spectacle, a career of change, a kind of accident and we all go through such moments at different times.
What are you working on next?
Oh, a lot. I seem to be weaving my own cocoon and hope one day to fly like a butterfly. Two films, feature-length, are almost ready, waiting for a proper sound mix, subtitling and mastering. One film titled Santhal Family to Mill Re-call, is on the process and performance of an art event conceived by the artist Vivan Sundaram as a collaboration with other artists, theatre practitioners in Delhi, to re- present and re-interpret the works of the one of the earlier artist Ramkinkar Baij.
The 2nd film is tentatively titled Dancing Memories based on a 92 year old woman who was a dancer and actor in her younger days and who has forgotten most of it. Through the process of the filmmaking, she re-emerges as a performer.
Can you recommend three to five films that we should definitely watch?
If you are talking of my films then,
Brahma Vishnu Shiva
My new film on the lady
and maybe all the others. 🙂
Thank you Ramani, for answering my questions, and perhaps in future we can continue this conversation.
References and further reading
Representing the Real – RV Ramani, Deepa Dhanraj & Venkatesh Chakravarthy
Documentary – Follow the leader