Gurvinder Singh’s new movie Adh Chanani Raat takes him back to the writings of Gurdial Singh. The director’s debut feature, Anhe Ghorhey Da Daan (2011), was based on the Gurdial Singh novel of the same name. Adh Chanani Raat, which traces the difficulties faced by a recently released convict in starting a new life, has been inspired by Guridial Singh’s novel of the same name from 1976.
Literature has been fertile ground for Gurvinder Singh. His second feature, Chauthi Koot (2015) drew from Waryam Singh Sandhu’s short stories. All these films are set in rural Punjab and provide stark and sobering perspectives on its social, economic and political schisms.
Adh Chanani Raat (Crescent Night) was premiered at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam. It is among nine India-themed films, including Rahat Majahan’s Meghdoot and Geetika Narang Abbasi’s Urf. The programme included a screening of Duvidha by Mani Kaul, one of Gurvinder Singh’s mentors, and a documentary about Kaul’s 1973 classic .
In an email interview, Singh spoke of seeking inspiration from literature, his unusual casting process and his frequent collaborations with cinematographer Satya Rai Nagpaul. Here are edited excerpts.
What drew you to the writings of Gurdial Singh?
I wanted to adapt a different Punjabi writer after having adapted Gurdial Singh and Waryam Sandhu. My only condition was that the work should resonate with the times we live in. I did read a fair bit, but somehow most writings did not have the same resonance and experiential journey of its characters that I have found in Gurdial Singh’s writings.
So I went back to Adh Chanani Raat. The dark recesses and the sparingly optimistic beams of daylight and hope that the novel alternates between is a continuous theme of Gurdial’s writings, something which you can also starkly see in Anhey Ghorhey Da Daan. There is always longing but a stark fear lurching somewhere in its realisation. Which you also see in Chauthi Koot. So perhaps these three films have a common theme, which is exposed through different settings, styles and characters. Somewhere they expose my own fears and vulnerabilities too.
No artist can hide behind their work. The false is easily evident. And that’s what separates truthful art from a pretentious one. There is no dearth of pretentious films. There are no good or bad films. There can be poor craft, but if it’s honest and inescapable, there will be beauty in its experience.
Also, this is strictly not an adaptation. It is a reworking of the novel. The novel has a different trajectory, which is done away with in the film.
In choosing to adapt something or in making any film, there are practical considerations like budget and its execution-worthiness within small means, which is what filmmakers like me are up against always. One day I would love to make a grand spectacle with unlimited means. My own 8½!
Tell us about the protagonist Modan, who has served a prison term for avenging a slight to his father’s honour.
What drew me was essentially Modan, the protagonist. He was an enigma I could relate to. Someone who was basically tender but who could kill for revenge, whether impulsively or premeditated.
Someone who could not bear to see injustice, someone who could disappear and revolt, someone who sees himself as a misfit not just in society, but within family too. Someone who desperately longs to belong and love and live a life we all cherish to live. Someone who longed for the warmth of a home.
And when he does all the hard work, ignoring provocations, to achieve all that, he throws it up in a flash triggered by a momentary loss of judgement.
Adh Chanani Raat expresses its exploration of the culture of honour in Punjab through a cyclical rhythm. Modan’s journey goes from darkness to brightness and then back to darkness. There is a timelessness in the setting and events. So much changes for Modan, and yet nothing does.
Does anything ever change? We might as a race achieve whatever we might, lightning speed internet and missions to Mars, but we remain stuck in petty feuds over land, honour and name. How have we progressed in any way?
We have built more borders and fences with our fellow beings. Look at the tragedy of Punjab, divided between this side and Pakistan. I cannot travel to my ancestral land. I cannot go and meet friends in Lahore without long paperwork and stress. I cannot access the whole of region to the west of Punjab by land. I cannot drive to Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey or to Central Asia, something which my ancestors would have done, even though not with ease, but at least they could. And vice versa. We have been imprisoned and ghettoised with a false sense of freedom and security.
It’s not just about Punjab. It’s about the spiritual poverty of people who run governments across the world and how they exploit these primeval instincts of the people they rule over. It took years for Europe to understand and overcome that, even though it has its own challenges. Going by where we are headed, I see it never happening with the kind of petty rulers we have who have mastered the art of exploiting in the name of religion and nationhood.
The themes of your films often play out through the faces and bodies of your actors. Adh Chanani Raat continues your preference for using non-professional actors. Modan is played by filmmaker Jatinder Mauhar. The film publicist Mauli Singh, who also represents you, has a key role in the movie.
The casting process is intuitive. I could be looking for professional actors or non-professionals. Everyone is an actor or has the potential to be one. That’s the premise I start with.
I already knew Jatinder Mauhar, himself an off-beat Punjabi film director, and had seen his films and met him a few times. He had an attractive face and personality, almost shy, yet very expressive and could hold forth on issues with eloquence. He had that inner being to carry Modan. Tender, yet tough.
He had never acted, but he was comfortable with the idea and of course with the medium already. And later he confessed that he did have a secret desire to be in front of the camera.
As for Mauli, I have known her as a film publicist since she came onboard as a publicist for Chauthi Koot. She has the caringness, fragility, strength and vulnerabilities I saw in Sukhi. There was no doubt she could act.
Samuel John is a high-octane actor who plays the role of Ruldu, Modan’s friend. He is much truer to his nature in this film than he was as Melu in Anhey Ghorhey Da Daan. I asked him to express himself fully, something which I did not let him do in Anhey Ghorhey. There I needed his intensity and not so much of the expressive.
And he has that rare intelligence to improvise with just a few given hints. The scene on the motorbike where he talks non-stop about the changes in rural life, society and economy did not have a single dialogue scripted.
Satya Rai Nagpaul has shot all three of your Punjab-set films. What does he bring to the table?
I had seen Satya’s work for documentaries when I approached him for the first time for Anhey Ghorhey. It was the quality of light and the way it fell on spaces and people, even though just the available light, that made me think of working with him. If he could achieve the same quality by lighting up spaces, we would have achieved the desired visual quality.
Three films down the line, I feel that Adh Chanani Raat is his finest work as a cinematographer. It has the finesse of a craftsman at the peak of his craft, both in terms of control and what he wants to achieve. He charts out a mental map of the film’s story, the characters’ journey and emotions and lights accordingly. As a director I give him the space and time needed to execute his vision.
How would you describe your approach to and understanding of a film’s visual landscape?
Realism is much misunderstood. It takes so much effort to achieve that quality of light and even more daunting for the exterior nights which are aplenty in my films. That’s why even the so-called realist films don’t aspire to that. They prefer easy expressions like shafts of lights contrasted with rich shadows and deep chiaroscuro, which is the go-to style for many mainstream films also.
We have totally avoided that. How do you light up for a moonlit night in vast open fields for extreme long shots? Sometimes we give the entire night to light one such scene and actually shoot it in just the couple of hours before daybreak.
For example, I imagined the murder shot in Adh Chanani Raat as an extreme long shot with distant figures and a solitary tree separating them. One needs to have full confidence that that solitary shot will work. I don’t work with different options and shoot only a well-defined image. That’s why the cinematographer has the necessary time to execute the challenge because we are not running around to shoot something from different angles and leave it for the editor to figure out how to edit all that footage.
Life unfolds for us from one vantage point, which is our eyes. We don’t need multiple eyes to experience its depth.
You lived in Himachal Pradesh for a period, where you made your third feature Khanaur in 2019. You ran a cafe there too. What made you leave, and where is home now?
I lived in a tiny village on the edge of the forests of Bir for about four years. It was an adventure driven out of a need to get away from city life and experience new settings among the mountains and its people. It was fulfilling, raw and robust. I started a small cafe in the town, due to my interest in cooking and culinary experience, which is now run by the cook I had trained.
Life in the mountains is not easy and travel always remained a concern. Eventually I figured out I belong to the plains and moved to Punjab, just outside Chandigarh. I am now settled here for good and accumulating first-hand experiences and narratives with easy access to the interiors of Punjab. It should have some bearing on the future films I make.
You have been critical of film festival culture at events and on your Facebook page. Yet, your movies tend to be introduced through film festivals. The film festival, for all its politics and problems, remains the only avenue for certain types of cinema to be shown and shared.
True, festivals remain the only space to at least launch and start talking about certain kind of films, like mine. Festivals also have their compulsions and vast programming hours to fill. They all want to be exclusive and show premieres. Now only if there were so many great films being made in the world!
The fact is that every festival ends up programming mediocre and pretentious films, whatever their compulsions. But then they do coexist with truly great cinema. As long as the latter does not get overshadowed, there shouldn’t be a problem.
After all, cinema is a high-investment art and it has all sorts of applications, mostly driven towards the masses. So most festivals try to play the balancing act. But there is always this sense of having been shortcut by films of lesser integrity, because they have something other than artistic merit working for them.
One has to just ignore these things. Only time determines what’s worthy or forgetful. Not festivals.