The concreteness of filmmaker and artist Sarah Singh’s 2007 documentary The Sky Below gives way to abstraction in her first feature, A Million Rivers. Shot in black and white, and featuring a handful of actors, including Om Puri, Lillete Dubey and Asif Basra, the haunting short feature (it clocks under an hour) is loosely tethered to The Sky Below through the common theme of the lingering effects of the Partition on the north-west of India.
While The Sky Below is packed with the typical elements of documentary, A Million Rivers is in the mould of the memory film. It has fragmented and discrete images, an elliptical narrative that relies on a near absence of dialogue and a carefully constructed soundscape, and themes of alienation, anxiety and the repetitiveness engendered by memories of another life. Puri and Dubey play a couple who are never in the same frame, but communicate over the telephone – one of many time-warping elements along with bicycles and single-screen cinemas. Their daughter has a troubled relationship; meanwhile, a man carries a mirror across a landscape without revealing the contents of its reflection.
The film’s Indian premiere took place in Mumbai over three weeks after Puri’s sudden death on January 6. Singh, who lives in America, had come to Mumbai to talk to him for an upcoming project, but she couldn’t meet him. Puri’s finely calibrated performance, which involves a single line of dialogue in his well-known timbre, is a showcase of his expressive face. If A Million Rivers explores the interior landspace of Punjab and Kashmir, then Puri’s face is like a map that reflects the film’s many themes. In an interview with Scroll.in, Singh discussed the philosophy behind the making of A Million Rivers, which will be screened next at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale.
‘There is very little that is direct’
A Million Rivers doesn’t actually look at the Partition – an earlier interview had misinterpreted what I said. The film, however, explores some of the themes that came out of the work from the Partition film – the fragmentation of identity, the breakdown of the family that represents a larger geopolitical story, the violence. The film is a further exploration of the legacy of the Partition, but there is very little that is direct.
I never overtly considered A Million Rivers to be a film about Partition – it is a backdrop to a backdrop. It is not a documentary. There are endless ways of understanding reality, and all these ways are necessary. They reflect new ways of thinking and personal experiences.
Any historical event is a concentrated experience of a constellation of experiences. There were two important aesthetic stories for me. Although the painting Las Meninas, by Spanish painter Diego Velasquez, depicts something historical, he is redrawing the point of view and the hierarchy. Centuries later, we are still captivated by the content. The myth of Tiresias is a Greek allegory about the ways of interpreting various genders in society.
Among the film’s themes are estrangement, alienation and the breakdown of communication – the inability to be direct or to engage. Many of the aesthetic elements are not what people expect from this part of the world. They expect colour, layers, craziness and sound, whether it’s honking or a marching band. I shot the film in black and white even though nobody is going to give you money if you want to work in that medium.
The man with the mirror is a very important symbol because you never really know in a sense what is reflected in the mirror, and he doesn’t seem to care either. They all echo off echo other.
There is an overall theme of silence in the film. It has a complex soundscape – these are not the soundscapes that you hear in real life. These are isolated sounds that replicate the sense of the psychological and interior landscape rather than the normal. That is a message about the region – there always seems to be a breakdown of dialogue and an inability to engage.
When it came to casting, I didn’t have secondary choices. I met Diksha Basu in a bar, she is striking looking. With Om Puri, it goes without saying – you can see the minutest changes in his expression. A majority of his scenes were improvised. Puri’s character is a man who is confronting his past. He goes into a fantasy world.
For the Kashmiri character, I needed a specific look, and Asif Basra’s face stayed with me.
I spoke to Lillette Dubey on the phone. She is a confident, strong and dynamic woman who imbibes and symbolises a certain kind of power over her life and situation. That is why she tells her daughter, a little competition is good for you. Throughout the film, you see these dissolves and the characters going into a dream or a fantasy state or a memory, but except for one moment, her character is always there.
There is a sense of a time warp. Time is one of the most interesting facets of reality. In this part of the world, in a single day you may roam through not only centuries but millennia, so you are roaming through a long delineation of time. Our experience of time shows us that we are in a cycle, where things are repeated. They have their phases and then they appear again.
I also like the idea of a feeling of timelessness. The rest of the elements are also fluid, in terms of identity and place.
The film was premiered at the Victoria and Albert Museum in March 2016. It was also shown at a museum in Germany, where there must have been only one other South Asian in the audience. The viewers got into the aesthetic space of the film.
My next feature is A Western Summer. It is in the genre of the Western and set in Europe. It has a mix of characters from India and Europe, and will be shot by Fred Kelemen, who shot Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse, in the late summer of this year.