Documentary channel

Varanasi before his eyes: Piyush Shah’s film is about the city that is ‘all that humanity can be’

‘The Third Infinity’, the first by the veteran cinematographer, is being screened at the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala.

The Third Infinity marks the documentary debut of a cinematographer who has shot many acclaimed films in the genre. Piyush Shah’s first assignment after graduating from the Film and Television Institute of India was Mani Kaul’s Before My Eyes (1989), an experimental nature documentary set in Kashmir. Shah worked with Kaul in several fiction and non-fiction projects, including Kaul’s masterpiece Siddheshwari in 1990.

The first time Shah visited Varanasi was for the shoot of Siddheswari, an unconventional biographical film about the Hindustani classical singing legend Siddheshwari Devi. Shah has returned to the ancient city of eternal beguilement for The Third Infinity, which will be screened at the ongoing International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala. The self-funded project is a formal exercise in documentary aesthetics as well as a contemplation on the drama of humanity for which Varanasi is famed.

Every shot in this audio-visual collage throbs with the beauty associated with Shah’s best work. He places his camera at different vantage points and marks the movement of people, animals and objects across his lens. Some of the sequences are set in the narrow lanes and thoroughfares, others are by the ghats that hug the Ganga. Although there is no voiceover, the film is filled with natural sounds interspersed with a musical score.

Shah observes as well as intervenes – he frequently cuts within the sequences and changes the focal length to provide new angles on the object under contemplation and interrupt the viewer’s reverie. In an interview, 56-year-old Shah explains the practical and philosophical approach that marked his documentary debut.

You have been shooting documentaries since 1989. What took you so long to make your own film?
It takes time to make films. It’s not easy, in a sense, and it takes a very long process to internally arrive at something.

When I went to Benares, I was very clear that it might not work at all. If it didn’t, I would keep the footage as part of my riyaaz, my exercise.

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The Third Infinity.

The discipline of working in film negative, and of working with masters like Mani Kaul, lets you develop the temperament to wait and do it right. The beauty of the digital medium is that it gives you a lot of freedom, but how do you use this freedom? It is now very easy to make an image, but how do you make an image that has a durational impact, one that starts forming in the mind of the viewer? For that, you have to wait.

I wanted a narrative to emerge on its own as opposed to me imposing a narrative. I had to be to be prepared to forget about it too. In the years of the film negative, this was impossible in terms of costs. Even now, I can’t go to a producer with the proposition that I will not write out a script on a piece of paper but discover the film along the way. Nobody gives you money for that.

After deciding to fund the film yourself, when did you end up making it?
I shot for about 12-15 days in January 2017. For three months after that, I didn’t look at the footage. I wanted to approach the footage when I was ready to discover things that were happening in the images that I might not have previously noticed. This restraint is fundamental to any art.

I went through many ups and down during the editing, which I did myself. But there is a magic about cinema. There comes a point during the editing when you can see the spirit of the film. But I still don’t feel that what I have done is perfect.

The Third Infinity. Courtesy Piyush Shah.
The Third Infinity. Courtesy Piyush Shah.

You have shot in Varanasi for ‘Siddheshwari’. How different was it this time round?
I had been to Benares to shoot Siddheshwari in the late 1980s. I went back a few times afterwards, but this was my first proper visit in a long time.

The eye with which I shot Siddheshwari wasn’t there anymore. I was working with Mani Kaul at the time, and I was learning to see.

I went back to Benares for a few reasons. I was intrigued by its alleyways and the river. Also, it is impossible to get a landscape without cars and vehicles in the frame. I went back with a fresh set of eyes, and I spent the first few days walking around, feeling the place.

It took me a while to realise that Benares was still the same at heart. It is about all that humanity can be. The multiplicity and complexity of human existence and the mind are architecturally written into the space – the way the city has formed and the way the river meanders around it.

A new place has a capacity to put you in some kind of wonder. It takes a while to come out of it and get under the skin of the place. I knew Benares, and, in a sense, we see it all the time since it is so overexposed.

The Third Infinity. Courtesy Piyush Shah.
The Third Infinity. Courtesy Piyush Shah.

What camera did you use, and where did you place yourself and your equipment?
The miniaturisation of the camera has ensured that people don’t realise that you are shooting. I used a Sony A7S DSLR. Since the film was self-funded, I could not use a higher-end camera.

I would be sitting or standing, and I would find a place to keep the camera. I didn’t use a tripod since it draws attention. I had only one person to help me around. I would change the focal length, and I would also be moving around. People would come and go and do their own thing within the frame. I wouldn’t even speak to anyone.

The film is a study of perspective, in a much larger, philosophical sense. Where does the vanishing point in photography end? In a visual sense, it ends within the frame. But in the durational sense, the end of the vanishing point comes out of the screen and into the viewer’s mind. Benares has the potential to explore this duality between the physical and the aesthetic aspects of perspective. It is where the viewer can get a sense of time. This is not easy in other cities.

Benares is the biggest film set in the world. People are used to tourists and cameras, so I knew that I would be lost in the crowds. We are trigger-happy, and we are taking too many images. We must not overshoot but think or feel for the image and the moment. If you wait, everything happens.

The Third Infinity. Courtesy Piyush Shah.
The Third Infinity. Courtesy Piyush Shah.

Are you nostalgic for celluloid, which has largely been replaced by digital formats?
I don’t have these debates in my head. It is not a question of which is better or worse. The problem is that I don’t agree with the way people want to shoot a lot of the time.

We are trigger-happy, and we are taking too many images. We must not overshoot but think or feel for the image and the moment. Nobody wants to take a decision while shooting anymore They will take a close-up, a mid-shot and a long shot and then decide on the editing table. It increases the volume of work for us, and we are not thinking at the time. If I don’t decide at the shooting stage, I will be struggling to string things together at the editing stage.

When film negative was being used, the costs were high and the director had to think on his feet. I haven’t seen anyone as precise as the director Priyadarshan, with whom I have worked [on Dhol and Mere Baap Pehle Aap]. He won’t take one extra frame, and he shoots as per his editing. We have to reinvent ourselves and go back to thinking on our feet.

Had I shot on film, it would have turned out differently. I would have used the emulsion, the negative, the discipline in a different way.

The Third Infinity. Courtesy Piyush Shah.
The Third Infinity. Courtesy Piyush Shah.

Your career began with Mani Kaul’s films. Did it slot you in any way?
I met Mani when I was a student at FTII. He used to conduct workshops and lectures for the direction students. He was mesmerising, and he opened our eyes. Here was somebody talking about the aesthetics of aesthetics. He had an enormous capacity to inspire everyone. I started working with him right after graduation, and also did his later features, such as Nazar and Idiot.

This was a time when art cinema or parallel cinema as it was known hadn’t died. Some funding was still there. But Mani’s documentaries were never commercially exhibited ever. There wasn’t a distribution system for such cinema then, nor is there one now. However, Siddheshwari was very successful on the festival circuit and was seen all over the world and in India through the film society movement.

I also worked with Shyam Benegal on Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda. It wasn’t possible to work in the commercial industry. There was already a wall that was difficult for me to cross. I got stamped as an art cinema cameraman. By the time I started working in commercial films with China Gate, parallel cinema had collapsed.

I haven’t worked on a feature for a few years, though I keep doing commercials. Nothing has come to me where everything is in the right place.

Where else do you plan to screen the film after the Kerala festival?
I will be entering the film in a few festivals. I submitted it to Kerala because I know this is an interesting festival, with a more literate and cultured audience. There is a need in me to show the film around and understand what the response will be like. That said, the film is not going to travel easily.

Piyush Shah.
Piyush Shah.
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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.