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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.