“Our hearts must race when we look at it. Even from a distance, it has to catch one’s eye.” This is how the residents of a Hyderabad residential area explain their decision to bring home a 13-foot-long jet black idol of the elephant god for the Ganesh festival in Anantha Perumal’s documentary Dhoolpet Ganesha. The children of the colony are thrilled with the nalla (black) Ganesh, bought from the city’s idol hub, Dhoolpet. They find the idol “dangerously attractive”, they tell Perumal.

In the Buchchi Reddy colony in Shamshabad, near the Hyderabad airport, Ganeshotsav is a grand affair. Each year, the size, type and style of the idol to be hosted at the colony pandal is decided after much deliberation among residents. The goal is to ensure that each year’s celebration beats the previous one.

For the 2013 celebrations, residents chose this unique rendition of the deity, who is usually depicted as fair-skinned. Perumal’s 86-minute film documents the nine days of Ganeshotsav celebrations in the colony that year. Along the way, he discovers that the residents of Buchichi Reddy are as unconventional as their idol of choice. The figure becomes a starting point for fascinating discussions about faith, community, caste and colour. No two views are similar and sometimes, the answers are far more complex than Perumal’s questions.

Dhoolpet Ganesha was screened at the Kavade Attic in Bengaluru on December 1 and at the Shoonya Centre for Art and Somatic Practices on December 8.

Fresh out of film school in California in the United States of America, Perumal wanted to shoot something about his city Hyderabad. A friend happened to mention the Dhoolpet area, which is at its liveliest best during the Ganesh festival. “I didn’t know that the festival was this big in the city,” Perumal told Scroll.in. “When we went to Dhoolpet, I realised that whichever way you turn, there are idols – close to 150,000 of them – of Rama, Krishna, Superman and even Pokemon. There are people coming from all over the state to buy them. It is very easy to get lost in that maze.”

The 13-foot Ganesh idol towered above the rest. “I had never seen something like that,” Perumal recalled. “It just stayed with me and I thought about making a film. The initial plan was to interview the artist who made it – we wanted to get inside his head and understand why he chose the colours. It was he who suggested that we go to the godown instead and talk to the guys who want to buy that idol.”

That’s when he met the residents of Buchchi Reddy colony. It was love at first sight for Perumal. “They had a very unique perspective,” he said. “Standing just outside the gate of the godown, they started talking about the colour of the Ganesh. They were having a nice little banter about how the idol looks like one of their friends. I found their sense of humour intriguing. I listened to them for a while and then went up to them and said I’m going to come with you when you take the idol. They said okay, I hopped onto their auto and lived with them for nine days.”

Anantha Perumal.
Anantha Perumal.

The residents wholeheartedly welcomed Perumal into their colony and their homes, going on to offer him a glimpse into their minds, he said.

The Ganesh idol, as Perumal discovers in the film, means different things to different residents of Buchchi Reddy. If it is a masculine symbol for boys, it is reminiscent of a beautiful woman for one of the girls. “Look at the jewellery she’s wearing,” the girl says in the documentary. “If it is wearing so much jewellery, then it has to be a female Ganesha.”

For many elders, the idol is important for its role in continuing a long-standing ritual of celebrating the festival, often despite a shortage of funds. The idol, and the festival as a whole, gives them a chance to get together as one and celebrate.

These diverse interpretations also speak to the nature of religion at large, Perumal said. “For whatever reasons, there is this push to homogenise things,” he explained. “But faith is personal and means different things to different people. Just take this idol – if there is such divergence of thought within a small community of neighbours, what does that imply at a larger scale, on a macro-level and for us as a society?”

Dhoolpet Ganesha. Courtesy Anantha Perumal.
Dhoolpet Ganesha. Courtesy Anantha Perumal.

Dhoolpet Ganesha is full of conversations – on hot, lazy afternoons, during heavy rains, through heated arguments and in the middle of wild celebrations. Not all conversations are directly about the idol, but its resonance is felt in every discussion.

Perumal did not want to craft the film around a central message. Instead, he wanted it to unfold through these conversations. “I wanted to present this film as vignettes of these characters just as how I experienced them,” he said. “I really wanted to give people a sense of the community and that can only happen when you sit with a person and talk. If a woman is talking about faith and at the same time also talking about how her family treats her or how her children are arguing all the time – all these things are interlinked. And I wanted to show that.”

Shot on a hand-held Go-Pro camera, the cinematography has a spontaneous and breezy feel. “A lot of that style is a consequence of what was going on in my mind at that time,” Perumal said. “I had just come back from film school and I was frustrated that I wasn’t able to match the ideas in my head with my practice. The film was therefore born out of the idea of just taking my camera and shooting. I didn’t have a plan, I didn’t have money or resources. I just stumbled into a bunch of things, including the people of this colony and their story.”