At the ongoing Berlin Film Festival (February 7-17), alongside the works of established Indian filmmakers such as Zoya Akhtar, Ritesh Batra and Rima Das is an Indo-German production born out of a final-year film school project.
Udita Bhargava’s Dust, which is being screened at the New German Cinema category, is set against the backdrop of the Maoist insurgency. Featuring Danish actor Morten Holst, Vinay Pathak and Kalyanee Mulay, Dust follows David (Holst), a young German who visits Indore after the death of his Indian photojournalist girlfriend Mumtaz (Amrita Bagchi) and “embarks on a journey to the troubled heart of India”, according to the synopsis. As he tries to retrace her steps before her death, he digs deep into Mumtaz’s documentation of the Maoist uprising in Indore.
Speaking to Scroll.in over the phone from Berlin, Bhargava said she wanted to explore themes of alienation and belonging by focusing the film on her hometown in Indore in Madhya Pradesh. “This aspect of being a stranger somewhere and trying to find out what the place and the struggle is about was very important as a theme to me,” Bhargava said. “I was from India and was living in a foreign land. I wanted to bring these themes together.”
Arundhati Roy’s Walking with the Comrades, a non-fiction account of the Naxal movement in central India, was one of the inspirations for the film. “The Maoist conflict is now more in focus with the urban Naxal , but at that time in 2014, it was still hidden,” Bhargava pointed out. “The film also brings together very disparate lives. This German man, who has no connection to India, slowly connects with this milieu.”
Bhargava also referred to Nandini Sundar’s The Burning Forest: India’s War in Bastar (2016), about the impact of the conflict between insurgents and the government on villagers and land resources, as well as Indian photographer Ishan Tankha’s work on the subject, which documents the life of Maoist soldiers in the red corridor region.
Bhargava began writing the script as a short film in 2013, towards the end of her course in Berlin. She was able to expand her story when she secured funding for a full-length feature from the production company Unafilm. Dust was shot in India between 2016 and 2017.
Before she moved to Berlin to study filmmaking, Bhargava worked as a camera assistant in Mumbai for films such as Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008), Anurag Basu’s Life in A... Metro (2007) and Mira Nair’s short film Migration (2008). “I wanted to become a director, but I did not know how to make that step in Bollywood being an unknown, non-film family person,” she said. “It seemed too far-fetched. I then figured I should go to school to study direction.”
Bhargava’s industry experience helped her understand what goes into making a film. “You don’t need to have worked on some set before to become a director, but it does gives you an idea of the scale at which the people are working,” she said. “Danny Boyle’s production was huge in a way. Of course you meet inspiring people there on sets and their work can give you ideas.”
Bhargava hopes to follow up the Berlin premiere of Dust with a wider release. “We are going to try for a release and it is only going to depend on how people receive the film,” she said. “I am looking at every option, including digital ones.”