Gurvinder Singh’s Sea of Lost Time, which was premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in January, has a turbulent history. The 45-minute film was a graduation project involving acting students at the Film and Television Institute of India that Singh, who was an alumnus, had been invited to direct. In the aftermath of student protests over Gajendra Chauhan’s appointment as the institute’s chairperson in 2015, Singh had spoken in support of a student who had been expelled. Soon after, citing a technicality, the FTII administration halted the film’s production, insisting that Singh proceed with editing the half-shot project.
Sea of Lost Time was screened at the Rotterdam film festival in the Laboratory of Unseen Beauty section, which is dedicated to the vagaries of the cinematic form and its whimsical production practices. “Ruin films”, or projects that have been left incomplete, for reasons ranging from external interference and death to a director’s whim, but were nevertheless given new shape for the purposes of presentation, made up this category. The films screened in this section included works with similarly chequered pasts like Roberto Rossellini’s Le psychodrama and Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old.
Singh’s film draws its title from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s The Sea of Lost Time, a short story that, like most of the Colombian literary great’s other works, presents ideas that fly off the page as soon as they take shape. It is set in a village where death turns a foul smell into the fragrance of roses and a dream-like, frozen world rests at the bottom of the sea. Attracted to the writer’s shorter fiction and keen to adapt their magic-realist elements and vibrant characters to an Indian setting, Singh set about making Sea of Lost Time by borrowing features not from this story alone but from a host of different works. Observing how a lot of Marquez’s fiction takes place along tropical rivers with the water infusing the narrative with a sense of fantasy, melancholy and nostalgia, Singh set his story by the Indian coastline.
The vitality and diverseness of Marquez’s fiction are harnessed in the film, which plays out in fragments with different narrative strands co-existing and occasionally interacting. A soldier returns with a wound on his chest, a man makes cages and dreams of money, another shuts himself in a room for 15 years and yet another must give up his beloved ancestral home.
While death is central, as in all of Marquez’s fiction, here it is present in the form of a burning pyre on the beach, a man and a woman who speak as if in a dream, and a wandering orchestra keeps the town’s music alive. The outlines between fact and fantasy are inevitably blurry and a superb rendition of a song translated from Pablo Neruda’s Alberto Rojas Jiménez Comes Flying, with its haunting refrain of “you come flying”, peppers the dialogues and weaves the disjointed stories together.
“Marquez lends himself to this sort of an experiment”, Singh said in an interview after the screening. “I find in Marquez that things are falling apart, going in all directions, a sense that things are not converging towards something. As you go from one story to the next, it feels like you are continuing with the same stream of consciousness. So it doesn’t really matter that one story has ended and another has begun. The stories themselves have a disconnectedness, so I thought why not go outside the story and try to make connections between different characters.”
The film, which developed as a theatre workshop and gives the sense throughout of being a staged performance that has been captured on camera, puts emphasis on the exchanges between its characters that are played by FTII students. This is a first for Singh, who has in the past worked exclusively with non-actors. “I expect actors to be non-actors; I want them to be as close to their real selves as possible,” he said. Noting, however, that an actor’s true medium is the theatre, and keeping in mind that the performers were chosen primarily for their acting abilities and that the film needed to showcase their talent, he opted for a non-realistic approach. “I wanted the film to feel like a play,” said Singh of a project that allowed him a certain freedom and where characteristics were proffered to actors in accordance with their individual skills.
Marquez’s themes of time and death, greed and betrayal, and of an enduring, persevering love are all explored in Singh’s film, which functions, in his own words, as “an allegory”. Simultaneously, ideas of protest and survival, although only vaguely lurking in the film and therefore not seemingly responsible for its unfinished state, simmer in its positioning and in the sheer fact of its existence.