It wasn’t planned that way, but there’s a Saumyananda Sahi double bill in the programme of We Are One, the ongoing YouTube film festival that will run till June 7.
The cinematographer has lensed both of the independent Indian features that will be streamed for free during We Are One. The first is Eeb Allay Ooo!, Prateek Vats’s biting satire on unemployment and the contractual labour economy. The other is Nasir, Arun Karthick’s sensitive exploration of the impact of communal violence on a sari store salesman.
The flourishing Indian arthouse cinema scene has produced a good crop of estimable features in recent years. Sahi has given several of them their distinctive visual texture. Eeb Allay Ooo! won the top award in the Indian competition category at the Mumbai Film Festival in 2019. Also at the festival was Kislay’s Aise Hee and Anamika Haksar’s Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Jaa Riya Hoon.
The thread that connects these films, apart from their fiercely independent nature and strong directorial voice, is Sahi. No one film can be confused for another. Eeb Allay Ooo! has a documentary feel to its staged scenes. Nasir uses intimate portraiture to explore the contours of its lead character’s experiences.
In Aise Hee, Sahi’s frames reveal the subtle changes that take place in the life of an elderly widow who emerges out of her cocoon and begins to engage with her surroundings. In Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Jaa Riya Hoon, Sahi’s camera runs wild and free though the streets of old Delhi, capturing its unique architecture and its poetic denizens.
“One of the central characteristics of art is its aspiration to be a whole – a unified experience of integrated parts,” Sahi explained in an email interview from Carona in Goa, where he lives with his wife, the editor and sound recordist Tanushree Das, and son. “This is why we think so often of aesthetics in terms of an organism – of coming to life when the heart and liver and brain and bones and every single cell in the body all work together.”
In cinematography, what is loosely termed as camerawork is actually only a part of a bigger picture, Sahi added.
“Cinematography is finally focused on that moment of performance – when you set the exposure and choose a lens, compose, and physically move in response to what is seen and felt,” he said. “The script is important because it gives a framework to discuss very specifically. But I prefer to not think of the script as a holy text, as something to be followed word by word. Rather, it is a roadmap that you look at to carefully prepare and plan for a long journey. But of course, once you set off, the journey can end up taking unexpected turns.”
Some of Sahi’s features have been with his fellow travellers from the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune, where he enrolled in 2009. Prateek Vats and Kislay are FTII alumni, as are Tanushree Das and Eeb Allay Ooo! writer Shubham, lead actor Shardul Bharadwaj and producer Shwetaabh Singh. The institute connections runs deeper. Paresh Kamdar, who edited Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Jaa Riya Hoon, is an older alumnus. Arghya Basu, the late documentary filmmaker and FTII lecturer, edited Nasir.
The FTII eco-system, which nurtured scores of filmmaking talent for decades, has been undermined by government interference in recent years. The Bharatiya Janata Party-led Central government’s suspicion of educational institutions run on liberal principles has led to often brutal crackdowns and needless administrative tinkering. The appointment of actor Gajendra Chauhan as FTII chairperson in 2015 sparked off protests, which capped years of strikes against syllabus changes and punishing increases in student fees.
Sahi, Prateek Vats and Shubham had shared a room for some months at the institute. Sahi and actor Sharul Bharadwaj first worked together in a film to protest Chauhan’s appointment. “Shardul dressed up as a clown, and protested outside the International Film Festival of India venue in Goa, in mime,” Sahi recalled. “We also tried to send protest placards into the venue by tying them onto helium balloons, but that was a total failure – because the breeze took all the balloons to sea instead. But we all shared something during that time that was quite intense, and it is very fitting that the core team of Eeb Allay Ooo! had their first pre-run working together during that protest.”
Eeb Allay Ooo! traces the near-surreal experiences of Anjani, young man who becomes a professional monkey chaser. Vats, the director of the documentary A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings, about bodybuilder Manohar Aich, wanted to capture the farcical reality of Anjani’s day job without being on the nose.
“We had permission for a documentary, so we couldn’t look too ‘professional’ – the camera had to be small and appear amateur,” Sahi explained. “The camera also needed to be something I could pick up and run with and set up again quickly. But one thing Prateek and I agreed on very early on was that the form of the film could not be verite – in the sense that we weren’t flies on the wall, recording reality as it is. We didn’t want shaky hand-held shots, as if we were shooting as things unfolded with very limited access – which, in fact, was most often the truth. We wanted to the film to take itself incredibly seriously – that also being part of the satire. So we chose to shoot with a Cinemascope aspect ratio, and used a lot of track and trolley, gimbal rigs and tripoded pans.”
The student agitation also played a small part in the making of Aise Hee. Its writer and director Kislay (he uses only one name) was Sahi’s batch-mate. Kislay was briefly arrested along with Shubham for organising a demonstration at the IFFI opening ceremony. “And every time he had to come to Goa for the court hearings, we would take the opportunity to discuss his script for Aise Hee,” Sahi said.
There’s another side to Sahi’s engagement with Goa. He was born in 1986 to the painter Jyoti Sahi and educationist Jane Sahi and raised in a village near Bengaluru. Alongside shooting films and documentaries made by other people, Sahi has been working on his own projects, some of them in collaboration with Tanushree Das. In 2013, he made his first documentary, Small Things, Big Things, about a primary school run by his mother.
In 2015, Sahi moved to Goa. The following year, he directed Remembering Kurdi, a documentary about displacement, memory, and the complexity of what it means to belong.
The Films Division production explores the ways in which the former residents of Kurdi town in South Goa, which was submerged for a dam in the mid-1980s, continue to maintain connections with their land. Every year, they visit spots that are either under water or survive as ruins, and their trips have the flavour of a pilgrimage.
The wistful reminiscences are complemented by haunting imagery, which convey Sahi’s belief, expressed on his official website Skreen Films, that “an image is not a moment captured. It is a moment unleashed.”
For Sahi, a philosophy graduate from St Stephen’s College in Delhi, filmmaking is as much about watching as it is about listening. “I like to see with my ears, and know when I don’t need to turn my head because I’m already aware of what’s there,” Sahi explained. “There’s a dictum attributed to Parmenides, that nothing comes from nothing. I feel this is true of images – for indeed they arise out of something, they are influenced by many, many things, by lifetimes.”
Two examples of this approach are available on YouTube for the next few days. The We Are One festival’s programme is a disappointment for cinephiles, who hoped that there would be a wider range of older titles from the world’s leading festivals.
For Indian viewers, however, the festival affords an opportunity to watch Eeb Allay Ooo! (it will be available at 4.30pm between May 30 and June 1) and Nasir (it will be streamed for a week from June 6 at 7pm). The films provide a dual-edged snapshot of India in the present. In one, employment is hard to come by. In another, religious bigotry consumes a hard-working man. As the Covid-19 pandemic rages across India, the inadvertent Saumyananda Sahi double bill gives us some idea of how we got here, and where we could go next.