In 2017, Prantik Basu made Sakhisona, a black-and-white film woven around a folk tale, featuring members of the Manbhum Sramjibi Chhau Dance group. The experimental short won a Tiger Award at the prestigious International Film Festival of Rotterdam in 2017. Basu will return to Rotterdam in June with his enchanting new documentary Bela, which once again features members of the Manbhum Sramjibi Chhau group.
Bela was premiered at the Swiss festival Visions Du Reel (April 15-25). The title derives both from the village in Bengal where the dancers live and from the Bengali word for time, which the film explores in imaginative ways.
Time is measured through rehearsals by the Chhau dancers for an upcoming festival, preparations for an upcoming festival, as well as through acts of labour, such as the pounding of rice and the gathering of wood. A more allusive way in which Bela examines the passage of the hours and days is through the juxtaposition of nature and industry. As the dancers practise the moves of an age-old performing art, factories loom in the distance and a train chugs by.
Basu has also shot and edited Bela, thereby imposing his own rhythms on footage gathered over a two-year period and presented as a two-day event.
“I attempted to trace the thresholds of day and night, nature and urbanisation, feminine and masculine,” the 35-year-old filmmaker told Scroll.in. “Interestingly, it all came to the ever-blurring lines of fiction and non-fiction. What we see in the final film, nothing of it is staged in the production; all the activities, rehearsals and the preparations were shot as they happened over the course of time. It is during the editing that the structure of a couple of days came up and that in a way fictionalises the entire construct of time in the film. I tried to remain true to the sense of time that I experienced during my stay in Bela, which was idyllic and conflicted at the same time.”
Basu tends to spends months or even years with his subjects. For his 2019 film Rang Mahal, for instance, the Film and Television Institute of India-trained filmmaker spent close to two years with a Santhali community on the border between Bengal and Jharkhand, observing how their creation myths played out in the present.
For Bela, set in Bengal’s Purulia district, Basu worked with members of the Kurmi and Mahato communities. “I was more familiar with the people and the setting as I have spent a lot of time with them,” he said. Since he had already met the dance troupe members for Sakhisona, he could easily disappear into the background and watch them rehearse and accompany them to their performance.
Since Chhau is performed only by men, Basu found ways to include the women in their lives in the documentary. As they decorate their huts and prepare the paste out of which to create rangoli patterns, the women too express their creativity and imagination.
“I was working with a dance form that is exclusively reserved for the male members of the community, so my instinctive response was to look beyond and observe the activities and art practices that are reserved for the women,” Basu explained.
He added: “The argument of Chhau dance being strictly masculine for its physical rigour failed to hold true after a point, as the women were involved in equally tenuous activities, if not more. Also, the fact that Chhau dance is so widely celebrated, while the temporary paintings on the floor by the women are only to be washed away by the following rain spoke volumes about the general positioning of gender in our society at large.”