A rendezvous with Ashish Avikunthak, director of Nirakar Chhaya, a Bengali film based on the award winning Malayalam novel Pandavapuram, written by Sethu. The director talks about the technical nuances of film making here.
As a Bengali, what attracted you to Sethu’s Malayalam novel Pandavapuram?
Like most people think, I am not a Bengali. I am a Punjabi with a partition history, who was raised in Calcutta. I had read the English translation of the book in 1998. I had picked it up from a bookshop in Bombay and read it while on a bus journey from Dhanu to Nasik. There were numerous things in the book that attracted me. The first one was the presence of magical transcendence. Though the story starts in the real world, it sashays slowly into an enchanting, parallel universe towards the end, thus the theme resonated within me. Although, the novel is deeply rooted in Kerala culture, its meta-narrative shifts between the magical and the real world, while donating an alluring cinematic possibility. For me, it was a book I finished in a rickety bus while manoeuvring the Western Ghats near Trimakeshwar. I knew immediately that I had to make it into a film. At the kernel of Pandavapuram I had found a possibility of transcendental magic; a mystical yearning that mesmerised me both as reader and a filmmaker. While I was reading it I was seeing a full length cinema running in front of my eyes. In a narrative way, the melancholic and forlorn sexual fantasy of the lonesome ‘Devi’ in the novel seduced me. Though the novel is based on the near-extinct Nair matrilineal society, the theme has a universalism that I felt could effortlessly be reconfigured in urban Calcutta world, or for that matter anywhere.
The novel has an unconventional structure - an imaginary world melancholic fluctuating between real and unreal while exuding melancholy. What were the procedures you have followed to translate it into celluloid?
As I said it was this unconventional structure that attracted me to the book. I took the book as a starting point and not a hegemonic text that I had to depend upon word-by-word. I wanted to use the original text as a jumping board into creating my own parallel universe. Nirakar Chhaya is not an adaptation of Pandavapuram, but a reconfiguration. By reconfiguration I mean a practice in which I invoke the essence of the original text but reframe it within a cultural, ideological and personal framework of my own provenance. Here, the essence of the text is retained, but I profoundly shift its structural configuration. I employ the original text to leap frog into creating my own universe. It is a form of ideational hitchhiking. The original text is one of the many vehicles I jump on into my own creative journey. For me the novel ended when I finished reading it. What I made is a film that emerged from the child that is Pandavapuram, but the movie is something I have conceived. In this process I first worked on the script with my collaborator and then I sent the script to Sethu for him to have a look. He was very kind to me and was open to the script that I had written and gave his go ahead.
Colour and black/white are used to capture real,unreal and the imaginary world. Various colours are used in the film. Yellow for example is a prominent colour used in the film. Please elaborate.
The shift between colour and b/w can have multiple meanings. It depends on the viewer. For me it is not about dichotomy or dialectics of past/present, real/unreal, or real/imaginary.
For me the shift between colour and b/w is a structural play. It is a formal articulation. I am interested in producing a haptic effect through my films. This is an effect of somatosensory perception produced by the filmic image, through the careful manipulation of its texture. I exploit both the chemical and the structural nature of the filmic image to produce a visual effect.
Usage of multiple kind of film stocks having different gradation, granularity, quality and age, chemically alerting the images to produce various effects, the fluctuation between colour and black and white images within a diegetic moment, variation of the frame rate, the modification of the exposure and the sharpness of the image are some of the strategies that I employ to bring about a haptic effect. I do this because I want the cinematic experience to move beyond the visual into the visceral. I seek to invoke a primordial effervescence through the moving image that is phenomenologically not just about seeing, but is also about feeling.
Repetition is another aspect of the film - repetition of sounds, scenes, objects, etc.Particularly the scenes: breaking of tender coconuts and slaughtering of chickens. Scenes of chopping of bananas, cucumbers, and other fruits and vegetables are also to be mentioned here. Can explain more on this.
For me the cutting and chopping represented an inherent emotional and spiritual violence inside Devi. In a way this represents the ritual sacrifice that is repetitive. And here comes the subtext of the cinema of religiosity that I am talking about.
The chicken-chopping scene for me was the penetrating kernel of the film. It is the core around which the film’s narrative structure revolves. It is because of this scene that the film was not released in India. The Censor Board wanted me to delete the scene and I refused. So the film has been denied a censor certificate. I don’t work as a filmmaker I work as an artist. My films cannot be altered to fulfill the fancy of a moralistic state. In a sense this chicken- chopping scene is a metaphor of the violence that the world inflicts on the film itself.
Another aspect is music. The music used in different scenes as leitmotif is loud but visuals are calm. Can you elaborate on the sound used?
The music in the film is the original composition of a doctoral student of music at Stanford University. I had spent quite sometime after the editing of the film at the Stanford University music library listening to music that the students composed and produced.
It was during this time that I came across the compositions of Nurit Jugend, an Israeli-American composer. Her music was very passionate and it matched the intensity of my film. She then gave me the music that she had composed over the years and I used them in appropriate places in the film. In the film I used the music as a leitmotif to resonate with the emotional crisis of Devi, her melancholia, her disenchantment and her unfulfilled desires.
(to be continued tomorrow)
by P K Surendran (A Malayalam film critic based in Mumbai)