An Interview With ‘Tales from Our Childhood’ Director Mukul Haloi

Mukul Haloi - Tales from Our Childhood Documentary

There is a certain trend in world cinema that strictly adheres to a languid narrative structure where the thematic content, as well as the comportment of the characters, underscores the primal aspects of contemporary existence.  The camera mantains a stillness, the cuts are infrequent, the sound design creates a viceral and aural milieu. Mukul Haloi, a young filmmaker from Assam, India, has maintained such consistent stylistic elements in his small but effective body of work. The austere mise-en-scène of Mukul’s cinematic expression eschews elaborate and dynamic set decoration in favor of human subjectivity. He was a part of the 2020 Berlinale Talent Campus, and his short films and documentaries have been featured at numerous international film festivals. Haloi’s documentary film Tales from our Childhood (2018) is currently streaming at MUBI, and his short film A Letter to Home (2019) is available at MovieSaints.

DS: How was your experience at the Berlinale Talent Campus 2020?

MH: It was an eclectic environment. For me, it was like going back to film school with creative minds from all parts of the world. It becomes an inspiring event when you realize, after talking to your fellow participants all around the world, that we all are connected by a few basic ideas of art, world and humanity.

DS: How does such participation help in the process of networking for filmmakers?

MH: It does open up the possibilities about how to go about with your script or project regarding international festivals, funds and supporters. It also makes one aware of the different stages and hurdles of film production. And creatively, platforms like this open up the possibility of artistic collaboration across countries.

DS: What was your approach to recollect and present the lives of people of Assam during the insurgent phase of the 90s in Tales from Our Childhood?

MH: The beginning point was a memory — my personal experience of the 1990s as a child and teen, and now me being an adult and looking back at the past. I was very clear about these two different periods and their role in the film — personally, historically. The first step was writing the proposal for the early career fellowship of TISS, Mumbai. It helped to create a layout of memories, thoughts and plans. Later, I read a lot of Assamese literature dealing with that time or the theme. I went on field research interviewing a lot of people — ULFA leaders, cadres, families of ULFA members. The research helped to create the factual narrative of the film. It evolved along with the process of making the film.

DS: Explain the decision to shoot and edit the documentary on your own.

MH: I wanted it to be like a personal diary, which I didn’t want anyone else to write. I wanted to engage with the process very intimately, like writing with a pen on paper. That is why I [made] the decision. I shot the film over a long period and did not stick to a fixed schedule. Hiring a cinematographer was not a feasible option in that process. The same logic serves the purpose of the elaborate time of editing. I was still a student at FTII when I was working in this film. I was becoming aware of visual-auditory language through classes and watching films at the Institute. I wanted to practice that awareness, and this documentary became a platform for me to practice and understand the craft. Also, my filmmaker friends — Sandeep Yadav, Prantik Basu, Payal Kapadia and Mehdi Jahan — have helped me throughout the process to arrive at the desired structure in terms of shooting and editing. They had been instrumental in the process of actualising the visual and narrative design.

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Tales from Our Childhood Documentary

DS: How did you create an elderly couple’s mundane life in a remote village of Assam within a studio set up for the short film Days of Autumn?

MH: It was elaborate and detailed planning. I had gone from Pune to Assam for vacation. Over that month, I shot with my parents in my home. When I came back to Pune, those videos became the starting point for designing the short film. So, those videos and numerous photographs we collected became the inspiration as well as references for creating the studio setup — lighting pattern, camera and sound usage. Prashant Deshamne, the production designer of the film, was very instrumental in recreating that real space inside the studio. He had studied and executed exactly perfect textures and colors in the setup. Sandeep Yadav, the cinematographer, did a commendable job in exploring that space with calculated and controlled lighting patterns, which helped the film to be perceived as shot in a real location. The sound played the most important role in completing that illusion of real space. We recorded sounds in Assam and used them in the film to make the atmospheric sense present throughout.

DS: The narrative of Days of Autumn is not constructed on the premise of causality, where one event leads to another, resulting in a rather predictable outcome. There is an element of ambiguity within the film. Why did you opt for such a choice?

MH: As I said, I shot with my parents at home. There was no specific purpose for those shooting. But when I edited [the footage], I could feel a certain rhythm emerging out of it. And the story or narrative than didn’t remain became the most important aspect of the film. Realizing that, I wanted to employ a similar approach in the film, where the way of being or rhythm of life will dictate the film, not the causal connection between events. Rhythm is connected to time. Time is very subjective and culture as well is atmosphere-specific. Every space has its sense of the passing of time, hence different rhythms of life. My main idea was to be true to that rhythm. The narrative revolves around an old couple whose son studies outside. A sense of solitude pervades the household. That was the playground for us to work around, to enhance it, or puncture it cinematically. So, later in the film, we try to break that solitude with the introduction of a few fresh faces, such as a vendor and a schoolgirl, who casually don’t have any role in carrying forward the story. But if a film can be seen as a progression of experience, the progression of emotions, then those fresh faces [represent] soothing dreams and winds.

DS: In your short film A Letter to Home, the peaceful and quiet lives of individuals intersect with the traumatic memories of death and loss. What was your motivation behind making the film?

MH: It was my final short film at the film Institute. And before this, I finished the long documentary Tales from our Childhood. Thematically, both films are based on the same quest — to understand the violent political past of Assam’s 1990s. A letter to home centers around a space — a village in Assam. Rahul,  a 30-year-old aspiring writer wants to write about his village. He has a primary question, which runs through the entire film:  “If I have to write about this place, what will the first line be?” To begin with a narrative of a place — is the present important, or the memories which are in oblivion? Assam is peaceful now in comparison to the 1990s turbulence. You’ll find quiet dunes in people’s sleeves, as if a sense of relief after a storm. But memory is a mysterious animal. It can invade your “present” at any mundane moment, sometimes as dreams. And in Rahul’s world of people and the place, the dreams and memories of violent 90s keep haunting the individuals and their present state of peace. I wanted to explore the duality of people living in two times — present and past. The collective trauma of a society is passed on to you as cultural consciousness, like the folk tales. It becomes a part of your walking-sleeping-dreaming being.

DS: Is the film a commentary on the secessionist movements that keep resurfacing within the state of Assam, like the still image of a lifeless body lying on the river bed?

MH: Yes, those still images of bodies lying in wetlands is the representation of that violent time — the known and unknown deaths, and the disappearances of people.

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Tales from Our Childhood Documentary

DS: One of the characters in the film A Letter to Home expresses his regret of not gaining popularity because of his lack of command over the Hindi and English language. What was the significance of this scene?

MH: For many of us, who are in the periphery (geographically not situated in the mainstream of India), we have an inquisitiveness towards the other world. I remember my school textbooks of social sciences, the Assamese and English. They were so extensive in detail, and they tried to squeeze in almost everything about the other states, their history and culture. They were great. They created the curiosity and imagination in our minds as young children. So, the scene in the film is about that. It is not a regret or a complaint but a wish/dream to rise over linguistic limitations and assimilate with the “other” world too.

DS: What is the purpose of the poem by Nilomoni Phukan at the end credits in A Letter to Home?

MH: Many poems of Nilamani Pukan look at the time of Assam’s 1980s and 1990s. The Assam Movement, the Massacre of Nelie, the State repression and killing of thousands of Assamese youths in the name of counter-insurgency — all these important markers of time have been explored in his poems. I love his literary works, which are evocative and visually expressive. I re-read a lot of his poems during the making of the film. That poem sums up the lament and sense of loss of Assamese society in regards to the historical past. That line “Where have all the youth gone? A lament for a generation lost” also sums up my motivation behind making the film.

DS: You had opted for your locations in places around Maharashtra with such precision that it appears as somewhere in rural Assam. What was the symbolic use of the location in A Letter to Home?

MH: It was not symbolic use, it was a replica of a real space. We couldn’t go to Assam because of film school guidelines, so it led us to explore places in Maharashtra which might resonate with Assam’s landscape. The film was dependent on space and its atmospheric experience. So, the locations were crucial or the most important element in the film. Since cinema is made with fragments of time or events, we could work around the spaces we found. We joined many fragments of spaces and created a sense of a whole. From a few betel nut trees and ponds of Alibag to the bamboo plantation of Bhor to the interior set of FTII, we could finally arrive at the ‘”whole” of the imagined space.

DS: Which auteurs of world cinema have shaped your cinematic reading and how?

MH: It is difficult to narrow the learning down to a few specific auteurs because every film brings something unseen or unheard. Filmmmakers like Yasujirō Ozu, Abbas Kiarostami, Chris Marker, Andrei Tarkovsky — they are the poets and philosophers. Their films and life have taught me a lot — nurtured my doubts, confusions and beliefs of the early thirties. Cinema as form and practicing cinema as a way of life — they reinstate it through their films, and that’s reassuring for young filmmakers like a lot of us.

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Tales from Our Childhood Documentary

DS: The narrative style of your cinematic endeavor follows an unhurried pace from one plot point to another. There is a definitive visual style that moves quite slowly. What are your motives behind such sensibilities?

MH: Maybe the sense of rhythm comes from the place where I have grown up, which is Assam. There is an unhurried sense in the way of being. Or maybe, I relate to that space in that way. I try to bring out that experience of being in a certain place, or the inherent rhythm of the place with the natural and human world, and let that rhythm dictate the film. The visual style is built upon too. Experience precedes understanding. I feel that if I can’t bring out space and its life alive on the screen, the film is half-dead.

DS: As a budding young filmmaker, how do you perceive the position of regional cinema made in India within the current social and political scenario of world cinema?

MH:  Maybe we have a long way to go, but everyone is making an effort. That is hopeful and inspiring.

DS: What are you currently engaged with, and what are your plans for the future?

MH: I have been teaching film for the past two and a half years, independently as well as associating with institutes and festivals. I have started working on a long documentary that will go on for more than a year. I am also working on a feature script — being at home and exploring the possibility of self, as well as a sustainable way of living.

Dipankar Sarkar is a graduate in film editing from the Film and Television Institute of India and currently based in Mumbai. As a freelancer, he frequently contributes to various Indian publications on cinema-related topics.