Chronicle of Space (Sthalpuran), an independent Marathi feature film, recently won the Young Cinema Award at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards. It’s a complex and personal endeavor that rejects the conventional mode of filmmaking in India. The sophomore feature by Akshay Indikar narrates the plight of an eight-year-old boy, Dighu (Neel Deshmukh), who migrates from the city of Pune to the coastal area of Konkan with his mother and elder sister. The formal qualities of Chronicle of Space are calm, contemplative and compassionately designed, with Dighu absorbing all the diurnal happenings of nature. It is a cerebral presentation that is neither ironic nor unironic, standing perhaps simply for the placidity of the natural surroundings which exist independently of human fortune. Chronicle of Space is a sort of poetic representation that correlates with the rubrics of the so-called “slow cinema.” I recently spoke with Indikar to discuss how cinephilia, language and form all intertwine in his latest film.
Dipankar Sarkar: Can you shed light on the title of the film?
Akshay Indikar: As the English title of the film implies, Sthalpuran means “chronicle of space.” Every place, every space we visit has its distinct memory, it has its distinct smell, distinct sound. There is this energy of people who lived there; it resides there even after they have gone. The film is basically an exploration of different spaces perceived through an eight-year-old boy, Dighu. He is new to the space where the narrative unfolds, and it is a tale about how he is looking at these new spaces. Also, I have always been attracted to mythology, Puranas [ancient Indian religious text] epics, etc. This is where the title of the film is derived.
DS: How did the idea of the film occur to you?
AI: I wanted to understand the world through a child’s vision — how a child looks at the world and how he responds to his surroundings. This is what I wanted to explore in my debut film Trijya (Radius), where the journey of the protagonist was from village to city, rural to urban. After that, I thought let’s reverse the journey and see how the journey from a city to a small village in Konkan would be through the prism of a kid’s eyes. I am from Solapur, a place where it doesn’t rain much — it is a very hot and dry region. Therefore, I am a little attracted to rain and clouds. Therefore, I thought let’s make a film which will have a lot of rain on it. So, the best option was to go to the Konkan region where it rains a lot and there are different patterns of rain there, and — most importantly — [to imagine] “How would Dighu look at it?’ That’s how the narrative got built.
DS: The lingering absence of Dighu’s father, who has vanished apparently into thin air, makes an impact on the young protagonist’s persona. But you didn’t go into the detailing of the father’s absence.
AI: I didn’t really think about the reasons. Actually, it is the absence of the father that I wanted to talk about. Absence of someone very close to you. And the kind of atmosphere that this absence creates. What is it? The reasons behind this might be anything. He might have left; he might be there. We don’t know or he might be even dead. The focus was on absence and not the reasons like “Where is the father?” It was a very conscious thought to not give any reason behind the father’s absence. Even if he is dead. Death as a concept is beyond Dighu’s comprehension. So, if Dighu doesn’t know, why should we?
DS: The young boy jots down the psychological state of his inner struggle in a diary. This exposition is revealed to the viewers with creatively-designed title cards and appears at irregular intervals of the narrative. Share your thoughts on the characterization of the protagonist?
AI: The characterization of the protagonist was not something we focused on at all. I mean my filmmaking process is such that I first explore the region while reading about it, visiting it several times, and then set the story. We focused a lot on the locations. I remember we spent a lot of time location hunting, and I was also constantly thinking about how a small child would look at all this. And deep somewhere in Dighu’s mind, something is going on which is very personal, which he wants to keep a record of. How can this be shown? This is where diary entries come as a medium of his personal expression. Diary also allows getting very deep into someone’s mind. And diary creates a sense of [time flow], such as “this much time has passed.” If you notice, what Dighu writes in his diaries is very different from what is actually happening on the screen at that time. Dighu is noting down the impressions that are in his mind about these events. It is suggestive, not direct, and I was trying to achieve that.
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DS: Almost 29 minutes into the film, folk artists perform Dhashavtar, a Konkani folk theatre. What is the significance?
AI: I come from a folk background. I belong to a tribe that has been traditionally involved in folk art. When I think about my family and my ancestor, migration is something that comes with this kind of life. All this should find a place in the cinema is what I think. Cinema also helps us with documentation. When something like this finds a place in cinema, it gets documented. Like you know something like this exists. Dhashavtaar is a very common phenomenon in Konkan. You’ll find at least 30-40 such theatre groups in 30 km around the location. Since I never had a proper script, there is always a scope of including things that were not planned. I kept exploring, took notes and kept my mind open for creative accidents. I have a basic framework ready in my mind to go back to. If things fit into it, I keep them. Or else I know what not to do in the film.
DS: There is a scene in the film where Dighu is sleeping and all of a sudden he rises into the air, almost by mystical means. How did you come across the scene?
AI: Dighu is looking for something larger than life. It is his habit to search for something beyond, something more than life offers. He wants to escape the world he is currently in. He is looking for something like that. He wants to escape. There is another very personal reason behind that scene. During my childhood, I wanted to become a magician. I had seen a magician called Bhairav Jadugar flying on the stage. He used to make things fly. I don’t know how he did it. Was it hypnotism or some kind of trick? But it felt very real at that age and therefore I want to believe that it was real. He did fly for real. I don’t care if it’s logically correct or not. For me, it was true. Similar is the case with Dighu. Whatever he thinks is true, is real for him. It is an age before rationality enters your life. Therefore, he sees Lord Shiva from Dhashavtar coming to meet him on the bridge. When your reality is harsh, you start building a world of dreams in your imagination, right? What do we do to escape the world? We imagine a different world.
DS: Is this particular scene an homage to the levitation scenes from the films of the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky?
AI: Yes. Definitely. Andrei Tarkovsky’s films have taught me what cinema is. He freed cinema from the clutches of language in its true sense. He universalizes the experience, which you can feel but could not tell. Even with the smallest of his experiences — his father, his mother or the woman sitting on a farm — he makes it so universal that the viewer feels as if it is his own experience.
DS: What is the function of the character of the wanderer played by Shashank Shende within the narrative framework?
AI: It comes as a father figure in the film. And we have consciously kept his existence a little blurry. It might be a character in his mind. Secondly, it also reminds us of Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid. It is done in that way.
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DS: With minimal use of dialogue and preciseness to mood and diurnal rhythms, the scenes of your film unfold at a languid pace as within the static framing. What was your thought process regarding the treatment of the film?
AI: I wanted it to be observant as if the camera is watching the characters through a window. Amidst nature, two small kids, or say the boy, is just moving around, and we are watching from some distance without disturbing him. That’s what my thought was, and that’s how the form is. I wanted to express the melancholy that surrounds them. That’s how the pace comes in and decides the treatment of the film. At a certain point, the character starts talking about time. He asks his grandfather why are there only 12 hours in the clock when the day is of 24 hours. It is a very simple yet very philosophical question. No one could give him the answer to his question. Even today, I can’t answer that question. Such profound questions asked by children have never been shown in any Marathi and Hindi films until now. Children are always taken for granted. We either show them to be too childish or too mature for their age, to such an extent that it starts appearing unreal. Avoiding such cliches and depicting children as they really are is what I was trying to do. Something like we find in Srinivas Vinayak Kulkarni and Prakash Narayan Sant’s literature.
DS: Could share your process for the sound design of the film, which plays such an integral role within the story?
AI: Sound is a multidimensional phenomenon. It affects you from all sides. Image is a 2D thing, but the sound is a 360-degree medium. It opens up numerous possibilities and certainly helps in creating a certain atmosphere. But it also takes you deep into someone’s inner feelings. And for me, cinema is about conflict. That conflict is created out of the play of sound and silence. The rhythmic patterns of sound bring out some kind of musicality. That was also our attempt. Actually, we searched for sound designers a lot, but we couldn’t really find someone who would do justice to the film. So, I thought why not give it a try. That’s how I did the sound design too, along with editing the film. There are certain patterns of sound that we can hear. For example, in the rains in Konkan, there are several patterns of sounds such as what object is it falling on, what is its intensity. Or how is Dighu traveling? Or suppose a vehicle is passing, how the vibrations can be felt much before the actual vehicle passes. Sound lets you create a world that is beyond the frame.
DS: What sort of relationship do you share with your crew members?
AI: I like to work with a smaller crew. I find it more enjoyable. It lets you explore more. You enjoy the locations more. You travel to locations that were not planned. Instead of following a schedule like some corporate company, you have fun exploring new things, new places that may find a place in your film and make it richer.
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DS: Who are your favourite masters of world cinema and why?
AI: I like Lav Diaz, the Filipino filmmaker for his epic structure. Besides Tarkovsky, I also like Abbas Kiarostami and Nuri Bilge Ceylan. I admire these filmmakers a lot. I like the way they look at the world through their films. They are great filmmakers who have transfigured the language of cinema. But I also feel that they have understood something about mankind, which is not really known by many people. I also think that I don’t find inspiration for films from the world of cinema alone. Other art forms, as well as other disciplines for that matter, equally inspire me. These things are equally important to me. Bhalchandra Nemade’s literature, for example, or maybe poetry or folk music. Traveling. Anything. One can find inspiration in anything. Music. Architecture. After watching a building, sometimes I feel we should be able to construct something like this in films. There are many contemporary filmmakers who inspire me, such as Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Hong Song Soo. I find Amit Dutta’s work really inspiring.
DS:What are your plans regarding the release and distribution of the film?
AI: We are waiting for the films to release on some good OTT platforms. The internet is helping cinema to react strongly to a wider audience now. This online thing has made the world really flat. Online distribution allows you to watch films according to your schedule, your time. It gives you the freedom, and we are waiting for our share, waiting for that freedom.
DS: What is your take on the current scenario of independent filmmaking in India?
AI: I don’t know. Good films are being made, and there are good filmmakers, but they’ll stop doing it someday. That’s what I feel. Or maybe they should make peace with the fact that people don’t care. They will keep this in mind and continue making films. It is like some inbound business. People search for films after there is a buzz around the title. Instead of celebrating the thought, we run after labels. Instead of what the filmmaker has said in his film, we look at which festival the filmmakers went to and celebrate those tags and then watch the film. A film that goes to some international film festival is celebrated. In a way, we are seeking their validation, right? I really feel the film must be enjoyed by the people of the region where the film is made and, of course, by others too. But unfortunately, that doesn’t happen. It is sad. There are good filmmakers, but I don’t know how we can improve the situation so that good films keep coming out.
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.