Interview with ‘Bela’ Filmmaker Prantik Narayan Basu

Bela Documentary

Prantik Narayan Basu is an Indian documentarian who studied filmmaking at the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune. His short film Sakhisona (2017) won the Tiger Award at IFFR 2017 and the Silver Conch for Best Short Fiction at the 2018 Mumbai International Film Festival. Basu’s 2018 Santhali language documentary Rang Mahal (Palace of Colour) is an attempt to explore new modes of blending fact, fiction and cultural experiences through paintings made by community residents on rocks, hills and trees. With Bela — an almost hour-long documentary situated in the titular village in West Bengal — Basu makes judicious use of  his cinematic brevity and keenly observes the lives of villagers. I recently spoke with the filmmaker about the two-year process of making the documentary.

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Bela Documentary

Dipankar Sarkar. First of all, congratulations on the selection of Bela at Visions du Réel 2021 and the International Film Festival Rotterdam 2021. How important are these festivals for the film?

Prantik Narayan Basu: Thank you! It was great. I have very high regards for IFFR — the festival has been very supportive towards my practice, and I am always delighted to screen my films there. Bela premiered at Visions du Réel in April, and many festivals have reached out since then. I saw some magnificent films at both these festivals and met many amazing filmmakers. Though virtually, it was still a very pleasant and welcome detour from this ongoing sadness around us.

DSSakhisonaRang Mahal and Bela engage the audience with the Santhali culture, ritualistic practices and customs. How distinct is each of them from one another?

PNB: Quite different. Also, not all of these three films are in Santhali, or engage with the Santhali culture in particular. While Rang Mahal was shot in a Santhali village and [deals] with their creation myth, Sakhisona is a folklore [film] from Mogulmari, which is in Midnapur. And Bela takes place in a village in Purulia, where the dancers and musicians from Sakhisona reside. They belong to different communities, namely the Kurmis and the Mahatos. To an outsider’s eye, it might appear similar, and our urban gaze simply clubs it as “adivasi culture.” We really need to sensitize our observation to be able to trace their distinctive individuality. It is an ongoing process, and that is what my attempt was with these films. Hopefully, I am able to present three very different vignettes of Bengal in them.

DS. In Bela, we are introduced to the day-to-day life of the villagers without a voice-over narration or interview. Rather, we go with the flow of the narrative, give ear to their conversations and become a part of their manner of living. So, how did that come together and what kind of treatment did you have in mind while structuring the documentary?

PNB: I met the wonderful performing artists, the dancers and musicians of Manbhum Sramjibi Chhau Nritya Dal during the making of Sakhisona. They performed and composed songs for the film. I remained in touch with them and, upon the completion of the film, visited their village, Bela, to share the final film with them. I ended up [staying] for a few weeks without any plans for a film. Over time, we developed a great friendship and camaraderie, shooting showreels for their dance group and traveling to their dance competitions. Somewhere during those times, the seed for a new film had germinated.

Unlike my previous films, the formal structure for Bela developed along the process. I started with the dance group, and was mostly interested in tracing the transformation of the dancers from the people they were to the roles they played across gender. Since Chhau dance is mostly practiced by men, I meandered to observe the women and their activities in and around the village. The juxtaposition in itself was telling a story, so adding a voiceover would have made it didactic. We see when we are told to look, but on our own, we observe. So, I limited my intervention to the least, and aimed for a cinema verité approach in Bela.

DS. How long did you take to complete the documentary from shooting to editing?

PNB: Roughly four years, on and off. I also made Rang Mahal in between. For Bela, I started shooting sometime in 2017 and completed the film towards the end of 2020. With the ongoing lockdowns, the final post-production got delayed as well, and we could only take our final exports in 2021. This was only possible because I had extremely patient and generous producers and commissioning editors, Anjali Monteiro and K.P. Jayasankar, of the School of Media and Cultural Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences — the film was supported by their Early Career Fellowship Programme. It also received the Arts Practice Grant from India Foundation for the Arts, and the Generator Co-operative Fund from the Experimenter Gallery which helped in completing the film.

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Bela Documentary

DS.You are the cinematographer as well as editor of both Rang Mahal and Bela. Does handling the technical departments give you complete control over the material? Or is there a different cause and purpose?

PNB: In filmmaking, one never has complete control, and this malleability is unnerving yet exciting. A few sequences in Bela are shot by my batchmate from FTII, Riju Das, a dear friend and a very sensitive cinematographer. He had just moved to Mumbai and was also recovering from a leg injury, so I couldn’t keep calling him back for long periods of time. In the process, I realized that being a one person crew gave me closer access and more intimacy with the people in Bela. I am not sure what brief I would have possibly given to an editor, for both these films are quite abstract in their narrative structures. A lot of it is days and months of trial and error, with various permutations and combinations until the patterns emerge.

DS.The sound design by Ananda Gupta recreates the performances of the Chhau dance form as well as the minutiae of life in rural Bengal. What sort of suggestions did you provide to create the soundscape of the film?

PNB: Unlike Rang Mahal, the sound design in Bela is quite sparse and minimal. Most of it is diegetic location sounds. Ananda and I decided to stick with that, apart from cleaning the tracks and layering some parts with additional ambiences to enhance the feeling of the space. We added a few birds and crickets specific to the region and the time of day depicted in the scenes.

DS. Most of the frames of the documentary are static and capture the mobility and motions of life, where the rendering of human subjectivity and imaginative wandering acquires a poetic resonance within the image structure of the film. So, how would you like to define the visual pattern of the documentary?

PNB: Some of it was guided by the limitations and restrictions that came from the locations, such as shooting in low light and/or with diegetic light sources. In non-fiction films, there is only so much one can pre-plan in terms of framing. Most of them were intuitive responses to the scenes unfolding in front of the camera. Sadly, some of the best moments occur when the camera is off.

DS. As the men prepare for the performances, the women are busy with their quotidian activities. So, how did you  interpret the functioning of the gender division within the universe of the documentary?

PNB: It is quite compartmentalised, in terms of gender roles. While the men dress up as women for their performance, and the women display immense physical strength in their daily activities, the lines otherwise are rather rigid. Hence I chose to film the thresholds, literally and figuratively, of day and night, of art and labour, of the feminine and the masculine. Of late, few female Chhau dance groups have been formed. But the attitude towards them is very similar to the ones towards the women’s sports teams in our country. Also, while Chhau dance is so widely celebrated, the [fact that the] temporary bandna paintings on the floor done by the women from the village will be washed away by the following rain is something to think about.

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Bela Documentary

DS. The scene in the cowshed with the chickens is shot in a manner that does not conceal the gory process. Would you like to tell us about the ritual?

PNB: It is a part of the Bandna Parab where the villagers worship their cattle in the cowshed. They sacrifice chicken as a part of the ritual. The scene works as a counterpoint to the otherwise serene atmosphere of the film. I was working in a space that is still haunted by the violent memories of the erstwhile Jungle Mahal. So, making a pristine film about an idyllic village would have been counterintuitive. Besides, it is interesting how we assign an unspoken hierarchy within the livestock in terms of value, where one is sacrificed to worship another.

DS. As the film begins, we observe the boys from Manbhum Sramjibi Chhau Group practicing at night. And then we travel back with them after they had performed at the village fair. In both these scenes, you used drop-frames. Was there a particular reason behind the choice?

PNB: The choice was purely guided by the technical limitation of having very little light in both the sequences. In hindsight, it worked out for the better. Those two scenes are like the opening and closing brackets, and create a visual association with the journey of the group within the film.

DS. After Sakhisona, Rang Mahal and now Bela, would you consider yourself an idiosyncratic filmmaker who specializes in ethnography?

PNB: That would be a tall claim. I don’t specialize in anything yet. However, I would say that my interests remain constant. The fragile relation between nature and humans and the politics of gender in society are things I am intrigued by, besides exploring the myriad formal devices of storytelling. I do tend to look for my own preoccupations in the stories I choose to tell. In that regard, I am not as selfless as an ethnographer might ideally be.

DS. Documentary filmmaking is still considered a niche creative endeavour in our country.  Even though a handful of such films have been released theatrically, the responses have been underwhelming. So, how do you perceive the current documentary film scenario in India?

PNB: Quite grim, to say the least. Unlike the European or American countries, where artistic filmmaking survives through state support and patronage, here we are mostly scavenging means and resources to make films and get them seen. The few supporters that we had, such as the PSBT and Films Division, are also dwindling, either in resource or autonomy. The same goes for fiction films as well that are off the beaten track. Unless we come from well off, privileged backgrounds, we hardly get by just by making films, let alone getting them seen and distributed beyond festivals. This is sad but true. Even the OTT platforms nowadays prefer more mainstream content, unless there are big names backing your project. And when it comes to niche films, they are acquired at a rather nominal price, if acquired at all. A bigger problem lies in awareness and film education in general. Like literature, music and other art forms, I wish film education and discourse were more prevalent. Hopefully it will get there some day, when the basic needs are fulfilled.

DS. What is your next project?

PNB: I have been working on a feature script for quite a few years now. It is called Dengue, and it’s a love story between two men set in Calcutta. Part fiction and part fantasy, it is inspired from my own experiences of growing up as a gay man in India during the pre-internet times. At the development stage, the project was awarded the Hubert Bals Fund from IFFR and will be presented at the Marché du Film in Cannes by the NFDC Film Bazaar Co-production Market. We are still looking for financiers and co-producers for the film, and hopefully we will be in a position to shoot sometime next year.

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.