Interview with ‘Aahuti’ Filmmaker Lubdhak Chatterjee

Aahuti - 2019 Short Film by Lubdhak Chatterjee

Lubdhak Chatterjee is an independent filmmaker from India. While pursuing a post-graduate degree in engineering, he discovered a passion for still photography and cinema. Chatterjee’s first short film In a Free State (2016) screened at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival in the Court Métrage section. The director’s love for Indian classical music and dance resulted in his documentary feature debut Vaikhari (2018, available on YouTube), which won a Doordarshan Film Fellowship and was screened at various festivals globally. Aahuti (2019) premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam 2020 and has been featured at Mubi. I recently spoke to Chatterjee about his filmmaking process.

Dipankar Sarkar: You studied the intricacies of the laws of physics as an engineer. So, how did you get interested in filmmaking?

Lubdhak Chatterjee: Honestly speaking, this seismic shift in my life didn’t have a major backstory; it happened to be a phenomenon driven by curiosity as well as passion simultaneously which was discovered pretty late. I was, however, earlier interested in still photography, and had been practicing it at a personal level during my college days. It was only during my masters, post my shift to Delhi, where I not only ended up getting involved in friends’ projects as a cinematographer and editor but also started attending screenings and festivals which regularly happened in Delhi. That was the primary trigger point of my interest in filmmaking which didn’t take a backseat thereafter.

DS:  As a self-trained independent filmmaker, how did you hone your skills?

LC: Practice! Although I must admit filmmaking is too expensive a medium to use this term with one needing to rent everything for a shoot. But I think it was more about the preparations, which I would like to cover and emphasize. Of course, it included watching films and attending Q and A sessions post screenings, but also the emphasis did remain on a wide array of subjects — reading books, listening to music, creating a channel of engagement with various art forms in general. The film is a medium where various art forms do intersect, and it is very important to engage and experience with them at a deeper level. Thus I strongly feel rather than focusing more on funds and how to get on the floor — it is more important to train oneself mentally, which ideally becomes the nucleus of the praxis. Of course, I also tried getting involved in small projects, and also learned practical skills on the set with every opportunity of its kind.

DS: Your first short film, In a Free State, narrates the tale of an aspiring filmmaker and an artist who paints amputated figures. How did the idea of the film occur to you?

LC: I had made the film when I was still pursuing my master’s in engineering. So, I had a fair amount of confusion regarding whether I should take the call and move to filmmaking full time and how that might impact my immediate surroundings including family. Apart from that, the uncertainty in this field also remained a tricky wicket to bat on, and [making] a complete move thus [became] a psychological impediment in my quest for personal freedom. Yet when I decided to work on a personal project, I wanted to focus on themes that not only touch [upon] personal aspirations and remain true to my experiences but also on relevant social issues that spatializes me in the times we live. Intolerance was indeed becoming an issue that started making its presence felt unabatedly back then, and I wanted to focus on a narrative journey that integrates personal — as well as the larger quest for — freedom.

In a Free State - Short Film by Lubdhak Chatterjee

DS:  How did you assemble the crew for your first short film?

LC: It was indeed very tricky to galvanize resources for the first film, as I didn’t have any resources at my disposal, or a major fund to procure them with ease. Yet through friends, I got in touch with a few actors in Delhi who happened to help me in this cause. I will remain forever indebted to my actors in my first film for being a part of my journey, or else I wouldn’t have made films at all, and the journey might have ended right when it had promised to start.

DS: Your documentary Vaikhari follows Parwati Dutta’s choreography of the Indian epic “Meghdootam.” What attracted you to the idea?

LC: Although I had not learned any specific art form properly, I had been very much interested in Indian classical art forms, especially music. Yet with time and opportunity, my engagement with dance also increased where I had discovered my interest in the utterance of mnemonic syllables and their impact from an audience perspective. Thus when I decided to make my first nonfiction film, I was fully aware of the subject I wanted to focus on, as it had offered me a scope to learn more about the intricacies of Bol Padhant in dance and percussion. Initially, it was the zone of dialogue that such utterances created between the performer on stage and the audience, but when I started the research with Parwati Dutta, I happened to discover more layers that take one to the essence of the processes involved. 

The idea to incorporate “Meghdootam” came much later, as I wanted to focus on a creative process while keeping central attention on Padhant . It was more about having a narrative thread in the nonfiction film as well where “Meghdootam” came in with initial interest on focusing on how Padhant can play a role in translating literary stanzas into rhythmic analogs. Although being based heavily on nature, it gave more scope for visual and sonic explorations as well.

DS: The documentary further explores the stages of artistic contemplation based on the theoretical and practical aspects of Padhant, which is an artistic way of reciting mnemonic syllables used in Indian classical percussion and dance. So, what sort of research did you undergo to shape the structure?

LC: The research was quite long, as we took around a year and a half to work on it before finally rolling the camera. The fundamental research started when I first visited Mahagami Gurukul in Aurangabad and [met] with Parwati Dutta, [who] not only answered several of my questions but opened up new vistas for me in this concept. I had gone through several important books for a better appreciation of aesthetics of Indian rhythm, [and I once again] had long sessions with her. Also, Mahagami as a space acted as a catalyst, as it gave me proper room for thought as well as offered a zone for me to quietly sit — even in the classroom — and observe the proceedings, or sit at a corner of campus and listen to the tapestry of sounds which included that of nature as well as ankle bells from another classroom. Thus the process was very organic and hence allowed me to work with freedom where I could focus on multiple dimensions of the core idea until the last minute.

Vaikhari - Documentary by Lubdhak Chatterjee

DS: Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT), a significant stakeholder in the independent documentary movement in India since 2000, funded the documentary. How was the experience of working with such a prominent organization?

LC: It was indeed a huge moment for me, as it completely changed my life. Delhi has a very active space of engagement with nonfiction filmmaking, and I had been deeply influenced by such films, which coincidentally got produced by PSBT. As you rightly mentioned, in the new millennium PSBT has been single-handedly responsible for creating such wide scope in explorations in nonfiction filmmaking. This also was my first grant submission, and thus to get selected became the trigger for this major move in my life, as it had happened right after I completed my masters in engineering. 

Also, PSBT as a body made me feel very confident and comfortable — even though I was a newcomer — and that is so crucial. I will forever cherish the association, as it allowed me access to my zone of freedom which I earnestly wanted to be a part of.

DS: In your second short film, Aahuti, a community realizes that their responsibilities in the ecosystem have been fulfilled, and that they prefer to migrate to a different space-time matrix, in a fictional space and time. How did you come up with such a complex abstraction?

LC: Honestly, Aahuti became a result of several processes running simultaneously. The inception of the idea happened while researching and developing Vaikhari when I had a discourse of fundamentals of existence as well as aesthetics in Indian philosophy. Other than that, I have been deeply intrigued by the scope that sound as a medium provides, and hence these two factors became the base of exploration of Aahuti. The aspect of migrating to different space-time matrix was, however, just a “target” of the process in the domain of intrigue. It was the emphasis on the process in “this very space time matrix” which integrates the essence of fundamental elements and our relationship to them, and that formed the fundamental platform of my exploration in Aahuti.

DS: Throughout 15 minutes, we watch the close-up shots of hands engaged in a meticulous choreography. Could you speak about the mise-en-scène of the short film?

LC: The mise-en-scène was driven by several iconographic patterns in old Indian practices, which I had discovered during the development of the film. Essentially, it was also a way of discovering how to draw attention to space and create an engagement through movement across the vertical and horizontal axis of the 2-D visual frame. 

Aahuti - 2019 Short Film by Lubdhak Chatterjee

DS: What was the particular aesthetic reason to shoot Aahuti in black and white?

LC: I didn’t want colors to represent or allude to ideas with their presence, as my focus heavily remained on the textures. It was due to this reason that I had decided to shoot the film in black and white.

DS: Share your thoughts on the sound design of Aahuti that becomes so integral to the aural space of the film.

LC: Sound design was the nucleus of the process in Aahuti. It was sound that drove the scene first and thus was written first in the script as well. The script incorporated a choreography of what we hear and what we see, with both not only complementing [the concepts] but having an individual presence. [Aahuti] has careful use of non-diegetic sounds without which the film would have appeared completely different. I am very much intrigued by the vast spectrum [that] sound always offers, which go way beyond the physical frame and hence open up new vistas in our exploration, contemplation and appreciation.

DS: How did participating at one of the meccas of independent filmmaking festivals — IFFR — benefit your career as a filmmaker?

LC: Having my film at International Film Festival Rotterdam was indeed a dream come true for me with it being one of the top film festivals in the world. It instilled major confidence in my capabilities as well, as [it] gave me access to a new world. Also, the fact I could visit the festival physically made it even more special, as not only could I interact with a large audience but also meet various mentors — filmmakers from around the globe who had assembled for the August event. Also in hindsight, I consider myself to be extremely lucky, as it happened just a month before the COVID-19 pandemic struck and would have made any international travel impossible, especially sans any headache.

DS:  Aahuti is currently streaming on Mubi. Do you think that such platforms play a crucial role in the viewership of niche filmmaking?

LC: We make films to engage with the audience. I strongly believe [Aahuti] doesn’t end with the credits but initiates another journey of shared discourse between filmmaker and audience. Hence it is of paramount importance to have the engagement going. Unfortunately, we do not have any theatrical space for short films and documentaries other than film festivals in India, and hence post-festival journey, we have to depend on platforms for that engagement to carry on. Having Aahuti in Mubi, however, became very special, as it is only Mubi who has successfully created a space for discourse on these films. I sincerely hope that it keeps providing the support we need so that we can reach a wider audience and this journey can expand in the right direction.

DS:  Are you working on a new project?

LC: At present, I am developing my feature fiction titled Anunaad, which expands on the idea of the quest for identity while focusing on the journey of a sound recordist and an indigenous community.

Dipankar Sarkar (@Dipankar_Tezpur) 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.