Interview with ‘Barah by Barah’ Filmmaker Gaurav Madan

Barah by Barah Movie - 2021 Gaurav Madan Film

Directed by Gaurav Madan, Barah by Barah explores the ambiguities and ambivalences of a modern Indian community. The aspirations and frustrations of the sensitive protagonist, Sooraj (Gyanendra Tripathi), cause serious personal issues, and he confronts them placidly throughout the 2021 film. Highly complex in its narrative treatment, Barah by Barah resonates in the way its universal themes are worked out through the prism of everyday life realities. I recently spoke with Madan about his aesthetic choices while making the film. 

Dipankar Sarkar: How did the idea of Barah by Barah occur to you?

Gaurav Madan: My writing and producing partner Sunny Lahiri had come across this character who clicks photographs of the dead at Manikarnika ghat in Varanasi. Sunny had told me about this character, and I remember rubbing my hands in excitement over the cinematic potential it had. So, the genesis of the idea took place from this novel character residing in an ancient town. Soon, we landed up in Varanasi and started building our script from there.

DS: Varanasi is a much-explored location and subject in Indian cinema. But the way Barah by Barah explores the burning pyres, priests performing the rituals, the narrow alleys of the Manikarnika Ghat and the mighty banks of the river Ganga are striking and help in building up the narrative. So, how did you approach the location and bring out such an enriching visual mosaic?

GM: Well, the interesting thing for me was to draw parallels between this character and the town he resides in. While the character is losing his livelihood, the ancient town stands to lose its identity with mass demolitions that are taking place. I wanted to bring about this constant tussle between modernity and tradition. Also, both me and Sunny were very clear from the beginning that we won’t over-romanticize the ghats and create an “exotic” impression of Varanasi. So, we decided to be led by this character. We just followed him and found our journey. All we did was look at the place through his lens.

DS: I found the high angle shot of the dead body carried for burning amidst a crowd playing Holi exceptionally mesmerizing. I have my interpretation, but how would you describe the symbolic importance of the shot in Barah by Barah?

GM: That is one of my favorite shots in the film and the only shot that was taken on a digital camera. To me, it is the inevitability and mundaneness of death in this ancient town. It is a place where life and death are seen as two constant parallels, and both are celebrated equally. That’s the reason why people keep dancing all around, playing with colors and throwing water at each other, because death is such a mundane affair here. Also, you see the body traveling from a span of shade to a sunny patch towards the end, which signifies the”‘myth of salvation” or finding that coveted paradise. Many great saints have termed life as “an arduous walk through the shade” or merely a span given to us to deal with the past Karmas, while they saw death as “mukti” (deliverance) from the ordeal of living. 

DS: You co-wrote Barah by Barah with your cinematographer Sunny Lahiri. How did it help you develop the mise-en-scène of the film?

GM: My collaboration with Sunny is a unique one. It is rare to find a cinematographer who writes so well. Sunny’s strong visual aesthetic and understanding of the medium helped in writing a compelling screenplay. Another interesting thing about our collaboration is that a lot of mise-en-scène is written on paper, and we usually end up being on the same page early in the process.

Barah by Barah Movie - 2021 Gaurav Madan Film

DS: As Barah by Barah moves forward, we discover that Dubey (Akash Sinha) is not yet prepared to detach himself from the legacy of his ancestors, while Sooraj is grappling with the transformation of the city’s social and cultural landscape. In some way, I found both of them to be the mirror image of one another. How would you define these characters?

GM: Yes, you are right. Dubey and Sooraj are very similar. Both grew up on Manikarnika ghat with a lot of Varanasi in them. A lot of times, we become the space we grow up in and the space becomes us. Our being and identities are so entangled with each other that separation is hard to imagine. That is why it is so hard for both Sooraj and Dubey to accept the transformation. But in the end, they do accept it no matter how painful it is. A journey has to end for another to begin.

DS: The performers in Barah by Barah portray their characters with sensitivity, exuberance and ease. Tell me how you went through the casting process of the film.

GM: I believe the process of casting is somewhat serendipitous. When you put words on paper, it goes out in the universe and attracts the right set of people. It is all programmed. Besides that, casting for me is very intuitive. Sometimes, I meet an actor, talk to him for a few minutes, and I know he’s my character. For Barah by Barah, I did a lot of screen tests myself since it is easier that way and there are no filters. I would say I was fortunate to find a bunch of outstanding actors who brought so much pathos to their characters.

DS: Share your thoughts on the creative choice of shooting Barah by Barah on celluloid instead of utilizing the digital medium.

GM: We decided very early in the development stage that we would shoot the film on celluloid. It was purely an artistic call. The story we wanted to tell was of a death photographer struggling to make ends meet due to the advent of smartphones. Filming it on celluloid in a digital age seemed like a happy irony. We decided to live it. Also, we were going to document an important leaf in the so-called transformation of old Kashi in our film. We thought it would be beautiful to preserve it on film. Moreover, shooting on film had its own set of sweet challenges. It called for great discipline from all crew members. Thankfully, many crew and cast members had shot extensively on film before it made a sad exit to make way for digital. It was a pleasant nostalgia, and they were game. We did a minimum of 10 rehearsals before a take, and no, we didn’t “roll” any of the rehearsals.

Barah by Barah Movie - 2021 Gaurav Madan Film

DS: How much did Barah by Barah evolve during the process of editing?

GM: I think the most important thing to happen during the editing stage was the chapters. The rest of it was quite straightforward.

DS: How did the campaign on the crowd-funding platform Wishberry help you to complete Barah by Barah?

GM: To be honest, we decided [to do] everything possible to raise money to complete the film. When we were done borrowing from our friends and relatives, we decided to go for crowdfunding. The Wishberry campaign helped not just in raising some money, but also with the initial marketing and publicity of our project.

DS: Since theaters have started opening up in India, what are your plans regarding the release of Barah by Barah?

GM: We know for a fact that Barah by Barah is a niche film. A theatrical release is an expensive affair, and the majority of the theater-going audience in the country is not the audience of our film. Therefore, we are doing our festival rounds and hope to find a good platform for the digital and satellite release.

DS: Lastly, your second feature script Kanda Vanda (The Giant Onion) has been selected to take part in West Meets East Screenplay Lab, which is a part of the Dhaka International Film Festival 2022 in Bangladesh. Tell me something about the script and your expectations for the lab.

GM: Kanda Vanda was supposed to be my first feature film. I have lived with the script for more than five years now. As they say, the thing you want to do badly takes the most amount of time to materialize. But then I believe there is “a right time” for every film. Kanda Vanda was a part of the recently concluded NFDC Screenwriters’ Lab and now it will be taking part in the West Meets East Lab of Dhaka IFF 2022. Labs are a great place to sharpen and fine-tune. At times, you can stumble upon a completely new perspective too. So, I am looking forward to working with my mentors in Dhaka.

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.