2020s

An Interview with ‘Jaggi’ Filmmaker Anmol Sidhu

Jaggi, a 2021 Punjabi film directed by Anmol Sidhu, follows a young man whose sexual impotence becomes an object of ridicule and exploitation amongst his peers. Portrayed by Ramnish Chaundhary, the title character is forcefully subjected to humiliating situations of which there is no respite. Jaggi won the Audience Choice Award for Best Feature at the 2022 Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, as well as the Uma da Cunha Award for Best Feature Film Debut. I recently spoke with Sidhu about his commendable and gripping tale.

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Dipankar Sarkar: How did your background in theatre help you to hone your skill as a filmmaker?

Anmol Sidhu: While I was pursuing my Masters in Business Administration, I joined a theatre group in Chandigarh, Punjab. My mentor in theatre, Mr. Chakresh Kumar, gave me the task to read the literary work of popular writers around the world. Thus, I was exposed to Russian literature and a whole lot of acting theories. It inculcated in me the habit of reading. My mentor used to tell us to write the dialogues of our characters in a particular play on our own like a monologue. This practice helped me develop my writing skills too. I have also read a lot of work by Bertolt Brecht, which has also helped me in my style of filmmaking. As a student of the theatre group, I underwent lots of workshops, which have also helped me to develop some of the scenes of our film. So, my background in theatre has a major role to play in my life [as a] filmmaker.

DS: Can you elaborate on the influence of Bertolt Brecht on your filmmaking style?

AS: As a member of the theatre group, during the weekend, I used to read the translated version of Brecht’s theories and plays such as Mother Courage and Her Children in Hindi. Such readings helped me to form the notion that art should reflect the events happening in our society. My short films  Last Tree (2020) and Gobhi (Cauliflower, 2022), as well as my feature film Jaggi, mirror certain events happening in our society that had made a lasting impact on my mind. That’s the influence of Brecht on my style of filmmaking.

DS: Your short films Last Tree and Gobhi are not dialogue-centric. How did the idea of making these two films occur to you?

AS: I would like to say that The Last Tree is my most mature film. It was shot on a smartphone, and I was still learning the basics of filmmaking. There is a practice in Punjab that after the rice crop has been harvested, the the residue in the form of stubble that remains rooted in the soil is burnt. This results in pollution due to the large amount of smoke produced due to fire. The health of people throughout Punjab gets deteriorated due to hazardous reactions. But there are certain areas where the flow of air is absent, due to the absence of trees, and that particular region does not get polluted. Once as I was returning from Chandigarh to my village, I noticed that some people were taking shelter in one of such areas where there was no smoke. There was a kind of relief on their faces. That is how the idea of making the film on the theme of Man versus Nature occurred to me. While I was shooting my feature film Jaggi in the fields, the idea of the short film Gobhi occurred to me. I had heard of incidents where young girls collecting hay for their cattle had to be physically involved with the owner of the field. So, one day during the shooting, I witnessed an incident where two young girls had to get intimate with an old man to collect the hay for their cattle. This event struck my mind, and that is how the genesis of Gobi took its shape. Regarding the lack of dialogue in both films, I would say that since I do not have a background in filmmaking, I consider it a task to hone my skill as a filmmaker by making a short film every year without the characters speaking to one another.

DS: Jaggi is inspired by true events and shatters preconceived notions about masculinity associated with the state of Punjab, India. Why did you choose such a delicate subject for your debut?

AS: One of my elder brothers studying in a boarding school used to tell me that the senior students used to rape their juniors. There was a student who was studying in the eighth standard who became a victim of the lust of his seniors studying in the 10th standard. While this guy was in his ninth standard, he could not take the trauma for long and committed suicide. There also have been incidents when parents dropped their sons from boarding schools due to such lecherous activities. Such kind of incidents happen in the state of Punjab because when the boys are in their state of puberty, their hormonal desire arises. But the system in villages is so strict that boys are not allowed to meet with girls. To give a vent to their frustrations, boys force themselves upon individuals younger than them. I used to sympathize with such victims. So, all these vilely occurrences around our society compelled me to make this film. Moreover, when I screened the film in my village, individuals who perpetuated such forceful sexual acts started to weep, as they had realized their mistake. Lots of other people in my village also found my film to be extremely relatable.

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DS: How important was the voiceover of the protagonist within the narrative of Jaggi?

AS: The protagonist of the film is a loner. There are very few people with whom he communicates. At the beginning of the film, he speaks to some of the students from his class and later with the helper in the fields. So, Jaggi used to write all his feelings in a diary, and the voiceover is a medium to express his inner thoughts. This was the idea from the moment I started writing the script. Had there been no voiceover, Jaggi would have never been able to express his pain and suffering to viewers and earn their empathy. Thus, the voiceover was used as a narrative tool for a reason.

DS: Few scenes in Jaggi are graphic and visceral in comparison to how sexual acts of violence are depicted in Indian cinema. How did you take your actors in confidence to perform such acts with sheer conviction? Tell me about your process.

AS: All the credit goes to my mentor from theatre, Mr. Chakresh Kumar. His workshops introduced me to legendary theatre directors like Vsevolod Meyerhold, Jerzy Grotowski and Bertolt Brecht, and sowed the seed of how an actor should rise above his physical limitation and work beyond. He also screened the documentary Pina (2011), which I used as study material. Unlike me, the other members of the theatre group have also undergone extreme levels of exercise. Since the actors in my film are from the same theatre group, they knew from the first day how the scenes in the film were going to be shot. They were also from my village, and they found the script relatable too. So, it was not difficult for them to perform those graphic scenes with ease. I would also like to mention that the Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2008) was an inspiration for making the film.

DS: In one scene, Jaggi — despite knowing why the main gate of his home is locked — barges inside through his neighbor’s rooftop. I was expecting a confrontation but nothing as such happened. What is the significance of this scene?

AS: Jaggi had heard rumors about his mother having an illicit affair with his uncle. But he was never sure of it. He presumed that since his father was an alcoholic, his uncle made casual visits to their home and took care of the family. So, in this particular scene, he witnesses that whatever he has heard was true. He comes face to face with the harsh and bitter reality of his life. He knew that confronting his mother and uncle would yield no result because his father is also aware of the embarrassing situation.

DS: Most of the scenes in Jaggi are long takes. The opening shot of the film is about seven minutes long. How did you plan your shots as the co-cinematographer of Jaggi?

AS: I shot this film imagining two people sitting opposite one another, like in a cafe, and one individual is watching and listening to the other. So, the position of the camera was observational in nature. The entire film was shot with a lens that had a focal length of 70-200mm. The actors were not shot in close-ups. They were composed at wide angles to form a relationship with their surroundings. Secondly, I feel more connected with the characters when captured in long takes. In this case, I would like to mention that films like Birdman (2004) and The Revenant (2005) have been major inspirations.

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DS: The background score has minimal use within Jaggi. Yet, it creates a piercing effect. 

AS: The background score of the film is designed as a heartbeat. When Jaggi is masturbating, bullied by his schoolmates or physically assaulted, the sound of his heartbeat increases and so does the background score. When the film reaches its climax, the score sounds as if the heart has stopped beating. This was the idea behind the composition of the soundtrack.

DS: What is your plan regarding the release and distribution ofJaggi?

AS: As of now, I am concentrating on sending the film to various festivals until the end of this year. Regarding the release, I am not sure about theatrical distribution. I would prefer the film to have a direct OTT release on platforms such as Mubi, etc.

DS: Share your thoughts on the current state of Punjabi cinema.

AS: Most of the popular films made in Punjab are mindless comedies, and I consider the situation of the Punjabi film industry to be pathetic. I have stopped watching films in theatres because the mind of the viewers has gotten accustomed to comedy in such a manner that they are not able to appreciate a film based on serious issues. The last film that I watched in a theatre was Udta Punjab (2016). In one of the scenes when the female protagonist was getting raped, the viewers were cheering, and I found it to be disgusting. Even masculinity in Punjabi cinema is depicted by showing the actor coming to the fields in a tractor and singing and dancing in song sequences. Films based on social issues are [not] being made. However, a filmmaker like Gurvinder Singh is making art house films dealing with serious subjects and themes. But such films do not reach a wider audience. We need more of such filmmakers that will help in developing a taste for a different kind of cinema amongst the viewers.

DS: Lastly, do you think that independent filmmaking in India is flourishing?

AS: There are very few independent films being made in India. To be honest, by listening to the interviews of filmmaker Anurag Kashyap, I got the inspiration to make my debut feature film. According to him, one can make films even with a smartphone. To make my debut feature, I bought a camera through crowd-funding. But I did not know how to operate it. I hired a wedding photographer for the job. He had the technical knowledge of the camera and shot the film for a month. Later, I took the role of cinematographer. We had shot the film with a limited budget. But when I watch other independent films that are being made in India [with] lots of money, I cannot consider them to be independent. I think independent filmmaking in our country [has] yet to flourish.

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.