Bharat Mirle is an independent filmmaker from Bangalore, India. His debut feature film The Road to Kuthriyar (2021) follows a city-bred wildlife researcher, Dhruv (Dhruv Athreye), who is entrusted with conducting a sanctuary foot survey. After the protagonist recruits a local tribesman (Chinna Dorai as Dorai) as his guide, the film smoothly whisks the thin barrier between fiction and non-fiction to showcase a community of displaced native inhabitants residing within the Palani Hills. Through interactions with several members of a neglected tribal community, viewers receive insight into the ineluctable politics of home and displacement with unflinching and empathetic precision. The Road to Kuthriyar had its world premiere at the 2021 Busan Film Festival and has since screened at several international events. In this interview, Bharat discusses the various impediments behind the making of The Road to Kuthriyar and his relentless quest to find a cinematic voice.
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Dipankar Sarkar: Did you want to become a filmmaker as a child? How did you develop your cinematic sensibilities?
Bharat Mirle: So, I come from a rather creatively-inclined family. My parents are both writers, and my grandmother was a teacher of English literature, so I was always exposed to stories in some form of the other — either through books, plays or films. I think this sparked a fascination for storytelling in me at an early age. It certainly helped that I wasn’t very good at most of my school subjects. But I remember being an imaginative child, and I had this urge to tell stories. The first time I encountered a video camera was through a family friend who had returned from the [United] States. My friends and I began making home movies on it, and this was my first brush with the medium of cinema. Over the years, more people began to buy camcorders (including my parents), and our films began to evolve technically as well. This laid the foundations of my filmmaking journey. However, during the late 90s and 2000s, I think perhaps imagination was not valued as much as [it is] today, and it took me some time to pursue filmmaking seriously. It was only a few years after college that I took the plunge and did it full-time.
DS: You have worked as a collaborator in different capacities on various projects and also contributed as a director and editor in some of them. How did such involvements help you in whetting your style and motivations as a filmmaker?
BM: Working on other projects helped me learn the technical aspects of filmmaking. Things like workflows, troubleshooting on the fly and preparedness on set — these things only come from experience. A lot of these were also commissioned projects that served a specific purpose — an ad or a corporate film. Filmmaking tends to put some stress on “auteurship,” and it isn’t uncommon for filmmakers to be adamant [that] their “voice” [stands] out. Working on other projects can be humbling in this regard because, in many cases, the final product is in the voice of a brand or organization, and it is not always aligned with that of the director. Such instances helped me to begin forming my style by making me realize what I would not do with a project that I was doing purely for myself. It also made me want to work on my films a lot more.
DS: You won the Sundance Short Film Award for your documentary 175 Grams (2015). Share your experience of making the film and how the accolade helped your career.
BM: 175 Grams was a big step in my filmmaking career. It was a tremendous learning experience that helped me fine-tune how I would approach subjects and craft a narrative around them. It also made me come to terms with the collaborative nature of filmmaking — what it means to work with other people and where one has to make compromises. Winning the Sundance Short Film Challenge came as a huge surprise and gave me the morale boost to continue on the path that I was on. It told me that I was on the right track, but it also made me realize certain things about the stories I wanted to tell and made me think more and more about my position as the storyteller concerning my subject matter.
DS: How did you come across the central idea of The Road to Kuthriyar and develop it into a screenplay?
BM: The Road to Kuthriyar initially began as a documentary idea. The protagonist of the film… Dhruv is a college friend. It just so happened that when my cinematographer, Mithun Bhat, was living in Kodaikanal. he happened to meet Dhruv and they became good friends. At this time, Dhruv was about to embark on a survey of the Kodaikanal wildlife sanctuary and Mithun was considering helping him shoot some footage for a blog he had to maintain. When we realized that the three of us knew each other, we went from shooting Dhruv’s blog to making a documentary on him. Our initial plan was to make a documentary about the survey he was conducting, but this changed primarily because of two things. Firstly, the survey itself was physically very demanding and following him around with gear was simply out of the question. Secondly, we met Dhruv’s survey assistant, Dorai, and realized that the bond that Dhruv shared with him was unique. It is like nothing I had seen before, and I was convinced that it was the core of the story we were trying to tell. Over the coming months, both Mithun and I paid Dhruv a few visits. We even went to Kuthraiyar — Dorai’s village. Through these excursions, I was constantly writing the script and eventually the entire story fell into place.
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DS: What made you feel confident about the physical as well as the metaphorical journey of a wildlife researcher that you decided to make it into a feature film?
BM: The visual aspect of the landscape, the tremendousness of Dhruv’s task and his unique bond with Dorai and the people of Kuthiraiyar all convinced me that there was enough material in it for a feature film. It was like stepping into a new world for me. Normally, I would have been a tourist in that setting, but going there with Dhruv with a specific purpose (research) changed my position in the equation, and I found that I was learning something new every day. The more I thought about it, it was very surprising to me that I knew so little about a place that was only a day’s journey from where I had lived most of my life. Making a work of docu-fiction where the film heavily drew from its environment — the locations, characters, etc. — was something I had been discussing with my father for a long time and this seemed to be the perfect chance to try it out. Besides, I did not have much of a budget at all. There are 20-minute films that I have worked on that exceed the entire budget of The Road to Kuthriyar.
DS: There’s a real sense of bonding amongst people from the different rungs of society in The Road to Kuthriyar. For instance, the relationship between Dhruv and his assistant Dorai is demarcated by their educational background and economic status and yet there is an inimitable bonding between them. What kind of an implication were you drawing from their relationship?
BM: People like Dhruv and Dorai hardly ever meet in real life, let alone become friends. Personally, as someone coming from the city, with the educational and economic background that I have, I realized that life is not so exciting. After a point, it gets quite sterile, this world I belonged to. However, since India is so incredibly diverse, many other worlds exist so close by. Sometimes they even inhabit the same spaces that we do, but as urban middle-class folk, we can easily end up being insulated from these worlds. I realized that it is only through deliberate efforts like research, or some kind of exercise in documentation, that one can gain access to these worlds. It is almost like a visa that we need to journey to these places. In essence, that is the journey that The Road to Kuthriyar tries to capture.
DS: Almost one hour into The Road to Kuthriyar, there is a discussion that takes place between Dhruv and the professor (M.K. Raghavendra). We are informed about the various sociopolitical aspects of the lives of the tribal community in Kodaikanal and how different they are from the organized Dalit communities of India amongst others. What is the importance of this scene within the overall narrative scheme of The Road to Kuthriyar?
BM: There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, the film is largely fictional, but it pivots to a documentary in the last 40 [minutes] or so before pivoting back to fiction. I felt that this turn had to be cushioned somehow to manage the expectations of the viewers and to not make these pivots too abrupt and jarring. Secondly, the situation of the tribespeople and their relationship with the rest of the country is so uniquely complex that I felt it needed to be articulated clearly. Some of the feedback I have received from people is that this scene spells it out a bit too much, but I felt it was required. One point I would like to add is that I also found that most conversations about people like Dorai happen in such settings, and I found it very interesting because it shows us the gap that lies between them and the people who have some kind of knowledge/expertise regarding their lives.
DS: Tell us about your process of shooting The Road to Kuthriyar in the remote areas and forests of Tamil Nadu.
BM: Because of the physically challenging nature of the landscape, we could not go deep into the forest. Permits would also become an issue here, so I picked Dhruv’s brais on where we would be allowed to shoot based on his experiences on the field. We ended up shooting mostly on private lands that belonged to people Dhruv knew and this was very helpful because the area itself is so wild! I also had access to footage that Dhruv shot while on the field and this helped convey the sense that we were deep in the jungle. Some of the places where we shot ended up being the same place we were staying at. There is a scene where Dhruv and Dorai have a hot meal in the house of a villager — this was where we would have dinner every night, and the woman in the scene is the person we had hired to cook for the crew.
DS: In The Road to Kuthriyar, the footage from the GoPro camera also becomes a part of the visual aesthetics along with the main camera. What was the purpose behind such a creative choice?
BM: The choice of GoPro is again due to two reasons. There is something about modern society and our desire to document everything around us — primarily through social media. It is almost as if we require this digital intervention to be comfortable. Perhaps it helps cushion the impact of being in a new place and prevents us from being overwhelmed by it. In real life, too, Dhruv had to maintain a blog — something which he didn’t enjoy doing, and I thought it would be a very interesting device to accommodate the documentary aspects of the film. There was also the question of a budget — considering the money I had at my disposal, this was the best way to tell an authentic story in the docu-fiction manner that I wanted to.
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DS: The Road to Kuthriyar brings a sharp contrast in spatiality as it juxtaposes various scenic locations and rural regions to develop an inherent pace to the protagonist’s journey. So, how did the film evolve during the edit? While you were shooting, did you have a particular style for editing in your mind?
BM: I knew I was going to be editing the film right from the start, so as we were filming I had the edit roughly going on in my head. We were also really strapped for time, and we lost several days to rain. In some cases, the story had to be tweaked to account for these unexpected turns. In all these cases, we discussed the edit and how one scene would flow into the next, and we filmed accordingly. There are a couple of montages in the film and the documentary portion at the end was the most challenging, as we could only plan them out so much. Here, we made lists of all possible things we could shoot given our circumstances and hoped for the best.
DS: I want to ask about the ending. It seems like you are drawing a line between fiction and non-fiction by capturing the interviews for Dhruv’s vlog with a cinematic style generally practiced among documentary filmmakers. Share your thoughts.
BM: The style was used to give the viewers a sense that they were watching a documentary. This was done primarily to blur the lines between fiction and non-fiction in the heads of the viewers. We are so used to consuming video content that I think people subconsciously assign certain styles to certain kinds of films, and I thought it would be interesting to utilize this in conveying the “real” nature of the story. Another subtle detail in the film that hints at this blur is the way Kuthraiyar is spelt. In the film, it is written as “Kuthriyar” because it is still a work of fiction and it essentially captures Dhruv’s journey. So, in the end, the documentary aspects are from Dhruv’s perspective and his “Kuthriyar” is not necessarily the same as “Kuthraiyar.”
DS: It has been a year since The Road to Kuthriyar’s premiere at Busan and yet the film continues its festival journey across the world. How beneficial are such selections to both the film and you as the producer and director?
BM: This was something that I learnt with 175 Grams — it helps to be associated with a big festival, especially if you’re an independent [filmmaker]. You tell people you’re a filmmaker and they don’t think anything of it — but if you slip in the word “Sundance” or “Busan” in there, they tend to react quite differently. “Oh, you’re THAT kind of filmmaker!” I’ve found that they’re generally far more curious. Before the edit was finalized, a rough cut was selected by NFDC Film Bazaar and was showcased at their event as part of their Film Bazaar Recommends section. This automatically gave it a lot of visibility in terms of festivals and sales agents. I cannot recommend it enough for any independent filmmaker with a project. It was tremendously beneficial for The Road to Kuthriyar.
DS:The Road to Kuthriyar is a niche film and demands a certain kind of participation from viewers. Are you planning to release it in theaters or are you opting for a streaming platform?
BM: From the start, I did not imagine a theatrical release. Considering the way we were shooting it and the technical constraints we had, I felt that it was best suited to personal devices. This was only furthered by the pandemic, which happened right before the last shoot schedule, where people were taking to OTT platforms more to get their cinematic fix. There is nothing like watching a film in the theaters, but one has to be realistic as well. Personally, barring a film festival here and there, I hardly go to the theaters myself. I hardly ever find something showing that I want to see. It has become more of this ritual that is steeped in nostalgia than anything else.
DS: Lastly, as an independent filmmaker, how can one develop a distinct form and individualistic voice through their films?
BM: I have no idea what my cinematic voice is, and I think it will take me some more films before I can say what it is. I always try to convey the story in the best way I can. I feel like I have a long way to go and that my journey is only beginning. I’m not very concerned about my cinematic voice at the moment. I’m just eager to tell more stories that are more complex and find out how my voice will develop through the process.
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.
Categories: 2020s, 2022 Interviews, Drama, Featured
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