Written and directed by Parth Saurabh, the 2022 Hindi film Pokhar Ke Dunu Paar (On Either Side of the Pond) narrates the plight of a young couple, Sumit (Abhinav Jha) and Priyanka (Tanaya Khan Jha), residing in the city of Darbhanga, Bihar. Two years prior to the film’s main events, the protagonists betrayed by their parents by eloping in New Delhi. As fate would have it, Sumit and Priyanka must return to their hometown, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The couple’s conflicts and disputes gradually result in a growing emotional distance between them.
Adhering to a realistic tone, Saurabh showcases a story of love and care in a most frustrating and sincere way. The film’s strength emerges from the filmmaker’s schematic documentary approach to the focal couple’s desperate situation. Pokhar Ke Dunu Paar began its global journey with a world premiere at the 2022 San Sebastian International Film Festival, where it won the New Directors Special Mention award. I recently spoke to Saurabh about various aspects of the film.
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Dipankar Sarkar: You graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, one of India’s most esteemed engineering colleges, with a Bachelor of Technology degree. How challenging was the transition from a technical to a creative career?
Parth Saurabh: Right from an early age, I was quite interested in storytelling. I wrote my first one-act play when I was eight. I just didn’t realize, growing up in Darbhanga, that this could be a career. I was good at math, so engineering appeared to be the logical career path back then. But getting into IIT Kanpur finally gave me exposure to making films, and I really enjoyed making them. I also started failing in courses for the first time in my life, which made me take stock of where my life was heading. I think we need to experience failure to change our ways. Success rarely brings realizations with itself. Once I had experienced that failure, it was easy to move into a creative career.
DS: After that, you enrolled in Whistling Wood International Film School’s curriculum in film direction. How did the learning process go then?
PS: It was a rigorous but fun two years at Whistling Woods. I had the greatest mentor in Paresh Kamdar, who is also a co-producer on Pokhar Ke Dunu Paar. He and other members of the direction faculty really opened up my eyes and ears to cinema. Whistling Woods also helped me find a peer group that shared the same excitement towards cinema, which really helped me sharpen my voice as a filmmaker. It was at the Golden Gate bar in Goregaon East, with a glass of rum in hand, that we deconstructed all of cinema’s greatest filmmakers.
DS: You directed two short films while you were a student, That Transient Interval (2017) and The Ballad of Toyuk (2017). How crucial were these two films to your development as a filmmaker?
PS: That Transient Interval was fundamental in helping me understand the characters’ relationship with the space around them, which is an understanding that Pokhar Ke Dunu Paar has benefitted from. The Ballad of Toyuk was the first time I realized that I was looking for my own past in the films I was making. Even though I was shooting the film in a village in Xinjiang, China, I realized I was trying to find my own village there, which directly affected the first script I wrote called “Gaamak Mandir.” The process of making The Ballad of Toyuk helped me in figuring out where I wanted to situate my films.
DS: Why did you choose to pursue a career in film editing rather than directing after graduating from film school?
PS; I worked as an assistant director in advertisements for a short time, but it quickly made me realize that I couldn’t take the conventional path of assisting my way into becoming a director. So, I decided that I would try my hand at an independent film, because of which I started working on my first feature script, “Gaamak Mandir,” which was selected for the NFDC Screenwriters Lab, but I found difficulty in finding funding for it, with the film being in Maithili. We had been taught editing in film school, as we used to edit our smaller projects. I had also edited The Ballad of Toyuk, whose rhythm was appreciated by people that saw it. So, when Nisheeta Keni, my batchmate from Whistling Woods, was making her first feature, she showed confidence in me to hire me as the editor of her feature, which gave me the required impetus to seek a career as an editor. Editing gigs were also easier to come by than directorial gigs for an inexperienced director.
DS: What motivated you to create Pokhar Ke Dunu Paar — your first full-length feature film about two people battling valiantly to maintain their relationship in the face of the suffocating weight of traditions in a small town?
PS: I had around five feature film stories/scripts at different stages of development when I decided I wanted to take the plunge into making my first feature on the smallest budget imaginable. Amongst them, this was the idea that required the smallest budget to make. But one of the main reasons I wanted to make this film was because I was really affected by how institutions were crumbling all around us during Covid. Religious biases, caste biases and gender biases were all deepening. Covid only provided the impetus for those biases to come out — it didn’t create them. So, I wanted to make a film in which the institution of love is collapsing under the weight of the gender roles that our society has created.
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DS: Pokhar Ke Dunu Paar’s protagonist, Sumit, enjoys hanging out with his close pals in town and lives a carefree and reckless lifestyle. At the same time, he works very hard to land a job of any rank. To raise money for his family’s needs, he even goes so far as to sell his motorcycle. Additionally, he is looking for a site to open a coaching institute. Is he the type of person who is doing everything in his power to support himself financially and keep his relationship with Priyanka from breaking down? Or is he not taking an adequate effort to shoulder his life’s obligations in Pokhar Ke Dunu Paar?
PS: I mean, this is up to the audience to discern. But I think Sumit is more of a dreamer than he is a doer. His ideas about money and property are rather communist, though he isn’t a hard worker to go alongside. I believe Sumit would make a great artist or salesman. The capacity for weaving stories and lying without blinking is there — he just hasn’t realized how to monetize it yet.
DS: In contrast, Priyanka is a strong-willed and independent woman who finds herself uneasy in the confining comfort of her surroundings. At the same time, she also wants to connect to her father and reconcile in Pokhar Ke Dunu Paar. She also wants to pursue higher education and lead a better life. Does her constant dilemma to separate from Sumit arise from her ambitions?
PS: For me, Priyanka is neither strong-willed nor very independent. In thought, perhaps she is independent, but she is also a victim of the dependence on a man that her upbringing has instilled within her. When it comes to her will, I think she is just as indecisive as Sumit. What her emotions are telling her is very different from what her superego is conveying to her, which is where her indecision arises from. Her need to leave Sumit arises from her seeking a certain comfort that her father’s house provides.
DS: Nihal is nostalgic about the old motorbike that he had gifted to Sumit, and he is angry with him for selling it. Despite this, Nihal still considers Sumit to be his friend and does not break ties with him. Similarly, despite Sumit’s insouciant temperament, Priyanka hasn’t left him yet. In this context, is Sumit a lovable person in Pokhar Ke Dunu Paar?
PS: I think Sumit has qualities that people like. He assumes control of situations and that is something that is valued in society. Amongst his largely single group, he has a partner. In a place like Darbhanga, that itself makes him an alpha figure in his group. Add to that his experience of the big city, and independence from family, and his life carries an aspirational quality for people like Nihal, who have managed to achieve neither and are waiting for their mothers to find them a bride. With Priyanka, his relationship becomes a little more complicated. There is a mother-child quality to their relationship that she desires. This alpha child who she can untangle and make a man out of is something that drives her, but her need to leave him arises from the fact that he is presently unable to play the role of her father who can guide her in the outside world. I believe we are unconsciously seeking models of things we have seen, and we try to find the parent-child relationship in our partners. I think love emerges from a feeling of completion, or a more fulfilled ego, when we look at it from a psychoanalytic perspective. So, yes, there are ways in which Sumit completes both Priyanka and Nihal.
DS: The ponds serve as the backdrop for several scenes. Priyanka asks his brother to act as a mediator and help her get in touch with her father, Sumit and Nihal have a candid discussion on the stairs leading to the pond and even the climax of Pokhar Ke Dunu Paar is shot keeping the pond in the backdrop. What is the symbolic importance of the pond in the film?
PS: Ponds abound in Darbhanga and Mithila and have served as a backdrop for a lot of my own life decisions. So, they are constantly visible in the film. Because of their constant presence in Darbhanga, they also serve as a symbol of society for me. Hence they are also part of the film’s title.
DS: Priyanka Singh reveals that a marriage performed in conformity with societal acceptance can also be a sour experience. At the same time, the scene also amplifies that marrying a person of one’s own choice can also result in a discontented relationship, like Sumit and Priyanka. What is the purpose of this scene within the narrative framework of Pokhar Ke Dunu Paar?
PS: Priyanka, who has been contemplating leaving Sumit to return to her father, meets an alternate self, Priyanka Singh, who never ran away from home even though she was also dating a guy from the same group but — when caught — ended up marrying a groom of her family’s choice. So, it’s a turning point for Priyanka in the narrative framework of the film when she catches a glimpse at an alternative life.
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DS: The ramshackle hostel room, its equally decrepit terrace and the alleys of the town give a feel of verisimilitude and add a layer of realism to Pokhar Ke Dunu Paar. What were the key decisions you and your team took to bring such authenticity to the film? What were the contributions made by the department of production design?
PS: We shot in real locations, which themselves add a certain amount of reality. And we also used nature in the film as much as possible. Beyond that, we tried to bring reality to the production design by observing the rooms of the other residents of the party office. Plenty of props and set dressing that you see in the film were taken from them, thereby adding to the verisimilitude. We didn’t have any stitched costumes for the actors — the costumes were all clothes that didn’t fit them perfectly, which also adds to this feeling. A lot of the film’s realism also comes from performances, in which we worked really hard on bringing psychological and behavioural realism. In the scene construction, Abhinav Jha, who plays Sumit, was also helping me with the screenplay, where we took a lot of care in drawing from scenes we had seen play out in reality, which further added to the effect. The feeling of authenticity was thus a combination of the performances, the locations and the production design.
DS: The characters in Pokhar Ke Dunu Paar are framed in a manner that there is a correlation between the foreground and background. Even the long scenes are allowed to linger in languid and unbroken shots. Can you talk about the film’s visual style?
PS: Pradeep, the cinematographer, and I wanted to explore the 4:3 aspect ratio, since it allows for more horizontally constrained frames while giving you more vertical space. So, our compositions were trying to accommodate plenty of headspace for the characters, so that the world above and around them is more visible. Even though you don’t see the society outside Sumit and Priyanka’s friend circles, you still feel its presence. I feel the rhythm of the film is brought to life within individual shots, so because I had a particular rhythm in mind for the film, it needed us to linger in these unbroken shots. At the same time, we wanted to place the camera at a certain distance from the characters, so that we are able to look at their plight more objectively. For instance, if we are too close to Sumit in the scene where he breaks down, we fail to see how his crying, though genuine, is also an act of childish manipulation. For the overall mood, we wanted to avoid the sun and direct sunlight as much as we could so that a feeling of overcast gloominess pervades the scenes.
DS: There is an unhurried pace to Pokhar Ke Dunu Paar where the events and actions take time to unfold at leisure without meandering from the emotional core of the film. As the editor, how challenging was it to bring a rhythm between the various scenes?
PS: I think when you have shot the footage keeping a rhythm in mind, it isn’t too difficult to achieve that rhythm in the edit. Had it been somebody else editing the film, they would probably have had to take some time to figure out the shots’ internal rhythm. But since I was editing the film, the shot-taking and the editing were all part of a fluid process. Though, it still did take a few months to edit, because when you are editing a film yourself, having been on set, you also have to let your biases form during the shooting process go and look at the footage with fresh eyes.
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DS: The background score is used sparsely in Pokhar Ke Dunu Paar. Most of the scenes are designed with ambient sounds. There are also scenes in Pokhar Ke Dunu Paar, such as the extreme close-up of the surface of the pond with flora beneath or the cigarette butt floating above the surface of the water, where the soundscape shifts to an uncanny track. How had you planned the aural design of Pokhar Ke Dunu Paar?
PS: I think while doing the sound design of the film, the primary thing that was in the mind of Rohan, the sound designer and myself was the emotion and mood of the character when the scene is playing out. Even when we cut to shots of the pond, it was in our mind to build the soundscape to align with the inner mental states of the characters and the situation. So, sound and music become inseparable in that sense. Though the soundscape was also necessary for adding the required realism in certain scenes, we had sound elements that we were morphing to tell the story of the internal life of the characters. For instance, the ceiling fan inside the room sounds completely different in different scenes according to the characters’ feelings, instead of keeping it real and making it sound the same in every scene.
DS: All the characters in Pokhar Ke Dunu Paar bring a restrained sensitivity to their roles with a combination of energy and spontaneity. So, was there a particular method that you followed to evoke such sincere and down-to-earth performances from the actors?
PS: Once the casting was done, I tried to also change the characters slightly to bring them closer to the strengths of the actors, which adds to the performances. Though the language for the dialogues used in the script is also authentic, the actors had complete freedom to improvise so that the words they spoke came naturally to them. I think once you allow a performer to take up responsibility for their performance and you cast them correctly, they will bring in the required sensitivity to their characters. Right in the first audition of Abhinav and Tanaya together, the sparkling chemistry between them was evident, even though that audition happened over a Zoom call. The only thing I needed to be specific about with the actors was the rhythm in which their characters conveyed something and the emotion of the scene. For instance, in the long drinking scene, I had given particular energy to each actor in which they were supposed to behave — they knew the group’s internal dynamics and they had a thin, narrative thread that they needed to follow. They have seen people drink in a group, so they recognized that energy within the scene and performed according to it, with their own words and their own jokes. I believe the actors gave some terrific performances.
DS: Internationally acclaimed filmmaker Anurag Kashyap has presented Pokhar Ke Dunu Paar. How did he come on board?
PS: When the film got selected for San Sebastian, we were still at a work-in-progress stage. We also didn’t have finishing funds for the film at the time. So, when the announcement came, I reached out to a few people, as we had only a couple of weeks left to get the final film ready in time for San Sebastian. Thankfully, Anurag responded and came on board immediately to help me find finishing funds for the film. Things clicked immediately in motion in the next couple of days. Within a week’s time, the funds were there. And so we were able to finish the film in time for our world premiere in San Sebastian. It all happened through a cold email I sent out to which Anurag graciously responded.
DS: Lastly, at this year’s edition of Dharmasala International Film Festival, 2022, you were considered to be one of the champions of the “Darbhanga Wave.” Share your thoughts on what is so distinctive about these films.
PS: I think it is a unique cinematic movement that is shaping up. If you look at just September and October, Dhuin had its international premiere at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. A week later, Pokhar Ke Dunu Paar had its world premiere in San Sebastian, where it won a special mention for the New Directors Award, and a couple of weeks after that, Dharti Latar Re Horo had its international premiere in Vancouver, where it won the special mention for the Vanguard Award. All this from three filmmakers who have grown up five kilometers from each other. It’s so difficult to conceptualize that I’m overwhelmed just by the existence of something like it. It makes me feel more rooted in Darbhanga. I think it would be easier for an outsider to talk about the similarity in styles than it is for me. But I think the similarities are that we are all working with really small crew sizes and figuring out a way to incorporate nature and the experience of a space in our storytelling. Although, I am excited to see where we go in the future with our form, and then maybe we can make more sense of what the Darbhanga Wave characterizes.
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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