Lords of Lockdown, a 2022 documentary by journalist-turned-filmmaker Mihir Fadnavis, chronicles Indian citizens who experienced and overcame the country’s first lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic. The narrative offers insight into the many ways people suffered by focusing on calamities of catastrophic proportions: hunger and the mass exodus of migrant workers on foot. Through on-the-ground interviews that give voice to the frustrations of helpless workers, Lords of Lockdown convincingly demonstrates that the pandemic has only deepened the already existing inequities of our world. In this interview, Fadnavis reveals his motivations and discusses the key events that helped him create such a riveting documentary.
Dipankar Sarkar: What inspired you to make Lords of Lockdown?
Mihir Fadnavis: I was preparing for a different film when the news about the pandemic began trickling in around January, and I immediately knew that something huge and devastating was going to occur in India. The original plan was to document frontline workers and vaccine development in various labs, but on the second day of the lockdown, I saw scores of homeless migrant workers stranded on the streets and under flyovers. These are daily wage workers, and since they didn’t have daily wages coming in, they did not have money to pay for meals or essentials. I was quite taken aback by the sheer scale of the hungry and destitute who suffered, and I realized this was the angle I needed to take with this film. The whole world was talking about the virus, but no one seemed to talk about the effects of the virus on the underprivileged.
DS: How did you choose Lords of Lockdown’s four subjects — Ruben Mascarenhas from the NGO Khaana Chahiye, Indian journalist Rana Ayyub, A. K. Singh (the inspector general of Indian Railways) and Dr. Aparna Hegde (a urologist) — to become the driving force of the narrative?
MF: Very early during filming, I saw some tweets about Khaana Chahiye providing meals to the needy, and I immediately reached out to Ruben to find out more. Through him, I discovered the incredible work the NGO was doing, and I knew almost instantly that their great work during such a devastating time needed to be highlighted. My experience as a journalist helped me zone in on the rest of the central characters in the film; they were all key figures during the lockdown in Mumbai, and they were all doing incredible work. I wanted to portray the lockdown from as many perspectives as possible, and I decided to tell the story through all of their eyes.
We actually covered a variety of different personalities — including various doctors and frontline workers — during filming, but unfortunately we had to choose only certain storylines that fit one (already long) film. Perhaps I’ll be able to tell the other stories in sequels, although I am not sure I have the mental fortitude at this moment to deal with the footage again.
DS: The people from the slums in Lords of Lockdown are angry with the government because it has mishandled its responsibilities. The residents pour their hearts out in front of the camera in an unhesitant way. So, did your experience as a journalist help you gain their confidence and encourage them to release their pent-up rage?
MF: Most people in slums and rural areas have a general distrust for journalists because they don’t treat them with the respect that they deserve. These people were traumatized, hungry, isolated and terrified of COVID when I met them, so I had to make sure they understood that I was trying to tell the world their stories and not bring my agenda or my personality into the equation. Once they realized that I had their best interests in mind, they were glad to open up to me, especially because no one else was doing it. Whatever they said isn’t out of hate for the establishment but out of sheer desperation and trauma, and all governments from all over the world need to acknowledge that and empathize with them. They went through a lot, and this level of human suffering is just unacceptable.
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DS: At what stage of making Lords of Lockdown did you consider that it was important to incorporate information regarding the arrest of student activist Umar Khalid and to highlight how the media was trying to skirt the government’s inability to control the pandemic?
MF: At that time, for some reason, everyone was enraptured by the death of a Bollywood star and was ignoring the bigger picture, so we thought it was important to highlight it. I don’t think any country in the world knew at that time how to control the pandemic. Italy was in huge trouble, if you remember. The U.S. was clocking in a terrifying number of deaths as well. It was a global clusterfuck.
DS: At the same time, we have interviews with political leaders from congress (Shashi Tharoor) and the Aam Aadmi Party (Arvind Kejriwal), but there is not a single interview with any officials from the incumbent government, and the reasons are obvious. So, under such circumstances, how did you avoid Lords of Lockdown exhibiting one-sided information?
MF: I actually reached out to officials from the state government, but they didn’t respond to me. I also stated very clearly that I am not making an anti-national or anti-establishment film and that they could see the film if they wished, but I guess they didn’t want to talk given the circumstances. Whatever is shown in the film is as clear as day, and with that much human suffering on display, one can’t possibly say it’s one-sided. This film is pro-humanity, whatever that means.
DS: Towards the end, we come across an old lady from Delhi, Leela, who has been thrown out by her son. What was your motive behind including her tale of anguish in Lords of Lockdown?
MF: Leela was one of the many, many people we documented, and her story was just too devastating not to feature in the film. We’ll take years to properly unpack what happened to all of us during the lockdowns, and Leela’s story will no doubt resonate with millions of people in India who [experienced] the same thing that she unfortunately did. Without getting into spoilers, the way Leela’s epilogue of a story ended was very essential to me telling this story because, ultimately, I wanted the film to end on a hopeful note. It’s easy to criticize and paint a gloomy picture of whatever happened, but as an audience, one needs answers to the problems presented and a semblance of hope during bleak times, and Leela’s story was precisely that. Her story also somehow fit the overall narrative like a Hollywood movie because truth is at most times stranger and more serendipitous than fiction.
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DS: Shooting a documentary during the first wave of the pandemic must have been a difficult endeavor for you and your crew. At any point in time, were you affected on an emotional or psychological level?
MF: Yes, it was an extremely difficult time in general, and to go through the absolutely brutal grind of filming what we all saw was certain to take a toll. I still suffer from PTSD, but it’s okay; telling the story was more important, as was the need to see genuine societal change post-pandemic.
DS: The aerial shots in Lords of Lockdown highlight the magnanimity of the pandemic-related crisis and evoke a dystopic feel. How did you plan to use these shots so effectively?
MF: I wanted to make a film that was as thrilling as Contagion (2011), and I was also inspired by the words of Matthew Heineman, so the choice of filming equipment was against the grain of what one expects in a “usual” documentary. Whatever we filmed was a slice of history, and I wanted to capture the raw and undisturbed nature of whatever transpired outside when everyone was stuck at home. The form of the film may be experimental, but the message is ubiquitous.
DS: Also, the background score of Lords of Lockdown infuses an aura of broodiness into our viewing experiences and adds grimness to the structure.
MF: The course of filming changed me as a human being and altered my state of mind. I wanted to aurally recreate how I felt when we were filming, and the score was certainly an important part of this. To me, the marriage of video and audio is the flesh and blood of cinema, and I needed to operate at nuanced levels. There was a responsibility to tell this story with care. When anyone is going through a lot of trauma, the slightest ray of hope feels euphoric, and the treatment needed to reflect these small things.
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DS: What were the challenges you had to deal with while editing and shaping Lords of Lockdown?
MF: We were still in the middle of the pandemic, and since this was my first full-length film as a director, it was a challenge to resolve technical issues. A lot of things can go wrong very quickly, and they certainly did. For example, we shot with a variety of different cameras, and their codecs didn’t match and kept crashing the project, and so on and so forth. We were a very small team, so all we could do was sort things out ourselves.
Filmmaking is a very hands-on process, and it is always about sitting together as a team and crafting the movie. So during post-production, the pandemic was still on, and I didn’t have any idea how to coordinate with a different editor over Zoom calls, so I decided to edit it myself. To be honest, everyone who worked on the film lifted more weight than usual, and I applaud them all.
DS: How did Anurag Kashyap and Navin Shetty come on board as producers? How did their participation benefit Lords of Lockdown?
MF: I am extremely privileged to have these two guys as the producers; they’ve been very supportive and understanding of the project. When you have people like these, you don’t need to worry as a filmmaker; all you need to do is make the film. Their guidance and human-level understanding go a long way. In Rotterdam, where Lords of Lockdown recently screened, Navin and I chatted about how challenging the whole experience was and how it’s all worth it.
DS: At present, Indian documentaries are screened at some of the most reputed film festivals around the world and are winning awards at major platforms. Do you think that such accolades and global appreciation will increase viewership and alter its modes of distribution in our country?
MF: Absolutely. It’s a great time to be a documentary filmmaker in India; the world is realizing the potential of Indian stories, and it’s about time documentary films become as mainstream in Indian households as the Swiss song and dance boom of the 1990s. More power to all the filmmakers breaking their backs to finish their films as we speak. More producers need to realize their potential and do more to put it out there.
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.
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