Directed by Indian filmmaker Yudhajit Basu, Nehemich (2023) narrates the plight of a young girl who has been banished from her community of nomads in Maharastra. She has a lover with whom she is planning to elope, but the fate of local villagers is on tenterhooks due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Basu’s films are slow-paced and stylistically spare with minimal dialogue that challenges traditional narrative structures. Instead of expressing character feelings through conversations, he reveals them by creating cinematic atmospheres that act as stimuli for thought by disrupting the chronological understanding of events. The filmmaker is more concerned with the emotional isolation of the protagonists and their frustration at being unable to negotiate with their current situation. In this interview, Basu discusses his creative style and the philosophical musings of the short film Nehemich.
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Dipankar Sarkar: You have been making short films and documentaries for your independent production house, U Turn Pictures. The two short films Khoji (2016) and Quiro were also selected at international film festivals. So, why did you choose to study at the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune (FTII)?
Yudhajit Basu: I had formed U Turn Pictures with my collaborator Prithvijoy Ganguly, essentially to make films our way without any restrictions or immediate commercial concerns. We made Khoji and Quiro under our own company mainly to try our hands at filmmaking and see if we could make them the way we had visualized and written them down. Back then, I had no very clear idea about festivals, except that we knew, like most film enthusiasts, about the big festivals like Cannes, Berlin, Venice, etc. We had randomly sent them to some places, and Quiro got selected at many important festivals worldwide. Later, MUBI acquired both Khoji and Quiro. However, I felt I needed some more time to understand what kind of films I wanted to make before embarking on a feature film, which was always our main goal. So film school, I thought, is the only place in our country where one can hone one’s skills, get exposed to various art forms and engage in fruitful discussions on art and cinema. This was my main reason for joining FTII, mainly to know myself better and to be part of a pan India community of fellow filmmakers and students of cinema.
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DS: What were some of the most valuable lessons that you learned during your time there?
YB: Frankly speaking, for me, FTII is like a hometown with which, like many, I have a love-hate relationship. I did not like many things there, including the way some restrictions are imposed on making projects, in terms of having a fixed shooting ratio and often the lack of [directorial] control the student has in translating the money and infrastructure given into one’s own way of producing the film. Of course, this is my personal opinion, which mainly comes from the fact that I had produced my own shorts before joining the film school, where I felt the resources given were not always used to their full potential. However, in retrospect, I feel the restrictions, no matter how frustrating at times, do have some value in shaping a mind to learn the art of visual articulation under certain academic rigor.
In FTII, I [was] more exposed to music and literature than cinema, I think, and the main thing it taught me is how to handle mixed responses to your film. My films there always had polarized opinions; some liked them, some felt they were boring, but the fact that each short film is discussed at length by students and teachers is itself an award — something that makes one take one’s own creation more seriously.
Besides, I love the campus, the quiet Shantaram pond, the tekri — a small mountain at the rear part of the campus — and the old, worn out studios. FTII itself has a very cinematic atmosphere that fills one with melancholy and joy at the same time.
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DS: Physical stillness, prolonged moments of silence, a minimalistic approach in relation to storytelling techniques and a general tendency towards longer shots or character close-ups are some of the cinematic devices that you strictly adhere to Nehemich. How did you develop your cinematic voice?
YB: It is difficult for me to articulate, primarily because I am not sure if I have developed a cinematic voice yet. But certain themes and styles I like, which I try to incorporate in my films. Sometimes, they also emerge from the very material, the milieu and the atmosphere more than from any preconceived idea. For example, while we made Khoji, both Prithvijoy and I had a book in mind that inspired us to make a film in Kurseong about the kids and the dying salamanders. It is called Darjeeling, by one of my favorite bilingual authors in India, Parimal Bhattacharya. His vivid description of the place and its people evoked a lot of images in our minds. He also wrote about the sense of time in the hills, which is very different than in the cities. We tried to capture that experience of time passing in a small hamlet where man and nature live more in harmony with each other. Naturally, while shooting, a rhythm was set, and we went for long static shots. That style kind of continued in our next film, Quiro, as well, though now I personally think Quiro could have been made slightly differently, with fewer long takes, concentrating more on faces and perhaps with more cuts. But it taught me a lot. We made it under many constraints, primarily budget and having all non actors, except the protagonist, played by Raju Himanshu, who is a well known theatre artist, poet and playwright in Nepali. We shot Quiro on the Indo-China border in extreme temperatures. It took us more than a month to get shooting permission from the military. It was quite a difficult thing at that time, when we were much younger and had less experience.
In the other films that I made in FTII, I tried to do different things, focusing more on faces and exploring how telling a human face can be. Gulnara, for that reason, is very close to my heart, and though shot in an apparently conventional manner — shot and counter shot. I think since that film, my sensibilities have changed slightly.
So, you see, it is not a conscious decision to have lingering shots or long takes; the material often dictates such treatment, and the form emerges quite organically.
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DS: At the same time, the stories of your films end on a note of ambiguity, without explicit narrative exposition or contextualization. What were your thought processes during the writing of your screenplays?
YB: So far, since I have made only short films, I have approached screenplay writing mainly from the point of view of how to shoot it with the given budget and resources that I have in hand. In Quiro and Khoji, both Prithvijoy and I traveled and roamed around a lot while writing the script. We would take photographs of places and people, their houses, and often-record long conversations amongst a group of men, perhaps chatting in a tea stall, and then refer back to all this audio and visual material to prepare each scene. So, the process of writing begins with more research about the milieu and keeping a note of real anecdotes that we find interesting. For example, the story of Quiro is based more or less on real incidents in the village of Gnathang, Sikkim, where shepherds often leave their homes to find pasture lands for their cattle and return after a long time. By then, their families had often migrated to some other village.
However, in the case of Gulnara, which I did as a FTII dialogue project inside a studio, I had a different writing approach. I wrote several drafts before shooting, and since it was mainly dialogues that I focused on, and that too in a dialect of Kashmiri, I had long discussions with the translator, who also happened to be a Kashmiri poet. But in Nehemich, I went back to my earlier way of writing, where I collected material by traveling and talking to people. That’s how I got to know of the Gaokar Pratha in Maharashtra and that phrase that girls use more like a code language — “I’ve been touched by a crow” — to indicate that they are having their periods since the word “period” is considered a taboo word.
So, my approach to writing a film mostly depends on the material of the film; I don’t have set rules, but without having seen and spent time in the milieu where the film unfolds, I can’t just imagine and write at home at a desk. Like in Nehemich, for me, the script was mainly a series of photographs that I had taken during my solo tours in the Western Ghats rather than a written document.
So far as the open ended structure or the ambiguity in my films, as you have observed, this is not intentional, but it has emerged mostly during the editing time. I do have a certain fondness for being slightly oblique about my point of view in films because I think life itself is somewhat like that. Except for death, nothing is certain in our lives, and we live in a flux of memories. Perhaps that’s why, while editing, I try to keep the end not so conclusive in nature. But then again, it differs. If a certain story demands a proper conclusion, then I’d certainly do that. The themes that I have dealt with in my films needed some room left for the viewers to interpret or understand in their own way.
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DS: The old man in Khoji, the shepherd in Quiro, the ex-militant in Gulnara (2019) and the young girls in Nehemich experience a sense of loss in their lives. What sort of human conditions and complexities were you exploring through these characters?
YB: To be honest, before making a film, both me and Prithvijoy often do not exactly know what human condition the film will try to explore because the human condition itself is very complex and often paradoxical in nature. My friends told me earlier that all my short films deal with the theme of longing. It might be true. But I am not sure. Maybe exploring characters that are going through a loss comes more from my taste in literature and music than anything else. I can only say that one quote that Jean-Luc Godard had said as a brief to his actress Isabelle Huppert during the making of Every Man for Himself (1980) has stayed with me for a long time. He had told Huppert that her face should be “the face of the suffering.”
Despite being a rather happy and jubilant person, I guess I have a melancholic side of me that comes across in my films. But I’m not sure.
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DS: Khoji is set in the hills of Kurseong, Quiro is in an eastern Himalayan hamlet, Gulnara is in a village in Kashmir and Kalsubai and Nehemich are in rural Maharastra. What role does ethnography play in your stories, and has it influenced your style of filmmaking?
YB: India is such a unique nation that living here feels like living in so many countries at the same time. But I see this transnationality of our country, which makes it a true subcontinent, as largely unrepresented in the cinema. Frankly, I cannot think of a singular Indian cinema; there can only be Indian cinemas. If one tells a story about the Himalayas while the other is about Bombay, it is bound to feel like films emerging from two countries with stark differences in culture, language, belief systems, sense of time, people’s behavior, etc. However, under the pressure of the mainstream industries, India is mostly homogenized on the silver screen. Personally, I want the opposite to happen. That’s why I like making films in different languages in different milieus, away from my own milieu mostly, in order to know more and experience the incredible variety that India has.
However, this has led to me having an outsider’s gaze in many of my short films, and I don’t mind that. In reality, as a Bengali born and brought up in Kolkata, I am an outsider in Sikkim, Kashmir or a small village in Maharashtra. Why should I shy away from depicting that in my films?
Eventually, the films emerge out of the ethnography and folklore of the various different milieus into which we have ventured so far in our films.
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DS: Are you interested in using symbolic devices such as the Salamanders in Khoji, the purple flowers in Gulnara and the donkey in Nehemich to enrich your narratives?
YB: Not essentially. I don’t like them to be interpreted as symbols. They were there to enhance the atmosphere and the specificity of the milieu more than as a metaphor. But in Nehemich, the scene where the girl whispers to the donkey, “Don’t forget me,” before leaving the hut — this was the first image that I had in mind even before I had thought of the story. That image stayed with me very strongly and eventually found its place in the film. In retrospect, I think the donkey’s presence helps to indicate the nomadic lineage of the two girls. But initially, it was more like getting the first line of a poem before embarking on writing it.
However, once I am done making a film, it’s up to the viewers to interpret the elements in the film in their own way. But personally, I don’t like symbolism and have not used any symbolic devices consciously.
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DS: In Kalsubi, why did you take the creative approach of using voiceover to narrate the legend of the Koli Goddess?
YB: It was not my initial idea. I had recorded many long interviews with the women of the village as well as other people there. Gradually, as I researched more on the subject, I realized it could not be told in a 20-minute short film format, as that was the norm for our FTII documentary project. Besides being an outsider, I felt I needed more time to do that kind of nonfiction. So, I didn’t include any interviews but began designing the documentary more like a photo essay on film, and hence the idea of the voiceover naturally crept in. However, I did not write the voiceover. I had edited the conversations that I had with the women and the old people of the village into a voiceover format. All the details about the myth and the origin story of the tribe are exactly what I recorded while talking to the villagers.
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DS: In Nehemich, the menstruating women are banished to a dilapidated hut, and the guard looking after the wind turbines highlights a feeling of entrapment in their lives. Is there a contrast between the characters that can be drawn from their circumstances?
YB: Absolutely. That was one of the key ideas — to show two kinds of entrapment that emerges from the unique situation of the pandemic. But what was unique being isolated for the men was a regular affair for the women, as they get frequently isolated during their menstruation period. So, the pandemic, perhaps psychologically, was not as unique to the women as it was to the men. That’s why women and men have been photographed in different ways in the film.
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DS: Rather than depending only on dialogue, you prefer to deploy ambient and elemental noises to map the auditory landscape of your films. How would you define the role of sound design in enhancing your storytelling?
YB: Sound is what makes a film come alive. I rely a lot on sound to convey a certain mood or what the characters are feeling. However, I don’t differentiate dialogue from ambience. They, together, create the third image in our minds. Sound enhances the viewer’s imagination about more of what lies outside the frame than what is shown within it. In Nehemich, sound is the most crucial aspect. My brief to my sound designer was that the windmill should sound more like the moan of a worn out, ancient machine than the real sound that the turbines make. Here, I would rather use sound as a metaphor.
But I don’t think much about sound while shooting because I can only understand what a film needs as a design after the first cut. During shooting, I just ensure the dialogue is recorded well. I also think that the process of dubbing can be used very creatively. In Nehemich, in almost every scene, we synced, dubbed and used wild takes of dialogue and enmeshed them together. We followed no grammar of synced shooting or dubbing.
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DS: The frames in your films are shot carefully to convey a specific mood and emotions that are integral to the milieu of the film. What is your philosophy about using the camera as a tool to tell your stories?
YB: Visuals are something that both me and my collaborator Prithvijoy are deeply interested in, and they come very naturally. When we write scripts or even treatments, we write very visually. So while shooting, we often do not need or want a strict storyboard because the images are more or less clear in our minds. We search extensively for the right location, as we like using real locations and less light in order to concentrate more on the shots and take many takes. In Quiro and Khoji, we had very little budget, but we took many takes. But in FTII, there are strict shooting ratios, and I had to make Nehemich in a 1:4 ratio, which is not my usual style, so it was challenging. But my cinematographer and I had discussed the framing well ahead of shooting, mainly the dialogue scenes. So, it was not so difficult, [in terms of the framing] and the actors were very natural and fluent.
So far as using the camera as a tool, I believe in evoking more by showing less. I had tried that in all my FTII films. But in Quiro, we had a different take. We wanted to show the space as much as possible because the space itself was like a character in the film. So again, I guess everything depends on the material. That dictates the visual form best suited for each film.
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DS: So, is this the same reason why you shot Gulnara in 4:3 and Kalsubai in a 1:1 aspect ratio?
YB: Yes, it was for the same reason — to evoke more by showing less. I wanted to focus just on the characters in Gulnara, on their faces. Each of the faces was like a landscape to me. That kind of treatment went well with the classical 4:3 aspect ratio, I felt.
In Kalsubai, we used 1:1 for the simple reason that I didn’t want to make it look like a film; I wanted it to feel like a phone book in a cinematic format. Besides, since Kalsubai [deals] with tribal mind and wisdom, symmetry was something that I thought would go best to create the atmosphere of primordially in the film. All ancient tribal motifs have certain symmetry, be it circular tablets of inscriptions, small murals or daily motifs of deities on the doors and windows. While I was researching and traveling around the villages, I realized I needed to show details and omit many elements from the frame. It needed a certain visual decontextualization in order to bring out the rambling quality of the myth and how it is still alive in the minds of the people today. I thought initially it could be 4:3 but then finally decided on 1:1. A complete square. Symmetrical.
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DS: What is the process that you follow for casting and directing the actors?
YB: There is no set process, except for searching everywhere and not finalizing any actor until I am fully convinced. It often takes a long time because I do not look for validated acting quality in anyone. I am keener about how that person is in real life and how much molding will be needed to fit that actor into the role. So, I begin casting as I write. If I find someone striking, I often write the role keeping that actor in mind. I have worked with both professionals and amateurs, and I have often seen that talking less and giving only a few instructions works better. Sometimes, the actor is not exactly aware of what he/she is doing, as in the long take of the guard’s scene in Nehemich. But so far, all of them have trusted me, and I am grateful to them for that. Directing actors is a mysterious thing. I try to understand each of them and direct them accordingly. When I and Prithvijoy direct together, it becomes easier. We share the job of directing actors and looking closely at the monitor with each other.
For example, in Khoji, the kids were brilliant despite never having faced the camera. Both Prithvijoy and I felt that they had done very well, and we didn’t have much to guide them. In Quiro as well, the actors were mostly local people from the village except for the protagonist. They responded very naturally to the camera. Actually, I must add here that these two films, Khoji and Quiro, couldn’t have been made without the sheer love, warmth and support of the people of Kurseong and Sikkim, as well as our crew. Both Prithvijoy and me are very attached to these two films, and the story of their making remains a fond memory in our hearts.
While in FTII, where I have directed alone, I always had a very good assistant director who often mediated between the actor and I more so because I made films in languages that I don’t know. So my DA, Anjali Mulge, is also the language translator, as on the set in Nehemich. In Nehemich, I am personally quite satisfied with both Sakshi Dighe and Bhakti Athawale’s acting. They trusted me fully, and whatever mistakes are still there in their acting are all mine. They did exactly what I wanted them to. In Gulnar, since both of the actors were professionals, I didn’t have too much difficulty. But in retrospect, I think I should have fine-tuned their lines more. Also, back then I was too young and inexperienced, and so I had not controlled them much. Now I think I am more comfortable in telling actors what I want or how I want them to behave.
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DS: Nehemich was screened in the La Cinef category of the 76th edition of the Cannes Film Festival. How important is this selection in your career?
YB: Having my film premiere in the Official Selection at Cannes is a great honor and encouragement. I am grateful to the artistic director at La Cinef for selecting my film. I had discovered many of my favourite filmmakers through Cannes, and it was a pleasure watching my own film there in the Palais along with our extremely talented fellow La Cinef candidates. With regard to my career, I don’t know. Let’s hope it helps me.
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DS: What sort of themes would you be interested in exploring in your future projects?
YB: My collaborator Prithvijoy Ganguly and I are currently working on our first feature film in our mother tongue, Bengali. Its working title is Kaktarua (Scarecrows). It tells the story of a young girl named Radha who goes to her ancestral village in order to find the lost wedding ring of her mother. We are developing the script, and let’s see how it emerges.
Thematically, through other films, we are interested in exploring the climate crisis, the inhuman experiences of the migrant workers during the pandemic and perhaps a film on the pangs of adolescence. We have many film ideas written in treatment formats, as both Prithvijoy and I have been jamming ideas together since 2016. Let’s see how things go. For now, Kaktarua is what we are focusing on.
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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