Written and directed by Indian filmmaker Saurav Rai, Guras (2023) is narrated from the perspective of a nine-year-old girl (Tulsi Khawas) as her pet dog, Tinkle, suddenly disappears on a fateful night. As the result of declining prices in Cardamaon, the protagonist’s family business is in a state of despair. There is also a looming fear of a leopard roaming at night. Guras, not marred by circumstances, embarks on a mission to find her pet. In the process, she encounters mystical events that shatter her innocent conception of the world.
Rai creates authenticity and relatability in Guras by focusing on everyday struggles. This subtle approach allows viewers to appreciate the power of simplicity and minimalism. By highlighting the universal aspects of everyday life, Guras encourages viewers to find meaning in the most mundane of moments where life’s true magic resides. In this interview, Rai discusses his visually stunning and immersive filmmaking style.
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Dipankar Sarkar: Could you describe your path to becoming a filmmaker?
Saurav Rai: I have always felt drawn to different art forms since my childhood. It started with music during my school days. We used to have music bands and participate on every available platform, leading up to the Christmas Carol. But then there came a point where the passion slowly faded as I was unable to create anything new to soothe my curiosity. But I needed something to express myself. Then, during my undergrad days, I stumbled upon mobile filmmaking. The whole ecstatic week of shooting a concept was just magical. It led to a few short films, and I knew this was something I wanted to do for a lifetime.
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DS: What is the genesis of your stories and what role does folklore play in shaping the milieu of your films?
SR: Every film I have done has had a strong resemblance to my personal identity. I mean, it always starts with a sudden urge to communicate something that has impressed my thought process. It might start with a typical incident that has kept me thinking for some time, or it can be some threads from my memory that have kept me fascinated for a long time. And while weaving a structure around these ideas, I have been lucky to infuse a few folktales from the culture and the space that I come from. But again, it shouldn’t come across as something forced. It has to blend organically.
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DS: Your films have children as protagonists, and you endow them with traits that are innocent as well as intricate. How did you make sure you accurately captured their lived experience?
SR: Making films with children as protagonists is something purely incidental, and it was during my second feature film, Guras, that I actually became aware of my own pattern. I still don’t have a clear understanding as to why I feel the need to make a film from the perspective of a child, but I guess it has more to do with the fact that I can relate to them more than the adults. Also, like I said earlier, it always starts with some encounters or incidents. For instance, in my debut feature film Nimtoh (Invitation, 2019), the central idea came from a real life incident where a boy from my neighborhood got accused of petty theft. And the people around him immediately branded him as the thief. I felt something was off and kept on digging further, until it became evident that it was a mere case of misunderstanding and moral policing. As the boy was familiar with my family, I had observed his antics when it came to acting like a kid his age. Now that we have seen the whole ordeal from close quarters, the cinematic adaptation became much more realistic. I was also able to introduce previous memories associated with this boy along with the main idea. It was a process that took its own time to arrive at.
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DS: Your visual strategy for storytelling is designed around long shots and an unhurried pace. By employing such moments of restraint and silence, is it a concern to keep the audience engaged?
SR: The aesthetics of a long take or single shot are more of a conscious choice. Life rarely happens like in conventional cinema, where audiences are bombarded with new images and information every few seconds. I feel like it’s taking the audience as a hostage, tying a headset in their eyes, and then systematically forcing them to see and hear things as the manipulator decides. For me, cinema should allow the viewers to immerse themselves more organically. The duration of the shot should not feel like the mere passing of time. It should feel like a lived experience, whereby the gaze of an audience shifts from that of a viewer to that of an active participant. It is only possible when a filmmaker goes through a certain moment of truth during the writing and filming process. The rhythm of every shot or sequence is directly proportional to the organic flow of time trapped in the cinematic frame, which shall correspond to the geography or space of the engagement. Now, is expecting the audience to become engaged with such an approach a matter of concern? I guess the answer to this question also depends on the nature of the audience. Some like fried rice, while others prefer slow-cooked dum biryani. Nothing is right or wrong with either of the choices. As long as the moment captured by the camera goes through my filter of consciousness and conviction, I am fine. Only then can I expect the audience to feel something too.
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DS: Mountains and forests comprise a major portion of your visual design. Besides adding beauty to the scenes, how do they contribute to the aesthetics of Guras?
SR: The visual theme around my films very much belongs to the culture and the space that I come from. Of course, for me, the mountains and forests mean much more than mere scenic beauty. They are an intricate part of the context of my engagement. Also, let’s be honest: after becoming overwhelmed with a certain space — like, say, the forest — one soon realizes the monotony of the pattern. In cinema, I believe one has to transcend the time space continuum.
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DS: Why do you prefer to begin your films with a prologue?
SR: It’s just about how an image comes to mind first, which excites, motivates and ultimately inspires me. It’s also like a seed, which grows in its own time without forceful intervention or construction. I am a mere victim of my own limitations as well. It is also about how I perceive the world.
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DS: In Nimtoh, Tashi realizes that theft has put him and his old grandmother in a difficult situation. Whereas in Guras, one comes across a bleak prophecy. Even Ajay in Gudh (2016) is not happy in his new environment. Why don’t you provide your characters with a cheerful resolution?
SR: I wish I had a more concrete answer to this one. It is a question that is frequently asked of me regarding the final outcome of the cinema that I have engaged with. Well, to be honest, life rarely offers happiness to everyone all the time. It is rather a simple mix of bittersweet moments.
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DS: In Guras, does a dog’s disappearance prepare the protagonist for the harsh realities of life?
SR: In a way, yes, but I would be lying if I said I completely agreed to this as well. Guras being slowly introduced to the complexities of life was hardly a conscious choice. Let’s just say we embarked on a journey and arrived at the final feeling.
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DS: Midway into Guras, you introduce an element of magical or hyper realism. What was the reason for this creative choice?
SR: I love this realm where, when blended into the cinema, it just heightens or levitates the whole situation. It’s a choice between what is real and what is unreal. But one can’t deny its presence. Also, the same layer can be mistaken for magical realism as well. I believe in magic that can be captured within the frame and not created at the editing table. Of course, apart from the superficial interest, the dominant reason for my engagement with this realm has been influenced by my early childhood encounters with Buddhist monks. There were quite a lot of young Buddhist monks in my village who used to narrate the ability of monks to levitate or teleport themselves. Of course, they might have narrated it in a more philosophical sense. It was just amazing to hear different incidents relating to different phenomena. As I went about making films, these very influences found their way into the narratives.
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DS: What is the relevance of a Buddhist monk in Guras?
SR: It is straight from one fine incident. Once, when I was around 13 years of age, a relative who had lost his cow requested [that] I accompany him to an enlightened monk, who professed his ability to show the cow in the thumbnail of a boy who was below the age of puberty. I, of course, denied my participation. It was very scary and also super spooky for that age. Years later, the memory remained with me, and during Guras, I managed to just snicker at this very memory, though in a much more vivid pattern.
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DS: Off-screen spaces play an important role in your films. In Invitation, a wild animal attacking the cardamom orchard is never visually shown to the viewers, along with Tashi watching television or talking to a guest. Similarly, in Guras, two female characters also follows a similar pattern.
SR: Sound, for me, has always been more important than the image element. I mean, in the absence of a literal image of a situation, an intuitive sound design for it can offer a better imagination. Not just for me, but even for an audience. It’s just like the second layer of filmmaking, where everyone can participate, imagine and come to their own conclusion. Also, sound is always a better carrier of time and has the ability to transcend the real and reach the ephemeral realm.
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DS: How do you choose the actors for your films? Do you conduct workshops with them?
SR: I have always worked with non-actors, barring Guras. More than the choice, it was due to the budgetary limitation. But then again, I have gradually come to enjoy this limitation. Once the screenplay is completed, I always visit the space the film is based upon. After thorough observation and time, I look for the physicality of the people, their personalities and — most importantly — their life choices. Then it comes to convincing them. Also, I try to cast people who have had a similar trajectory or life experience to that of the character created in the film. It is, of course, not a 100 percent match, but a remote familiarity works slightly in favor of the film. The filming process is the ultimate battleground that non-actors really struggle with. I mean, they are rarely exposed to the world of filmmaking, and to expect them to deliver a perfect performance is a lot of a bargain. But then again, through kind and patient discussion, we arrive at a situation that might not be perfect but is best under the given circumstances. It is always a constant negotiation.
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DS: Your films have been part of the NFDC Film Bazaar, the Asia Film Financing Forum and the Hubert Bals Fund. How helpful have these support systems been in the making of your films?
SR: All these platforms have immensely helped me over the years to continue filmmaking. Most of the works-in-progress labs [function] as an incubation hub, where they nurture, suggest and mentor the films. And if they’re lucky, they award the participating project. For instance, the Prasad Di+DCP Award in Goa at NFDC Film Bazaar in 2018 helped us finish our debut feature, Nimtoh. And the Hong Kong Asia Film Financing Forum lab project awarded us the cash prize to pitch the same film in the Cannes Film Market in 2019. Our first film journey became smooth and simple with these supports. Project support programs like the Hubert Bals Fund have been a boon for filmmakers over the years. They not only grant kind financial support for the development of a project, but also go beyond that by trying to match the selected project to potential international producers, financing forums, sales, etc. And, most importantly, validations from these forums give much needed validity and weight to the project. For instance, it was only after the HBF Support that we were finally able to rope in all the producers.
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DS: You won jury awards at the 57th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. What does this recognition mean to you?
SR: It is an overwhelming feeling. I mean, just merely participating with other great cinematic voices from around the globe is itself a matter of great privilege. Apart from this wonderful feeling of achievement, it also brings added responsibility to not only continue making meaningful cinema but to surpass the previous attempts.
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DS: How do your films get distributed?
SR: For our first film, the pandemic played its own part by stalling the theatrical as well as the OTT deal. For Guras, there will be definitive release in India, Nepal and overseas.
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DS: What are your future plans?
SR: Unlike my previous attempt with the themes surrounding children’s trivia, now I am delving into a darker zone, where an adult character will be in the titular role.
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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