Everyone loves a good story, but how much would you tell yours? Xogun and what’s your story? – will be screened virtually at the New York Indian Film Festival (NYIFF) 2021, June 4-13 – by two National Award-winning directors Utpal Borpujari and OP Srivastava, respectively, working as a double bill. When one talks about the length to which one can stoop to sell his story, the other struggles with the question of what it takes to tell his story. As Borpujari, a former writer, dabbles in journalism, Srivastava, a former banker, asks other independent filmmakers what drives them to stay on track.
To be featured in the Shorts: ‘Come Undone – Bleak Realities’ section of the festival, Xogun (which means vulture in Assamese) was shot in January 2020 in Agia, near Assam’s Goalpara. The 16-minute short fiction begins with a close-up of tribal boys digging out tubers and slits to a forest shot from long range, in which cadavers signal that a thriller has yet to unfold. The title of the film works by metaphor, for which the filmmaker apologizes in the credits to the seriously endangered Indian vulture Gyps indicus. Through caricatures, the film asks questions about journalistic ethics, fake news and paid news. An uncaring veteran who had achieved fame by “covering riots, war, violence” refuses to intervene, a photojournalist exploits the situation for an award-winning “full impact” photo – a shot of no less than “the Syrian child the beach”, a reference to the drowned Alan Kurdi in 2015, to a stunned young rookie protesting an attack on his “idealism.”
“I know writers who have manipulated situations to get a picture/reaction/tears for some effect. Many on regional TV ask manipulative questions, show names and images of relatives of the dead, or a rape victim, distort facts – this is beyond journalistic ethics,” says Borpujari, 54. “You had never heard of paid before. or fake news, there was misreporting, but the intentional reporting of wrong things never happened. A lot of reporting has now become blatantly pro-community, especially on the broadcast media, it has lost the ethic of objectivity and aloofness,” he says.
That said, he’s not writing off the profession. “Media and Bollywood/cinema are soft targets, it’s easy to blame them instead of introspecting what we’re doing. The media cannot and should not be seen in isolation. It reflects the general behavior of society. Thanks to the internet and social media, everyone now thinks they can become a journalist. That’s not how it works. Facts must be verified, confirmed and legitimate sources attributed before these platforms are misused to spread misinformation/misinformation. People blindly forward fake/unverified videos because it fits their ideology. We are the biggest consumers of sensationalism. The same technology (nuclear) used for drugs to treat cancer also makes atomic bombs,” he says.
“Maybe, unknowingly, I also signaled my cameraman to keep rolling an emotional moment in my documentaries,” he says. But the leeway offered by one medium can become another’s crime. As Jean-Luc Godard once said, “Cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world”, and journalism should be the opposite of fraud.
Indie filmmaker Devashish Makhija in the documentary ‘What’s Your Story?’ says “I want to put politics in my stories because I don’t have the stamina to be an activist on the field”.
What’s Your Story? Taken during the lockdown, sixty-one-year-old Srivastava is a one-hour video call/e-meets with independent filmmakers, interwoven with scenes from their films. Films don’t necessarily have to be a story, says filmmaker Sanal Kumar Sasidharan (Sexy Durga, 2017, A’hr/Kayattam, 2020) in Srivastava’s documentary. “A film is an audiovisual experience. We were going to record Ozhivudivasathe Kali (2015) without even a script,” adds Sasidharan. Amartya Bhattacharyya (Benares, 2014, Khyanikaa, 2017, Adieu Godard, 2021) says that a film “should touch me, stimulate me…if it doesn’t make me uncomfortable, it hasn’t taken me to new areas.”
Teena Kaur Pasricha, a Sikh born in Rajasthan, made 1984 When the Sun Didn’t Rise (2017), because the history books failed to tell her about the “violent, bloody carnage” her people faced. “What did the government do after killing 5,000 men? What did they do with the corpses? We have not found or burned the bodies,” said one of the women in her documentary.
“The country, the audience, the producers, the distribution network, they don’t want movies like that because these movies don’t make people feel good about themselves,” says Devashish Makhija in the film, which Ajji (2017) came out in 35-36. rooms for a week, up to a maximum capacity of eight people at a time. Makhija moved from Kolkata to Mumbai in 2005-06, “it took me 16 years to make two feature films: Ajji and Bhonsle (the latter was only possible because of Manoj Bajpayee, who plays the titular role and brought in the producers).” He was going to make a Lion King-esque animated film for Pixar Disney’s partnership with Yash Raj Films, but their first appearance (Roadside Romeo) failed and they canceled Makhija’s film in 2009, after three and a half years in production. He felt lost. At the same time he read about development policy in the Adivasi areas, the situation of the Naxalites, civil wars that were not reported in the mainstream news. He spent five weeks in Andhra and southern Odisha to understand basic reality and “never came back there, mentally and emotionally,” he says in the film, “Now I just want to tell stories like this, to put politics in my stories, because I don’t have the stamina or the resources to be an activist on the field.”