Kamal Swaroop: Battling for cinema
For a while last year, Kamal Swaroop had the singular, if unwanted, distinction of having not one but two of his films simultaneously stuck at the censors. One was The Battle Of Banaras (2015), about the contest for the Varanasi seat in the 2014 general election between Narendra Modi, then the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate, and Aam Aadmi Party national convener Arvind Kejriwal. This documentary was rejected by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) and then by the film certification appellate tribunal (FCAT); it was only this January that the Delhi high court said the board hadn’t provided adequate reasons for denying certification and ordered the FCAT to reassess the film. The other was Pushkar Puran (2017), which played at the Mumbai Film Festival last year, but was held up and only belatedly passed by the board.
Swaroop is best known for his experimental fiction feature Om Dar-B-Dar (1988), which was also held up at the censors for about a year, and never played commercially until 2014, when PVR Pictures did a limited release. After Rangbhoomi in 2013, he has hit his stride with a string of striking non-fiction films. Last year, apart from the wry, hallucinatory Pushkar Puran, he directed a stately documentary, Atul, about painter Atul Dodiya. We met Swaroop at his apartment in Goregaon, Mumbai, and spoke to him about censors, frog-slaughter and the science of crowds. Edited excerpts:
Why wasn’t the CBFC ready to pass ‘Pushkar Puran’?
It has been cleared now, with an A certificate and a few cuts. You have to get a no-objection certificate from the animal welfare board. There are all these rules that you can’t make animals perform, you can’t bring them to the shooting—but the film is about an animal fair.
In Om Dar-B-Dar, there is a frog-killing sequence. Khalid Mohamed had interviewed me then, and I told him since it’s a low-budget film, I killed 5,000 frogs, and if it was a higher budget, I would have killed 5,000 elephants. When the article was printed, the headline was, “I killed 5,000 frogs”. Maneka Gandhi read this and wrote a piece saying I was a pathological character. She didn’t understand that for me the frogs were television and the elephant was the big screen. She raised a question in Parliament and they started a practice of having an animal cruelty expert on films.
Did the censors have other problems with ‘Pushkar Puran’?
Nowadays they ask for proof for any statement you make. There’s a lot of mythology in Pushkar; they asked me to submit documents that show which source a scene is taken from. They actually said, what is this film, you’re distorting our history. They don’t understand the difference between mythology and history. Indians don’t have that idea of history—it’s all Puranas. Even history they turn into mythological terminology.
How much of the problem is the Cinematograph Act itself?
It was brought in by the British. At the time, people were finding ways of protesting against the British through film. It’s the same thing now. The government is always suspicious that someone is speaking against them.
The kind of people who sit in the censor—they are appointed by the ruling party, so they become very vigilant and overzealous. It was the same in the Congress’ time. In Om Dar-B-Dar, there was a song that had a phrase that sounded like sat sri akal, so they objected. But it was more because, as they said, we don’t understand this film, so there must be some hidden meaning.
‘The Battle Of Banaras’ and ‘Pushkar Puran’ both eschew conventional narration in favour of incredibly layered sound and image: documentary as a sensory experience…
Yeah, a spectacle. Spectacles and their politics, that’s what fascinates me. My father used to organize melas, and later I assisted on (Richard Attenborough’s) Gandhi, so the idea of crowds appeals to me very much. What are the subgroups, what is their relation to each other? I read this book called Crowds And Power, by Elias Canetti—it inspires me. I try to apply his theories, they become my means of understanding behaviour.
Most camerapersons, you give them a crowd, they won’t know how to frame it. How do I capture that flux? How do I edit it? For me, crowd formation is like science.
Did ‘Pushkar Puran’ involve a lot of pre-planning?
No pre-planning, but I know how it works. There’s a structure to the mela. They’ve handed it over to a corporate—they have set themes, mythologies are replayed. I look at it anthropologically and try to deconstruct the place. I’ve been working on Pushkar for 30-40 years. I’ve done many films on it, but my main interest is in doing a science fiction film there. All these documentaries are research and development for that, but I can’t get funds.
One remarkable thing in the film is how earthy the stories are, even the ones involving gods and goddesses.
On the ground level, the imagination about sexuality and fertility and breeding is boundless. There is no censor.
A layperson would find it difficult to believe the same person directed ‘Atul’ and ‘Pushkar Puran’.
That’s what (documentarian R.V.) Ramani said. When he saw Atul, he said, yaar, we thought you were flamboyant, you can make a film like this also? But when I was a young person, I used to make these nice, sensitive portraits of people.
In Atul, the whole feeling is Dodiya’s voice—it creates a beautiful aura. He felt secure with me, so there was no mistrust. I didn’t try to add something on my own. He was his natural self. We shot for 10 days. It was an easy film to make.
The panning across the surface of paintings in ‘Atul’ is intriguing.
Yes, you suddenly see the details in the painting, and it creates a nice rhythm. Dodiya is alone, so I can’t move the camera, but the way it has moved on the paintings, it has created a feeling, and given it a movement. Renu Sawant, who was editing, did that. There are very nice calculated moves, pans and tilts—that is actually what has saved the film. Because of this it has come to life.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a non-fiction film on Kashmir. It’s about 19 January 1990, the night when the Pandits left Kashmir. I’m taking about 25 Kashmiris in a bus to all the places they lived, revisiting their friends.
If I get a series, I want to do something on five decades of modern Indian art. I know most of the painters—Akbar Padamsee, Gieve Patel, Sudhir Patwardhan, Atul...
There’s no market for documentaries. For Netflix or Amazon, they need to be high-budget documentaries or very dramatic. Banaras would have worked, but they don’t like observational, experiential kind of documentaries like Pushkar.
There’s no funding, no distribution, no sales. I don’t know how people continue to make documentaries.
You’re also making them.
And I know it’s a nightmare, to survive.
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