The Indian Competition section at the forthcoming Mumbai Film Festival (14-21 October) includes two adventurous and thought-provoking independent features that prove that some of the most exciting work in Indian cinema is happening on the fringes of its bloated, commerce-driven industries. The directors behind Fig Fruit And the Wasps and Unto the Dusk discuss their formal and aesthetic concerns.

Fig Fruit And the Wasps

M.S. Prakash Babu
M.S. Prakash Babu

“Waiting itself is a work of art, a way of living," says the 44-year-old Bangalore-based film-maker. The movie title, which suggests a folk tale, is inspired by the symbiotic relationship between fig fruit trees and the wasps that feed on them. “Without wasps, fig trees would not exist—that is quite like life," he says.

The 90-minute existential road movie, the first after several shorts and documentaries, is firmly in the mould of what is sometimes disparagingly called “slow cinema" in the international festival circuit. Through lengthy takes, minimal dialogue, a distinctive sound design, and evocative use of locations in rural Karnataka, Babu and cinematographer H.M. Ramachandra Halkare have created a film that is rewarding for viewers with patience and some appreciation of existential cinematic experiences.

Babu, a painter by training, says the movie is inspired by the works of adventurous film-makers from the past—he includes India’s Ritwik Ghatak and John Abraham and international greats such as Andrei Tarkovsky, Yasujiro Ozu and Robert Bresson—as well as frequent travels outside Bangalore. For the past 14 years, Babu says, he has been “trying to achieve a different kind of film language", one that is about telling stories through “images and sounds" rather than through dialogue and plot and character development.

“I don’t believe in words, they are sometimes very weak and convey nothing," Babu says. “Sound is a powerful element in cinema, but we have lost our sense (for it). We have to understand that cinema is a different medium altogether, quite unlike literature or theatre."

The movie’s characters are well-placed to tackle visual and aural matters. Gowri, played by Kannada actor Bhavani Prakash, is a documentary film-maker who travels with cameraman Vittal (played by Ranjit Bhaskaran) to a village to meet a local musician and record the relationship between musical instruments and their individual rhythms to their geographical origins. In the longest dialogue patch in the movie, which also provides the most direct clue of its intentions, a Gadar-like poet tells Vittal that this pursuit is a well-worn one for which the film-makers needn’t have travelled this far.

The reward, such as it is, is in the journey to depopulated and impoverished villages (there are hints that the main characters are venturing into Naxal territory). The destination seems unyielding at first, but truths and half-truths emerge through the elliptical storytelling. Big issues are teased out through minute details—tea shop behaviour, a local guide’s nightly drinking routine, children making faces at the glass front of a car. “Small things are very important, they are actually very big," Babu says. “Cinema needs to create a mood beyond reality, it should be transcendental."

The locations contribute greatly to the film’s budget atmospherics—the NFDC (National Film Development Corporation of India) co-production was made with a mere 40 lakh. The movie was shot in and around Sanehalli, which Babu has been visiting for years to conduct classes at a local theatre institution. His own upbringing in a village sensitized him to the rhythms of rural life, which are changing rapidly beneath a deceptively unmoving surface, he says. “There was no hurry (during his childhood), we used to walk for kilometres and never get bored, we would see so many things. The film is a kind of meditation on the kind of the things that we are losing."

Unto the Dusk

A still from the debut film ‘Unto the Dusk’
A still from the debut film ‘Unto the Dusk’

Edited excerpts from an interview with Baabu, a 29-year-old film-maker who has previously made shorts and documentaries. His movie will also be screened at the 19th International Film Festival of Kerala, scheduled to be held from 12-19 December.

The reference to St Francis inspires many images and moments—the unnamed main character’s relationship with animals, with a character named St Clare and stigmata. What were the reasons for choosing this particular Christian icon?

Sajin Baabu

I happened to see The Tree Of Life by Terrence Malick. It provoked me to think of a film about man and nature. I started to contemplate on my long walks into the forests, my own physical and spiritual experiences, the social situation in Kerala—regular reports of sexual abuses. I discussed my thoughts with my co-writer Jose John. We discussed his short story about necrophilia and decided to bring that story also into the narrative.

The non-linear story uses ellipses and silences, close-ups and flashbacks. The use of dialogue is spare.

I wanted to make a film that is very visual and sound-oriented with the least of dialogue. The film is about the protagonist’s state of mind and thus the usual linear narrative won’t do. My attempt was to capture what was happening in his mind through his journey of self-discovery. I wanted to make the viewer experience the journey rather than narrate it conventionally. It starts with heavily fragmented snapshots mixed with his present journey. Then it gradually settles down and progresses to a very meditative pace. I hope it helps the viewer to connect with the internal transformation.

Tell us about the production, and casting Sanal Aman?

It took around six months to finish the casting. I auditioned about 83 guys for the protagonist and Sanal was the 84th. The entire cast is new to the medium of film. They were all appearing in front of the camera for the first time. Even most of the crew are first-timers. I wanted to explore fresh talent as I was trying to make the film differently. The young team brings high energy and great enthusiasm to a project like mine, where it was often required to trek for 5-6 hours to reach the shooting location. We used around 120 locations spread across Kerala. It took around six months to get the right edit pattern and took two and a half years from pre-production to the final print. The budget was 70 lakh.

Click here for details and registrations for the 16th Mumbai Film Festival.

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