It has been raining awards and honours for young filmmaker Nishant Roy Bombarde's debut film 'Daaravtha': the 'Best Debut Film of a Director' at the 63rd National Film Awards, 'Audience Choice Award' at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles (IFFLA), 'Best Short' film at the New York Indian Film Festival, 'Best Narrative Short' at 7th KASHISH - Mumbai International Queer Film Festival, Offcial Selection at Wicked Queen Boston LGBT Film Festival, Official Selection at Palm Springs Short Film Festival, Official Selection at Melbourne Indian Film Festival etc etc.
Round Table India interviewed Nishant Roy Bombarde about filmmaking and his film Daaravtha.
Hello Nishant! Congratulations on your debut short film, Daaravtha; it is well on its way to becoming a celebrated film of our times! Please give our readers a walk-through of your journey into filmmaking, what were your inspirations?
I was born in a film crazy family, at least from the father's side. There was a tradition in Maharashtra in the early days wherein women would sing traditional songs while doing daily chores. My father's aunts, he tells me, would sing Hindi film songs instead. However filmy it may sound, my dad used to steal chickens from his own house and sell them to go to the nearest theatre in Gondia from his village, to watch a film. He is a very good singer. His uncle had run away from his home to act in tamasha, one of the oldest Bahujan art forms in India. So the seedling was always there. Though my parents, like any middle class Marathi home, tried their level best to dissuade me from forming strong connections with arts and make me an IAS officer. I had become a big film buff in my early years, I was, am a big Sridevi fan.
In Delhi, a friend took me to my first film festival and I watched my first so-called arthouse film. It was Ghatak's Meghe Dhaka Tara. The way the camera moves in the final scene of the film when the dying protagonist yearns "Dada amibechtechahi" (Brother, I want to live) didn't let me sleep for nights. I was like, you could do this with cinema? I knew then that I had to learn what was going on behind that camera. Soon, I discovered Ray, Bergman, Bunuel, Wong Kar Wai and Almodovar and the discovery never stopped. It's only my intense love for the medium of this art form that has made me a filmmaker today.
Which aspects of filmmaking get the full force of your focus and concentration?
It's a cliché to say this, but I love the entire process. If at all I have to pick one, it would be post-production. I believe in the thought that films are made thrice. Once when they are written, second when they are shot and finally when they are edited. I love writing. Creating characters, fighting with them and getting haunted by them to finally write the ending that they want is a rejuvenating process. Painful past that you once soaked in and experiences that made you what you are today have to be relived again to create something new. Most of that changes once you collaborate with your DoP and actors on the shoot. They bring in their own experiences and POVs and the written material goes through a metamorphosis. But the edit table is the closest humans can come to inventing a time machine. I like how you can play with the footage at hand, change the order of a few shots, replace few sounds and completely change the meaning of the narrative. It is that fantasy of living the past memories once again, albeit this time how you wanted them to happen, is what makes post-production my poison! My Editor Anadi Athaley and I had a great time editing the film and though it took a hell lot longer than a short film should usually take, he never bickered. He has been a great support system in creating this film.
Your success is very important for artists from dalit bahujan backgrounds, it must make them feel optimistic about their creative energies being well received. Would you like to say something to aspiring filmmakers from Dalit Bahujan backgrounds?
When I look at the love people shower on Tina Dabi, Nagraj Manjule, Akash Thosar and Rinku Rajguru today, I feel elated and deeply emotional at the same time. Dr. Ambedkar once said, "I want to see you becoming the ruling class of this nation". In the same zest, it is a turning point in the history of this nation that iconoclasts are becoming the icons. There is nothing like finding a source of inspiration in someone who knows the pain of being an underdog. When I see myself in this light, I realise I have achieved very little. But I am very happy when I read the comments and reactions to the film's success. I feel overwhelmed with gratitude that I am able to pay back to the community in whatever little way possible.
I would tell my Bahujan friends to challenge, in whatever way possible, the barriers that caste, patriarchy, heteronormativity and gender-bias that the Indian society has taught you to live with for centuries...break the barriers of state, language and region even. Your perpetrators would want to opiate you with these. Do exactly the opposite, become a global citizen. And simultaneously excel in what you want to do. Remember you have survived centuries of persecution, so nature has chosen you to exist. Your talent is the best weapon to deconstruct and destruct the myth of meritocracy that is always played against you. Also please do not submit to the popular culture, instead tell your own stories. Because if we do not tell our stories, who else will.
Though sexuality and gender seem to be primary themes of the story, there is a subtext of caste constantly present in the background. Would you like to tell us more about that as a storyteller?
I have chosen to tell the stories of characters and times I know well and that are close to me. Caste is an inescapable part of that world. In India, caste is as unavoidable as breathing the air around you however distasteful it might be. Mainstream Cinema has the privilege of making casteless films devoid of gender and racial bias, because they have created a Disneyland bubble for them. I don't. If I don't tell stories which are aware of the socio-political scenario of this country, I should better go back to Gondia and do that bank job my parents keep telling me to do and "live an easier and better life". As artists and filmmakers you have a responsibility to reflect the psyche of your people, show them the mirror and if sometimes possible show a way out.
In fact, in Daaravtha caste doesn't just stay in the background. The mother who is such a big driving force in the story mentions it directly at an important part of the film. She has borne the brunt of it and the film makes an indirect reference to a life 'that could have been' only if it weren't for caste. I have seen my cousins and friends, women very close to me, throw their lives in the vortex of an arranged marriage to someone completely unknown to them just because they and the person they were in love with couldn't break the barrier of caste. Panku, is at a juncture in the film where he has to break the barriers of sexuality and gender created by the society and as such his struggle is strongly juxtaposed with his mother's struggle with caste.
The characters are very well fleshed out, and also deliver excellent performances. Was it challenging to cast people in roles that are still somewhat taboo in our society?
As a director, it is very important to understand the process of acting. For every actor, the motivation that compels them to act is very different. For some, it's career or money, for others it's a halo effect and for some it's an expression so much so that it is their understated activism. I love natural actors - people who can react more naturally than act. The toughest point to act during any performance is when you do not have a dialogue or the pauses between a dialogue exchange. I was lucky to find actors who are very natural. It was very easy to direct them. It makes it easy that I'm myself an actor and I can speak their language. Nandita who plays the mother and Nishant who plays the protagonist are both intelligent actors and never needed me to act out a scene except for very few instances. For example, I had to act out the makeup scene which Nishant just didn't have an existing reference for. The other actors were from the vibrant Zaadipatti (the area of Gondia, Bhandara, Chandrapur and Gadchiroli) theatre from Vidrabha, which is a travellng theatre. They had to be toned down so as to adjust them to the medium of cinema, but they looked so much like the characters I had in mind that half my job was done. My Casting Director Ashish Narkhedkar did a wonderful job. I have been a great fan of Iranian Cinema and I love mixing actors and non-actors. It creates magic!
Why did you choose short film as a medium?
Beggars are not choosers! Short film is definitely evolving as a medium and I have my hopes high that one day it will reach the heights it has in Europe and other western countries. But honestly, today it is just a stepping stone to a feature film and I wouldn't pretend otherwise. Although there are two short films in my mind right now and they are shaping up faster than the features, the revenue streaming scenario in India for short films is dismal. The medium of short film is a very passionate medium of expression and I feel people should understand it before toying with it. A short film is not 1/3rd of a feature film.
The film industry, both Bollywood and the so called 'alternative' film scene, is not devoid of its hierarchies. Do you feel similarly? Any thoughts you would like to share on how caste and cinema are very closely interconnected?
The media industry is only a specimen of our society. Like other professions, it is dominated by the privileged castes and most of the blue collar workers are Dalit-Bahujans. Media, and films in particular, come more under scrutiny because they are constantly under limelight. Otherwise wherever you go, it is the same. People in the mainstream cinema and television are blunt about what they are doing, why they are doing it. But the Alternative Film scene is worse. So many times I have come across people who would exoticise caste with a glass of wine in their hands and mostly put it in the bracket of Them vs. Us. They claim to have never experienced caste and still blatantly use their privileges. At times like these I wonder whether they have never thought what caste does the man who picks up their garbage in the morning comes from, or that the 'chamaar' they go to when their footwear breaks down, is a caste tag. I have heard people from North in Bombay call a person bhangi if they don't look their best on a particular day. These are the "meritorious" people who have reached the topmost places in media. It breaks my heart. But more often than not, you meet some sensible minds around who are completely aware about their privileges and working towards ending discrimination. But the roots of caste system are abyssal and it is going to take excruciatingly long to wipe the pain of this Indian holocaust.
Would you like to share about films you are currently working on, or ones that you will be working on in the near future?
Like I said, there are two short films in my mind right now. I am not sure when I will make them because, like Daaravtha, they need elaborate production. Besides that am writing a feature which is turning out to my satisfaction although I am not happy with the end. I am a slow writer. The feature is a really bold one and I think it would need an international collaboration to be pulled off.
Trailer of Daaravtha