“The work that makes you feel most alive”–Prashant Bhagarva on his new film Patang
by Richard von Busack
In India, the dispute over a family’s property involves a very contemporary Delhi girl and familial resentments she is too young to remember.
Set in the old city of Ahmedabad, Prashant Bhargarva’s first feature Patang (“Kite”) follows the fighting-kite sportsmanship that was the subject of the Afghanistan-set The Kite Runner.
But what a difference. Where the former was sensational melodrama, Patang is an intimate, Satyajit Ray-like story of conflict along the fault line between the old and new Indias.
This indie film, co-presented by the Center for Asian-American Media, opens today, July 13, at the Metreon in San Francisco and at the Big Cinemas Fremont 7 on 39160 Paseo Park in Fremont.
RVB: Watching Patang, you certainly see why it took a while to complete. In creating this film, had you begun by thinking of the theme first—of a family divided between tradition and the 21st century?
BHARGAVA: My original story was about one girl in a family, and that didn’t have much to do with the larger scope. Then after I did some three years of research, I decided on the aspect of property disputes, and upon a multitude of characters, rather than one. Everything would center on the energy of the kite festival on January 14th.
The first year I came out to Ahmedabad, I was awestruck by the festival. I tried to do something like interviewing people, hiding behind cars filming kids, observing—many time with camera in hand. I got to know the rhythms of life there.
I went to Ahmedabad on three-month long visits, every year for three years. At first I was shy about approaching people. By the end of that period, it was a process for me. Every year, I felt I was getting closer and closer to the final script. I knew the basic groups I wanted by the second year. By the third year, I was exploring scenes with real people, discovering the locations where they would take place,
Coming from the outside, as I did, I had to completely unload my external point of view. Ahmedabad is a place that’s going through a lot of religious violence and natural disaster. The old city has a lot of history, a lot of different ways of conduct, of rituals. It was a big learning curve.
But during the kite festival, we really had the whole community celebrating together, Muslim or Hindu, rich or poor. 90 % of the kites are manufactured by the Muslims. The whole city goes crazy. Groups of kids run around looking for the fallen kites, trying to collect as many kites as they can.
But having said that, it’s not that simple as it sounds; there are different kinds of fractures going on.
RVB: Did the cast understand the cinematic style you were working from, the style of avant-garde filmmakers like Terrence Malick and Mike Leigh?
BHARGAVA: No, the cast didn’t pick that up. 90 percent of them were non-actors. The whole process was tailor-made for their freedom. It was certainly very new for everybody. As they were non-actors they had no expectations.
Seema Biswas (above), of course, is a professional, and Nawazuddin Siddiqui had three films in Cannes this year [the two-part Gangs of Wasseypur and Miss Lovely]. When Nawaz worked with those kids, he had to let go of everything—everything you would ordinarily do to get a performance. I actually introduced Nawaz to the kids in the film as “Chakku,” his character name. The kids do it with no effort. So you have to match their naturalism. The kids are always themselves.
RVB: Did you rehearse the actors as Leigh does, telling them the sense of the scene and then having them improvise dialogue?
BHARGAVA: We never gave them the script. For instance, we’d tell the kids to catch 10 kites as fast as they can, and then afterwards someone was going to get angry with them. We’d do the whole scene with a physical objective, to raise awareness of the technique.
Everyone looks back and treasures it now, but it took a great deal of trust. No one really knew the roots of this kind of filmmaking in Mike Leigh or the Dardennes brothers’ films.
RVB: I was reading you were a graffiti artist, back in Chicago where you were raised—did any of that past leak into your filmmaking? Was it perhaps in a love of street scenes or of color?
BHARGAVA: I came into filmmaking trying to bring a kind of graffiti motion, when I colored or scribble my tag, or when seeking out a site. I used a lot of rhythm in Patang, which is cut like something like the Bourne films or The Hurt Locker, using a lot of the elements and contrasting colors in the frame. A lot of that came from my roots in graffiti.
RVB: When you went to Cornell, had you planned on being a film director?
BHARGAVA: I studied computer science. I had a hard time rationalizing to my parents that you could do something creative. It’s the Indian way to impress your parents. But then you come to a place in your life where you do the work that makes you feel most alive. And then you have no choice but to keep doing it.
RVB: Where did you find Sugandha Garg, who plays Priya? She looks very innocent but from what you told me, she’s sometimes capable of talking a little bit like the rapper Azealia Banks.
BHARGAVA: She’s a Bombay actress, she does Bollywood roles—I had mentioned to her I wanted her to kiss Bobby (Aakash Maheriya), and it would be her first kiss on screen.
[Indian films are capable of great sensuality, usually expressed through dance. But the old rule that kissing is prohibited on screen is still more often followed than not. The goddessy actress Ash Rai’s career in Hollywood has very likely hampered by her avoidance of screen kisses.]
Over there in India people are in touch with their sexuality. And Sughanda had beauty, confidence and sensitivity, in terms of being able to play with the kids. As in the case of everyone else we worked with, I was trying to find the actor who was that character in real life.
RVB: Was that your own Super 8 camera on screen that Priya is carrying in the early scenes? I’d never thought of it before, but having a character holding a camera is a fine quick way of suggesting that they’re a visitor from elsewhere.
BHARGAVA: That was a friend’s camera. I really like Super 8, and I feel there’s a different type of communication that goes on when you have one of those cameras. I wanted Patang to look contemporary—we were shooting in 2007-2008—and I realized if we showed whatever the latest cameras was, it would look old by the time the film was released. With Super 8 we could have the freedom to explore the world, seeing things in a lot of fragments and moments. This comes closer to the way Priya sees the world, during her first time in Ahmedabad.
RVB: Did using such an older camera help make you invisible in the crowds?
BHARGAVA: As for the technical difference between film and digital cameras, in the street scenes they wouldn’t have known the difference. We definitely drew more attention when we had two cameras running. That’s when things changed. You definitely don’t want to go too big.
RVB: In your film’s communiqué, Patang is mentioned as one of five films in made in opposition to the commercial work out of Bollywood. [The others are Dhobi Gaat, the terrific Peepli (Live), Vihir, Ydaan and Love Sex Aur Dhoka.] A film made with Patang’s kind of sensitivity certainly has something to push against. Supposedly the biggest grossing Indian film of all time was 3 Idiots. Is there really an Indian New Wave today?
BHARGAVA: There are a lot of parallels. There are some differences between me and the Indian-indie movement, in terms of experimenting with cinema form and naturalistic actors.
We were one of the first films to shoot on digital in India, and there’s something that’s really starting to happen.
Patang unfolds very slowly, which has been a point of criticism. It’s a different film than the first cut I showed at the Berlin Film Festival. It’s a little more open after I put some material back. It’s not structured like a conventional film, with the introduction of plot points and a crisis at the 30 minute point. 60 minutes into Patang, the conflict comes that turns the course of the film. At times you’re skipping certain narrative arcs.
Overall, Patang resembles the rhythm and the pace of the way real life stories unfold.
RVB: I’m wondering if there’s anything you’d say to an audience that knew little about India before the film started…
BHARGAVA: I generally introduce this film by talking about the research I did into the old city. It’s a very special place. The people may not trust you at first, but the more trust you give, the more you receive. It’s a place you need to approach with an open heart, and then you get a quiet invitation inside. I always stress, too, that Patang is about the way we hold on to our past…which is not completely with sadness.
RVB: What are your upcoming plans?
BHARGAVA: I shot a collaboration with Vijay Iyer with to the music of “Rite of Spring.” And I’m working on a feature film script right now about a golf course in the South Side of Chicago. It’s a coming of age story about a young kid and an older hustler. I’m trying to approach the actors with same methods I used in Patang.