Dev Bengal Interview

The most surprising thing about this project is that it is based on your own experience
of traveling with a touring cinema in India. What happened in reality? Is it right to say
that the character of Vishnu has a lot to do with your own life?

Touring Cinemas are an amazing phenomenon. Take one part pilgrimage and one part 70mm screen- and you get a heady cocktail. It.s like being on drugs.

I drove miles and miles away from Bombay to a no man’s land barren, stark and devoid of human beings. And before my eyes saw a huge piece of cloth being stretched across the sky and become a gigantic cinema screen. And magically saw this barren landscape fill up with thousands of people- all of whom had walked for hours and some days to come sit and surrender before the large screen. It was magic in the midst of this stark reality.

I.ve always wanted to do an Indian road movie. Did the idea come from travelling in my
childhood across these wide open vistas which were raw and unexplored or from watching movies as a child- Sullivan.s Travels, the John Ford movies, the King Hu films from whom I learnt everything about widescreen composition or Chris Petit.s Radio On a movie that haunted me for a long time? I.m sure the answer lies somewhere in between.

I feel strongly about the vanishing Indian landscape. There.s this real crisis in India at the
moment where large tracts of farmland and open spaces are being converted into Special
Economic Zones. There.s this raw beauty, this uncharted quality of India that I had seen and wanted to be a part of my film before it disappeared totally.

The story was about Vishnu discovering himself and life through cinema. A lot like what I experienced – losing myself to the movies when I was growing up; spending hours and days in the darkened movie halls of Bombay and Delhi. They were my world even before I interacted or met the real world outside.

How did you go about creating all the characters Vishnu meets on the way?

The four characters in the story came from images that have haunted me on my own travels across the Indian landscape; the runaway young boy, the old man with his army surplus clothes; hat and bag, wandering with no purpose on the road, the row of women walking for days in search of water. These were real people and at the same time, against that stunning landscape had a mythic quality. The characters became symbolic of an India that is disappearing. While writing this I did not give them names, nor a sense of where they are from- they were The Boy, the Man, The Woman. The old man a trickster, a jack of all trades, a magician who somehow has the answers to everything or so he makes us believe. The woman for me was the last wanderer- the essence of the land or the country and an idea that is becoming elusive. Only the main character got a name- Vishnu, and that choice was specific, one with significance in Indian mythology. Vishnu is the preserver, the one who manages to maintain the balance, the one who moves from chaos to order and most importantly the one who completes the journey.

Vishnu is my generation. And his story is an auto critique of my generation- of how far
removed we are from the land, how little we know about it- it.s the beauty and also the
harshness that lives within.

The characters are all escaping from the harsh realities of their worlds and the cinema truck was their vehicle to this land of escape and dreams.

Why do you use hair oil as a motif in the film? Is it a masculine symbol in India?

Hair Oil is this absurd and also cool metaphor that divides India in two halves- the past and the present. Vishnu like August the character of my first movie, ENGLISH, AUGUST, is “part of the generation that doesn.t oil its hair.” It.s absurd and silly– yes and yet an index of our times. There.s this tradition in India of oiling your hair; something which is thrust upon us down generations. It.s about virility, having a thick head of hair is about being a man and so on. And hair oil is given these almost magical and mythical qualities that it can do almost anything. It.s used in everyday life, in weddings, deaths and so on. It borders on the absurd. And there.s the young generation who want gel, mousse and other modern styling products. What sealed it for me was when the young man who runs the travelling cinema told me he makes and sells hair oil during the off season when he.s not showing movies. I thought that was quite cool.

A sense of dreaming/imagining goes on in the end of this film, and yet the tone is on
the whole rather realistic. Is it a deliberate act of placing the story in the reality/fantasy
spectrum?

The first time I saw a film in the open air was an experience. To begin with there was not a soul in sight. I waited for hours and had almost given up when I saw a few people on the horizon. Within an hour this had swelled up to three thousand. I stayed awake all night mesmerized by the screen. In the morning when I woke, there was no one in sight. They had disappeared almost magically like they had appeared. It was like the movies- you are transported into a world, which you believe in for 90 minutes and then boom, it.s over and you are being huddled out of some side exit into the street. I liked the idea of making something that seemed like a waking dream, where one never quite knew if the whole story or Vishnu.s journey ever happened. Was it a dream? Was it real or was it a movie unfolding in his mind? It is a way of escaping tradition and the claustrophobic world of his father.s oil workshop.

What are the resonances for you of ending the story with the Old Man’s passing and
being wrapped with the film screen?

I thought the Old Man was like the father of cinema. When he sits and winds the reels it.s an image and a moment which refers back to Gandhi sitting and spinning his Charkha. And that was all about freedom and independence. And the Old Man brought this free spirit, this irreverence to the lives of the people he meets. Being wrapped in the film screen was a passing of time and the idea that this is perhaps the end of the way we.ll gather together and watch movies.

A sort of swan song of the movies itself. And yet what the Old Man gave us is this un-cynical take on the magic of cinema and its ability to transcend even the harshest of landscapes.

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