Documentary, Features, India

One-on-One with Avijit Mukul Kishore

After studying Motion Picture Photography at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune, Avijit Mukul Kishore has been extremely successful in building up an impressive portfolio of work.  He began initially as a cinematographer, who has collaborated with filmmakers like Pankaj Rishi Kumar, Madhushree Dutta, Fareeda Mehta, and Ashim Ahluwalia amongst others. Working on film and across various video formats, his artistic endeavours also include teaming up with several visual artists on different installation art projects. With Snapshots From A Family Album (2004), Avijit began his directorial journey. His films represent his direct engagement with the world, be it as a vérité investigator, a poetic commentator or overall, a committed and reflexive participant. I recently caught up with the filmmaker to discuss his work both as a cinematographer and as a director after he graduated from the FTII.

 How was the practice of documentary filmmaking perceived during your student days at the FTII?

I was at FTII from 1993 to 1995. In general, there was exposure to three kinds of documentaries at that time. The dominant ones were state propaganda films made by Films Division or films made by activists. The third kind were the informational, art and culture documentaries, usually referred to as ‘soft stories’. FTII shared the legacy of its sister organisations, Films Division and Film Finance Corporation (later NFDC), in the form of a common pool of scholars, filmmakers and officials, who informed state-funded film practice through the 1960s and 70s. People like NVK Murthy, Vijay B Chandra, Jagatmurari and later Bhanumurthy Alur moved across these organisations, bringing a continuity of vision to these film organisations and pedagogy. Some of our teachers at FTII would surprise us by screening outstanding documentaries of the kind that we were not aware of. SNS Sastry’s I Am 20 (1967) and Sukhdev’s India ’67 (1968) were part of our exposure to a world of political and non-fiction filmmaking, very different from the one we were familiar with. As were the films of Mani Kaul,  Arrival (1980), Dhrupad (1983) and Before My Eyes (1989). Incidentally, all of these were state-produced films.

Documentary was not really taught at FTII when we were students, except for the odd workshop if you were lucky. We did have to make a documentary as part of our projects but this was usually a half-hearted exercise for the students and faculty alike. You could say we learnt by watching and practicing. But we did not have sufficient back-up to translate our ideas into films that were not derivative, especially in the non-fiction medium.

Fortunately, there is far greater awareness and interest in the documentary these days — both among general audiences and at film schools. The field itself is much more diverse than it used to be, with some very original and innovative work by contemporary filmmakers and students.

Coming to your work after graduating from FTII, Kumar Talkies (1999) posed poignant questions about the nature of making a film and about one’s engagement with the cinematic image as filmmakers and viewers. Did your experience as a cinematographer in the project help you to develop a distinctive perspective towards documentary filmmaking?  One that you would later inculcate in your documentaries as a filmmaker?

Kumar Talkies, directed by Pankaj Rishi Kumar, was a complex project that worked at multiple registers. It was a film about a small town and its decrepit cinema hall that was struggling to keep up with cable television at the turn of the century. It was made through a self-reflexive lens by us, recent film school graduates, looking at a cusp in the history of cinema and expressing it through the documentary medium. The film was quite unprecedented in its brief as well as execution. It was among the last Indian documentaries to be shot on 16mm film and among the first that attempted a complicated mix of celluloid film and digital video, printed back on film. So, it was technically complex and also needed us to think through this intertextuality.  No doubt, it had a formative influence on me since I was involved in the film in different capacities beyond just its cinematography. I think that the scale and treatment of the project helped all of us involved with the film in to engage with the medium in newer and more interesting ways.

 Seven Islands And A Metro (2006), directed by Madhusree Dutta, involved filming with a cast of real people and scripted real people. Whereas films I Am Micro (2010) and An Old Dog’s Diary (2015) are experimental endeavours shot on black and white stock. As a cameraman, how do you decide your aesthetic choices in executing the vision of the director? Especially when the subjects and their modes of expressions are different from one another?

As a cinematographer it is important to build trust with your director and create a position of collaboration between yourselves. You need to respect each-other’s discipline and space. If that works out well, you become a co-author, blurring the boundaries between direction and cinematography. Seven Islands And A Metro was painstakingly shot over three years. More specifically, over three monsoons in Bombay, which define the dominant look of the film. It was a fully scripted non-fiction feature on contemporary Bombay, except for its cinema-verité sections. The film acknowledged and celebrated a constructed reality in the documentary medium, by having actors play documentary characters and people on the street aware of performing themselves on camera. It was shot on two formats, broadcast digital video and a prosumer camcorder. It also had sequences shot on degraded, low-resolution spycams used for surveillance along with the extensive use of grips, cranes, lighting equipment and artificial rain – things that we don’t usually associate with documentaries because as viewers and filmmakers, we are used to imposing an aesthetic of austerity upon non-fiction films. Madhusree Dutta’s films are a study in the breaking of experiential boundaries in the non-fiction medium, sometimes to the point of being camp but without compromising the seriousness of their subject.

Avijit Mukul Kishore. Photograph courtesy Shreyasi Kar.

Referentiality plays a significant role in my choices as a cinematographer and filmmaker. A film or even a sequence could open up memories and associations of things the viewer may or may not have seen before, thereby letting the film inhabit a larger cinematic history and memory. I Am Micro and An Old Dog’s Diary were two very different short films by Shai Heredia and Shumona Goel. The first looked at the shrinking environment for art-film-making that followed the lineage of the Indian New Wave. It was set in the ruins of an abandoned public sector factory making optical instruments and featured snatches of a conversation with an unnamed filmmaker on the soundtrack. It was shot on 16mm black and white negative film. An Old Dog’s Diary reflected on the inner trauma of the renowned artist FN Souza, as expressed in his writings and uses minimal text over the images of the environment that he inhabited in Goa and Bombay. It was shot on black and white reversal film, both 16mm and 8mm.

Celluloid film is indeed a beautiful image-making medium. Sometimes, beauty itself is the reason to choose a particular material or process. But I find it truly rewarding when it also connects to a larger collective memory and cinematic history.

You also have photographed Fareeda Mehtas Kali Salwaar (2002) on celluloid. Could you share your experience of shooting the film?

Kali Salwaar took its time to get noticed but I am glad for the recognition it has received in recent years. How do I remember it? We shot it over 40 days in the Bombay winter of 1999-2000. I recall the long takes, working on analogue, the pre-digital-intermediate and I am glad for all of that. The film had some  locations in old Mumbai, meticulously researched by Surabhi Sharma. Most of those places have given way to high-rises by now. I was fortunate to have my friend Setu, also from the FTII, as the chief assistant cinematographer on the film. Helming it all was the meticulous Fareeda Mehta with her exquisite sense of mise-en-scene and production design detail, with the colour palette inspired from the paintings of Bhupen Khakhar.

Snapshots From A Family Album (2004).

You subsequently turned to direction. Tell us about your journey as a director that began with Snapshots From A Family Album (2004)?

It is hard to talk about one’s own work critically. Let me mention some of the preoccupations and interests that have driven my eleven films including Snapshots… I have a deep interest in the various cultural phenomena that have come before us, shaped us as people and guided our practice in our respective disciplines. Films, both fiction and non-fiction, have been integral agents of identity-making, alongside other broadcast media, visual and performing arts, architecture, cities and pretty much everything around us. My practice has reflected on these processes. Therefore, all my films have elements that are referential and self-reflexive.

Snapshots… is constructed around affectionate and humorous references to the film school idea of art cinema, as the film looks at me, a young filmmaker, looking at my family at a crucial point of transition. There is a lot of tenderness in it, as it looks at the domestic, deeply private space of home, while referring to political and cultural realities that shaped us.

My films often use the events playing out on screen as a vehicle to address other things, to plug in to other realities and histories. I have been working with visual artists and with my partner Rohan Shivkumar, who is an architect, on interdisciplinary moving-image projects. It is energising to interpret elements of other art forms and translate them into the two-dimensional, temporal medium of cinema. It is an act of the queering of form.

Would you consider Certified Universal (2009) and Electric Shadows (2016) as companion pieces?

Absolutely. Both these films explore cinema as an image of a place and a culture and the meanings that we make out of it. Certified Universal is set in Mumbai and Electric Shadows is set against a festival of Indian films in China. The films look at spaces and cultures that we may have seen in films and how they inform our idea of ourselves and other cultures. Again, the films do that with a sense of joy and humour, with the juxtaposition of documentary actuality and constructed realities of fiction and documentary films. Electric Shadows gets darker as it progresses, as it talks of the extreme state control and censorship prevalent in the film scene in China and the impossibility of ever knowing the truth through cinema or the news media. In 2015, this was already prescient of how things are panning out in contemporary India.

My interest in state propaganda as a study of the ‘official image’ of a culture cuts across both India and China. Both the films mentioned above refer to the state documentary, as well as the multiple realities that lie between the ideas of ‘high culture’ through the classical arts and arthouse cinema on the one hand and popular culture on the other.

Vertical City (2011), Nostalgia For The Future (2017) and Lovely Villa (2019), where you have contributed as an associate director and a cinematographer, can be woven together as a trilogy of architecture-based documentaries. Do you have any particular inclination towards the subject?

I have been closely associated with and taught at KRVIA, an architecture school in Mumbai, for nearly two decades now. They were collaborators on Project Cinema City with Majlis, which Certified Universal was part of. Vertical City came out of my engagement with their work on urban redevelopment.

Rohan Shivkumar, who wrote and co-directed Nostalgia for the Future, and I, often refer to Nostalgia.. as a mid-career anxiety about our respective professions in architecture, education and documentary filmmaking. Both professions carry a conceit of certitude and its practitioners give themselves the power to make decisions for citizens. The architecture establishment does so by designing homes and cities for citizens and documentary filmmakers wield the power of representing them as mandated by the state or against it, depending on who is making the film.  Both are paternalistic positions where the gaze at the citizen/subject is a well-meaning, but downward one. Nostalgia.. looked at Indian modernity through the architecture of the home and the lives of citizens as represented through documentary and fiction cinema in the period of nation building, the 1950s and ’60s. The film was shot on both digital video and 16mm film. It extensively referred to archival material from the Films Division and key fiction films from that period.

Lovely Villa and Vertical City make a pair of films on very different imaginations of citizenry, in the late 1960s and three decades later, post liberalisation. The films are as much about those ideas of the citizens as the homes that the state made for them. Each fit very very different in its treatment. Vertical City has a detached sense of empathy, while Lovely Villa is told in first person, about growing up in a place where housing was a social engineering project towards building an inclusive society. And then watching it change over time as the country itself changed.

To Let The World In, Volumes 1 & 2 (2013) share the recollections, reminiscences and concerns around the practices of three generations of celebrated Indian artists. What sort of research went behind in making these documentaries that delved into such historicity?

To Let The World In was the result of a very fruitful collaboration between art historian Chaitanya Sambrani and me. He brought in the art-historical context and conducted the interviews for the film. It was made for an exhibition of Contemporary Indian Art that featured three generations of artists. It looked at the Narrative-Figurative Movement in Indian art in the early 1980s and its legacy. The interviews had an intimate, conversational quality as most of the artists were well known to both Chaitanya and me. As with my other work, this film was about the changing environment in the country as reflected in the artists’ works and preoccupations, expressed in their respective mediums. The film got edgy in its second volume, which featured younger artists, who started their practice in the post-liberalisation, market-driven environment of art making. It was a challenge for me to work out a visual language of engagement with very different art forms, in multiple media, in the film. We used their documentation where the art works were not available. The film remains a valuable time-capsule of conversations with 37 artists and a look at their work, at a specific moment in the history of Indian art.

In your later documentaries, The Garden Of Forgotten Snow (2017) and Squeeze Lime In Your Eye (2018), you have dealt with the works of two artists, Nilima Sheikh and Kausik Mukhopadhyay respectively. Yet, one cannot call either a biopic in the traditional sense. Could you share your thoughts on these films?

I am very privileged to have worked closely with Nilima Sheikh and Kausik Mukhopadhyay for almost two decades now. Much as it is beautiful to make a film on people you are close to, it is also fraught with anxieties regarding the representation. Snapshots From A Family Album had the same concerns as I was working with my parents. Nilima and Kausik’s practices are very different from each other’s and so are the films on them. The Garden Of Forgotten Snow is about Nilima’s engagement with Kashmir and her work on it. She is a painter, while Kausik makes objects out of disassembled household gadgets. The films borrowed from the language of their work to define their form and structure. The Garden… has the quietude of Nilima’s work, which looks at the beauty, the sadness and the disquiet in people’s life in Kashmir. Squeeze Lime In Your Eye has the edgy madness of Kausik’s work with its bizarre disruptions created by his kinetic or stationary objects. These are extremely fragile and beautiful in an unexpected way.

You have been a co-curator at the FD Zone programme of Films Division India as well as teaching at various institutes in India. Do these activities enrich you as a filmmaker?

I come from a family of teachers. I think teaching comes to me quite instinctively. So, my film practice and academic practice work in tandem, informing each-other — I can’t separate the two. I was part of the team that set up and ran two screening programmes at Mumbai – FD Zone, which was a documentary programme housed within Films Division, and Movies at the Museum at the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum. Besides these, I’ve been visiting various film and media schools to teach documentary filmmaking or cinematography.

What do you think about the current scenario of documentary filmmaking in India?

I would say the last 25 years have been very rich with people engaging with and expressing themselves as activists, artists and academics, through the non-fiction medium. There has been great diversity and unprecedented breakthroughs in evolving individual voices of expression. If I may say so, this is much truer of the documentary than in the fiction medium. Most of the films I am referring to, have been made with the involvement of the state through Government organisations like PSBT or Films Division. It is easy to criticise PSBT and FD for a variety of reasons, some which are completely valid. But despite their shortcomings, they have provided a platform to a very diverse group of filmmakers at different stages of their careers. You might argue that some of their output left much to be desired, but the flashes of brilliance that we witnessed from time to time were mostly seen in films produced by them. We have a deep crisis at present in terms of funding and exhibition of documentaries, in the environment of extreme censorship that we find ourselves in now. I can’t think of any immediate redressal from this but am hopeful that filmmakers of today will invent ways of expression to leave their very individual records of the contemporary times, as they have been known to do under Films Division in the 1960s and in other totalitarian countries.

Lastly, as a teacher and practicing filmmaker how would you like to guide a budding filmmaker who wants to pursue a career in making documentaries?

 Answering this, I feel like TN Subramanian, the person who gets the first and last word in SNS Sastry’s I Am 20, ending on a motivational and optimistic note! The documentary is a beautiful medium, with immense possibilities of expression within its multiple genres. I wish we had greater dissemination and discourse around it, so people would be exposed to its possibilities – especially with the amazing films that have been made in India. I am very glad to see that young people make excellent films, both fiction and non-fiction. I feel disappointed when young people, especially students, play it safe with their films, not challenging themselves, their peers or festival juries. But I feel a lot of this has to do with exposure. The documentary films coming out of film schools across the country are much better now from the ones that were made when we were students. The point is to watch as much as possible, read as much as one can, and reach out to filmmakers to learn and engage. A good place to start is with a list of essential films to watch. They may seem restrictive but it’s important to know the canon or we run the danger of re-inventing the wheel.

Header photograph courtesy Sagar Shiriskar.

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