Shunte ki pao (Are you listening)
raising hope for independent cinema
A few intrepid souls -victims of a cyclone, people who are relentlessly struggling for their existence, fencing off the atrocities of nature, are the heroes of Are you listening?, Shunte Ki Pao. Kamar Ahmed Simon, the director of this movie, brings us up close and personal with the experience of a deeper truth of life.
On the banks of the river Bhadra in the Sundarbans nestles the village Sutarkhali, a habitat of about hundred families, living there for four generations. In the movie we are introduced to one of these families, its three members, Soumen, his wife Rakhi and their only son, six year old Rahul. When the deadly tidal wave Aila hit the land in 2009, the whole of the southern part of the village was swept away. And thence started the battle for survival. This ninety minute long movie is a depiction of this human strife in a highly condensed form.
Theirs is a unique life – the stoic smile that lit up Rakhi's face endures in the face of all uncertainty, even the looming menace of poverty and want. Though the movie presents the variegated lifestyle of the multitudinous country folks, the central character Rakhi stands out as exceptional and unparalleled through her keen interest in life, her enthusiasm and vital energy. Her days course through housekeeping, school job, prayers, interacting with neighbours, along with looking after Rahul's education. Rakhi once raised the issue of emigrating to India, Soumen's reaction to that was – no one is waiting there for you with food and clothing.
The villagers, on the other hand, transform their toils and grievances into tales, discussions and arguments in a tumultuous celebration of renewal of the gifts of nature. Relief, water supply, road, and dam – pipe dreams of so-called government projects are being painstakingly but tenaciously realized by the people. Sometimes their grievances epitomizes in a bitter and frustrated query into the definition of the word hatadaridra (miserably poor)- veering into a poignant/tentative explication of existential vulnerability and resilience. The official trailer gives us a foretaste of this – we all became equal, where all divides melt down under the equalizing forces of nature; the technology of the 'aperture' telescopes the micro onto the 'invincible' macro. The tea stall discussion revolves around politics; a kind of exuberance permeates the atmosphere through lively arguments about the state, election, time laps steadily and fluidly around this agora of human exchange, carrying with it the distant rhythm of a cosmic continuum. Then there is the deluge that washes away what was deceptively stable and transient at the same time.
A heavy downpour. And more of Rakhi and Soumen's family spats. Who knew it would start raining again at a time like this. The movie moves towards its end but we stay on with the people of Sutarkhali. Who can presage the beginning or the end of life in Sutarkhali, or does it ever yield up to any episteme, cognitive presumption? Yet, one cannot deny the overwhelming desire to linger a little longer. A niggling 'wish' to know where the flow of events, that is life, has taken Rahul and his parents.
It is the movie's release that gave rise to some conventional questions on the viewer/critic front regarding its category : documentary or fiction. This contention was partly instigated by the posters of the movie, featuring the stylized urban art form of Bangladesh, akin to rickshaw paintings, cinema banners and signboards, a thread linking it to the traditional modes of movie distribution.
On 21st February, 2014, the documentary, Shunte Ki Pao was commercially released to much acclaim. It was dedicated to the memory of Tareque Masud, for his precursory role in travelling from district to district to showcase his movie, something that inspired Kamar to be present in his screenings. The movie created favourable ripples outside Dhaka too, especially at Chittagong Shilpakala Academy, yielding a huge audience turn over. On 29th October, 2012, it came into greater focus on being invited as an inaugural movie at the oldest documentary film festival in Germany, the 55th DOK Leipzig, 2012. This was followed by other numerous international accolades under varied categories: the Grand Prix at the Best Feature-length Documentary at 35th Cinema du Reel, 2014, The Golden Conch for Best Documentary and Best Cinematography at Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF), 2014 in India.
Shunte Ki Pao rings a different tune altogether, known elements presented in a unique format. Shunte Ki Pao presents the sounds and images of a feeling, a realization, apolitically politicizing a 'living', as it mediates and meditates the exposition of a people's self-actualized existence in a remote corner of the world, thus making their stories heard.
Let us return to the contention of whether it is a documentary or a fiction which the producer (Kamar's wife Sara Afreen)/ director couple have taken in their strides, both agreeing on the point that making fiction or documentary has never been on their agenda, making a movie being their goal, from the very beginning and this movie is a result of that.
Some of the conventional styles and genres have been deconstructed though from an international perspective, it can be said to have been influenced partially by Cinéma vérité or Direct Cinema. Anthropologists and social scientists started working on Cinéma vérité or observational cinema in an effort to run experiments on a genre which could strike a balance between the factual and the fictional. The artists of this school followed a style somewhat resembling Dziga Vertov's newsreel series (a short documentary form) of the 1920s where Kino-Pravda or Film Truth meant capturing routine life experiences unfurling in market places, schools, and bars etc sometimes using hidden cameras. Simultaneously, these artists were also influenced by the movies of Robert Flaherty. But then, the so-called Feature-length documentary, Nanook of the North (1922) of Robert Flaherty and the Kino-Pravda series are almost simultaneous developments. Combining these two styles, Cinéma vérité attempts to throw light on certain external realities of life, conversely allowing access to deeper truths hidden within them. French anthropologists and movie-makers like Jean Rouch (1917-2004), Pierre Perrault (1927-1999) are the innovators of this genre. The stylistic features of this are noticeable in movies like Lonely Boy (1962) by Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroitor and Le Joimai (1964) by Cris Marker. Direct Cinema is the American version of the Cinéma vérité movement with just a few variations. Direct Cinema plays the observational role as a detached, silent witness delivering an unbiased version of the object of the camera's gaze. Beside sharing obvious affinity with these genres Shunte Ki Paot, treads the ground of some new possibilities, the real is presented garbed in a narrative fold. Here the camera is gentle and quiet, non-intrusive; yet the atmospheric volatility that throbs with the portent of the unexpected and the dramatic is all too real. There has been little or no sign of manipulating the scenes through directorial or authorial intervention, no one appears to be inhibited by the presence of a machine which is quite different from the Kino-Pravda (Film Truth) of Dziga Vertov and the later styles of Cinéma vérité or Direct Cinema. Shunte ki pao is farther removed in its exclusion of music, running commentary or interviews. In Shunte Ki Pao music or sound interpenetrates the narrative quite organically. One exception was the radio broadcast which appears somewhat jarring, as it seemed more like a wayside political commentary- a redundant footnote.
Both Cinéma vérité and Direct Cinema of Europe, with their experimental format demonstrate the style of journalistic photography, exuding the aura of live broadcasting through scenes shot with handheld cameras, with an express attempt at connecting the images with various anthropological, social and political issues, along with evidence of the editing practices of time bygone (50s/60s). In that case, instead of classifying Shunte Ki Pao in the Cinéma vérité or Direct Cinema category, we can consider its success on the basis of our time and our reality. Another modern movie that has come under multiple scrutiny owing to its subject-matter and style is Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing (2012) based on the Indonesian killings of 1965- 1966. The movie is the re-enactment of the murderous spree perpetrated by a man named Anwar Congo, and a unique dramatic narrative brings out the horror of the event. Joshua Oppenheimer's own view about his movie, The Act of Killing as expressed in an interview with Nicolas Rapold on July 15, 2013, can be seen in this short excerpt:
'What observational documentaries do, especially of the American Direct Cinema variety, is to set up conditions that are quite different. I deliberately don't use the word Cinéma vérité, because Cinéma vérité was a term coined around Jean Rouch's work. In Direct Cinema, the Maysies Brothers, Wiseman, the premise is to create a reality with characters which stimulated a pre-existing reality. … But it's a charade. We're actually creating the illusion of documenting the reality. So it's the case that, if I start filming you now, you're going to start thinking, “how do I look,” then filmmaking is a fantastic opportunity to explore the conditions of imagination that underpin our behavior.'
Shunte Ki Pao's foray into features like sound, especially music in lieu of monologues, commentary, interviews etc, without much formal planning in order to present the unadulterated reality is, to a great extent an innovative concept. The significance of a documentary doesn't inhere in just a few truths told about living, truths however, are too sensitive and lie largely concealed behind the mechanisms of genre parameters. The documentary becomes relevant and palpable through, as John Grierson has defined it – 'creative treatment of actuality'.
Simon himself has done the cinematography of the movie and there are some noticeable variations in this area too. Day after day, he has been observing the people of the village through the lenses of his camera. Possibly these pictures have been taken intermittently over a period of two years during which time his subjects have accepted him as part of their day to day existence. His work is a reflection of his knowledge and experience in videography: in one scene crowds wait in anticipation on an embankment, the graphics- brought to life by a play of light and colour- teasing out an atmosphere of dread, which before long unravels into a scene of a mud-sloshing football match, with the crowd cheering and making merry. This effortless, quick shift in mood is a brilliant example of cinematographic maneuver. The editing by Saikat Shekhareshwar Roy, a feat in itself, draws together in great harmony the camera, Rakhi, Soumen, Rahul and the villagers.
Shunte Ki Pao has given vent to a lot of discussions. The impasse of doubts over whether new expressions or experimentations in cinematic languages are at all possible in a country where the industry has hit the nadir in the last two decades seems to be slowly giving way to some glimmer of hope. Times and possibilities are changing in the digital age. No one is waiting for support from film industry or patronage. Alternative projects of multifaceted concepts and preparatory activities are evolving slowly. Shunte Ki Pao is that a glimmer of hope, an innovative beginning of the search for an alternative medium to communicate with the audience. Not many of the earlier movies have mediated a close encounter of a remote region of the country, of the marginal communities outside the dominant social group, different in their faith, thoughts and lifestyle. The identity of these people are not just rooted in the class distinction, it is in their habits, their humanity, courage and sense of unity. How far have we ever delved into the true nature of humanity that lies beyond the issues of national, religious and social parameters, which are discernible only on the surface of life?
Set in a disaster ridden land, this picturization of a colourful, healthy and beautiful life is truly exceptional. One can feel the philosophical significance of the movie alongside the cinematic strengths and effects by witnessing the communion that exists between earth and man that which points to a higher awareness of being emerging out of these ordinary activities of life, a feeling reinforced by the occasional breaking out of bhatialy (folk song), thus creating an essential synergy between toil, tribulation, joy and hope, all umbilically tied with the soil. In this connection we can draw from the advice of the famous Russian Film-maker, Andrei Tarkovsky:
'Never try to convey your idea to the audience – it is a thankless and senseless task. Show them life and they find within themselves the means to assess and appreciate it.'
Shunte Ki Pao is not an end-all, it is a concept that has added a new chapter to the local artistic or cinematic dialectic, a link in a chain to restore our lost confidence in cinema.
Image Courtesy: http://www.film-areyoulistening.info