XChange Through the Lense: Tasher Desh
The beauty of poetry, and much of its enjoyment, is perhaps coyly concealed within a poem’s open endedness, its capacity to be enjoyed on multiple levels, the different layers to its meaning, its ability to awaken the non-rational within our thought processes. It is in essence open to interpretation, holding within it different meanings for different individuals.
The beauty of experimental filmmaker Q’s work lies in the fact that with many of his films, he seems to create his own language of on screen poetry – his films are like visual poems that incorporate vivid imagery, striking music, experimentations with the very form and craft of cinema – with much of his work often sharing the poetic quality of enigmatic open endedness.
Such is the experience of Tasher Desh.
Based on Rabindranath Tagore’s play of the same name (written in the 1930’s), Q’s modern day Tasher Desh is a drastic reinterpretation of a classic, retaining a few elements like Tagore’s original lyrics in the music, but otherwise branching off into its own fantastical punked out realm, a world created by a director with a vision as radical as his imagination, and an acutely original way of storytelling. The film’s strikingly vivid visuals that remain etched into the very core of your mind’s eye, its provocative imagery and unabashed use of colour, its lyrical, almost musical editing style – make it a truly breathtaking piece to behold. More a piece of moving art than a conventionally structured narrative, Tasher Desh is truly deserving of the accolades it has received from the festival circuit and the international film community.
I caught up with Nikon – the editor of the film – and Rii – who plays the character of Horotoni, and is also often the leading lady in many of Q’s productions – about their experiences working on this film, and screening it at the IndiEarth XChange.
Nirupama: Could you tell me the story of how you two and Q crossed paths?
Nikon: I was studying at film school and Q came [to Calcutta] from Sri Lanka, he was working there at the time, and he was this punk rave dude with orange hair, and at that time I was this classical film school guy. So I was like ‘who’s that guy with this orange hair?’ And we were just hanging around smoking weed talking about films, and he said he’s going to make this film on video, and told me to audition for it. So I went and auditioned for it, and I guess my acting wasn’t up there – so I got rejected for the role, and I got seriously angry at him. We stopped talking!
By that time Q had made the decision to give up advertising and come back to Calcutta. And since our system is such everyone wants to go to Bollywood and work, and there was no thought of doing something independently. Q was doing this independently at a production level, I was thinking of doing something independently at a post production level. So that’s how we connected. We saw we were the only ones in Cal – we connected on this thing called Orkut!
Nirupama: Orkut? That must have been a long, long time ago!
Nikon: [laughs] I know! So then, he had a gig for me – a commercial gig – and that was the first time we started working together. That was the first time I saw Rii – she came to my house one night with Q. [to Rii] You don’t remember this [to me] but I remember because I had to deliver the project.
Nirupama: So that was when you and Rii first met?
Nikon: No no I had seen her before – she was like this actress who was there, and I never spoke to her because you know – she’s an actress, I’m an editor.
Rii: What you can’t speak to actors?!
Nikon: No it’s like that’s not my space – I don’t know her right? It’s only when Q and me started hanging, that’s when I met her…I’m still scared of her. [laughs]
Nirupama: Rii, when did you first encounter Q?
When he came in 2003 to Calcutta, and that time I was already acting in television and modeling and stuff. So my friend asked me to go and audition for the film and I couldn’t understand what he [Q] was talking about, because it was a dogma film, and there would be no lights, and it would be shot on video. And before that, I thought that film was all about 35mm, and big budgets, and big cameras and all that. So when I met him, I felt that this whole new energy of doing things in a completely different way, and looking at cinema in a completely non-traditional way, that really struck me and that’s how I got into Overdose, because they were doing things that were really underground, and which were ahead of their time. The film he made in 2003 – Tepantorer Mathe – nobody understood the film at that time, but now I think it’s so relevant, and that’s what he was doing – doing film digitally such a long time ago, when people thought those were shitty films and nobody used to watch them.
Nirupama: Moving now to the film Tasher Desh – when one watches the film, there seems to be another story being told through the language of the way the film is edited, separate to the story being told in the film’s narrative. There’s a certain poetry and lyricism to the edit itself – can you tell me more about that editing process?
Nikon: When you see the footage, you see what has been shot and there’s a certain element there as well, so you try and build on that you don’t try and fight that. You see the director and the DOP – they’ve had a certain aesthetic in their mind when they were shooting the film. So you immediately get a grip on that – on what they were trying to do and then you just work on that. And the director gives you a brief – this is how I’d like it to be, these are my influences – and, yeah. I’m aware of every single frame, every single cut, what is there. And it works at two levels – first, you have to be technically astute, you know your shit, at the same time you can’t let that machine logic take over your sense of abstraction, your sense of poetry, which you want to evoke from the film. So it plays in two parts.
Nirupama: Did you use the stylized edit structure of the film as a storytelling mechanism – to communicate its own message?
Nikon: With this film, it was intended to push boundaries as much as possible. See if you look at it in a classical way, the golden rule of classical cinema is editing should never be noticed. But this [Tasher Desh] is not a traditional story – the characters are very there, it’s not a typical melodramatic thing. It’s going against the whole classical structure of storytelling – so everything has a very post modern punk vibe to it, and making everything very noticeable – the craft of cinema – this is the way Q makes his films. Like if you see Gandu, for people who want to know about cinema they love it, because it appeals to the cinephile in you. Same thing with Tasher Desh, it appeals to the cinephile in you because the film form is so important to us when we’re working on a film. We’re always trying to break it, challenge it, reappropriate it in our own culture, it’s not just seeing something and saying ‘oh what a cool style in that music video, let’s try it here’ – no – it’s seeing what is happening, being aware of what is happening in the world, what our favourite filmmakers are doing, getting inspired. It’s not where you take it from, it’s where you take it to. That kind of an approach.
Nirupama: Did you have the poetry of Tagore in mind at all, when working on the film?
No not at all – I haven’t even read Tasher Desh! I know of Tasher Desh, but Neel who’s done the music, he’s not into Tagore, I’ve only studied Tagore in school in a very academic context, so Tagore for me was just a spring board to jump off of. So I think that’s why this film has worked so well – people who have collaborated in this film, they’re not held back by the baggage of Tagore. Q and Surojit Sen – the writer of the script – are the only ones who have read Tasher Desh. But for us, we haven’t read Tasher Desh, but we know it, Tagore is there in our subconscious. Because in Calcutta you go out on the street, in a traffic jam, Tagore is playing, you go anywhere Tagore is playing, and horrible renditions of Tagore which they think is the norm. Because like I said, it’s stagnated.
Nirupama: Rii you’ve spoken about liberating women’s bodies, and similarly your characters are always very liberated individuals, self assured and open with their bodies. How do audiences in India respond to that?
Rii: The kind of characters I do, they’re very strong and liberated characters, not only in Gandu or Tasher Desh, but also in my next film called Cosmic Sex. So when you’re talking about a woman’s body, there are a lot of things that I can’t translate in English, but I can tell you in Bengali, why a woman is really called a guru in society. There are certain practices amongst the fakirs, the bauls, where they treat the woman as the guru, and they worship the body. Why? Those kinds of questions were running through my mind when I was doing Tasher Desh and Gandu – thinking of myself not as a teacher, but as a medium to understand my body, and once you understand your body then you come to know of the other person. So – this is what I practice. I’m practicing with my body and as an actor, if I can emote with my hands, and with my eyes, then I can also emote with my whole body, and maybe without clothes. So people are a bit scared of me, I feel, even in Calcutta, because women don’t talk about sexuality, and they don’t come up to me to talk about what they feel about it. There are a few exceptions. Men are also scared. So I don’t know how to feel. [turns to Nikon] He has seen so much of my body, that way, editing day in and day out! [laughs] So I love my team and really respect them that way.
Nirupama: How do you feel about screening Tasher Desh here in Chennai – a city some might call more conservative than others?
Nikon: I don’t feel Chennai is conservative at all, I think it’s far more progressive than Calcutta. Like the moment I landed in the city I saw so many women riding scooters and bikes, and even at the ticket counter in the airport, there was a woman. I think West Bengal is a much more patriarchal kind of society than Southern India. Women have much more freedom here, to a degree. I mean you can have certain conservative morality issues in some other sense, but in terms of being inclusive in society, and women doing work that you’re normally used to seeing men do – I’m finding that encouraging.
Rii: In all our films, there are always a certain section of people who walk out of the film. But here at IndiEarth XChange we were quite chilled out, because it’s also a small capacity – like 40 people – but I knew that those 30 – 40 people were here to really watch the film, and they wouldn’t walk out, and that’s what happened! They watched the film and loved it. Because Q’s films are quite trippy that way, whether it’s Bangladesh or Chennai, if you’re a tripper then you can enjoy Q’s films.
Nirupama: So the way that poetry can be open to interpretation, and have multiple layers and meanings – is that how Q’s films are to be perceived?
Rii: It’s difficult, very honestly I say. Q plays with reality and surrealism at the same time, and he’s a smoker, a tripper, and that whole style when he implements it into the film, it takes on a different style, and a different shape. See for me I feel like Gandu is a children’s film – because there’s so much honesty, truth and love to it, I don’t see the debauchery in it! [laughs] Maybe I’m biased towards Q’s films, so maybe he can answer [points at Nikon].
Nikon: You mentioned poetry right? What is poetry – it’s open to interpretation, it’s open ended. Same with our films- and if you look at all great cinema, it’s always an open ended question. You see it, you don’t understand it, but that’s the whole fun. Fun is a trivial way to put it – but it’s there, it’s working inside you right? If I understand everything and it’s conclusive, then it’s not a meditative experience for me. I would actually like to go and not understand something, and think about it. When people say, “oh I saw this but I did not understand it”, I want to ask them “well do you understand everything that happens in life, everyday? You don’t question that right? You accept that, so why do you question it in poetry, art and cinema?” It has to be open, it has to be thought about. Or at least it should plant a seed somewhere deep in your mind, and that changes you as a person, and that is the power of art. To change you. Because it makes you think.
Nirupama: At the end of the film after working on it as extensively as you have – is there still that element of open endedness to it, or is it now a closed chapter for you?
Nikon: I think after a point you should stop that relationship with your work. But with every film I do I change and grow as a person, so that is the most important thing to me. I mean right now if I see my film, I’ll be probably be looking at minor technical niggles, or that could have been done better. But I’ve learned a lot from that film while doing it. Metamorphosis. I think the same thing for Rii, the same thing for all of us. That’s why you do these kinds of projects, because you change as a person. You look at any great filmmaker, why they do it – they all grow, that’s why they do the film. They make a film, they change, they move on. You’re not making potato chips in a factory, where you’re making repetitive blockbuster after blockbuster. Same formula, fits into the square, gets your money back at the box office. [laughs]
Nirupama: How has your experience at the IndiEarth XChange been so far?
Nikon: For me it’s been amazing meeting all these people! Music, and musicians mainly. It’s at that level of meeting them – I’ve never been in such a place in India before – it’s not geared towards mindless entertainment, there’s a distinct thought process to channelize energies.
For more on Overdose Joint, visit http://overdosejoint.in/
For more on Tasher Desh, visit http://overdosejoint.in/films/tasher-desh