It was a warm sultry afternoon when M and I decided to watch Kiarostami’s Close-Up on a dull-ish day in that pink house. Cups of tea in hand and no idea of the whirlwind I was to slip into, I remember thinking of another film I watched the other day and feeling a little queasy. The film was ‘Talk to Her,’ it was the selection for the weekly screening at MCPH’s film club. While I was thinking about the nuances of love and the complex notion of choice, M interrupted my reverie by asking me to draw the curtains that were creating waves of sunlight in the living room. She was very particular about the ambience during screenings. I sat down next to her and we let the film play, pausing only for (very desperate) restroom breaks in between.
It was evening by the time we finished the film and like the blue sheen predominating the colour scheme, we found ourselves feeling a little blue as well, immersed in its melancholic musefulness as the sky outside turned from golden to purple, gleaming with faint stars. Close-up was never just a film for me. Lying back on my bed that night, I found it difficult to critically engage with the many layers of humanity that the film encapsulated, and while the question of how much of the film was documented reality or re-enactment, the words only remained at the tip of my tongue while the answer came to me softly and firmly just before I fell asleep: it’s objective truth mattered little. Close-up, as a text, also opened up the the humane side of questions about truth, morality, justice and forgiveness. It also made one realize that between reality and artifice, the line that differentiates them can be very thin (by artifice here, I mean the artifice of its cinematic creation, the fact that the presence of the or any object of possible surveillance, radically alters its behaviour and truth, something along the lines of Foucault’s Panopticon).
In the next few months and over conversations and more screenings, the frequency of uncomfortable nights that often led to personal awakenings at the crack of dawn only increased. I grew closer to cinema (and cinema studies) than I’d imagined myself to. The film appreciation (FA) course at FTII was a result of such an engagement and the many conversations about films and filmmaking I began having with people. Most people I spoke to at the time recommended this to me as a crash course in world cinema. I dug deep into my personal trove of cinema memories in my desperate attempt to tell the selectors why films meant something so personal to me in my statement of purpose. As cringe-worthy as that SOP was, the selection e-mail which came a few days later had me very, very elated amidst the piles of reading material for my thesis. As film practitioner Ms. Aruna Raje put it at the FA convocation (the presence of an object of surveillance): one’s love affair with cinema often begins with FA and FTII.
My trip to Pune was a very rushed one, because it was immediately after I completed and submitted my thesis. I didn’t have enough time to actually process my journey there, what to expect, how to take it: it all just happened overnight. From a quiet, secluded coastal town, I was thrown into a whirlpool of urban spaces, a different culture and a campus that completely bewildered me upon my arrival. I literally walked into a college that was guarded by men from the armed forces before getting lost and finding my way to the hostel at the farthest end of the campus, where I was living with someone (S) who I only knew by the way of an introduction by someone else. The room was the size of a matchbox, where I was to sleep on a matress on the floor while a dog waited to be let inside. I shook my head in disbelief, this place was stranger and far less clean (and polished) than I was used to. Men and women cohabited the same hostel blocks, everyone seemed aloof and indifferent and it took me the longest time to navigate my way around the campus. Dogs slept with the students, there was animal waste everywhere and clean bathrooms were rare. I dumped my luggage in the room and walked to the classroom, where I’d meet all the professors and my new classmates, still processing the oddities of this place.
The sun burnt my back as I walked into CRT (class-room theatre), supposedly an iconic space on campus. There were over 80 people in one class (a stark contrast from MCPH, where at a time there would be a maximum of 20-25), spread over a variety of disciplines, age groups, professions and types. From a post-master general, to social activists, journalists, photographers, musicians, academicians, artists and filmmakers, the FA course seemed to invite people from all walks of life (including novices) who in some way or the other already were or wanted to be associated with Cinema.
The first film we watched during FA was Where is the Friend’s Home, again by Mr. Kiarostami, followed by the never-ending dance-drama Kalpana by Uday Shankar. While I sat critiquing the way the schedule and screenings were curated, I couldn’t help but quietly walk out of the theatre, with some very strong visual memories of the Kiarostami film.
That night, as I stared at the ceiling dangling by giant cobwebs, I saw my reflection in the glass aquarium tank under my friend’s bed and wept with all the gratefulness and fear that I could fathom. Here I was, in a space so alien and aloof, just as bizarre in its outlook, and suddenly amidst all its strangeness, I found my own sense homecoming and peace. I sought myself in a corner, overcome by the same surge of emotions that filled me the night I watched Close-up. This sense of familiarity with Kiarostami on the first day of FA grounded me with some sense of belonging and intimacy with the space (and strangely, even myself). Its poetic finesse and humility helped me feel at ease with my surroundings, anchoring me through this kaleidoscope. Where is the Friend’s Home had moved me so deeply with its simplicity and beauty, that it remains one of my favourite films to this day.
I was a little overwhelmed with everything I saw on that campus in the first week. The myriad variety of students who seemed to be lost in a different time zone, in contrast the bubbling and overenthusiastic FA group: it all felt surreal, and it’s hard to describe why. I felt out of place even amongst my classmates, who were as new to all of this as I. I did come to some reasoning as to why that space made me feel a surge of so many things: personally, aesthetically, artistically but I’ll come to that toward the end.
FA was four weeks of crazy exposure to film-viewing. Never before have I watched so many films back-to-back (that too on such a big screen) and at some point it felt like our senses and sensibilities were being overexposed to texts, classes and ideas. One after the other we were being introduced to lecturers, ideologies, histories, classroom spaces, studios, and movies along with the campus that seemed to be blooming with graffiti and art and strike slogans, it was like a curry with too many flavors. I was unusually quiet in my first few days there till I met J, an intellectual cum techie with a flair for literature and cinema like nobody I’ve known. J would often accompany me to classes, introduce me to some filmmakers he knew because he worked with them and then show me his brilliant collection of books and essays. We didn’t talk much initially, but he remains a friend who accompanied me for my chai sessions before screenings and sends me books with hopeful notes from Punjabi poets from faraway worlds that often talk of home and longing.
The FA schedule was packed. We’d barely steal extra time between ten-minute breaks to grab an extra cup of excessively watered-down chai, a plate of tasteless poha or a vada pav that was so spicy that you’d have a running nose throughout the following class. Classes ranged from the History of world cinema (beginning even before the Lumiere brothers) to histories of different regional cinemas, courses that showed us how cinema often drew from and differentiated from other arts such as literature, theatre, music, painting etc., classes in music, montage, synaesthesia, genres, politics, realism and melodrama, animation, documentary, advertising, legal issues and so on. In the first few days itself, I understood that in the world of cinema, two words were holy: time and space.
Cinema as a medium differentiated itself from the others owing to these two aspects, it was a spatio-temporal medium, that resulted from a certain kind of technological innovation but wasn’t, however, subordinate to it. Techniques and technicalities of the medium were often extracted and pushed to its limits to enhance the potentialities of the film itself (through formalism). One of my favourite professors during the course, Mr. K Hariharan, whose class was nothing short of brilliant explained thus: a film relied on its making and dissemination on technical apparatus, and its material must adhere to the grammar of the medium (shots, continuity, sound, lighting, time and space). Thus cinema and filmmaking have to often stick to a larger set of formal rules which sometimes also allow for more creativity. There is also a very clear distinction between form and content in cinema: a film’s form was not just its medium, it was about the rhythms, use of time, space and other technicalities (such as a shot, the time between two shots, the arrangement of scenes, editing) etc. all these were features that attributed themselves to the larger Form of cinema. Content, however, was not the plot of the film, it was its larger thematic unity: it was what synthesized time and space. In some ways, a film was closest to music in its formal aspect. Classes such as these, which often opened up doors to understanding the study of films philosophically as a medium always caught my attention.
And with my peaking interests and the incessant questions I’d ask, I slowly made friends with some of the professors who often took some extra time after class to clarify some of these concepts to me and some other folks in my class who also shared a similar inkling to the academic approach. A lot of these professors would recommend readings materials to us and we’d often find ourselves, bunking a lecture (after sitting in it for the first twenty minutes) to scurry across to the library which felt like a storehouse of history. Me and J, often found ourselves sneezing through the dusty books in the library, only to laugh with glee as we picked leafed through some beautiful copies of books on paintings, photography, poetry and history. Every rack felt like a million stories pouncing on us as we wondered how some of the greatest stalwarts of Indian cinema must have used the same library and studied from the same books we were looking at. The National Films Archive of India was an archive of cinema reels from various places and across time. And we were often taken through these spaces like children left in a museum, longing for some physical reconnection with their past.
I realized that this was probably what made FTII such a sensory experience for me: its space had a very tangible connection to a past and history: one that I barely knew anything about but that made itself present through its narrative specters time and again. The library, the wisdom tree, the age-old classrooms, the main theatre, the old cafes that we’d often frequent with some of these students reeked of a certain longing and disconnect: that there existed a legacy which remained lost to this generation, and that everyone was struggling to catch up both with this weighty past and the fleeting present. The disconnect with a certain mainstream world, however, was very evident at the campus. FTII was a warp, a golden, honey-suckling warp that felt like a cinematic space itself, where all these characters (including myself) were all negotiating their own identities with a world from which they’d grown distant. We would have late night drinking sessions and long conversations that just made my whole FTII experience a film of bizarre eccentricities, where everyone was looking for some kind of grounding of their own. I believe it is this void and the quest for what one stands for which makes people turn to art and aesthetics. Just the exposure to such a visual and sensory culture rekindled my desire for poetry and photography, I packed every little scene, each moment, every conversation and scenes from some of my favourite films into little frames that I revisit time and again. All the sights and memories I witnessed there later in solitude, found their ways in my perspective and writing.
The girl I was living with, S, is now a close friend. At one point, when FTII went on their student strikes, S sort of led the movement because she was the president of the student council at the time. Through so many of our conversations after we switched off the lights in our room, and were done staring at the cobwebs, she would randomly point to different things in her room and tell me the stories behind them. So many were mementos from different shoots, some were bought for exclusive shots (like the glass bangles that women from a certain social class in Maharshtra wore to depict the clinking sound echoing from a character’s hands as she kneaded dough) and some others were makeshift arrangements for the room that became permanent: a chest of drawers in the middle of nowhere, a mixer grinder that emerged so we could make Thai curry, drawers used as bookshelves and a hoard of utensils which you’d never imagine could possibly fit in such a tiny space. S and I would chat over our morning cup of tea, which we made in the tiny balcony (more like an opening) of her room while discussing the problems and necessities of student politics, losing loves and mental health.
“We became the people we were fighting. At one point, it was one kind of brutality against another,” she recounted one night. This line is etched to memory like none other. It was the most honest assessment of a political action against personal will and morality. The dilemma still continues to shape many lives there, I believe. The space, just like the many people who underwent such an experience has come to be fragmented, but somehow the warp has made all of them come together in ways I haven’t seen so many other places do: the FTII hostels felt more like a place where reality and cinema were constantly overlapping with each other, the dilemmas and artistic renditions of the questions they were negotiating often made themselves visible in the films they made, the artwork they created, and in the perspectives that their photographs often took.
In that one month, the initial fears and insecurities gradually gave way to an acute sense of longing and belonging. Perhaps, it was the fact that I found people who also understood the inexplicable finesse of a Rondo or shared the same inclination toward Kiarostami or Jim Jarmusch or Mani Kaul? I don’t know. On so many Sundays, I often found myself and J, sometimes accompanied by S and SS, at a certain tea shop, where we’d read out Mohan Rakesh’s short stories in Hindi, followed by a night of some folk songs and poetry before finding ourselves sitting on the “rebel” benches and listening to the students playing music at wee hours of the night while Raasta (the huge black cat) walked past you like you were the scum of the earth. More than making friends with the FA group, who were still absorbing the campus like it was a frame and filter for social media status updates, I gravitated more and more toward the students who were studying there and the professors, conversations with whom gave me greater sense of film appreciation than being confined to just the classroom space. I often recount the conversations I had with strangers at FTII and the narratives I have built around that space and its people during my morning cups of tea in a completely different time and space now. I went there confused and afraid and found myself believing in art and love more than ever as I came out. I was literally in a museum of cinema, life and politics and everywhere around me were vestiges of an art form and the process of creation was constantly taking place (filmmakers like Nandita Das and artists like Swastika Mukherjee, Varun Grover and Nawazuddin Siddiqui were around and about, shooting their films, taking workshops for students) and something about the whole experience as I mentioned already, felt very cinematic on its own. Sort of Godard-ian in a sense?
Now that it’s been awhile, I long for the dogs that I would randomly find loitering across hallways at the hostel, the common washrooms whose cold water made bathing a pain in the mornings, the staircase by which I’d often admire the arch framed trees that rustled like music in the night breeze and the strangest jugaad (makeshift arrangement) i had to come up with, such as making tea in a wok are all latched in my head more than just memories, I process them as short films sometimes and bask in their comic appeal and earnestness. The nature of these evanescent relationships and time, just like so many films I watched there, are like aromas that very firmly entrench moments in their essence. I often dream at night that I submerged myself in these smells to find the perfumes of these stills lingering on my fingertips when I awaken.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Diti Pujara is an alumnus of MCPH, and currently works in Reuters, Bengaluru.