A leading light of the alternative Indian cinema that draws inspiration from the films of Ritwik Ghatak, Geneva-based Anup Singh has built a slow and steady but distinctive directorial career. With two critically acclaimed feature films – Ekti Nodir Naam (The Name of a River, Bengali) and Qissa – The Tale of a Lonely Ghost (Punjabi) – behind him, he has now completed his third, The Song of Scorpions (Rajasthani, Sindhi), starring Irrfan Khan, Golshifteh Farahani and Waheeda Rehman. The film premiered at the Locarno Film Festival and earned glowing critical notices, confirming his status as a director with a unique vision of life and art. Here, Anup Singh shares with film critic Saibal Chatterjee his views on the universe of his cinema, on dealing with a world in turmoil, and on the thrust of his new film, slated for release in India in 2018.
You are a filmmaker who, by your own admission, is at home in the world despite having been uprooted from the land of your birth. The cinema of Ritwik Ghatak, on the other hand, is steeped in the pain of deracination. Would you agree that, at least in this respect, you are a bit different from your 'cinematic guru'?
AS: No, I disagree. I don't see Ghataks's cinema like that at all. In our time, we take it for granted that cinema as such is only possible as long as it serves the narrative. But Ghatak's cinema, deliberately and ceaselessly breaks through the boundaries of the narrative. We can say Ghatak's narratives are of loss, of the closing of spaces & identities, of the fraudulence of the self and the state, but they are also of the courage to resist, protest & challenge everything & everyone that limits the human spirit's independence. His narratives are scintillating in their ability to condemn human virulence while, simultaneously, affirming compassion.
And his cinema is even more than that. His wide-angle expansion of spaces, his ability to sculpt vulnerability in even the most heinous of faces, his ferocious rhythms that, paradoxically, bring things and people and spaces and histories together in luminous dignity - all this is beyond the demands of the narrative. Here is a cinema constantly in process - when it ends in the cinema-theatre it continues within us! And it will continue within us all our life. Why? Because it never accepts any one of the multiple 'truths' it presents as the 'truth'. By bringing everything & everyone in dialogue with each other, he allows for the possibility of growth & change.
That is what has been the gift of all my teachers to me. They've all shown me in their practice and in their life that we are all vulnerable to change, we are all possibilities. That's what I learn from Ritwik Ghatak. His cinema always escapes all attempts to limit it in any way.
How easy or difficult is it for Indian filmmakers like you who refuse to follow the crowd to get their stories funded in an era when commercial viability is a constant requirement? What are the specific strategies that you need to devise to keep making the kind of cinema you believe in?
AS: "Commercial viability", "strategy" - I've never thought of cinema in those terms. I try and be as honest as possible to one question in all my work: how can I live without being ashamed of myself in our world today?
In one way or another, this question is aflame in all of us. When I meet a producer that's the question I bring to the fore in the very beginning. And all the producers I've worked with as yet have whole-heartedly joined me in my experiments to answer this question. That is the question that drives us and we try and be worthy of this quest in each other. This might not sound humble at all, but it's what my producers and I believe in: as much as commercial viability, we seek in our work to be viable to the fullness of life.
You set Ekti Nadir Naam in Bengal, Qissa in Punjab and The Song of Scorpions in Rajasthan. Is the wide cultural and social palette that you've worked with a conscious choice? Is being a man of journeys one of the reasons why you do not instinctively confine yourself to any particular geographical space?
AS: I am very uneasy with the way we've chosen to recognise ourselves as human beings - citizens of one country, members of one community, defined by narrow notions of gender. We seem now not only to reject but to actively resent being thought as belonging to the human race. That saddens me profoundly as, to me, it seems the primal cause of the dying of our planet. In my cinema, my attempt is to celebrate all that we are. If not in the world, at least in the world of our imagination we can acknowledge, honour, learn from each other and, together, live life creatively and in peace.