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Designing realism with Gurvinder Singh

Gurvinder Singh on his latest feature, ‘Adh Chanani Raat’, which played recently at the Rotterdam Film Festival

Jatinder Mauhar in ‘Adh Chanani Raat’
Jatinder Mauhar in ‘Adh Chanani Raat’

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Gurvinder Singh started with two acclaimed films set in Punjab, Anhe Ghorey Da Daan (2011) and Chauthi Koot (2015). After a film set in Himachal Pradesh (Bitter Chestnut, 2019), Singh has returned to Punjab with Adh Chanani Raat, which premiered last month at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. It tells the story (adapted from the writing of Gurdial Singh, whose work was also the basis for Anhe Ghorey) of Modan (Jatinder Mauhar), who has come home after a prison term and finds it tough to move on. Like Singh’s other films, it’s spare, deliberately shot (by Satya Rai Nagpaul), with outbursts of tenderness and violence. Lounge speaks to the director about casting first-time actors, and his brand of realism. Edited excerpts:

Also read: Sound and fury

What drew you to Gurdial Singh’s writing again?

Gurdial Singh’s writings alternate between dark and light. If you see Anhe Ghorey Da Daan also, there’s an underpinning of helplessness. The characters are almost floating against that sense of darkness. With this also, I felt a kind of cyclic rhythm in the story. Things change but they never really change. The film is about the main protagonist, Modan. Maybe his personality was the main attraction for me—someone who has a sense of justice, upholding honour, somebody who can kill, yet who actually wants a simple home life, very intelligent. This kind of dichotomy I see in most people. I relate to that.

There are some bold shot decisions—like when you shoot a murder partly in long shot.

I was very clear: I didn’t want to see that close-up (though you see the actual killing from close). They come face to face in a vast open field, because the land is what the people are fighting over. Somehow the land is witness to the murder. It’s highly designed. The desire is not to be realistic.

Most people would think of your films as quite realistic.

But every shot is designed. It’s a kind of realism but not the kind that makes you forget about imagery and shot design. You are always conscious of the camera, where it’s placed or what it’s seeing. Like in this scene, you are completely aware that the camera is seeing from a distance, the tiny figures approaching each other.

Maybe it’s a new approach to realism. The setting, the stories are realistic, but the way they are directed is not. It’s not even the realism of Abbas Kiarostami, it’s not Italian neorealism. A German critic said Anhe Ghorey Da Daan was “modernist realist”, so maybe you can call it that...

You have often worked with non-actors or first-timers. What do you look for when casting?

I at least have confidence in how I am going to present them on the screen—how I will frame them, what angle I am going to shoot them from, what kind of lighting, editing pattern will be there. The difference between film and theatre acting is that on stage, the actor is the sole carrier of the drama. In films, the actor is one of the elements in the narrative.

Mainstream cinema treats actors the way they would in theatre. They want to make the actor the sole attraction on screen. But in our kinds of films we don’t want to make anybody larger than life.

When you work with a first-timer, you know it’s just a question of finding the right personality, the right face or voice, the person closest to the character you have imagined. I have cast villagers in my films—there’s already a sense of truthfulness in their being. They can only be what they are. Also, when you design shots where the camera is determined to see in a particular way, then you understand that the camera is the main protagonist above the people you see on screen.

There’s a sense of despondency in the Punjab of your films and other recent non-mainstream films set there.

I do sense a kind of forlornness among people, a lack of hope in a sense. That’s a very big theme, that everybody wants to go abroad. I am also seeing that people who couldn’t go abroad in their youth are sending their children, and then trying to go with them. So they are trying to fulfil their own aspirations through their children. A desire to abandon your own home and migrate—for me, this is one of the biggest signs of pessimism.

The farmers’ protest has brought a lot of focus back on farming, and a sense of pride in being a farmer. That is one big achievement of the protest for Punjab. Maybe this might have some effect in the long run, people will start seeing farming differently, not as backward and something their ancestors did.

‘Adh Chanani Raat’ could, treated differently, be a noir. Do you ever feel the pull of genre cinema?

No, I don’t. Maybe I can only do genre as a direction job, like if somebody came with a script and asked me to make a noir film. As a direction job, I feel I can make any kind of film. But I don’t feel the need myself to do it.

Also read: Film review: Chauthi Koot

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