Interview: Sourav Sarangi, Director, “Char… The No Man’s Island”

As Sourav Sarangi’s Char…The No Man’s Island heads to the most experimental section ‘Berlinale Forum’ of the Berlin International Film Festival (Feb 7-17), DearCinema talks to the director about his journey of making the documentary.

What was the starting point for the film?

It started around 2002-2003 when I witnessed a whole village close to the India-Bangladesh border disappearing into the river Ganga due to erosion. The houses, the trees, the roads, the structures; everything that the people created over the years was going down. That image itself struck me immensely; I saw that overnight hundreds and thousands of people became homeless. I was making a journalistic film with my friend about river erosion. We made the film but this question haunted me – where do all these people go? And where does the huge expanse of land go? The question remained within me and I kept visiting the place, meeting the same people who lost their homes. They accepted me as a friend from a city.

I realized the river had its own plan, it had created a floating island within the course called Char (Char, a generic term in Bengali for islands formed within the river). So this was a specific Char that falls between India and Bangladesh and where all people who lost homes, whom I knew by now, came and settled.

But I saw a kind of conflict. You need conflict to make a film. The river was made the border when India was partitioned in 1947. Now, the border is fixed but the river keeps moving here, so I saw a great dichotomy. And I saw the conflict between modern technology and the traditional views about the river. To control the water of river Ganga, the Government of India built a huge barrage like a dam…so that completely changed the whole landscape. That affected the flow of the river and that changed the people’s life. I saw the conflict between human existence and the harshness of nature, the strength of the nature that can destroy and that can create.

So these were the different aspects that gathered in my mind and when I met this little boy named Rubel I was truly fascinated. He was a very charming and bright boy who was forced to smuggle rice from India to Bangladesh. His ambition was to come to India and study in a school, which he could not. Here again I saw a conflict. These were the motivating forces. It took time for me to conceive the film in this manner.

Once the idea was in place, how did you begin the process?

First of all I had the images of the river erosion, of the whole place going down to the river, shot on a news camera. This was archival footage, the past. Then visiting Char was difficult because you are not normally allowed to go to Char, that is the no man’s land. It is controlled by the Border Security Force on the Indian side and the Bangladesh Rifles on the Bangladeshi side. So I had to cross the water and access Char. And what I saw there was amazing. The life there, the landscape, the characters I met absolutely gripped me. So I thought I had to make this film. With my little resources, I started making clips and taking shots and then I pitched the film’s concept to international producers and international funding agencies.

I got funds from Calcutta and from Locarno International Film Festival. I also found support in Japan. I collaborated with Italian producer Stefano Tealdi, Danish producer Signe Byrge Sørensen and Norwegian producer Jon Jerstad. Hence the film became an international co-production. I got technical, financial and creative support from all over the world. In fact this has become a good module for international co-production. I traveled to Japan for post-production and enjoyed the state-of-the-art technology there.

Besides these, I won a number of competitive funds. They saw our concept and the footage and supported the project.  This was in 2009. The idea was to shoot for one year, one full cycle, summer to summer. I needed rain. But 2009 brought drought in eastern India. So I had to postpone because without the rain this film would not be complete. I needed the river at its full strength. We shot for two years, then we went for editing, that took another year. So it took about three years to complete.

Tell us about the protagonist in the film.

In my opinion the protagonist of the film is river Ganga. It’s the Ganga that decides what will happen to the place, the landscape, and the people. The river Ganga appears differently over the seasons. It’s very much a life in itself. I see the relationship between people and nature through this river. Other human character is Rubel, a fourteen year old kid. He had lost his home when he was four years old. He has parents, a sister who has polio and a little brother. They migrated and settled in Char. I saw that he is in a very tender age; an adolescent age that is between maturity and boyhood. This was a kind of fertile time for me to get a character who is changing himself like the river. When you talk about erosion, it’s not just the erosion of the river. Human values too erode sometimes. I had a very good bond with the boy, he trusted me. He could open up to me.

I had another minor character named Sofi, a ten year old innocent  kid. But unfortunately his father died while smuggling on the charborder. So he became the earning member of the family. When I met Rubel for the first time he was like Sofi. When I started shooting, Rubel had matured. I wanted to show the innocence of Rubel that I saw when I met him first. I found that in Sofi, so I took him as a supporting character in my film.

This is not a portrait film, it tells the story of a community. How this community lived through in this strange and changing landscape over the ages.

How did you ensure that funds kept flowing throughout the process of making this documentary?
It’s a challenge that you have to take. Unfortunately, in India non-fiction, documentary, even alternative films hardly get any support. So I knew I will need money to make this film. This is not a small budget film, you go out somewhere, you have to stay there and all that needs money. From the beginning I started contacting and collaborating with the international producers and funds who support films.

First I got support from George Foundation from Switzerland then from IDFA fund from Netherlands, and then from Norway, from Denmark, then Asian Cinema funds. I went to Busan and made a presentation, they were convinced and gave me some money. So it went on like that, it’s a continuous process. It’s not a very pleasant process but when you make a film, you also need to think about raising the money. There is no other option: I have to act as a producer and as a director and find support from wherever possible. If I stop, the whole process stops. It’s a mental process also, it’s a journey for the film maker. So if you stop for money, you get depressed and the work gets affected. Somehow, we stuck with this and we got support from the international film community and the whole process kept floating.

Tell us about your experience of making the film.

I don’t make many films. I take 3-4 years to make a film. In fact, the film is my experience during the time it is being made, it is me. The films help me to change myself, to explore human emotions. When you make a fiction film, you generate the emotions and write the script. But in documentaries you actually experience, share the emotions with real human beings. That taught me to laugh even in tough situations. You see they are poor people; they are not living in an ideal situation. They almost have no nationality, they are cut off from the mainstream society. I could look back at my society, at myself by being in that state of isolation. You realize what are the social issues, the political issues, the environmental issues that affect our lives. This is a very enriching experience where your film teaches you. The concept tells you to explore more and go deeper into the human minds and that is important. The society becomes your library where you read people’s mind and you don’t need any books. Its a hard life in Char and experiencing that hardship teaches a lot.

What do you think of distribution of documentaries in India? You think initiatives like PVR Director’s Rare can help?

I was delighted to hear about PVR’s initiative of screening selective documentaries for the audiences but the way they are slotting it is not right. For example: My film Bilal is right now screening in 12 cities of Japan. It ran in Tokyo for two months. It started in October and by the response it ran for six months in Japan. An Indian film running so long there is amazing. They had a strategy, they made publicity, they had good scheme and they are not doing it only for my film but for other films too. There has to be conviction. I believe PVR doesn’t have the conviction. They have taken up a venture that is half-hearted. Documentaries cannot be screened in 400-500 seaters, they have to be screened in 50-100 seaters.

We have an audience for these films all over the country. People are bored with the daily soaps, the trashy bollywood films. There is a niche audience. Our distribution and exhibition theatre owners need to identify this niche audience and make the connection in a proper manner and not in an amateurish way. I think distributing documentaries in India is difficult because the main broadcasters, including Doordarshan, are not interested.

Self distribution can be an alternative through internet. Internet users are more likely to see documentaries. Social media networks can be helpful. We live amid modern technology with multiple choices. I suppose the distribution of our works should comply to those choices.
What are the practical difficulties of being an independent filmmaker in India?

I can’t talk about commercial films but in the alternative area, it is extremely difficult in India. The NFDC itself does not support documentaries. The Films Division is restricted to its own production. They do it themselves and sometimes dole out films to outside filmmakers. PSBT has made a number of productions, but if you look at the quality and compare them with those made around the world, its not up to the mark. You need to promote the independent filmmakers and that’s how one can make good cinema. The filmmaker needs to have that conviction, dedication and identification with the project or the subject.

Individual film makers have to struggle a lot. Meanwhile, with the technology, the filmmaking process has become cheaper and more accessible. Internationally, some avenues have opened up. International festivals and funds support Asian films.

The NFDC has set up the Film Bazaar which should be used as a venue for interaction between filmmakers, producers, distributors, etc. where these professionals can come together and understand what the film is about. It is also important to talk about new films and not just publicize finished films.
6 February 2013
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