Q&A: Spandan Banerjee on Award-Winning “To-Let”

In Spandan Banerjee’s 2012 documentary “To-Let,” a bachelor, a couple, a music band, and the filmmaker forge a sense of home despite the constant shifting and resettling of urban life. “Big cities are now primarily cities of migrants coming from corners,” states the website of the film’s producer, Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT), describing “To-Let” as “A film on the artist’s eternal search for a house of one’s own in a city prejudiced towards the propertied.”
This June, “To-Let” won the Best Long Documentary award at the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala (IDSFFK). It had previously screened at the New York Indian Film Festival (NYIFF) in May.

Home, migration and identity are recurring themes in the Kolkata-raised, Delhi-based filmmaker’s works. In 2008’s “You Don’t Belong“ – winner of a Special Jury mention at the National Film Awards – Banerjee tracked a popular Bengali ditty about the homeland that is sung in a range of styles in India and abroad. His 2011 documentary “Beware Dogs,” screened widely at film festivals in North America, Europe, and India, takes its title from the sign outside its setting: the old Delhi bungalow that for long served as the band Indian Ocean’s rehearsal space.
Indian Ocean’s Rahul Ram and Amit Kilam (also glimpsed in the trailer below) have composed the music for “To-Let.” It will be screened on August 2 at Goethe Institut, Delhi, and on Aug 24 and 25 at the Asha SF Film Festival of Hope in San Francisco.
A graduate of Kolkata’s St Xavier’s College and Birla Academy of Art and Culture, Banerjee drew cartoons for The Statesman, and worked in advertizing, before launching independent film production company Overdose Films in Delhi in 2003. The talented filmmaker spoke with BLOUIN ARTINFO about “To-Let,” how stories can’t be displaced and creating a home for Delhi filmmakers with Goethe Institut, in the upcoming initiative titled Overdose Local.
Your companions in “To-Let,” a documentary about moving, are six cats – a species fabled for their loyalty to a house rather than to the owner.
Cats are a part of the lives of a couple who are caught in the middle of unsettlement. Cats, hence, are one of the characters of the film, they are used as a motif of settling, moving, and change. Cats also have a curious relationship with urban spaces.
Was it your move to Delhi that sparked your fascination with migration and identity? What insights have stuck with you in the films you’ve made on itinerant Indians and ideas?
The first and the foremost reason being, that I am an eternal tenant in Delhi, happy to move and constantly delighted to re-visualize my space. I have shifted umpteen houses in the city. And that in the course of any conversation between sets of people, one or the other person is moving house or looking for one, or shifting, or leaving. This constant state of change has always intrigued me as a fellow citizen.
It is what I would define as a non-fiction film. There are stories in our everyday lives and can be interpreted into film. My film is a glimpse into my characters’ lives, seen through my eyes. The city emerges as the other character, which responds uniquely to each.
Insight would be that Home is the film.
How was “To-Let” received at NYIFF?
NY is a very interesting city to have your film screened in. “To-Let” is about moving, renting, and living. It is about an urban experience in a city, which is not completely urban. So this dichotomy makes it a curious subject for an audience in a city like NY, in which people are moving and renting all the time. “To-Let” lends itself to so many questions because it is a film about something which happens all the time with us around us, but has been considered too mundane to be visualized.
Tell us about the screening at IDSFFK 2013.
Screening this film at IDSFFK was great because Trivandrum has this amazing audience for cinema. There is a brilliant culture of cinema and debates surrounding it that is inspiring for any filmmaker. With “To-Let” this time, there was a lot of discussion around the artistic form of cinema as “To-Let” plays around with everyday reality in a stylistic way.
As someone who cares about making films about Delhi, who do you keep in mind as your audience?
There is an audience for every kind of cinema. Delhi is a city full of contrasts and that is something that attracts me to it, the same way stories beyond the obvious expressed in cinema, can be from anywhere in the world and will always find an audience. Cinema always has an audience, there is a relationship of empathy between cinema and cinema lovers, which is beyond language or borders.
Also why just Delhi, stories are set where they simply have to be set. I am also working on a story, which is set in Calcutta, where I grew up. Stories live where they live, they can’t be displaced.
How viable is it to be an alternative filmmaker in India now?
One makes a kind of film because one has to. I couldn’t be doing anything else.
You look at small, ordinary things and find the cinema in them, it is about belief and absolute need to express without which one can’t exist. Making cinema your own way, it is compulsive! So, in a way, you have already stopped caring about viability. Then the question is to find a way to exist doing your kind of cinema. Overdose has been an alternative film production house for 10 years and we are fighting it.
What inspired Overdose Local?
It is difficult being a filmmaker based in Delhi, as there is really no cinema culture or space in Delhi. It is kind of a lonely enterprise for filmmakers who choose to live here, which has no film industry and also no support system. My idea for Overdose Local is to create a film collective. The idea is to have a platform for independent cinema where Delhi-based filmmakers who are starting out, will come together to collaborate and make films, and basically create an atmosphere conducive to filmmaking and film-viewing. Overdose Local will start off with an anthology of six films. The theme will be announced soon, and there will be call for films and subsequent curation and mentoring, leading to an anthology.
Why is it important for you that filmmakers engage with the Capital?
There are better ways than simply setting a film in Delhi. An engagement is not just that. To me the desirable space to be in would be when we live in a city or country, where there is space and audience for all kind of cinema.
I say this again, Delhi really needs a space for real engagement with films and filmmaking. It needs an exhibition space for independent films, it needs state initiatives. Because there is no film industry, Delhi is not a film-friendly city. It needs to have certain systemic changes. It is important to look at cinema as an art and an expression and hence a new vocabulary of making and viewing of cinema needs to be created and encouraged.
Is there a certain kind of filmmaking that you would like to see?
I am constantly playing with cinematic forms. Cinema is about new ideas, new perspectives, surprises. It is about negotiating disturbing realities in the language of the medium. It shouldn’t matter where it is located or made, what matters is whether it draws in its world and makes you a part of that space.
Tell us about your new fiction film set in Delhi, “City of Dark.”
It is an experimental film about meetings and absences. It is about the violence of loneliness and inability to express desire.
“To-Let” will be screened on August 2 at Goethe Institut, Delhi, and on August 24 and 25 at the Asha SF Film Festival of Hope in San Francisco. See here for updates on Overdose Local.
Saumya Ancheri
9 July 2013
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