Subtle images and strong messages

Pankaj Butalia talks about the nuances of documentary film making and the future prospects of the genre in India
A scene from Pankaj Butalia’s Manipur Song shows a mother asking her son to take refuge in drugs and become an addict. The film, the first of Butalia’s trilogy based in conflict zones in the country, picturesquely captures life in Manipur where people are caught in the predicament of rising militancy and the security forces. “It’s the reality there. I had to leave the audience with troubling thoughts,” says Pankaj. “We have this tendency of putting the violence inside us in the backyard. And we put it in Kashmir and in the Manipur militants. In my films, I confront you with this truth.”
The textures of loss and Assam blog, which is in the making, are the other films in the trilogy. “These three regions are linked with one theme – the conflict between nationalism and sub-nationalism. All these regions started with their demand for sovereignty from India,” says Pankaj, who was in the city for the 15th Madurai International documentary and short film festival that concluded last week.

About Assam Blog, Pankaj says he has focussed more on the widespread violence in the state. “It’s about the tribal conflicts in Assam and the gun culture. The film shows how the gun is used as a solution seeking tool.”
Pankaj who was an economics professor for nearly two decades before he took up documentary film making, is known for subtle depictions unlike the usual explicit and on-the-face visual language used in documentaries. All his films are people-centric and issue-based yet his language carries a subtle tone. “Every text cannot be explanatory. I leave it to the audience to conceive and perceive in their own way,” he says.
Talking of his filming formula, Pankaj says he likes to present various aspects of an issue. “I try to balance the emphasis and mood so that there’s consistency in the way the images move through,” he says. “If you make a film that reinforces a mental makeup then it becomes narrow. So, I contain a complex argument within the image and the way the film is shot. Then at some level, it disturbs everyone. That disturbance will prompt the person to know more.”
Pankaj says that he takes old materials available on the issue and interprets it for his films. “I add new meanings to existing chronicles. I don’t say I am the first one to make a film on the Kashmir issue,” he says. “I go through all the films on the subject done before and when I find a gap, I structure my film to fill that. For me, that’s another way of putting across the subject.”
Apart from hard-hitting issues, Pankaj has also shot offbeat documentaries. When Hamlet came to Mizoram talks about a cultural simulation in the North Eastern state. A million steps and Tracing the arc are two different stories about British Indian mapping, a very precise measurement of the landscape of India. “These are the first two films that I have done for a sponsor organization. I did them for Survey of India,” informs Pankaj. “A number of Indian surveyors appointed in the task died in the process. And we recreated this event that took place 200 years ago through animation, re-enacting and other multimedia.”
However, Moksh still stands to be the much-acclaimed creation of the filmmaker. “I wanted someone deeply religious to watch and accept it and also feel bad for the Vrindavan widows,” says Pankaj. “I have shown how patriarchy doesn’t accept a woman as an unguarded sexual being”
Some of his most overwhelming moments were during Moksh. “The stories of the widows were simply incredible,” recalls Pankaj. “I don’t remember breaking down anywhere except in Moksh. Then I looked for a camera man instead of shooting myself as I needed to stay away from the subject.”
“When you get emotional with the subject, then the end product isn’t great,” he says. “So in Moksh, I achieved an image that’s a bit outside and an experience that’s overwhelming. A film experience should also be varied. It should never be unmitigated monotony.”
Pankaj sees a promising future for documentaries in India. “Documentaries on popular themes are getting screened in mainstream theatres in the US and Europe. There’s a change happening slowly here also,” he hopes.
Pankaj is currently working on a small film on Urdu poet Nida Fazli. “Another film that I have been working upon for a long time now is about the mother-son bonding in India,” he says. “People want to see about themselves and their own lives. There’s a need to make films on issues in our immediate surroundings. The success of a film is when you make the audience a participant in the subject instead of just an observer.”
A. Shrikumar
The Hindu
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