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Dreaming Delhi, documenting Delhi

Trisha Gupta | Updated on January 12, 2018 Published on January 13, 2017
Contemplative: A still from Adda Diaries.

Contemplative: A still from Adda Diaries.   -  SACAC

Trisha Gupta

Trisha Gupta

A set of striking student films demonstrate that ten sharply-focused minutes can open our eyes to worlds through which we sleepwalk every day

A child sits in a sandpit, scooping up sand with a small sieve. Some sand escapes each time, but a little gets to its destination — the pot is now almost full. Someone asks what he’s doing, and the little boy’s answer comes unhesitatingly: making tea. “And what have you put in it?” “ Sooji!” (semolina) comes the reply.

The scene — from Window’s Hole, one of five 10-minute films made by students of the Creative Documentary course at New Delhi’s Sri Aurobindo Institute of Arts and Communication (SACAC) — can be watched as a gently comic take on how children’s minds work. But it is also wonderfully cinematic.

The unasked question of why the sand is tea is answered by the presence of the chhalni. (If there is a strainer, it must be tea.) And the other unasked question — why semolina in chai? — is answered by the camera coming to rest on the granular texture of the sand. Of course, sand is sooji!

The five films screened at SACAC on Dec 19 comprise of what the 18-month documentary filmmaking course calls the students’ ‘Location Project’. Students divide into pairs, exploring a space of their choosing on film. Aviva Dharmaraj and Gagan Singh, who made Window’s Hole, chose to film within SACAC’s own campus. The sights and sounds of the Auro Navakriti playschool become a way of capturing the world as a child might experience it. Some of this is about scale: I loved the last shot in which a serious-eyed little boy carefully places his toy car next to the rabbit hatch — did he imagine it as a getaway vehicle for the rabbits, should they choose to stage a glorious escape?

The others go further afield, but being student films made on presumably non-existent budgets, they don’t stray far. Anuradha Bansal and Aparna Bansal’s is perhaps the most predictable in its choice of terrain — the Indian Coffee House. Hovering above the hubbub of Connaught Place, the somewhat fusty old cafe on the terrace of Mohan Singh Place is where generations of Delhi’s men (rarely women) have measured out their lives in coffee spoons. The filmmakers seem, however, a little awestruck by the history of the institution — for instance, its closure (in its previous location) by Indira Gandhi’s government under Emergency occupies official centrestage in the film, but there is little cinematic content to back up the claim that it affected people deeply. Perhaps we are simply too distant from the events in question to summon up the memories. Even a Coffee House regular’s mention of our current Prime Minister and his undemocratic tendencies does not produce the emotional bridge the film strives for.

Akanksha Gupta and Vasuki Chandak, meanwhile, focus their attentions on an unobtrusive little gate that divides two Delhi localities: the upper middle-class Navjivan Vihar and the less posh STC colony. The filmmakers display a wonderful eye for form, and the power of repetition: the grids of windows in walls, mostly closed, like the blank faces of people gazing out from their balconies. Mapping both the colony’s old-school manual policing — the watchman and his jail-like routine of closing and opening the gate seven-odd times a day — and the new excitement created by a CCTV camera, Looking Through the Fence captures the absurd degree of suspicion that reigns among Delhi’s more monied. But the filmmakers also demonstrate the joyful abandon with which such direness can be circumvented. Two children regularly pass through the bolted so-called chor-darwaza (thief’s door), not looking at all thief-like about it.

The policing of boundaries between spaces is also the subject of my favourite film of the five. The pithy but somehow also poetic Home Ground, by Arunima Tenzin Tara and Sushil, excavates a particular history of Delhi’s present with rare subtlety and precision. Shot in an Idgah-cum-playground that lies between the upper middle-class Saket and the older urban village Hauz Rani, the film draws attention to walls, and how they create the spaces they are meant to demarcate. The walls needed to mark graves (for the ‘empty’ space to be recognized as a kabristan (graveyard) by the powers-that-be) are juxtaposed with the walls that have carved ostensibly more useful space — a sports complex, a multiplex cinema, a superspeciality hospital, a school — out of what was once a forest rich in birdsong. Of course, none of the users of these new spaces intersect with the users of the erstwhile jungle.

The disappearance of Hauz Rani’s mango trees forms a delicate link with the final film here, Waiting for the Flood, which begins with a line from a poem by WS Merwin: “When the forests have been destroyed their darkness remains.” Abhinava Bhattacharya and Mallika Visvanathan have crafted a well-researched piece of work that is also stunning in its imagery. From the watery depths of Qutb Sahib ki Baoli, where Farooq, Zakir and Mushtaq sit waiting for the fish, to the monkey that sits beside a pile of malba (rubble), the film’s visuals contain an appeal to find beauty amid ugliness. The pink bougainvillea flowers reflected in the now sewage-filled nallah, the sunlight glinting off oil-swirled water, and a single red dragonfly examining its options — all allow dreams to bubble up from the city’s darkness. These young filmmakers may still be finding their feet, but their heads are in the clouds for a reason. This is documentary striving to dream other dreams.

Trisha Gupta is a writer and critic based in Delhi; @chhotahazri

Published on January 13, 2017
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