“Writing and cinema are completely different”: An interview with Gurvinder Singh

Elections 2024
11 August, 2016

Gurvinder Singh, who trained at the Film and Television Institute of India, is best known for his two feature films. Anhe Ghore Da Daan (Alms for the Blind Horse, 2011) and Chauthi Koot (The Fourth Direction, 2015). Anhe Ghore Da Daan premiered at the Venice International Film Festival and won the special jury award at Abu Dhabi. It also received the National Awards for best direction, cinematography, and best Punjabi film. Singh’s second film has won awards at festivals in Belgrade, Singapore and Mumbai, as well as the National Award for best Punjabi film. A powerfully atmospheric portrait of Punjab in 1984, Chauthi Koot is an adaptation of the short stories ‘Chauthi Koot’ and ‘Main Hun Thik Thak Haan’ by Punjabi writer Waryam Singh Sandhu from his short story collection Chauthi Koot. The film released in cinemas across India last Friday, with English subtitles.

On 5 August 2016, the writer and critic Trisha Gupta met Singh at his parents’ home in Noida. During the conversation, they discussed his interest in Punjab, adapting literature into film, and learning from the late avant garde filmmaker Mani Kaul, the face of parallel cinema in India.

Trisha Gupta: Did you always want to make films set in Punjab? Is that where you grew up?

Gurvinder Singh: When I went to FTII, Punjab was nowhere in the picture for me, though I knew the [spoken] language well. The Punjab I had heard about was the Punjab of Partition. My [paternal] grandfather used to be the manager of a rice mill near Rawalpindi, but he had moved his family to Amritsar. They happened to live in a largely Muslim neighbourhood, and when the riots broke out in 1947, my grandmother escaped with my father—he was two, and took shelter in the Golden Temple. My grandfather returned from Rawalpindi and found the house burnt. Finally he went to the Golden Temple and found his family. There was nothing left, so they kept moving. His brother was in Shimla, so they went there. Then Gwalior, Ganganagar, Assam—wherever, for a job. For five years or so after Partition, they were very unsettled. Finally they came to Delhi and managed to set up a business here.

My maternal grandmother was from Kasur, she used to go to Bulla Shah’s mazaar every day. And my maternal grandfather was from Patti. Kasur and Patti are like Lahore and Amritsar, across the border. Luckily he got a job in Delhi before the Partition, and moved here.

I was born in Rajouri Garden, a gadh of migrant Punjabis. Everybody’s stories were of pre-Partition Punjab. They never lived in East Punjab. We never visited Punjab. I could not even read Punjabi. My reading until FTII had been in English, and literature translated into English from other languages. But then I thought ki “film banana haitoh Hindi mein banana hai—If I have to make a film, it has to be in Hindi,” and I should read in Hindi. I started with [the writer] Mohan Rakesh, then a lot of [Saadat Hasan] Manto, Krishna Baldev Vaid, Vinod Kumar Shukla, Agyeya, [Gajanan Madhav] Muktibodh.

Then in the library I came across the name Gurdial Singh, and [his book] Anhey Ghore Da Daan. Punjabi toh mujhe aati nahi thhi [laughs]—I didn’t know Punjabi. I read five-six books of his in Hindi. Gurdial Singh is the most translated Punjabi writer. Suddenly, I thought, this nobody has touched. I have not seen this side of Punjab at all. This kind of character, this kind of issue, this kind of rural Punjab. His descriptions were very Chekhovian: the atmosphere, the mood, the landscape—with great feeling. Anhe Ghore stayed at the back of my mind. I thought if there is one book I want to make a film of, it is this... and I’d never been to Punjab!

TG: Do you think the book's “punjabiness” was what struck a chord?

GS: Of course, there was that desire to connect with Punjab—where your roots are, but you’ve never lived. When I met Gurdial Singh, he told me he was teaching in a college in Bhatinda in the [19]70s.

And he basically wrote about what he was observing at that time: the thermal power plant was being built, the railway lines, the canals—they had just come up. It was the end of the Nehruvian era of infrastructure.

My other connection to Punjab was music.


TG: Are you a musician as well?

GS: No, no. But music took me to Punjab. As a child I had heard artistes like Asha Singh Mastana, Surinder Kaur (she even sang in Bollywood) who sang jugni, jindwa, and heer. The texts are folk, but they were popular radio artistes. They used newer instruments like the harmonium. Somebody had brought some cassettes from Pakistan, of qissa. And I found a book by Alka Pande on Punjabi folk instruments. So I applied to the India Foundation for the Arts, for a two-year grant to travel with qissa singers, and document their work.

I followed these dhadis [singers]. When my money ran out, I asked the IFA, and they gave me some more money, so I actually travelled for over four or five years. I was living in Delhi. I was shooting myself. I would just pick up a sound recordist and take my car and go. Sometimes we would go to a mela, or a dargah, or a wedding—they would start at sunset and then go on till sunrise. They take breaks in between, they have tea, they drink also.

Sufi dhadis are Muslim, and they either tell tales of the Sufi saints, or things like Heer, which are part of the Sufi tradition. Sikh dhadis were also [originally] Muslim, but they converted and now sing about the Sikh warriors.

All the people I was connecting with were from the lower castes. All the qissa walas were Balmikis, Mazhabis. Listeners were mostly peasantry, mostly Sikhs. You know, after the Partition, all the dargahs of Punjab have been managed and kept alive by Hindus and Sikhs.

TG: Were you able to make the documentary?

GS: The material was so much that I really didn't know how to compile it. (Laughs) So I decided to focus on one person I was really fond of, with whom I’d spent the most time. His name was Pala, so that’s what I called the film.

This is how I discovered Punjab. Suddenly the characters from Anhe Ghore Da Daan started coming alive for me: their anxiety, their relation to caste status.

TG: Caste is the thing that jumps out at you while watching the film. We're supposed to think of Punjab as casteless.

GS: Yes, I was also brought face-to-face with caste: the distinction was so strong. The fact that the lower castes have their houses on the periphery of the village and live in dirty conditions, whereas the upper castes live in big mansions... And then the gurdwaras, which one thought were these casteless places— but most villages, had two. The lower castes were technically not prevented from coming into the upper-caste gurdwara, but they were second-hand worshippers there. They had no power there. So, they would make a gurdwara of their own.

I read the novel [Anhey Ghore Da Daan] in 1999. And in 2009, I wrote the script. I explored other options in between, but in the end I knew it was this. Although I knew it would be very difficult to find a commercial financier for it: this subject, and that too in Punjabi.

TG: What was the reaction to the film in Punjab?

GS: I got very diverse reactions: one person saying “I had heard so much about it, but I didn't understand anything; what are you trying to say.” And another person saying, “It is so beautiful, I have seen it five times.” I think the young have been more open to it. Especially for those who want to make films, it has become a learning text. I have received a hundred requests from young aspiring filmmakers in Punjab to assist me. And they are making things inspired by the film.

TG: Are you in conversation with other filmmakers in Punjab?

GS: No.

TG: Where does the commercial Punjabi film industry operate out of?

GS: Chandigarh and Toronto. And Vancouver. They have approached me now, to fund my films. I might consider, so long as there is no interference.

TG: Your entry into Punjab was music. And that’s also part of the Bollywood version of Punjab. Do you think Punjab still has that vibrant culture of music and performance?

GS: The kind of people I was documenting have passed away. It was an oral tradition, and their children did not carry it on. Who wants to learn a qissa by heart to perform for 12 hours? Now the only songs are about daaru and guns.

Earlier the upper castes were not the performers—they were the listeners. But after independence, the industry has been dominated by Jatts: Gurdas Mann, Harbhaja Mann, Babbu Mann, Amarinder Gill, now Diljeet Dosanjh, who is actually very talented. Now, the only way to enter the Punjabi film industry is to establish yourself as a singer.

TG: That is unique, true. Talking of Diljit Dosanjh, did you watch Udta Punjab?

GS: No, not yet. I will take my time and watch it. (grins)

TG: Anhe Ghore dealt with caste, and Chauthi Koot also has a fairly political subject, the Sikh militancy. How did you come to make it?

GS: I knew I wanted to make a film about the insurgency. I had earlier thought of another story of Waryam Singh Sandhu’s. It was called ‘Bhajjian Baahein’ (Broken Arms). It was also very beautiful, about a Hindu grain trader family, and how one member is gunned down by a terrorist. I had taken his permission to make that, in fact. But then he said, I have written more about that period. So, I went and purchased this book [of his stories] from Sahitya Akademi, and immediately I was bowled over by these two stories.

TG: How did you bring the two ‘Chauthi Koot’ and ‘Main Hun Thik Thak Haantogether? That is the most striking thing, structurally.

GS: First I thought ki ek hi ka banana hai—just make one. And there was something very modern about the train story ['Main Hun Thik Thak Haan']: it was almost like a thriller. You don't know where they are going, who they are.

A still from the film Chauthi Koot. CHAUTHI KOOT_VANTAGE_THE CARAVAN MAGAZINE_II-AUGUST-2016-02

TG: That is the dominant feel of that section of the film. Was that true of the text as well?

GS: In the text, they are schoolteachers who have been assigned some duty in a school near Amritsar. I felt there was no need to say that. Writing and cinema are completely different—giving information that way in cinema will work against the film.

Anyway, this would have been a half-an-hour film. Then, I thought I would make the story of Joginder and the dog [a character from ‘Chauthi Koot’ who is told by militants to forcibly silence his dog lest it draw attention to them]. But then it struck me, why not both? Once it came to me, to enclose the Joginder story in the train story, I was thrilled. Because the device also breaks linearity. Anhe Ghore is also non-linear, moving between the city and village. Here, I constructed the connection between the two stories: the man in the train, remembering himself and the woman walking in the dark, and arriving at Joginder's house.

TG: Why did you move away from making documentaries? What is at stake for you in making fiction?

GS: I was not making films about big political issues, which is what documentary is in popular perception. It can be done in documentary, but somehow I felt that in fiction I could foreground the form better. The way the story is being told is an equal knowledge-giver, an equal source of entertainment as what is being told. In documentary, I felt I was painting over a given surface. Fiction allowed me the feeling of an empty canvas.

TG: The fact that you were adapting from literature doesn't limit you?

GS: No. I had complete freedom to remove and add things. For example, in the story, there was no storm. Joginder is taken away by the police, the villagers gather to protest: I had that in the script. But while shooting, the storm happened, and I immediately knew I wanted to use it. The producer asked me, “You really don't want to shoot that section?” I said, “No, I have an alternative, which is more poetic, more cinematic.”

TG: What are your thoughts on the independent cinema movement in India?GS: It is still in a very nascent stage. I like parts of Court, I like Ship of Theseus. But we have to create a community. Anand Gandhi [who made of Ship of Theseus and has founded his own production company] is trying, through his own company, inviting people to make films. He says he wants to change the ecosystem of this industry. It’s great that somebody is thinking big. Because others are just struggling. It’s not easy to do the second film, even after the first. And I don’t even live in Bombay.

TG: I believe you live in Bir, in Himachal.

GS: Yes, a year-and-a-half now. I lived in Bombay for three years, when Mani Kaul was there.

TG:  What would you say is the most important thing you learnt from him? GS: Image ka bhoot unhone mere dimaag se nikaal diya—He got me to stop being possessed by the image. Cinema is not a visual medium, he insisted, it is a temporal medium. It is like music, it is time. It may unfold in space, but it is time. The normal way of editing is that as soon as the information is grasped, you cut. But if you make people look at things longer, make them reflect on things after they have grasped the information, they suddenly become aware of the passing time. It works in reverse, too—if you cut before the information has been fully absorbed, then also people become conscious of time: ki dekhne nahi diya poora, samajh mein nahi aaya kya hua—as we weren’t able to watch it completely, we didn’t understand what happened. He altered my way of looking through the camera.

And then, sound. The source of the sound image need not be on the screen. You have to create the world beyond the edges of the frame. Anhe Ghore was a complete exercise in that. Now, when I write the script, I think more about the sounds that will layer each shot: from a distance, close by, or something disturbing. Because you can have only one image on screen at a time, but you can have a hundred tracks of sound.