Teena Kaur Pasricha is an independent director and screenwriter, who has a wide range of experience in documentary film making, ranging from social justice to environment conservation. Her film ‘1984, When the Sun didn’t Rise’ won the President’s national award in 2018, for ‘Best Investigative Film’. In conversation with A. Radhakrishnan.
What according to you are the essentials and backbone of a good documentary?
Documentary is a more realistic art form of storytelling which may or may not be as dramatic as a fictional form of storytelling. A gripping documentary would condense the drama differently from real life, and would have a beginning, middle and end, just like its fictional counterpart.
How did you get into documentary making?
As a youngster, watching a documentary on mining which encapsulated how mining affects the lives of workers as well as the children who are growing up in the nearby areas, before a feature film in a cinema hall in my home town Ajmer, left me so moved that those memories remained alive in me. I wanted to do something on those lines when growing up.
What made you make this documentary ‘When the Sun didn’t Rise’?
I was researching the 1984 pogrom where thousands of Sikhs were massacred in violent attacks by frenzied crowds in Delhi, Kanpur, Jamshedpur, Hond Chillar and many other parts of India, after the death of Indira Gandhi. Growing up, I had heard these stories from my mother, and as a child, I was confused, as I never saw anything written about such violence in our history books. My own uncle had suffered in the massacre. Later on in life, I revisited the events of 1984, and realised the insurmountable challenges faced by the women who had survived. I asked myself, how must have those women managed to make a living without being educated? How would they have dealt with their memories and continued to live after suffering so much? What must life be like for them now?
Thinking about the courage of these women gave me hope in my life, and also the impetus to investigate the aftermath of the violence. I knew these stories needed to be told, but little did I know that the journey ahead was going to be full of obstacles.
What are the sentiments behind working on this story?
I have had a difficult personal life when I started looking within to search for life’s purpose. I knew I wanted to do work that was meaningful, to do something to help others, to help the community so that I feel fulfilled on an individual, spiritual level.
What was the feedback after it was shown at the 2018 MIFF (Mumbai International Film Festival)?
People were moved to tears after watching the film at MIFF and in fact in most of the screenings, this was the case. But screening in a festival as big as MIFF and in one’s town, is a very warm feeling altogether. Many people shared their experiences of 1984 of Sikh friends that they knew of. It is heart wrenching to hear these stories.
Was getting the national award expected? Do awards mean much to you?
I was both happy and surprised to receive the President’s national award for ‘Best Investigative Film’ for 1984, When the Sun didn’t Rise. It is definitely a great honour, but more important, it is a recognition for a subject and a community that has been denied justice. The survivors of the 1984 Sikh massacre were resettled and given monetary compensation, but the culprits were not punished. There have been no efforts made to reintegrate the displaced families into mainstream society. Their traumas have not been dealt with.
As a part of this society, recognition definitely means a lot to me especially because I work on only those subjects that I am convinced about.
Would you abandon scripted commentary to explain what’s going on?
Yes, I tried doing that in my earlier cuts, but then the history of the subject is layered and without a VO (voiceover), it was not getting conveyed. With a personal VO, it became more powerful, and the context was conveyed as well.
Which are the other documentaries you have directed?
I believe in giving voices to the voiceless, whether it is plants, trees, endangered birds and animals or women and minorities. The Deer, Tree and Me, produced by Films Division, is the story of a chinkara and a man who fights the hunters to save them. The film has received critical acclaim, honour and media mention.
The Woods are Calling, produced by PSBT, is about an endangered bird called Blyth’s Tragopan, and how a community of hunters in Nagaland have conserved the Tragopan and their forest. In Symphony with Earth, produced by Siddhartha Kak Productions, is a documentary based on the communities in India growing natural fibre and living a sustainable life in tune with nature. It was broadcast on National Geographic and Fox History.
How do you face good and bad criticism of your films?
I take criticism in my stride right from the time my film is in the making, as I know there are few things that I need to work on, due to my proximity to the subject. But once the film is complete, then I think it makes little difference what people say. I try and see things objectively and take a long time to make a film.
How much of publicity do you have to do for your films?
Documentary films are essentially self publicised. 1984, When the Sun didn’t Rise did some one and half years of festival rounds, screening and got what you may call publicity.
When you take up a controversial subject are you apprehensive about how it will be received or the reaction?
I am never afraid of tackling controversial subjects in documentary films. But when it comes to feature films, apprehensions do come up, since there are monies riding on the film.
What’s harder? Getting started, or being able to keep going?
Maybe being able to keep going is tougher.
When inspiration is waning, when you feel creatively sapped, what do you do? How do you stay fresh?
I like meeting friends and talking my heart out. Nature heals me and I draw a lot of my strength from it. I also love reading literature.
Do you believe in taking risks to grow?
Yes, risk is essential in life especially when converting any story into a film.
Has it been easy to get finance?
In my case, I wanted to tell the story and didn’t really wait for a big breakthrough to happen. But of course, little by little, efforts got reaped, when people showed interest in the project. I did everything like crowd funding, working with NGOs, etc., to start filming. Later on of course, I was honoured to get a post-production grant from BUSAN Film Festival.
Do you accept that filmmaking is as much about your ideas and skill as a storyteller, as it is about managing your resources and business?
Yes, of course. Art, commerce and science of filmmaking goes hand in hand. If one scale tips, the balance would be disturbed.
What is the one mistake most filmmakers make, regardless of experience?
I can’t really say for others. But in the case of feature films, I have observed many promising directors fizzle out after their first film and give in to the demands of meaningless song and dance.
As a filmmaker, you live in the art of observation. Do you, through your films attempt to change behaviour?
I believe in telling stories that bring about social change in society. It is not that a revolution will start overnight after one film is watched, but certainly there is a collective consciousness that awakens, and I attempt to do so. I am grateful to the Universe for bringing me closer to such stories.
Why do you think there are so few women in filmmaking?
I think now there are many women filmmakers, making their mark in the industry. There are equal opportunities for men and women I think, it’s the story that is the ultimate winner. But yes, the mindset of parents and family members have to change to let daughters choose their careers, and not black- mail them into marriage using age or childbirth deadline as a criteria to get settled. And girls also need to strongly believe in themselves and pursue their own life path.
How do you know when your story’s finished, when to walk away?
There is an instinct that guides me. And of course there is a story arc that closes the story.
Jealousy, anger, love, hate, grief are the fundamentals of any story. Do you think there is a lack of original stories in the world? How do you think one can stay fresh in the face of an idea like that?
There are many beautiful movies around the world, but of course access to all is difficult as many sensible films may not get distribution or a pan-India release like many other mainstream films, which are full of dance and drama. But with the digital space opening up, I am more hopeful for good cinema, even if it is for the niche audience.
Will you venture into commercial films?
I am already working on a feature film script. The narrative takes a middle path and that’s what I believe in, inspired by Buddha.
Your message to young budding documentary makers?
Stories come only by living life fully and accepting each challenge that comes with it. Playing each role efficiently brings one closer to the story that one wants to say to the world. Reading and writing are crucial.
The form of documentary films can be layered and complex, but it is again in the hands of the maker. It’s like a blank canvas, and one can paint any colour one wants on it.
Teena Kaur Pasricha can be contacted on: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Her websites are: www.greenearthpictures.in www.WhentheSundidntRise.wordpress.com