Far from the madding crowds

This is a story I had written about two years back. It was lost for some time; recently I found it and wanted to share it with you all through my Blog. Hope you will find time to read it and would like it.

I am a final year student in the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune. Imagine my surprise when I received an inquiry from one of my former Gurus in Mangalore, the Reverend Richard Rego SJ, asking me whether I would be interested in doing a TV serial by visiting the northeast India, “far from the madding crowds.” The idea was too exciting but equally daunting too. At his suggestion I spoke to the Producer Fr Joseph Pullinthanath SDB in Tripura to know more about the offer. However in the midst of other pressing commitments the idea just faded off my memory?

No! One day when I was shooting for a documentary in Mumbai the clarion call repeated. This time it was the Fr Joseph. His candor and earnestness were infectious. I accepted the offer without much ado.
However when I began to gather information about the prevailing film shooting conditions in Tripura I found to my utter dismay that no film industry had existed in that vast `wilderness.’ This meant I had to `ship’ the entire technical crew and equipment to that place from elsewhere. How? Air flight is the easiest and safest mode to reach the destination inasmuch as the surface journey across the Naxal-infected areas is both risky and time-consuming. Moreover the land route lies close to the borders of Bangla Desh. These apparent obstacles only hardened my resolve to accept the challenge.

I began knitting a cohesive team to work with me at Tripura. Vikram Shrivastava, an old associate, was invited to serve as cameraman. Another longtime friend Abhijeet Deshpande was requested to be the team editor. Atirek Pandey, a year junior to me in the FTII and a first-time associate, agreed to work as the sound recordist. Two old friends Anmol Bhave and Varun were requested to be music and assistant directors respectively.

Fr Joseph, originally from Kerala, was then working with the tribesmen in Tripura. His warm and steady pressure motivated me to update the project soon. Immediately on receipt of the story from him I started scripting it. I had to complete it for all the 13 episodes in just a week’s time. This done, Nimish Gaur stepped in and completed the dialogues in Hindi. Soon we got the bound scripts ready. I sent them to Fr Joseph to enable him to choose the actors and start the rehearsals.

He had just then bought a camera. Lights, light-men, track-trolley, crane and other accessories were supposed to reach us from Assam. We took the sound equipment from Pune. Thus completing the preparations four of us — cameraman Vikram, sound recordist Atirek, assistant director Varun and I — took off to Kolkatta by train from whence we flew to Tripura. It was indeed a flight into the blues! In about 45 minutes we alighted at Agartala, the capital of Tripura.

Fr Joseph and his team received us warmly. With him was Fr Festus SDB yet another great local help. They took us to a posh hotel where we rested for the day. The landscape of Agartala is akin to the western coastal areas of Karnataka from where I hail. However bamboo constructions and wild growths abounded all round. This sight had a significant message to us: bamboo should be a metaphor in each of the scenes.

I had a quick discussion of the script with the core team of the serial. The future course seemed to be quite exciting. Next morning we were taken to the base nearest to the shooting location. Fr Joseph briefed us thoroughly about the psyche of the locals with whom we had to work, the climatic vagaries and the topography of the terrain. The area of our stay was not very much hilly. But the constantly changing cloud formations, though a feast to the eyes, reminded us ominously that we would have problems in adjusting the light for the shots.

Actors were introduced to us. None of them had any previous experience. Further most of them were facing the camera for the first time! Conventional school training, as we normally understand, had no role in their lives. However the missionaries were trying to shed the light of modern education on them. I visualized the struggle we might have to face in making this totally unexposed raw material `stage-able’ in the limited time and resources at our disposal.

Their language is called Kokborok. It means ‘to speak the word.’ We couldn’t understand even a single syllable of it. However many of them due to military services knew a bit of Hindi. Out of this formidable stuff we were to produce a film with Hindi dialogues! There are about nineteen different tribal populations and perhaps as many dialects in Tripura. We had a representative sprinkling of all of them among our actors. But the core comprised the Debbarmas whose names are like Vidyasagar Debbarma, Ruma Debbarma, Chiranjit Debbarma and so on. We had one each from the Halam and Roga tribes too.

Due to historical reasons the Naxal movement in Tripura has a strong anti-Bengali strain. Though the ruling class here is mainly made of the Bengalis, their members hesitate to enter large tribal areas for fear of the Naxalite onslaught. Since we were politically and ethnically far removed from these local irritants we were perhaps quite safe. However an undercurrent of fear seemed to pervade the atmosphere and the all round presence of the military was very much there. Communication with the outer world was a luxury. Even telephonic connection was erratic.
By day three we were acclimatized to the local conditions and constraints. We got into two jeeps for travel to Kalapara, the selected location for shooting. The road was narrow and slushy with steep gradients and hairpin bends. It was a breathtaking drive amidst bewitching natural scenic grandeur. Kalapara is a remote village about an hour’s drive from the nearest small town.

On alighting from the jeeps we were astonished to see several curious eyes scrutinizing our movements closely. Such a sight is rare in the routine monotony of the crowded cities. Perhaps these rustics felt we were intruders into their sanctum sanctorum. A bunch of children followed us chatting incessantly among them. I tried to touch a child. The entire crowd simply vanished out of sight! But soon they came back as if they were tracking our moves. Were they scared of us? Even the elders’ reaction seemed to be the same. No doubt they were hospitable, but not very comfortable with us.

We inspected a few houses to fix the venue for the shooting. Here a house is a series of independent rooms built on a large site. Every couple gets a separate room. The adult members of the family are allotted individual rooms adjoining their parents’ place. Mud is the basic material used for building the rooms. Bamboo is the handy stuff for purposes of door and door covers. Wooden materials are scarcely used except by the rich among them. Concrete toilet pits with bamboo sheets supplied by the Government are quite popular. Their sense of cleanliness is exemplary. Each time after food they smear mud to the ground instead of rubbing it with wet cloth. Thus the house presents and smells fresh always. They keep their clothes well-washed and neatly folded in elegantly constructed bamboo shelves.

We went on a survey of homes to choose a room having a window, door and side path as background fixtures for the film. Fr Joseph took us to the village head called Chowdri. All the four of us squatted comfortably on the carpet spread on the floor. This caused a flutter among the locals. On inquiry we learnt that they had thought we the Bombay-ites would never sit on the carpets but would demand chairs! Soon I realized we were in an entirely different world far from the madding crowds of our overcrowded cities. We decided to stay in the village during the shoot. That would bring us closer to the locals and we would certainly reap a rich harvest in our new venture.

Talk with Chowdri lasted for only a few minutes. Of course I couldn’t follow it. However I learnt that we were allotted ten houses (rooms) to accommodate our crew, the equipment and we four. One of these rooms was for the exclusive use of the Bombayites. It was literally the last house in India! For, on the other side we could see a Bangla Desh village with its houses and cultivation not different from our own. True, nature unites people while politics divides them! Government has provided free electricity to these villages. However each home is required to draw its own electric line from the mains. We too had to follow suit. The production team did it for us. We were provided with small luxuries like a fan, a few bulbs etc at our humble cottage.

Our production team (actors) had about 15 youngsters both boys and girls. Specific roles had been assigned to them. They were very enthusiastic about the shoot but none had an idea about it. So we had to train them ab initio. Though they followed all our instructions very sincerely we had to correct them quite often. Here in this remote land, far removed from the comforts of a well-equipped studio, we had to shoot a TV serial of 13 episodes in just 35 days! One relieving factor was that trained light-men had come from Assam. Vikram had no assistant, neither did Atirek have one.

I devised a novel plan to kick start the inauguration of the serial. Varun lent a helping hand. Accordingly we would start the shooting from a pond. Since during that season the dawn would break at about 5 am we had to get ready well before that. We set up the crane near the pond. Hundreds of people gathered around us to witness this historical event. Vikram got into the crane, and fixed the camera. In the first scene four actresses had to take bath in the pond. I had briefed them in detail. Even as they were about to step into water I became tense. Fr Joseph uttered a few words of prayer in their language.

The crowd had to be controlled and total silence maintained. We took all the necessary precautions. I called “Roll sound,” Atirek responded, “Rolling.” I called, “Roll camera,” Vikram said, “Rolling.” But then nature had thought otherwise: suddenly it began raining and all hell broke. We were just not ready to face this emergency. Yet we had to. Vikram hadn’t enough time to get down from the crane! There were all round quick movements in the camp and within moments we had moved into a sort of cover. Meanwhile the crowd had simply melted out within seconds. It rained heavily for about an hour and then suddenly the sky was clear again! We took some time to get back to work and start shooting. After this initial fiasco as also success we changed the location. We weren’t very much disappointed. All through the day we shot a few more scenes.
In the night we returned home and played back the shots. Not bad, I felt. By this initial brush with nature and the locals we had understood the ground situation well and knew how we should tailor the next scenes. Vikram started cleaning up the camera every night and went to bed quite early to recoup energy. Atirek’s concern was the repair and protection of the equipment from rain and mud. Varun went into the classification of shots and getting ready for the next day’s shoot. And I was visualizing the future course that would hasten our progress.

It was very important for us to finish the shooting before the current rainy season would reach its full fury. Every year for about three months this village is cut off from other parts of Tripura. Fortunately for us so far the heavy onslaught hadn’t yet begun. How long this respite would last? We worked overtime, from 6 am to 11 pm everyday. Meanwhile Varun had to return urgently to Pune. This reduced our strength to just three. How would I face the music without his wise counsel? But I had to be on the move. From script to shot I had to think and plan every action in the required order. And this had to go on continuously for the next 24 days.
A week rolled off when we felt that the lady playing the negative role was not strong enough for it. We had to change her. How? We couldn’t re-shoot the previous material. I rewrote the script introducing a sister to that lady who would actually play a foul game in the serial and would make it look like her sister doing it. This midcourse correction saved much of the previously shot material.

Unfortunately the persons whom I had got for the game were all new to acting. Further they had different occupations. So they had to visit their villages quite frequently. This caused us yet another problem of dates with the actors! Keeping in mind the availability of the actors, location, costume and the moody weather we had to coordinate the shooting programme. Sometimes, we would light up the interior of the house to look like daytime and shoot the day sequences in the nighttime! When rains obstructed outdoor shooting we would convert an exterior shot into an interior one and continue our work. The show had to go on.

The actors were facing the camera for the first time. This fact posed a new problem: how to `tame’ them overcoming the formidable language barrier? Some 10 takes were necessary before we could get the right shot. However the sheer monotony of the process would certainly ebb out their emotion. The net result was that every time I felt I had failed to attain the target set for myself. Is perfection a dream in the midst of the imponderables? Reconciliation and compromise with ground reality seemed to be the only pragmatic way.

We went on shooting keeping the morale of the actors high by constantly goading them. It was very important for three of us that we never lose our patience under any trying condition. For, just one shout at any actor would simply deflate his and so of the actors’ enthusiasm. Their dedication to the assignment and love for us were beyond reproach. On our side we too had our limitations. Indeed each day’s exercise was a voyage of discovery. I realized there was a gulf of difference between intention and execution.

Here is an example. Vikram took great pains to illuminate a particular scene to create a certain mood. But the actor would not present the right gestures at the desired positions. Vikram felt bad. Yet without showing his displeasure he re-adjusted the illumination to suit the actor! Atirek had to face a different problem. The traditional dresses of these tribal women have names like regnai (waist wraparound) and resha (breast wraparound). These were the only two pieces of cloth they were wearing. Atirek’s difficulty was in attaching lapel mikes to their dress. However he did get over this difficulty. Many a times we would be working in places where power supply was not available. Here Atirek just couldn’t use the mixer; he had to depend on boom. Notwithstanding all these logistic problems we proceeded with our work.

Meanwhile I was getting worried for a different reason. I had sent the first tapes to Pune for editing. Soon I received a message to say that we were running short of footage. Nothing more could be expected from my actors. To continue or not was the question I faced. Vikram and Atirek, despite their being equally disheartened, struggled hard to boost my morale. Light-men were getting frustrated. It was almost 15 days down in to the shoot. I realized that if I continued shooting in the same fashion I would soon lose the support from my team. So I told Fr Joseph that we would take a day off. Fatigue is the worst enemy of creativity.
Next day we were free. The light-men were taken to the nearest city and fed sumptuously. Vikram preferred to stay back and sleep. Atirek and I went to Agartala with Fr Joseph. On the way we visited Sipaijala National Park. It has a small zoo housing a few rare animals of Tripura. At Agartala we checked our emails and called our homes. What a wonderful experience it was! World seemed to be moving really fast in spite of our absence from it! We had our lunch at a restaurant enjoying delicious Paneer, roamed around the city and returned to the base camp late in the night. Next morning we began the shooting at 10. Yes, we had regained our spirits. But Atirek had developed fever and I acute stomachache. We realized then that the culprit was the old Paneer. But despite suffering our work had to proceed. Quick medical treatment brought us relief. Now it was Vikram’s turn to fall sick. Soon he too regained health. Thus chastened all the three of us readied ourselves for the final assault.
By now the surging crowd of locals watching the progress of shooting had got used to our ways. Their behavior was exemplary. On one occasion I saw them getting fussy and looking in a particular direction. A few of them started rushing towards it also. I observed a person there carrying a strange animal on his shoulders. It was a dead anteater. I could read the smile of victory on his face. People surrounded him and began appreciating the large size of that animal. To my query as to what they would do with that cadaver they replied it would be cooked and devoured! They threw it into boiling water, peeled off its skin and dressed it with masalas. Our light-men from Assam were greatly excited. For, it was their staple food too. Next day I learnt that they all had a feast. Later I learnt they would catch living eels and eat them just as we do with some soft vegetables. Frankly, I was scared. For, all of us are pure vegetarians. What could be the food they were serving us? The production team assured us that they were taking special care to cook only vegetarian food for us.

On one of those busy days of shooting it had just rained. And what did I see in the sky? Two rainbows simultaneously! I had never seen such a grand display of resplendent colors till then. The celestial theatre is a wonderful storehouse of inspiration and motivation. However this divine beauty created lot of problems for our work in terms of light. It kept changing every minute and we had a tough time to match it in the master shots and cuts. Sometimes we used the skimmer and at other times waited for the proper light. When it rained outside we would move indoors, when it stopped go outdoors and continue shooting. But here we were facing a losing game. The rains were on the increase. I was getting worried. Progress of the script was not at all satisfactory. How shall we face it?
Every day a jeep from the production point would go to the base camp to bring rations and the materials for the shoot. One day it returned late in the night. The driver told us the vehicle could not negotiate the final steep climb inasmuch as the ground there was too slippery. This meant we had to send back the heavy equipment like track-trolley, generator, crane etc to more stable locations as soon as possible. Therefore I rescheduled the scenes and tried to finish immediately most of the shots in which I needed these facilities. Next four days were crucial and exacting. Within three days I should complete the decisive scenes and start packing off the things out on the fourth day. We could then travel light to the base camp. The production team couldn’t cope with this emergency need. But we were helpless. Fr Joseph understood my plight. He tried his best to boost our morale. Light-men were getting jittery. Amidst all these din and confusion we left the village beaten by rains but not broken by despair.

It was really difficult to leave the village where we had spent 24 challenging days. People here were very warm and friendly. Children would come running to us now. There was a sea change in their attitude towards the Bombayites. The days and nights we had spent there came uppermost in my mind. I knew I would never be going there again in my life. The villagers too understood that we were packing. They started pouring into our home with moist eyes begging us not to leave. I thought of the feelings of Gopikas when Srikrishna was about to depart from them for Kamsa’s palace — Gokula nirgamana.

On the last evening I strode across the village clicking photographs that would remain with me as a permanent memento of our stay in that friendly environment. At that time an enthusiastic guy rushed to me and drew my attention towards an unknown corner of the village. I was confused, as I couldn’t understand what he was making out. Still instinctively I walked with him in that direction. It was one of the compounds where they had put up an idol of God fully decorated with bamboo buntings. All of them were drinking liquor and dancing hilariously around the idol. I took out the camera. They started posing for me. Some of them started crying because we were departing soon. I could hardly control my emotions either. It was a very touching moment in my life. But I had to leave the place before darkness accompanied by rain engulfed the whole area. With a heavy heart I stepped into the jeep and bade goodbye to them. While the jeep was gliding gently down the steep gradient I was lost in reverie.
Vikram and Atirek stayed back for one more day recording sounds and shooting some stock shots that would come in handy in the edit. It was the same story with them too. With them the entire production team came back to the second location. By that time, I had surveyed this new area and got familiarized with its topography. We had to shoot for about 10 days here. It took us one full day to settle down. But soon we were back on the usual working track. The working conditions here were much better. But we missed the warmth we had experienced in the previous place. City culture had already made inroads into this village.

Here we had to shoot three important sequences: a modern village, the jungle and city scenes. The first was akin to the previous village shooting. For the second one we went to a nearby jungle abundant in bamboo bushes. We felt a mysterious shroud and a deadly sound had engulfed the whole area. The forest was dense, but shooting was not very tough. We spent four days here.

Finally we went to shoot the city scenes. One day we went on a tour to Udaypur, the erstwhile capital of Tripura. Here we visited a famous temple there. It was shocking to learn that animal sacrifice was still in vogue here. Hundreds of sacrificial goats had been huddled there for the `holy’ act. Our hearts revolted. But as utter strangers to the location we couldn’t prevent that naked exhibition of cruelty against animals. I requested a priest permission to take a few shots. It was gladly given. The scene was grotesque if not medieval.

First three goats were offered to the priest’s (butcher’s) sword. The normal convention is that the head should get separated from the body at just one stroke. In the present instance it didn’t happen that way with the third goat. The woman who had offered it felt God had not accepted her offer. She started crying. One more goat was pushed into the ghastly scene. It too didn’t die in the first shot. Now she was doubly convinced that God was angry with her. She rolled on the ground crying incessantly. Then as the final try she gave one more goat, which was luckily for her killed instantaneously. Her mental equilibrium was at long last restored. Vikram, Atirek and I stood stunned. Portions of the cadavers of the sacrificed goats were thrown into the temple pond where the hungry tortoises devoured them. The whole community would feast on the remaining parts. It was a gloomy day.

Once we had to take a shot at the centre of the city during night. By about 10-30 pm we left for the location. Midway army men stopped our two jeeps carrying crane, generator, lights etc and searched them thoroughly. They let us go. At long last we reached the location about 11 pm. Still there was some awaiting crowd here. However we had already taken police permission and there were policemen to regulate the crowd. With the setting of the crane and the light system switched on the shooting process took off. I sat with the actors trying to rehearse their dialogues.

In the first shot I wanted a drunkard sitting close to a telephone pole and a policeman going to chide him. A new actor was playing the role of the police here. It was my first meeting with him. I found him totally unsuited for the role because of his soft voice and gentle demeanor. I tried my best to mould him according to my idea but failed. It was about 12 midnight when Vikram said the lighting was ready. I said let us see it once. The light-men switched on and a huge explosion thundered there. We were all dumbfounded. What had happened? It was due to the bulb on the telephone pole bursting because of the fluctuating power supply from the generator. Fortunately nothing happened to the light-man standing close to the bulb. At the back of this initial mishap two more bulbs also burst.

Meanwhile I asked Fr Joseph to give me a different actor for the policeman’s role, which he readily obliged. Even with this new face I was not lucky. Finally I decided I would play the role. But where is the dress? I didn’t want to disappoint the first actor who had already come fully dressed as a policeman. I had a bright but embarrassing idea. Why not request a policeman on duty to lend his uniform for a while? Readily he agreed to help me. Thus I acted in that shot. We started shooting around 12-30 am and completed the episode within the next 30 minutes.
In the second location we had to shoot a marriage scene. All the elaborate preparations including festive decorations and colorful costumes had been prepared in detail. It was to be a great show and shot. Traditional dancers invited for the ceremony lent an aura of dignity to the celebration. But fate decided otherwise! It rained cats and dogs and the whole ground was slushy and slippery. We sprinkled sand liberally to make it reasonably non-slippery. Spectators were of course aplenty. Our characters were mixed in the crowd. A boy and girl from the production team were selected to be the dummy bride and bridegroom.
Finally we could start shooting by 3 pm. Daylight was gradually fading out. Further it was cloudy. Controlling the large number of curious spectators was getting rather difficult. They were enjoying the show as if a real marriage was being conducted in their presence! Traditional reang dance, a treat to the eyes and ears, heralded the auspicious muhurta. We took a few shots of the marriage ritual. But the boy who acted as the bridegroom had his girl friend amongst the production team as she had been assigned a different role. On witnessing this mock marriage this girl in her innocence believed that her sweetheart had betrayed her! That night she wept inconsolably cursing her fate.
On another day the shooting venue had to be on a crowded city road. To our discomfiture it was the weekly market day too. We hid camera in the jeep lest people should stare at it and wreck the informality of the scene. I took the actors in another jeep and made them spread freely among the crowd. Slowly walking with them I explained their roles. Separately I briefed Vikram about the details. Even at the second take that shot came out nicely. No one from the crowd had stared at the camera eye.

However in the next scene the camera had to be brought to the open. Here it would be impossible for us to prevent people from eyeing it. It was after all a city crowd. Yet cinema shooting for them was a new experience. How to divert their attention away from the camera and thus avoid artificiality creeping into the scene? One of the light-men on learning about my problem assured me he would solve it without much fuss and the shooting could go on unabatedly. Precisely it did happen that way! I asked him what magic he had performed. He replied, “Very simple, sir. I announced loudly in their lingua that none should look at the camera eye when the light was on. If they did they would permanently lose their eyesight.” Those simple folk in their innocence had believed it and followed suit!

Now the day of bidding goodbye to Tripura was very close. People surrounding us were aware of it and were becoming over-sentimental. They (the crew comprising local recruits provided by Fr Joseph) were sad to part from us but were also happy to return to their homes. The decisive moment arrived. I called PACK UP when every one hugged each other and said that it was great working in this human drama. In the past one-month we had met so many new faces and made so many new friends. And now was the time to say goodbye to all of them.

We reached Fr Joseph’s home in Agartala. He treated us for a grand dinner in a luxurious hotel. When we came out of the hotel we were shocked to see the jeep sunk in floodwater due to the heavy downpour. We waited for sometime for the floods to recede. But our dynamic driver Mufis Mia knew it wouldn’t happen that way. He braved his way to the jeep and started it. We jumped into it reposing complete confidence in his prowess. Soon we were back at Fr Joseph’s residence. En route we saw the roads inundated in waist-deep flowing water and pedestrians wading through the slush. If this critical state persisted on the following morning also how could we reach the airport on time? There was a possibility of our flight being cancelled too. But Fr Joseph said that this was quite normal in Tripura and we didn’t have to worry much about it.

When the morning dawned I was surprised to see the roads completely dry! We went for a short shopping spree to Agartala city and immediate return. Packed our baggage and arrived at the airport on time for the check in.
The giant flying bird hiding us in its belly roared out of Agartala. But our minds roamed in ethereal heights recalling the lifetime experience with those fantastic people and their enchanting abode called Tripura, the meet of three puras. Here the present (one pura) rests comfortably on the past (another pura) and stretches its looks to the future (the third pura). Those blessed 35 days we spent amidst them and carved out a serial around their lives and aspirations are now our most cherished possessions.

Tripura is an altogether different India. Yet we are all bound by the same Indianness pervading this vast subcontinent. Vande mataram!

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