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Rishi Chandna: I see the film as a lament for what is getting left behind in a changing world- Cinema express

Rishi Chandna: I see the film as a lament for what is getting left behind in a changing world

In this conversation with CE, filmmaker Rishi Chandna talks about his recent short film Virundhu (The Feast), his foray into fiction, and more

Published: 17th January 2024
Rishi Chandna: I see the film as a lament for what is getting left behind in a changing world

Rishi Chandna made his debut with the much-acclaimed short documentary Tungrus (2018) about a pet rooster running havoc in a small, middle-class home in Mumbai’s Santa Cruz. Four years later he followed it up with another quintessentially Mumbai film, Party Poster (2022), that explored the city’s poster culture, especially around the time of the Ganesh Chaturthi festival.

The self-taught, independent filmmaker returns now with another short, Virundhu (The Feast), but one that marks a few departures—it’s his first foray into fiction, is set in Pulicat in Tamil Nadu and is in Tamil.

Virundhu is about a feisty prawn picker Mary (Antony D. Janagi) who sets up a lavish feast in the local chapel for Thomas (George Vijay), a powerful politician from her fishing community. She serves delectable favourites—milkfish and mud crab among others—that are fast turning extinct due to the pollution in the local lake. Food, religion, spirituality and the concept of sin and hell, all become political tools in the hands of Mary. Along with the dishes, she puts an overwhelming aroma, taste, childhood memories and nostalgia on the table to convey the urgency to save the lake and its biodiversity from industrial waste and the spectre of an upcoming cement factory. It’s not just about the erasure of marine life but also of the livelihoods, economy, society, culture and cuisine that it supports and sustains.

Replete with Chandna’s characteristic wit and humour, the film is part of his anthology of three short fiction films on marginalised communities dealing with issues of climate change and political disenfranchisement in the context of water pollution, access and inequality.

The 25-minute film is the only one from India that will be competing at the biggest festival dedicated to shorts, Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival.

Meanwhile, Chandna is also starting with the festival distribution for the other two films in the anthology. He is meeting global broadcasters, is looking into outreach programmes that can amplify their reach at a grassroots level and possibly lead to actual changes in human awareness, behaviour and even governmental policy around water and other natural habitats.

Cinema Express spoke to Chandna about the film. Excerpts:

Till now Mumbai has been a muse of sorts for you. What made you go for a new locale, language, people and culture with Virundhu?

For me, as a filmmaker, growth comes from discovering stories in new worlds, be it in Mumbai or anywhere else. New cultures, languages, different forms, genres—they open many enriching experiences that I wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to. It’s the reason I’ve been developing Ghol, my first feature film set in the fishing community of Gujarat, a world alien to me but a story close to my heart.

As fate would have it, with Virundhu, I had the opportunity to partner with Krea University to try my hand at fiction and make an anthology of three short fiction films on the subject of ‘man-water symbiosis’. This collaboration opened the new locale of Pulicat (Tamil Nadu) for me because the university is based close to the northern part of the Pulicat lake. It became another muse for another journey to begin.

Of course, this presented tremendous challenges, not just creative but in terms of production too. While making Tungrus, I would drive 15 minutes from Bandra to Santacruz, step into an apartment and begin shooting. The dhobi-ghat for Party Poster was right behind my apartment in Bandra. But for this anthology, we were talking about remote locations, large film units, bigger cameras, special makeup, things like rain machines being taken to faraway islands. We had multiple casts for three films with entirely different narratives; even my crew kept changing. The production was a daunting hellfire of a journey of eight months in a place as good as a foreign land for me.

What sparked off the idea?

Being an outsider to the story world, I had to try to immerse myself for a nuanced ‘inside-out’ understanding of it. I made several visits to the Pulicat region, learnt of the history, the struggles and challenges of a predominant fishing community for whom the lake’s water was an essential component of livelihood and sustenance. I saw how industrial activity was rapidly changing the delicately balanced ecology of the place. I met prawn pickers, (prawn picking is an indigenous labour-intensive traditional fishing technique), who told me how the catch they once found in an hour now took them eight hours of standing in the sweltering sun. I heard stories of ‘fish kill’ near industrialised zones—fishermen would find scores of dead fish floating on the lake’s surface. I met people with roots in the fishing villages who had left to pursue greener pastures in other professions, and some had become part of the problem itself. Fortunately, I ate generous, delectable meals at the humble homes of fishermen, meals made from the catch they had gone to great lengths to find, just to show me what the lake could do if allowed to regenerate—"the secret ingredient after all is the water itself”, they would say. I knew I had to tell the story of these people and their rapidly changing fragile world.

Where was the film shot?

Virundhu was filmed in September 2022 in a village called Kottaikuppam, on the banks of Pulicat lake. Mary’s house, the water where she is prawn-picking, the chapel—all of them are in and around that village. Several other scenes were shot in the last remaining mangroves and hidden pristine waters of the wetland, which took extensive location scouting. At times I was wading neck deep in extremely muddy water in search of just the right thicket in the mangrove, hoping I wouldn’t step into quicksand.

How did you manage to overcome the language barrier?

On our first day of shooting, I heard from my production manager that a villager said: “How will this bald foreigner make this film when he can’t even speak our language.” Far from being offended I cracked up. I realised that it was going to be a frustrating and demanding process but could be quite liberating once I embraced a kind of ‘language agnosticism’. It involved a huge leap of faith, where I prepared as much as I could and left the rest in the capable hands of actors, and even non actors. You need a trusted crew to be able to do this. My co-writer, Rahul Srivastava, and I would write the dialogues in English and then Veronica Angel, our Tamil writer would work on capturing the essence in Tamil. I would do multiple long sessions with Veronica to try and understand her translations, extending her the leeway several times to do what she thought was best in her language and given her lifelong cultural understanding of the place. The process would then evolve to preparing with actors in readings and workshops. Antony D. Janagi who plays Mary could communicate with me in Hindi, George Vijay Nelson who plays Thomas, in English, and Anbarasi who plays Josie, only in Tamil. So, the direction I’d share with them was supplemented by my assistant director who understood the story and its spirit fully. With only Tamil speaking non-actors I left it largely to my assistant and the professional actors to coach and prepare them. I relied heavily on my editor, Ashwin Arvind, to assess the best takes in terms of spoken language and performance. Through this entire process I learnt that not knowing the language helps sharpen other directorial senses that can tune aspects of performance—tone, pitch, cadence, timing, nuances of expression and body language. These signals of communication are as complex as language itself.

But to be honest, I have no definite way of assessing the result since I am still relying on subtitles to follow the film. The real test will be a Tamil speaking audience who will be the judge of whether we’ve done a good job with the language or not. The learning from this experience will hold me in good stead when I make Ghol, which is in Gujarati, another language I don’t know. I now have a better grip of the challenges involved and the means to overcome them.

How then do you ensure the essential authenticity of place, people and culture when you yourself are an outsider?

I don’t let being an outsider become an impediment to representing a world which is not from my own immediate environment. If anything, it means that I need to work even harder, to earn the right to discover and tell stories with honesty and authenticity. It’s a cultural foray, much like traveling to a foreign country. You must enter with the right intentions, but also with a hunger to absorb and reflect. I think this applied not just to me but to the entire crew, because even if they were from Tamil Nadu, they were not from that same fishing community.

In terms of craft, I took the approach of ‘non-fictionalising’ the fiction. This involved several methods. In the pre-production phase, it meant collaborating on performance training with people who were parallel to our characters. For example, I tried prawn picking a few times myself which helped me realise how difficult the physicality of it is. Catching a live prawn bare handed is like a sharp jolt of current hitting your fingers. Janagi and Anbarasi had to make several visits to Pulicat and learn prawn picking with the help of locals. Then, a big factor was mixing non actors with actors, to end up with more naturalistic and believable performances. In fact, the whole film was made possible by the involvement of the local community - fisherfolk and their families, village heads, activists, cooks, priests, librarians and folk musicians. Many have played themselves in the film, many of them became our local production managers who helped with street casting, location permissions and our overall acceptance into the local community before and during filming. 

There was no art direction to speak of apart from a few key props. I was quite okay with an approach of taking what the location gives you, be it the peeling textured blue walls of the chapel, the black murkiness of the lake’s water or the clean, healthy green of the young mangroves. We didn’t have a costume stylist, we borrowed clothes from the villagers. We used sync sound. In Tamil Nadu most films rely on dubbing, but we would have lost the spirit and performance that comes with shooting live on location. We worked on staying away from the mainstream cinematic conventions that tend to sweeten everything for consumption. We built a cohesive world with verisimilitude.

How did you pick the lead actors?

I owe it to my casting director, Sharanya Subramanium (Sharanya

Spots Talent). It was a mix of theatre and mainstream Tamil cinema actors. Rather than trying to impose a very rigid directorial intent on them, I let them take the lead and imprint themselves on their characters the way they wanted to. My only caveat was for them to keep it real and not do anything their character wouldn’t do. Each of them brought their own approach to the table. Janagi’s method was to fully immerse herself in the character. She went prawn picking, she learnt to cook the recipes, she became friends with some of the non-actors and even took it upon herself to coach them with multiple rehearsals of their scenes. Anbarasi, who plays Janagi’s daughter, spent hours and days with her talking about childhood memories, their anxieties and hopes. George on the other hand refused to show up for a single workshop. He sent me a long list of films he’d done. After that, I met him straight on set where he came with full clarity on his pitch and tenor.

Like Party Poster we see you engage with a subculture here as well…

It all started with writing Ghol, which gave me insight into the fragile and rapidly changing world of fishing. Given the scale of fishing in India and the national consumption, the export figures and the ancillary industries around it, I would hesitate to call it a sub-culture. It’s a mainstream industry on which millions of people depend. But like everything mainstream, it creates its own marginalised communities as well. In cinema it’s quite underrepresented. It is a unique and rich world, filled with hope and struggle, colourful characters, raw untouched locations. It’s a historical barometer of a changing world, and a very fertile landscape for stories. What makes it special is that across the globe fishing communities have faced and continue to face common challenges.

There are nuances and cultural practices that differ, but from Tamil Nadu to Gujarat, all fisherfolk speak of so many shared struggles, mostly to do with human activity changing the eco systems that help them survive.

The absurdist humour of yours permeates here as well…

We wrote the script with a few instances of mild humour. It was the prayer scene where we had to craft a ‘sermon’ of sorts which had to be tongue in cheek, it had to have double meaning for it to be permissible in that moment. But it was Janagi’s performance that took the delivery of that prayer into a space of irony and sarcastic humour. The theatricality that she brought to it took me by surprise. It made total sense, it felt like the only way it could be pulled off. And then again, the humour also had to permeate casting and so the choice was made not to make Thomas a stereotypical ‘villianesque’ politician at all, rather we cast an actor who could be portrayed as an unabashed foodie, adding a touch of vulnerability to his character. But I would say that the humour in Virundhu is a big departure from the wry comedy that plays out in Tungrus and Party Poster, which can perhaps be viewed as empathetic satires. Virundhu has its moments of tension and bleakness that are necessary for its emotional effect.

The theme of food and nostalgia juxtaposed against environmental degradation and a sense of loss of taste and a lot more. Could you dwell a bit more on these themes?

I see the film as a lament for what is getting left behind in a changing world. Environmental decay is an outcome of this change, as is the forgotten past. I think remembering the past is a way of creating a sustainable future, and in Virundhu food is the means to recall that which is forgotten or pushed back into the recesses of our mind. Food is a repository of memory and nostalgia. For Mary it is also a weapon with which she orchestrates an ingenious and tactful (yet sharp) protest, to remind Thomas of his roots. She is part of a small group of people who still have an anthropomorphic view of the world. This is what we were trying to channelize and see the lake as a living, breathing thing that still has plenty of fight left in it.

For a fishing community, fish is the ultimate barometer of the water’s health. Hence, I was drawn to the idea of the taste of fish as a marker of the health of the habitat from which it comes. Water is a secret ingredient that still has the power to evoke memories that have been lost. It is only through those suppressed memories that we can conceive of any kind of hope or effect real transformation.

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