Nine Months – Merajur Rahman Baruah
The concept of theatre groups that travel from place to place to stage their productions in Assam state of Northeast India is beautifully captured in the film ‘Nine Months’ by the national award winning documentary filmmaker Merajur Rahman Baruah.
The title refers to the amount of time the groups spend on the road, performing up to three plays over three days in one location before taking off for the next destination.
The mobile theaters of Assam, in which the film is based on, visit towns and villages carrying their own stages, equipment, generators and even the auditorium in trucks. They pitch their tents in open space and erect a makeshift auditorium with a seating capacity extending from 2000-2500.The genre and aesthetics of the unique form of performing arts reflect the life of approximately 5000 people engaged in theatres during the nine months stay together travelling to different destinations in the Assam state.
The Assamese documentary filmmaker Merajur Rahman Barauh gets candid with Pandolin on the making of ‘Nine Months’ and challenges he faced.
How did the idea of documenting the concept of ‘Mobile Theatre’ come to you?
Well, I have been born and brought up in Assam before I shifted to Delhi. The Mobile theatre has been an essential part of my state’s culture. Also, I have always been fascinated with this subject about people doing their job in the mobile theatre, spending their time, energy and money on it. Although I have all the media exposure, yet whenever I go back to Assam, I also make sure to watch plays in these theatres. The curiosity to explore more about this concept of theatre arose and being a filmmaker, I realized the best way to do it is to make a film on it. That’s how I started pondering over it. I got some money to do my research on the subject from Majlis Culture Fellowship, which is a Bombay based organization. But of course it was not enough, and I had to approach IFA (India Foundation for the Arts) Bangalore. They approved my project from which I got expenses for my travel to Assam for research and shoot, which spanned for almost two and half years.
Besides, I think Mobile theatre is a very new concept for people who are not exposed to theatres. It’s kind of a phenomenon in itself. You don’t see theatre happening at such a larger scale.
Did you face any other difficulty to get your film’s production financed?
Mobile theatre is a subject based in Assam, which is a part of the Northeast India. It’s almost like a periphery of the central India. Hence, it was tough to make people be interested in the subject based in North-eastern region of India. When I approached the organizations, they did not show interest in this documentary project. Then I went to IFA as they work on arts and culture, and they agreed to finance my documentary on mobile theatre.
How challenging is to find a producer for documentary filmmakers in India?
It’s an awful task. Even if you get a producer, you lose full control over edit of your film because by the time you submit the rough cut, you are burdened with plethora of suggestions. Whether you like them or not, you have to reluctantly make the changes according to their needs because the film might be telecasted in one of their channels.
How do you see the commercial aspects of documentaries in India?
In abroad, documentaries are really doing good business. People pay money to watch the documentaries. In India, it’s still a challenge. The main reason has been the pedantic nature of the documentaries made in Indian subjects. The moment we say it’s a documentary, people feel uneasy about it. In our country, if people come to watch the documentaries, they make you feel as if they are doing a favour on you. But fortunately, things are changing because of the initiative taken by PVR cinemas to screen independent cinema. Also, in London and Kolkata, screening of some Indian documentary films has been done. However being a documentary filmmaker, I also take the responsibility of making bad films. If the subject becomes patronizing or is not engaging, people lose their interest in seeing the film. On the contrary, if the film can engage audiences with emotions and conflicts in a subject or a character, perhaps then it could work.
Also problem here in India is the budget, which is very limited. To make a documentary with depth, you would have to be with the subject and with the character for a long time, because character building takes time. Generally, In India, we shoot the film in one go for about 15 to 20 days, come back and start editing. In this case, you don’t get the meaningful insights from the character because the person feels reluctant to open up in front of the camera in such a short time, especially to a person who is a stranger to him or her, unless you build a good rapport with him/her. In my film, I could build a good understanding with theatre artists because I was with them for almost two and half years. I did travel on and off, stayed with them, came back and then shot them in my camera. I almost covered three plays. Because money was limited, I couldn’t afford a camera person, and had to do my own camera work.
Which camera did you use? Tell us about your crew.
I used PD 170video camera and shot the film in 4: 3 formats. I have my own team of the cameramen, the editor and the sound recordist and I prefer working with them only. However, in case of their unavailability, I need to hire someone else. I find it easier to work with my own set team because we have an established level of understanding. While with a new person, it takes time to develop the same level of understanding. In documentary, while you shoot you don’t have a second choice; if the moment is gone it’s gone. You don’t construct images in documentaries, so you have to be in the moment and if you lose it, you lose everything.
I paid my crew from the money of my fellowship.
The problem with the mobile theatre in Assam is even in its 50th year, they don’t have the system of archiving their work. When I asked them for some posters of yesteryears, they said that they don’t keep it. I asked them for some scripts, and again they revealed that they have scripts for current year only. Then I conveyed them the idea of archiving their work and the need of it. I convinced them about the initiative from my side to archive their culture. Thereafter, they understood my point and became open and cooperative with me. I think another reason that helped them feel easy was our common language as I belong to their region. Being an Assamese, I could communicate in their language.
You said the Mobile theatre organisers have not archived their work so far. How did you do your research then?
Well! I met people who have been associated with the mobile theatre like Achyut Lakha, who is considered a father of Mobile Theatre. I asked him about the other artists involved and he told me about the first female actress of the mobile theatre and I met her. Similarly, I learned about the set designer Adya Sharma. This was how I met writers, actors and actresses who are now retired.
Did you shoot the entire film on natural lighting?
Yes. I did not use any artificial light at all.
How about the sound?
I used lapels as well as gun mikes.
Tell us about the artwork you have used for the film.
The artwork was a symbol or logo of the first mobile theatre conceptualised by Mr. Achyut Lakha, who was the owner of Natraj theatre, the first mobile theatre in Assam. I found one poster, which was completely torn and one symbol also, which was quite interesting. So I thought of using them as a tribute to the Natraj theatre.
Is that symbol still being used in the mobile theatre?
No, because Natraj theatre shut down after 40 years of its existence when Achyut Lakha fell sick and then there was nobody to look after his theatre group. It stood for 41 years and then closed down in 1993.
How willing were the theatre groups to let you shoot their process?
Yes, they were more than happy. Initially, they were also little apprehensive because they were concerned about their genre being exposed to their audiences even before they stage their play. Later, I convinced them that I would release the film only after their production was over. Actually, they don’t allow people to come and see their rehearsals. As they don’t want other theatre groups to know what one is doing in terms of play, genres, techniques they are using. They prefer to keep it all a secret.
What are the things you generally keep in your mind before you begin with a documentary?
I have a sociology background. I make films on social and developmental issues. I think the mainstream media do not give much attention to these issue or subjects. Hence, I try to unfold the issues I feel about and delve into the nuances of it besides seeing it from a broad perspective. I prefer to research the subjects I choose before I start filming or pitch it to the producers. I want to know each and every thing about the subject I am working on. I like to break all geographical barriers. I don’t believe to be in a specific geographical location because I speak a particular language. I do or take up a subject that interests me or I feel a film should be made on.
You had given film a very interesting beginning and the end. Was this already conceptualized in your mind? Or was it on editing table that you thought of this?
Every time I travelled with these theatre groups, I witnessed the artists crying when the whole production for that particular year got over or when there was a time to say good bye. Out of curiosity, I asked them why? They said ‘we stay together like a family for almost nine months’. On the night of 13th April every year, which happens to be the last day of their whole tour, the artists with their teary eyes say good bye to each other. I shot that moment and began the film from that last day to give a momentum to the story. Then I cut the film to the very first day of rehearsals. Because the structure of the film was preconceived in mind, I did not face any problem on the editing desk.
I had almost 80 hours of the shoot and deducting it to only 77 minutes was quite difficult. Especially when you shoot the film yourself, you tend to get very attached to the footages and it becomes difficult to delete those valued moments.
Are you satisfied with the way ‘Nine Months’ turned out to be?
Not really! Documentary films never come out the way you thought it to be before you start filming. The main reason behind it is the camera consciousness of people. Off camera, when you speak to people, they are quite vocal and communicative but as soon as you switch on the camera, they become nervous or shy. Hence, camera presence acts like a hindrance. I wanted this film to be in a particular way because I wanted to show what a mobile theatre is all about. Although, I believe I could have talked to couple of more characters about their lives, as in nine months there are many things that change in one’s life. I think I am 80 percent successful.
Are you currently working on any other project?
Yes. I just finished a documentary on witch hunting in Assam for PSBT (Public Service Broadcasting Trust). There are couple of more things I am working on. One is based on the recent turmoil about Bodo conflict in Assam, in which I am going to concentrate on now.
You can’t shatter by failure because in a documentary film making, you don’t always get what you want. Turning that failure into success has been a great learning.
Every time I approach someone, and they refuse, I don’t dishearten. I look the other way around and keep trying. I think hard work is the only way out to this.
[box_info] Merajur Rahman Baruah, a Delhi based independent documentary filmmaker, has won the 55th National Award for his documentary film ‘Shifting Prophecy’. He also has the coveted Commonwealth Vision Award for the year 2006 for his film ‘Beyond the Zero line’. His documentary film ‘Nine Months’ has been telecasted on NDTV 24X7 as well as screened in many film festivals across India. [/box_info]