A Conversation with Filmmaker Prashant Bhargava

by | August 21, 2013 at 12:17 PM | Cinema Asian America

“Patang.”

This month Cinema Asian America on Xfinity On Demand proudly presents Chicago-based filmmaker Prashant Bhargava’s feature film debut, “Patang.” A hit at the Berlin and Tribeca Film Festivals and what the late Robert Ebert called “masterful,” “Patang” is a kinetic, moving tale of family, romance and memory. Set in the Indian city of Ahmedabad during its celebrated kite festival (one of the largest in the world, where millions of kites fill the sky), the film weaves together the stories of six people whose lives are transformed by the energy of the festival. When a successful Delhi businessman takes his daughter on a surprise trip back to his childhood home for the festival, an entire family has to confront its own fractured past and fragile dreams.

Bhargava, whose previous short films have screened at festivals from Sundance to the San Francisco Int’l Asian American Film Festival, discussed his inspiration for the film, and his unique creative process.

“The storytelling is effortlessly made part of the hypnotically beautiful visuals, and woven into a kaleidoscope of colors, faces, music, and a little romance…Bhargava is masterful.” -Roger Ebert

For this film, you’ve constructed a timeless story of returns, generations and love, but layered on top of it a kinetic visual style and an unusual temporality. It is a film that lingers and builds intimacy and then bursts with color and action. How did you match up the story with the form in which you wanted to tell it?

PB: “Patang” takes place during Ahmedabad’s beloved kite festival – a million kites in the sky, the city on their rooftops celebrating without inhibition.

The cinematic form of the work emerged organically from immersing myself in the ways and rituals of the old city of Ahmedabad. On one city corner or on the rooftops during the kite festival, the energy is overwhelming. There is a story unfolding everywhere you look. It’s dizzying. There is contrast of color, texture and class. To digest it all you cannot help but to move with a kinetic rhythm.

Yet there is a considered pace about everything in the old city of Ahmedabad. Time is circular. Faith is more useful than logic. Gentle gestures, deep breathes, old friendships and rivals, restrained and quiet loves – these are what mean most. The air is thick with gods and ghosts of the past. It sits heavy upon you. You can try to fight them but you will crumble. You give yourself to them and beautiful things happen.

Hence this story had to be told in the way it was. It was what was told to me by the people, the place and the kites. “Patang” was shot with the kinetic energy and cutting style of “The Hurt Locker”, with the understated restraint of an Ozu drama. “Patang” is that joyous sting you feel when the razor sharp ground glass coated string of the kite slices your finger, gently.

The story itself concerns a family that is reunited during the heady time of festival, but for whom this reunion forces them to “confront its own fractured past and fragile dreams.” Why was it important for you to explore complex, messy bonds of family in this, your first feature film, and what does an extended family offer to you dramatically as a writer?

PB: Both sides of my family originally two generations ago were joint families. Families were large. Brothers lived with one another and with their respective families. Meals were eaten together. The children played together. Festivals were celebrated. My parents, uncles and aunts romanticize about those days fondly. Through thick and thin, duty towards each other was put before individual pursuits. Marriages were not solely about love but rather for the welfare of the family’s status and well-being. Those expectations for many were oppressive. And now those joint families have broken apart. What commonly remains is an old family estate. As some moved on to far away lands and pursued success in a contemporary context, others held on to the ways and rituals of the past. That conflict of family bonds is complex and messy and represents a framework to explore the changing face of Indian society today. “Patang” is a fable. There is no clear resolution. One returns seeking the fond memories of his youth. Another struggles holding on to tradition. The future of the old family home became a centerpiece for the drama.

For me, this is my past – where I am from. We make films as therapy. To deal with conflict that is within. As I see the quarrels continue on both sides over property and relationships drift apart as we all pursue our own lives, something precious is being lost. Through celebration – whether it is a wedding, an annual reunion, a game of cards, a kite festival – we come together and some of that resentment washes away. The happiness, the little happiness returns. That is my “Patang.”

The narrative of “Patang” is set during a four-day period in the Indian city of Ahmedabad, during its annual kite festival, which is the largest in the world. The city is a central character in the film; its rooftops, alleyways and shops, and I know that you spent a fair amount of time there before shooting the film. How did your time exploring the city help to shape the story itself?

PB: I spent three years doing research. I would live in Ahmedabad one to three months a year. I began by shyly getting to know the community. I would spend time with kids in difficult areas flying kites, interviewing kite makers, gossiping with grandmothers, hanging out with teenagers in love, drinking chai and talking hours with the locals about everything. This was vital for me. I grew up on the south side of Chicago and was conscious of my perspective. I wanted to let go of that and create a film that was an anthem for Ahmedabad.

By the third year, I knew so many people. I was a fixture on the old treats of Ahmedabad with my camera. I began to find the scenes that I had written in real life. I would sit in a kite shop following a young boy working there – just as it was written. I would fly kites with old masters and young proteges. I would shoot boys flirting with girls as they allowed them to hold their spools and briefly hold the line.

This exploration was vital. I was not an outsider bringing my point of view. I was an agent to allow people to tell their own stories. Everything came out of it – from the events of the story, the characters, the moments. But even more – my process. The way we shot the film, worked with our talent, worked with the community – it all came from that research. I don’t know if I will ever have the luxury to engage in such a long meticulous research process. I will always treasure it.

Much of Patang was shot in a more “live” way, where your actors (including Seema Biswas, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Sugandha Garg) worked alongside many non-actors, and many dramatic scenes were shot in a more documentary style, incorporating in live settings and dynamics. What kind of challenges did this pose to you, and at the same time, creatively, what did this open up?

PB: Throughout “Patang,” my objective was to have my cast live on screen and keep the environment as it was. I wanted them to actually experience the script in real life. For instance when the nineteen-year-old kite flyer Bobby (Aakash Maherya) kisses Priya (Sugandha Garg), it was not only the character’s first kiss in the script it was Aakash’s first kiss in real life.

I would have our team light an entire space. I would not block. Shanker Raman, my cinematographer, and I would shoot together, rarely speaking, just being. The cast would move about freely in the space. We would do long takes. And shoot for hours for a single scene.

We many times would shoot on location. That required all of us to be very focused on preserving the environment as it was. We need to be respectful, quiet and gain the trust of the community.

The results are beautifully naturalistic. There are moments that one could not dream of directing. Creatively, this was one of the most exhilarating aspects of making “Patang.” As a director it required me to be very present, sensitive to the environment. I had to lead my crew, first and foremost, not to find their conventional skill sets but to let themselves maintain an energy so life could unfold untouched. This is exceedingly difficult but rewarding. I loved the challenge. Many times, I lost it on set when someone from my crew would aggressively try to push onlookers in a certain way.

I would always pair an actor with a non-actor. The actor would have to have to let go of their craft and just be present. The best actors seem as if they are not acting. For instance, Hamid, the main child actor featured in the film, is rarely acting. He is just himself. When he chased a fallen kite, he chased just as he always did. There was no difference. When a non-actor is with an actor, the actor provides dramatic guidance; the actor is my co-director. They know the arc of the scene.

The challenges we faced were largely in the edit. There was a lot of footage to comb through. Many times there was not the conventional coverage of over the shoulder shots and so forth. So every scene became a monumental creative puzzle to piece together.

What are you working on now?

PB: For most of my career, I have put all my love into my art. When I have been lost in the process of making things, I felt alive – and everything else took a back seat. I am trying to slow down and put that love back into myself.

In the long run, I’ll be back making films. But right now the odds of making a profitable Independent film are 5000 to 1. No one knows the answers. And as romantic as it is, at the age of 40, those odds are too skewed to bet everything on. Don’t get me wrong, I am that good. But I need to live well and invest in the little things, welcome and learn by collaborating, embrace the new forms of storytelling and get paid – before I embark on another grand journey.

That being said, I’m writing. Seeking representation as a commercial director. Curiously exploring and experimenting. Expect more for sure. It is just the beginning.