Home CINEMA BY THE RIVER: My Journey

BY THE RIVER: My Journey

മരണം തത്വ ചിന്തക്കും യുക്തി ചിന്തക്കും ഭക്തിക്കും കാവ്യഭാവനക്കും അനാദികാലം മുതൽ  വിഷയമായിട്ടുണ്ട്. ഏതു അജയ്യനും അടിയറവു പറയുന്ന സവിധം. പുനഃപ്രക്ഷേപണം നടത്താനാവാത്ത ചലന ചിത്രം. വീണ്ടെടുക്കാനാവാത്ത system failure. അത് കൊണ്ടാവും മനുഷ്യൻ മതങ്ങളിലൂടെ മരണത്തിനപ്പുറം ഒരു ലോകം പണിതത്. ഇഹലോക ജീവിതത്തേക്കാൾ മനോഹരമായ മോക്ഷം കാണിച്ചു മനുഷ്യന്റെ ജീവിതാസക്തിയെ തണുപ്പിച്ചത്. ചില നിയുക്ത സ്ഥലങ്ങളിൽ ബലിയർപ്പിച്ചാൽ ആത്മാവ് കൂടുതൽ തൃപ്തിപ്പെടുമെന്ന നിഷ്കർഷ ആ സ്ഥലങ്ങളുടെ വാണിജ്യ സാധ്യത വർദ്ധിപ്പിച്ചിട്ടുണ്ട്. വാരാണസിയിൽ വെച്ച് മരിച്ചാൽ പുനർജ്ജനിയിൽ നിന്ന് മുക്തമായി മോക്ഷം പ്രാപിക്കുമെന്ന വിശ്വാസം ആ ഗംഗാതീര നഗരത്തെ ആസന്നമരണരുടെ ഇടത്താവളമായി മാറ്റിയതിനെ  കുറിച്ചാണ് ഈ ഡോക്യുമെന്ററി. ഇത് പകർത്തുന്ന അനാസക്തിയും ജീവിത നിഷേധവും പ്രേക്ഷകരെ അസ്വസ്ഥരാക്കും. ഒരു കൂട്ടരുടെ മരണാഭിമുഖ്യം മറ്റൊരു വിഭാഗത്തിന്റെ ജീവിതോർജ്ജമായി മാറുന്ന വൈരുധ്യവും ഇതിൽ കാണാം. ഡോക്യൂമെന്ററിയുടെ പണിപ്പുര ദൃശ്യങ്ങളും അനുഭവങ്ങളും ആണ് പ്രൊഡ്യൂസർ ചാരുലത മേനോൻ  ലേഖനത്തിൽ പങ്കുവെക്കുന്നത്. ഇടക്കുള്ള ലിങ്കിൽ ക്ലിക്ക് ചെയ്താൽ  ടീസർ കാണാം.
– പി എൽ ലതിക

THE GENESIS

I can’t remember when I first got interested in the topic of death. Like any self-respecting student of literature, I did go through phases of devouring my share of nihilist and existential literature trying to understand what death meant through the brilliant poetry and prose that had been written about it. You could say this may have started it off. But I do remember being distinctly fascinated by the idea of “death hotels” in Varanasi when I first heard about them almost a decade ago now.

What fascinated me then was the idea of a death industry in Varanasi – one that was born out of the Hindu belief that every human soul undergoes 8.2 million rebirths as various life forms before attaining the human form. It’s only in the human form that one can hope to achieve liberation. Dying in Varanasi can fast track this process and help you achieve liberation instantly. This meant there was a whole industry surrounding death in Varanasi – hotels that advertised they were the “purest” for only 1 out of every 10 people who checked in ever had to check out, wood merchants who claimed using their product on the funeral pyre made the liberation process instant and pure, river bank/ghat committees that each compete over the sanctity of having funerals on their side of the bank. There was something unnerving about the way everyday business thrived in Varanasi while upholding a very deep faith and a stoic acceptance of what death meant. I remember reading about this and making a mental note about making a film about it. One day. In the future.

Cut to 2019.

I’m in advertising, working for a lovely company called Heckler in Sydney, Australia. A company full of gorgeous, creative people that make you feel like you are home. It was here that I met my collaborators. Dan Braga – a Designer/Director from Norway who happened to be working on a different project with me. A project that was fully 3D and had an insane schedule which meant we needed to babysit renders at least until 2 or 3AM to make delivery.

Since there was no actual work to do, apart from literally baby-sitting the renders, we got chatting. We spoke about ideas, films, passion projects we wanted to pursue and potentially collaborating on something. I mentioned my idea about Varanasi. Dan instantly loved it. We discussed exploring a bit more in a treatment. A couple of days later, it was the weekend and I remember I was camping at the gorgeous Cattai National Park. It was a soul stirring night full of stars and the gentle sound of a river trickling next to our tent. As with any Aussie camping trip, we had our share of ‘locals’ paying us a visit too! Here’s some pictures that will give you an idea of the setting.

It was here that I first checked my email with Dan’s creative treatment for the film. There was one spot where one could catch a spot of WiFi and I remember downloading the PDF, thinking I would read it later but being instantly drawn to it. It was nothing like the political documentary I had in mind. Instead it was just a meditative, beautiful take on life and death. A human film. It packaged up a profound human truth in the gentlest, most soothing way. This was the moment I knew we had to make this film.

DEVELOPMENT

The next few weeks consisted of research, research and more research. I engaged a production company in Bangalore, ShotReady Productions, run by one of my oldest friends and one of the best in the business – Siddharth Bhavnani. Sid’s team organized a recce visit to Varanasi to record some pre-interviews with our potential subjects. We wanted to get a sense of the environment and the full picture so we could decide what would make it into our documentary. Unlike with feature documentaries where you film over months, sometimes years and then piece together a story on the edit table, ours was a short doco and we would only be able to afford a shoot of five days. So, we needed to be really structured and streamlined in our approach – almost planning it like you would an advertising film. This was important both from an editorial point of view – to be able to capture the essence of Varanasi in under half an hour and also a budgetary point of view. Neha, our production manager in India sent us pre-interviews from guests staying at two different hotels –1.  Mukti Bhawan, where guests are given 15 days to die (achieve salvation) and if they don’t they are politely asked to check out as there’s usually a long list of people waiting to check in and 2.Mumukshu Bhawan, where guests stay for as long as 30-40 years just waiting for death. Although there were a few other hotels/bhawans offering similar options, we decided to focus on the guests from these two hotels. Some characters instantly stood out for us. We started crafting a paper edit using them as our key storytellers. At the end of development, our story-map looked something like this. This plotted out the different chapters or narrative arcs in the film.

We also prepared a visual mood-board that was our guide for the visual tone of the film.

As the editorial structure developed, we started to see the bones of the film emerge. It was time to commence pre-production!

PRE-PRODUCTION

While the creative/editorial side of things were in full swing, it was also important to find the right team to pull this off. We were keen to shoot this using beautiful cinematic, anamorphic lenses on an Alexa Mini so we could really capture the beautiful colors and textures that comes with shooting in India. Caleb Ware, an Australian DOP based in Sunshine Coast seemed like exactly the right fit. His work had a soulful quality to it and when Dan and I pitched the idea to him over a call, he was all in. He introduced us to Esteban Rivera, another DOP who would come along to India as our First Assistant Camera.

Meanwhile I had pitched the idea to my boss and Heckler’s EP & Co-Founder, Will Alexander who loved the idea and instantly offered all post-production free of charge for the film. He also let me take my 3 weeks of annual leave at a time when Heckler was at its busiest for which I will forever be grateful. Heckler’s Senior Editor, Andrew Holmes fell so much in love with the idea that he decided to take unpaid leave and travel to India with us. He also flew in his parents from New Zealand to help take care of his kids in Sydney while he was away. All of this love and support even before we’d made it was overwhelming and we were buzzing from it.

We also managed to rope in LA based composer Dustin Lau. Dustin was Dan’s preferred choice. He’s someone who had worked on a short film for Dan before and his music had a certain ethereal, beautiful quality to it. With Dustin on board, we knew we had an all-star team. All we had to do was now find a way to get to India.

In March 2019, I decided to travel to Melbourne to try and get some funding for the film. Having never dabbled in documentaries before, it was a shot in the dark but I’d heard that the AIDC (Australian International Documentary Conference) that’s held at ACMI in Melbourne every year brought Commissioning Editors and acquisition heads from all the major content platforms around the world together. There was a lot of demand for factual content. It was a matter of pitching it right. This world was new to me. I had prepared a deck which had our creative treatment, mood reel, a budget and a marketing/distribution pathway document together. I learnt that it was like an elevator pitch situation. So you had to use the AIDC app to request 10 -20 minute meetings with the key investors you want to meet.  Once they accept, they come to your table and it’s like a speed dating event where you get 20 minutes to really excite them about the idea .. or not! The number of meetings you plan really depended on your energy. For the 4 days I was there, I managed to pack in about 16-18 a day. It was exhilarating. I booked a spot in the café where I held all my meetings.

Thanks to some wonderful people, new friends that I made at AIDC, I managed to have a few successful meetings. ABC (Australia’s national broadcaster), NHK from Japan, The Guardian, NZ’s Doc Edge were all super keen and happy to give me written Letters of Intent which I learnt later on were invaluable in securing grant funding as well. I was also introduced to some philanthropic organizations by these friends/mentors who helped me navigate this completely new world. I will forever be grateful to Malinda Wink, Madeleine Heatherton, David Rokach and Jessica Douglas Henry for taking me under their wing 🙂

On a side note, outside the ACMI building where the conference was taking place was a statue that had a huge impact on me. It was the Fearless Girl by Kristen Visbal. Melbourne had become the fourth city to have a replica of the fearless girl statue erected, after the original in New York City, plus other replicas in Oslo and Cape Town. It’s such a powerful and inspiring piece.

With some of the funding and crew somewhat in place the next ordeal was visas and securing permits to shoot at the ghats. We had 4 Australians and 1 Norwegian that required an Indian visa and we also had a lot of equipment that needed to shipped to India via Carnet. Multiple visits to the visa office ensued.. filling up the right forms, the wrong forms and then the right forms to get all the applications in on time. Phew! After months of prep we were finally ready to travel to India in May. Thinking back, it was insane how we did manage to pull this off only working afterhours as we all had really busy day jobs as well. Things never really slow down at Heckler. It was so fun though.

PRODUCTION

We landed in Varanasi on a 43 degree day. We had two days of recce planned before the 5 day shoot.

We felt pretty welcome! We visited the death hotels, met the guests and got to know our potential interview subjects. This was a whole new world for my Aussie colleagues who loved getting to know the locals.

There’s something in the air in Varanasi. It’s hard to describe. It’s a sort of awareness of death although it’s not a foreboding feeling at all, rather a quiet reconciliation with a truth bigger than yourself. I could tell that my team were starting to feel transformed by the experience.

One of the first ‘death hotels’ we visited was Mumukshu Bhawan.

Here we met 86 year old Gulaab who had been staying at Mumukshu Bhawan for over 30 years. She had moved there with her husband and her mother to attain salvation through death. Both of them had passed on and she had chosen to continue to stay. Her belief in Moksha was 100%. It was her husband who initially introduced her to the concept of it but now the decision to stay on in Varanasi until her death, was entirely her own. She refused to leave the city even to attend her grandkids wedding as it was too risky. There were too many examples of people that left just for a short while back to their families in different cities and died there which meant they would have to live the 8.2 million rebirths before attaining Moksha. Her faith was firm. I remember asking her if her life would’ve taken a different route had her husband not introduced her to Mumukshu Bhawan. She said she might’ve ended up a politician! She had a lot of interest in politics back then. But she said she was so glad that education hadn’t ‘ruined her’ into choosing such a pointless career. Had she gone that route, she’d probably wear her hair short and be giving speeches in Delhi, she said having a dig at my short hair. She was super happy at the prospect of being interviewed and took a particular liking to my director Dan whom she said resembled Lord Shiva!

Another couple we met at Mumukshu were Draupadi Devi and Pratulya Burman who’d been waiting for death for over 22 years. This was an interesting couple. While Draupadi was steadfast in her belief that dying in Varanasi was essential to attain Moksha, her husband was not so sure. He had decided to to stay on as the rent was much cheaper than everywhere else in Varanasi. He didn’t want to bet on the fact that God was around, ensuring the right re-distribution of souls. He wasn’t too religious he said although he did say a little prayer if he found himself in front of a temple.

We also met young kids growing up on the ghats who occasionally made their pocket money by transporting wood for the funeral pyres. They had been seeing dead bodies around them since they were little and had no problems talking about them in the most matter-of-fact way. There was something quite chilling about hearing them speak. One little boy who was a massive cricket fan described dying like losing a wicket. There was not much to it he said. ‘It’s just that you are out’

The second ‘death hotel’ we filmed at was ‘Mukti Bhawan’ where guests were given 15 days to die. Here we met Mahesh Dwivedi and Shashi Dwivedi. They had just arrived a day ago and were confident that Shashi would attain liberation within the 15 day period. Mahesh had come to accompany her on her last journey. There was something other-worldly about being in the room with this couple. It was surreal. As I would learn days later, after shooting had wrapped up, Shashi did pass away on the 15th day and was cremated by the river bank.

We also met a ‘saadhu’/ scholar who had been living in Varanasi for several years. When we asked him about the subject of death, he said something that will stay with me forever, “The actual meaning of life can only be understood from death”.

Enthralled by these stories and characters, we kicked off filming. The days were challenging. The heat refused to let up. We were shooting from sunrise to late night which meant the crew call time on most days were 4AM. We would wrap by around 1AM the following night/morning and then have meetings in one of the hotel rooms to discuss the plan for the next day.  This was of course having a toll on our mental and physical strength but it was the only way to cover off everything we needed.

On day Four our DOP ended up in hospital from a heat stroke. Like a complete legend though he was back on Day Five. We had equipment failures with cameras and lights dying on us due to the insane heat and long hours. We got pissed on by monkeys and of course covered in human ashes when filming the cremation scene. Every single person I describe this experience to think we were completely nuts to do what we did. But ask anyone in the crew and they’ll tell you they’d do it again in a heartbeat. Something about suffering through a production like that with the right people – it makes everything worth it. We came out of that experience with hard drives full of gold.

POST PRODUCTION & DISTRIBUTION

The trip was truly lifechanging for all of us and I was grateful that after the Varanasi shoot I got to go to Bangalore straight to these two cuties (Read parents).

I needed some feeding and watering before I could be ready for the world again.

Back in Australia, we commenced post production almost immediately. We powered through the English transcriptions of the interviews so Andrew could choose the right cutaways and build the right visual sequences. It helped immensely that he could travel to India with us living, breathing the city for a week. It brought a certain authenticity to the storytelling that would’ve been hard to capture otherwise.

Since completing the edit, By the River saw its global premier at Antenna Film Festival in Australia. Around the same time, we also held a premier in Singapore where I had recently moved to. It got a great response!

Since then, the film was selected to over 15 international film festivals including the Academy Qualifying Doc Edge Film Festival in New Zealand and St Kilda in Melbourne. Our DOP Caleb Ware very deservingly picked up the Gold Tripod at the Australian Cinematographer Society awards – the highest honor in cinematography in the country. He went on to be nominated for it at the coveted Energa Camerimage! The film picked up a Silver for editing at Oslo International Film Festival and was an official selection at the United Nations International Documentary Festival, Euregion Film Festival, Jacksonville Film Festival and Nordic Docs. The film won the award for best documentary at Moscow International Film Festival 2020 The trailer of the film got featured in Best Ads of the World 2020 and the film also went on to be picked up by Australia’s national broadcaster ABC for a TV premier on their short documentary series- Compass.

It got Dan a nomination for the Young Director’s Award and it got me an opportunity to be a sitting judge on the Direction jury for D&AD 2020.

It was all so overwhelming and still is. I could not have hoped for a better response for our little passion project. A journey that transformed us all. We can’t wait for the next one.

There’s one more person that I ought to thank who kept me sane through this entire process who doesn’t quite understand why I do what I do but supports it unconditionally and for that I love him very much. Presenting the husband – Chax Poduri.

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Charu Menon is Executive Producer at the Singapore HQ of Heckler Studios. She is a multi-platform producer with more than twelve years of experience in documentary film, TV, advertising and digital content across Australia, India and South East Asia.

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