Praveen Morchhale is an Indian director and screenwriter. He made his feature debut with ”Barefoot to Goa” (2015). His second movie, “Walking with the Wind” (2017), screened at many international film festivals and received three National Awards in India, the most important laurel for Indian independent filmmakers. “Widow of Silence” (2018) had its European premiere at Rotterdam. In 2018, it won Indian competition at the International Film Festival in Kolkata.
On the occasion of his latest film, “Widow of Silence“, screening at Festival International des Cinémas d’Asie de Vesoul, we speak with him about the plight of Kashmiri women, the humane approach to the cinema, the importance of having the distinguished style, Abbas Kiarostami and many other topics.
Additional questions and recording: Panos Kotzathanasis.
Why you have chosen to tell about the fate of Kashmiri women?
I heard about “half-widows” and the mere sound of this word disturbed me. So I did a lot of research, reading books, both press and online articles. I have found the situation of those women very painful and undignified. Plenty of people are not aware of their plight and don’t know about conditions in Kashmir so I decided it is an important subject for a movie. I wanted to put some light on this darker side of the life of Kashmiris. To provoke a discussion and some kind of dialogue. We have to tackle certain subjects which are very sensitive in India in a balanced way. My movie doesn’t talk directly about politics and why the Kashmir problem is there. We focus on the human side of the story, the personal suffering of Aasia, and the peripheral characters of her daughter and mother.
Vishal Bhardwaj received threats and was accused of being “antinational” after making Kashmiri-themed “Haider”. Weren’t you afraid of any difficulties?
I do believe that as a brave filmmaker, you will always take some kind of risk. At present, it is certainly not a very suitable time in India for directors like me, who just want to tell their stories freely. However, if we worry about possible consequences too much, we would probably not be able to make movies, not only about Kashmir, but also about any other sensitive subject. No matter is it in India or anywhere else in the world, I think everything is political. Even if you choose to stay quiet, it is a kind of political declaration. So it is better to say something important. In the worst scenario, they can ban my movie, but they can’t stop me from making cinema.
It seems that you feel the responsibility to tell stories that matter.
Making cinema means documenting society. And filmmakers have a responsibility to portray those burning issues which people prefer to ignore and are not ready to talk about them. Cinema in India has become very commercialized. Like everything. Even the directors who are trying to make good cinema, the realistic one, include that entertaining factor. People take out a calculator before discussing the script with you. They ask about the investment and how much they would earn. But in that money race, it is easy to forget that the most important aspect of cinema is human. So it is very important for me to make movies that connect the audience and the filmmaker and touch your heart.
Do you feel that in order to become a director you have to watch many films?
I watch only a little. In my life I have seen only around sixty-five movies and those days I don’t watch television. So sometimes I watch just two films a year, but I believe you don’t need to watch a lot of movies to make them. You have to tell your own stories in your own way. Nowadays, because of the development of technology, plenty of films are being made and only two to five stand out of this crowd. If you watch a lot of those similar to one another movies, you will end up making one of them. Every film and filmmaker should be distinctive. You should have your own identity. You should have your own language of cinema, your own strong voice and style, your own way of telling stories. And for that, I need not go to the cinema.
You’ve worked twice with the Iranian cinematographer Mohammad Reza Jahanpanah. Your interest in human, the scarce dialogue and the camerawork remind of Abbas Kiarostami. “Walking with the Wind” even shares the title of Kiarostami’s poem and book. Were you inspired by works of him or some other Iranian filmmakers?
I have seen 2-3 movies of Abbas Kiarostami and what I loved the most was his human approach. He was telling stories of the ordinary people confronted with extraordinary situations. Straightforward, without much drama. I am also a very simple person and I like to tell everything in uncomplicated way. So yes, I was influenced by him and I am making my cinema in that simple and human-focused way, with less drama, rooted to my own country and society and telling beautiful stories of people’s relationships. Indeed, “Walking with the wind” has the title of Kiarostami’s book. When we were shooting this film in Ladakh, Abbas Kiarostami died. We were in mountains, so we came to know that only after a few days when we got mobile connectivity. DOP [Mohammad Reza Jahanpanah] is a great enthusiast of Kiarostami and I also respect that director as a beautiful filmmaker and a very humble person. So we made that tribute with the title. We also included some shots as a homage to his earlier film “Where Is the Friend’s Home” and we also dedicated the movie to Kiarostami.
How do you find your stories?
Observing the people, their social, cultural and political situation, especially when I am traveling, is the main source of my stories. When I encounter something unique I decide: “okay, this can be told to the world”.
What happens next?
When the idea comes to my mind, I do a lot of research. Before writing even a single page of a script I go to locations, I think of a story I can tell in that area, the places and landscape. I go there; I stay there with people for five–seven days. I observe them, those real-life people, and decide if I can put them in my script. Then I write. And mostly my scripts are just the one draft, covering around seventy or even less, fifty percent of the movie. We improvise the rest on the location, adding new characters if we find them and dialogues. But we have guidelines and we make a visual plan.
A visual plan?
Where we are going to take this shot, which house we choose, which location exactly. We are very clear from the beginning, so it saves a lot of time and it also gives me a visual flow.
You tend to work with non-professional actors. How do you choose them?
I am generally just trying to find an interesting person, who talks or walks in a specific way. It adds a very unique flavor to the character. I generally don’t do any auditions. Most probably I will talk to people for some time. If I find them confident, that’s it. I use their natural abilities and traits. In my second movie “Walking with the Wind” I had a blind person playing a blind person, a poet playing a poet, a real teacher acting as a teacher, farmer as a real farmer. They were all doing what they actually do in their lives. They know the profession, they know how to talk and behave. It eases my task and also brings a lot of realism, making my movies similar to documentaries or docufiction.
So, in real life, who is Bilal from “Widow of Silence”, a poet in a disguise of a taxi driver?
Bilal was my… taxi driver there. He dropped us to the shooting location from Srinagar. Whenever I had some small task for him like “get me a cup of tea”, he was replying in a very poetic way and with a long line. I found his language very poetic and subtle so I really wanted to cast him. He agreed and came for the shooting, stopping his taxi business for several days. Initially was very nervous. But after few days he got used to us and the situation. He was a free-flow type of character. We never asked him to do anything else apart from being himself. We gave him some lines, having explained him the meaning of the particular scene so that he could improvise accordingly. And he did it, from the bottom of his heart.
Speaking of the heart, why “Widow of Silence” protagonist, Aasia, refuses to start a new life with a man who loves her?
I think she is in a dilemma as she travels the journey of her life. She is always confused about what she should do. If she married again and her first husband would come back, she would have to go back to him. Also she has a daughter, so maybe she is worried about the society’s response. People don’t encourage widows to remarry. And men do not want to marry widows. That is very strange. Besides, the whole story happens within a span of several dramatic days. So actually we don’t know what would have happened next and in different circumstances.
Aasia comes to the government’s office day after day. Also other characters follow daily routines. Do those repetitions reflect receptiveness of life?
The movie shows that life keeps on going, despite all the painful events. My characters lead a very simple, yet troubled life. Every day they are scrutinized, they are being checked at check posts, there’s plenty of mistrust. People are taking the taxi and they go to the town, they come back. I put different members of society in one car. That taxi becomes a tool to expose the social and political issues again and again. So repetitively I use same shots and locations what symbolizes that whatever happens, life goes on.
What about the significance of another symbol you used: flowers?
I used flowers as a symbol of delicacy, wanted to show the beauty of human nature with flowers. Kashmir is beautiful place. It has been influenced by Persians, with Sufism and the mysticism, so it is very poetic. People of Kashmir or people anywhere in the world are very beautiful. They are like flowers and when you “touch them” with a gun, they get hurt. This is a symbolism hidden in the words spoken by Bilal. However flowers reflects not only beauty, but also strength. They can win with guns at the end of the day.
Aasia makes two flower bouquets…
Yes, when the climax happen, she pays the respect to the deceased with the flowers. But also she demonstrates: “the weak became stronger than you”. She also carries flowers to the police station as a symbol of defeating a rotten, corrupted system. She defeated that system with her intelligence. She leaves the flowers on a police station bench as if saying: “whatever you do, you can’t defeat me”.
Also the landscape seems meaningful.
Landscape is extremely important for me because I treat it as a separate character. It becomes an integral part of the whole story. “ Widow of Silence” couldn’t have happened anywhere else, because this subject is a very relevant aspect of the Kashmiri society. The film had to be shot there. Otherwise, it would be fake and soulless. Similarly “Walking with the Wind” was shot in Ladakh and mountains are an important symbol there, the symbol of toughness and hardships.
You once told that audience is smarter than a filmmaker. From your experiences of interacting with an audience during Q&As, do viewers “read” you movies according to your intentions? Or do they find aspects that surprise you?
Whatever we try, at the end of the day it is the audience who decides what exactly you told. I’ve been surprised many times by interpretations taken by the viewers. Even when I make a film with some certain ideas on mind, the audience finds very different layers. I am trying to leave everything open. For example, someone perceived “Widow of Silence” as the tale about rotten bureaucracy in India. I never thought of it from that point of view. I focused, as we spoke, on human aspect. So this is a superb side of cinema that your work is open for so many interpretations.
And how international audience is responding to “localness” of your movies?
If they watch my film, they want to see a movie from India, made in Indian locations and with Indian characters, they want to get familiar with their unique stories. So I’m very so happy that my all three movies have been well appreciated across the world. Those stories are made in remote places and people enjoy that. International viewers understand the problems I address. So it’s very important for me to keep my cinema very local, but same time those stories are global because I speak about universal values.
You have shown your movies at many festivals across the globe. What does attending festivals mean to you and your work?
Without festivals, I won’t have any audience. We spoke about the situation in India, that cinema is very commercialized, so it is not possible to play movies like mine in theatres outside the festival circuit. Festival selections give me encouragement to keep working on the cinema I love. “Widow of Silence” has so far been shown in Busan, Göteborg, Rotterdam and Vesoul. And a sales agency from Los Angeles contacted me. It is a big thing for a small independent film from India to get a sales agent like that. Now the movie has a potential to reach audiences outside festivals, maybe on TV in different countries or VODs. It is a big satisfaction.
You have done movies in different Indian languages. “Widow of Silence” is in Urdu. And “Walking with the Wind” is in Ladakhi, the language which is, as far as I know, not familiar for you. How is the experience of directing a movie in a language you do not understand?
All my three movies were shot in different languages. I know a little bit of Urdu, but not 100 percent. In Ladakhi, I do not know any single word. But I feel that every language has the same emotions. We are laughing; we are crying and we love. We are all the same. So when I direct and people are acting, I can understand whether they mirror emotions I wanted them to show. Besides, always somebody local is assisting me, what is a big support. That person gives instructions to actors and also explains to me what was said in the dialog. If the result is satisfying, than we have it. If not, we discuss the nature of the scene again. But I do not direct too much. I allow my cast to improvise according to their understanding of the scene and their characters. As long as they achieve something close to my intentions, I am happy.
“Walking with the Wind” bagged three National Awards. “Widow of Silence” was awarded in Kolkata. Have this recognition helped you to find possible funds for your future projects?
Winning that award is a great recognition of your work. But in India, winning awards doesn’t mean you will get funding. Nobody has approached me neither after Nationals nor Kolkata to offer financial help with my future projects. Maybe it happened to others, I don’t know. But on the other side I am fiercely independent. I don’t want any interference in the way I tell my stories. So relying only on myself, I can do whatever I plan. If somebody approached me with an offer of financing, I would require a 100-percent artistic freedom.