Prashant Bhargava, a native of Chicago, came to film making through the visual arts - moving from graffiti to graphic design to, finally, film making. How does a former graffiti artist tackle a kite flying festival? Like a boss.
FG: What (or who) were your artistic influences in creating Patang? The film had a wonderful sort-of enigmatic atmosphere that quite unexpected and very refreshing.
PB: I love the work of Satyajit Ray (Pather Panchali), Terence Malick (Badlands, Thin Red Line, Tree of Life), Wong Kai Wai (Happy Together, In the Mood for Love), Jia Zhangke (The World, Platform), Hirokazu Koreeda (Nobody Knows, I Wish) [EM-EFFING YES! - FG], the Dardienne Brothers (The Son, L'Enfant), Charles Burnett (Killing of Sheep). I love intimate lyrical work that is rooted in a neo-realist point of view. There are so many filmmakers of my generation that I admire as well.
FG: How tightly scripted was the film? And how much of the characters came from the actors themselves? (And as an aside, I was impressed you snagged Nawazuddin Siddiqui before he blew up! Talent will out.)
PB: I did three years of research, During that period, I slowly immersing myself in the ways of the old city. I became acquainted with its unwritten codes of conduct, its rhythms and secrets. I would sit on a street corner for hours at a stretch and just observe. Over time, I connected with shopkeepers and street kids, gangsters and grandmothers. This process formed the foundation for my characters, story and my approach to shooting the film.
We had a script. I had the pleasure of working with three wonderful professional actors. Seema Biswas was tremendous. I deeply respect and admire her work. Patang was Nawazuddin Siddiqui's first feature film lead role (we shot in 2007-2008). He is such a powerful, intuitive actor. On screen, he is a force. I am so proud that his career has taken off! Sugandha Garg is a beautiful talent.
We worked with 90% non-actors. We worked hard to cast actors that were the characters of the film in real life. A great example, Bobby (played by Aakash Mahayera - who has continued acting in theater and film since the shooting), has his first kiss as the character. Its not only his first kiss as the character, but his first kiss in real life! Many of the characters off screen were the characters of the film.
Only the actors read the script. The non-actors did not.
Preserving the naturalism of the environment which was discovered during the research guided every decision during filming, from shooting style to crew size to the process with the actors. I wanted to create the freedom for actors to live on screen rather than act. I would give my non-actors and actors emotional motivation or sometimes purely physical motivations. If I did it right, I would get the lines of the script.
Though so few people read the script, the final film closely maintains the dialogue and story of the original script.
FG: How relatable do you think the film is to Western audiences? Do you think they'll understand the tensions between the "modern" Delhi family and their hometown relatives or do you think it will go over their heads?
PB: Western audiences get it. Some may crave more drama, tragedy, objectification of the Indian experience. Patang is not a film for everyone - it requires a cultural awareness and an openness to an emotional experience. You must want to be an active viewer when you watch Patang. It is not for people who want the obvious. The storytelling is subtle and gentle. It is an invitation. If you approach Patang with an open heart, I am sure you'll enjoy it.
I am most disappointed in the narrow assumptions of distributors that audiences are shallow and need to be spoon fed sensational stories of foreigners. The economic climate has led them to take far fewer risks, opting for sexy genre flicks. Its always been like that, but now more than ever.
[This is interesting to me because I wonder how much the desire for sensational stories is a feedback loop of American audiences thinking the sensational stories ARE the real deal so they find them "realer" than the actual films foreign audiences watch and therefore want more. - FG]
I've been at over a hundred screenings now of the film. I've seen audiences at the Berlin Film Festival or audiences in the midwest at EbertFest understand the film at such a deep level. I've been surprised. Its such a beautiful thing to see a six year old kid from DC to my high school Principal feel all the layers of the film.
FG: How has the response been to the film so far? Has anything really surprised you from Indian audiences or Western audiences?
PB: The response to Patang has been amazing. We were amongst the most successful films on the festival circuit last year premiering at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival and in competition at Tribeca. I've been moved by western audiences recognizing and embracing this local anthem of Ahmedabad as a universal story of their own families. Whenever we have shared the film whether in Mexico, Stockholm or Chicago, people instantly want to travel to the kite festival of Ahmedabad. I'm surprised when my pizza man in Brooklyn or a colleague from my days as a graffiti artist relate so strongly to the film.
Our first screening was in the old city of Ahmedabad, where the film was shot. We had a few showings and about 500 people saw the film. I was so moved when they championed Patang as an anthem for their city. Too often progressive types from the big cities believe Ahmedabad is defined by the riots. [Ah! This has come up in interviews with the Indian press. - FG] But the people of Ahmedabad are not. They are defined by how they handle tragedy. Celebrations and festivals are key to moving forward. Whether it be the epic sounding kite battle sequences, the dance numbers, the raw intimacy of the way the film was shot or put together, the honesty and depth of the characters - the people of Ahmedabad felt it! I'm so proud that our film, not only in message, but also in process has championed the power of family, celebration and home.
FG: Have you been following the debate that emerged out of Cannes? Do you think the West looks down on Indian film? (And where do you think Patang falls in the debate?)
PB: Patang is the future. The rhythm and cinematic language is western. The emotional storytelling and music is very Indian. It is a local story, an anthem of Ahmedabad, and yet throughout our festival run, we have found that audiences across the world identify with the story as universal.
Paced like a European neo-realist drama, shot and edited with the rawness of Hurt Locker, Patang pushes the boundaries of what is expected from India. The West is certainly opening up to India. There is tremendous excitement and collaboration happening whether it be Michael Winterbottom making Trishna or new co-productions from Europe. Patang brings together sensibilities from both the East and West. This is a transitional time and an exciting time.
I agree with many that the West dismisses Bollywood as pop candy. And I believe that Slumdog Millionaire objectifies and sensationalizes India. I want to make stories that capture the beauty, the everyday magic of India with honest storytelling. [Preach it, brother! Has he seen anything by Bala, I wonder. - FG] While distributors may be ready to take a risk, it is resoundingly clear that there is an audience in America that craves original work from India. It's only a matter of time. For the West, our cinema is amongst the most important brand ambassadors. We need to support films like Patang that tell stories of the humanity of India.
FG: What's next for you?
PB: I shot a new feature film - a experimental music and film performance piece with Grammy nominated jazz artist Vijay Iyer. It is based on Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. I collaborated with Nawazuddin Siddiqui for a second time. We shot during Holi in Mathura. 10 days of wild primal, sexual, violent and celebratory devotion. The footage is so magical. I will be editing this summer.
[Um... this sounds freaking amazing! - FG]
I am developing a new feature with my Patang collaborator writer James Townsend and writer Jon Dorsey that is set on the south side of Chicago on the golf courses in the African American community. Kangos, Cadillacs and hustling. Is a coming of age story of a 19 year old as he learns about the realities and contradictions in life from a older veteran golf hustler.
A big thank you to Prashant for taking the time to indulge my curiosity! I wish him the best of luck and hope you all get a chance to go out and see Patang this weekend. And, Prashant, I totally have the perfect actor for your Chicago project - Jonnie Louis Brown. If he can take on Sunny Deol, he can handle anything.