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Field to Factory: Film and ethnography of industrialisation in Chhattisgarah, Central India

Ajay T.G. interviewed by Margaret Dickinson on November 10th 2002

The interview was done in a mixture of Hindi and English. In the following transcript the Hindi has been translated into English.

On The Journey

M. D: Ajay, we'll talk first of all about the film, The Journey. You were cameraman on Rita's five minutes family film Papa says....., So, how was it that you ended up as co-director of Rita's longer film- The Journey.

A.T. G: This film (Papa Says) belonged to the initial stage of training and we went to Rita's house to shoot and found that her family was not prepared for shooting and that Rita had not talked to them earlier about the film. So, we had a meeting and Rita herself was not prepared. She did not know how to make the film, what was its idea. So we had a meeting. We thought we should do something about it and we talked to her family, her father and her mother. Then after that we found out things which even Rita did not know earlier. So, I decided to help her and after the shooting and editing of Rita's five minute film I kept feeling, day after day, that something more could come out of it. So, at the time of our vacation I started editing that film again and according to my thinking I gave a new direction to it and we shot some more material. So, in a way I directed this film and I got a credit for that.

M. D: How did Rita react to your direction?

A.T. G: During the editing of the whole film Rita never complained but she h talked to others and I heard that she was scared that her family and lots of her personal private matters were being brought before the public. But she never said anything to me nor did she react but when she was given the chance to edit the film and I was directing it, she kept on delaying without any reason. Apart from this she never told me straight that she did not like it, but I felt that after the making of the film apart from something about her sister and something about what her father said about her birth, apart from this she was happy with that film. Afterwards when she saw that people like it, then also perhaps her attitude changed.

M. D: How far do you think the film actually reflects what was going on in her family?

A.T. G: (long pause) It seemed to me, up to a point I tried to bring out the truth, to shoot the condition of her family but in my heart I feel there is something which is still being hidden about her life, her family and even though it is close there is something central that is missed. For example, I was never able to interview her brother even though he stays with the family. He didn't want to cooperate. There is a family tension relating to him which can't be seen in the film. That is what I feel.

M. D: Sunil reacted very negatively to the film when it was shown in Göttingen. He said that it's wrong to expose a family's private affairs and he objected to that. What do you think about that ?

A.T. G: For me that film is not Rita's father's story. For me it is a reflection of society. I did not make it just as a personal film. Those feelings I had about women in society and the social bonds which are meant for women were always in mind - The Sanskrit 'sloka', 'Father protects the virgin, brother protects the ward. ..' etc. that was very much in mind at the time of making the film. So, it is wrong if someone says that her private life has been shown. Without doing that how can I show the face of society, the feeling against women? How can I show that? That was important for me and in my view it is not about individuals; it is about society.

M. D: Has the family seen it? You said Rita is now quite happy with it herself. But has the family seen it and if so what they feel about it?

A.T. G: The second film the family has never seen. The second version.

M. D: They've never seen it?

A. T. G. I think not. We didn't get time to show it.

M. D: There were a couple of times they were invited weren't there but they never came?

A.T. G: Rita's father did not come perhaps. Her family did not come. So I can't talk about their reaction.

M. D: Do you feel there was a deliberate avoidance about showing it to them?

A.T. G: No. I wanted to watch the film with them. I feel that I got involved with her father and mother, I mean conversed with them and got involved with them that I don't think that her father would be against the film..

M. D: Not you. I mean Rita..

A. T, G: May be. Because one day we arranged a show for everyone and her father and mother didn't come. She had not called them. She said she had called her sister but she didn't come either, this is what she said.

M. D: How do you feel generally about the film now it is finished?

A.T. G: I feel happy with the finished product. I was not satisfied but I am quite happy, because I managed to say something in that film which I wanted to say. But it didn't turn out very well (as a film) I feel sorry about that but even so, I think I managed to say something I wanted to say. I am happy about that.

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About Letters and Learning

M. D: Now we'll talk about Letters and Learning; how did the idea for this film evolve?

A.T. G: I wanted to make a film on Mangtu based on Johnny's research and we had talked earlier about Johnny writing the script. Since I know Mangtu intimately and know many things about him, making a film on him was very difficult for me. Because there are many different stories about his life and different things which really interest me about him and which I feel might be of interest to other people too. So, making a film which covers everything is not so easy and perhaps not possible. So we decided on Mangtu's education... The main reason for this is that when we talked to Mangtu every body complained that Mangtu was illiterate, rustic. They would say things like: 'why do you ask him ? If you ask him about a mango he will tell you about a jackfruit' Even his own children complain that he is not educated, he doesn't know anything. They talk like this. So, a feeling came within me, an idea that if we know that Mangtu has talent, skills and a very good memory and besides is a successful father, a successful human being and yet people still complain about his education, we should make the film on this and so we decided to make this film.

M. D: Having come around to that idea yourself about the film, how far did you discuss it with Johnny and how far did you simply carry on by yourself?

A.T. G: In the beginning, I discussed the film a lot with Johnny because I expected Johnny to write a script for it. But later on it seemed I would have to make the film myself. So I started thinking myself and started working on it in my own way. I tried to make this film in my own way because I wanted this film to be different from others. So I tried to make it in my own style. Now how far I succeeded only the film will show.

M. D: More generally, in your approach as a filmmaker, how far has working with Johnny being an influence on you?

A.T. G: Regarding the choosing of the subject and considering it Johnny was a great influence on me but Johnny as a sociologist has a point of view that wanted to include many things in the film which was not possible. I tried shot and shot many things which I couldn't use.

M. D: Do you think sometimes non-filmmakers don't quite understand what the purpose of a film is?

A.T. G: Yes. Perhaps ...(laughter). perhaps.

M. D: What about generally in your work, have you been influenced by any filmmaker or photographer?

A.T. G: During the training we saw many documentaries among which there was one documentary 'Island Race.' This impressed me a lot, the style of its making in which there was neither interview nor interior shots and I tried a great deal to make this film on the same pattern. But it did not work because I was not sufficiently prepared.

[Interviewers' note: Island Race, 1996, by William Raban, was shot in Tower Hamlets, East London during 19994/5. The film presents without verbal comment a series of exterior images, some filmed when nothing out of the ordinary is happening, some filmed during public events including the London Marathon, a local election in which a member of the British National Party won a seat and the street parties commemorating VE day. Raban's work is normally classified as artist's film.]

A.T. G: So far as camera is concerned, I can't say that I like any particular cameraman. When I see a film, I retain in my mind various frames and images which appeal to me and I forget the rest. The sense that I like something comes out spontaneously from within.

At the time of framing a film the frame should be carefully chosen. Every frame should have depth of field. It should have a little motion and I don't like profile shots even though I had to use them in several places in this film because Mangtu's personality is such that we had to shoot in a way that fitted in with it.

M. D: So what comes out on screen is not necessarily, doesn't really represent your basic policy about film making? How is it if you didn't really want too many profiles but ended up with so many ?

A.T. G: I think in documentary it is rather difficult to use a frame that was decided earlier. Specially the type of documentary which is not like a fiction, not made to plan. I mean when we take a camera and sit t (with the subject) and talk to them or shoot their activities. So in my experience it is not at all possible to shoot like this and stick to a prearranged plan. Usually the framing gets disrupted in the middle of the shooting but since the conversation is more important than the frame it has to be used.

M. D: You also in training made a short fiction. How do your interests divide between fiction and documentary?

A.T. G: I found that fiction and documentary are totally different. But some times, there were times with this film and I felt that I could convey more to people by using fiction. At the time of making the fiction film [Interviewers' note: this is Jeet, a short drama for malaria prevention] I had preplanned in my mind every frame, every moment and every thing which should happen. But when I shot (Letters and Learning) I wanted to shoot it like a documentary as I was not making a fiction film but it was Mangtu sitting there and me observing him. I tried to shoot it accordingly. So we did not shoot this story in a planned way. All of a sudden we would go somewhere and look to see what was happening. That's how we did the shooting.

M. D: If we can go back to the subject of the Letters and Learning for a moment, our faculty, Gautam, said that you make a very unusual argument in that you make quite a strong criticism of existing literacy campaigning and I just wonder whether this will seem stranger to an Indian audience than to a European audience?

A.T. G: I think that this is true. The best example of this is that among my friends, in the social world in which I live, every one is in the government publicity unit [Interviewers' note: he means in literacy promotion] and supports it and they think also the same way as the government. In the beginning I also took part in the literacy campaign for some days but very soon I started to wonder what I was doing. Rather than teaching them I was depressing them by telling them that they can't read and write. When I started to feel that way I immediately left and started thinking. This is partly because I have my own experience about literacy. My friends are all educated, like M.A. M.Com. I know they have certificates (and I don't) but I am not in any way inferior to them. I know as much as they know about their subjects, even more than them. So , I felt this deeply and wanted to show it in this film. Definitely it is for society to think. Perhaps they won't like this criticism.

[Interviewer's note: Ajay is referring here to the limited nature of his own formal education. He left school after the 10th class and did not go to college. A more lasting disadvantage was that he had most of his schooling in Malayalam and then suddenly had to switch to Hindi when he was brought to Bhilai as a teenager. ]

M. D: The film of course isn't finished yet, but looking ahead, what kind of audience would you hope would watch it?

A.T. G: Yes, first of all I want the common people to see it. Then those who make rules and regulations about literacy should first see this film and should try to know and understand what I am trying to say. I want social workers and people who work for literacy, who put direct pressure on people in the name of education, I want them to see the film and understand what they are doing wrong.

M. D: So when it is finished we really ought to try and see if we can tie up with some of the literacy people and have it shown in some of their seminars or something. I mean your target audience isn't really the British student of Anthropologist, is it?

A. T. G: It's for those people too. As well as being about literacy it is about Mangtu's family, his society. You can see a lot about his work and his children and the work his daughters-in-law do.

M. D: You used to be very active in the Communist Party. Do you think that your politics have an influence on your filmmaking?

A.T. G: I think that this might be so because my inmost thoughts, the style of my thinking, everything is connected with it so this might definitely affect me. For a long time I was a member of the Communist Party, and I am still working for its public organization, in spite of everything. I am not a blind supporter of the Communist Party. I see things according to my understanding, my point of view. Then I react to it. Sometimes my way of thinking goes like this, if a man is unemployed or for example there is Tamaskar in this film [Interviewers' note: one of Mangtu's sons] and my view about him is that he is all right. He gambles and is a failure in many ways and is not getting the kind of job he wants. In the capitalist society in which he lives his wishes and wants are not fulfilled. So, he starts to look for the easiest method to fulfill them as soon as possible. It is a kind of evil in society that he does this kind of thing. This is what I feel when I see such people. So far as film making is concerned, I am very happy about the film that I have made. I never want to make a film on some industrialist or on a person I have no sympathy but if I had to do it then I would try to make the film as good and as artistic as possible. I would never think that I won't do this. If I am do anything I try to do it as well as possible.

M.D.: The film is not finished yet but I saw you were showing Mangtu the rough cut the other day. What did he think of it?

A.T. G: After seeing the film he was very happy and very soon he wants to see this film with his family. I tried to ask him what he likes and dislikes in it but he said no, no, he liked the film very much and after returning home he told his family that he had seen the film and everyone is in it. He likes seeing everyone, that it is about everyone.

M. D: Is there anything else you want to say about it?

A.T. G: Yes. It is that perhaps Tamasker himself would not like this film because from the time we started making it he was wondering how his character would be portrayed. He said that I wanted to cast him in such and such a way. I said, 'no I don't want to show you like that. I have tried to show your reality' and I explained to him that this film is not about him. It is about an individual in society. He should think of it as an aspect of society and that he is an individual related to that aspect. Then he agreed. Otherwise he wanted to be shot wearing smart trousers and shirt or working in the fields. One shot like that was attempted but it did not come out well.