Indian cinema has had its fair share of filmmaking collectives over the years, including the Odessa group in Kerala and the Yukt Film Co-operative set up Film and Television Institute of India graduates. The latest band of like-minded souls to make a film by committee is the Ektara Collective, and going by their first feature Turup (Checkmate), they are all set for glory.
Among the titles in the Indian competition section at the Mumbai Film Festival (October 12-18), Turup beautifully uses the game of chess as a metaphor for a larger set of social and political moves that have deep-seated ramifications. The movie follows the stories of a set of diverse characters amidst the backdrop of the Chakki Chauraha neighbourhood tournament, which assumes as much importance as the World Chess Championship.
Journalist Neelima has put her career on the backburner and is struggling to conceive. Her elderly maid Monika has a secret passion for chess, and is helpfully supplied newspaper clippings of chess moves by the driver Majid. Meanwhile, Majid is in love with the Dalit sweeper Lata, whose brother Deepak has become a foot soldier in a local Hindutva group that is getting increasingly agitated over inter-faith relationships.
Some of the characters set aside their differences over a game of chess, but the tensions spill over onto the board. Majid comes under suspicion; Lata has to defend her choices; Monika watches local rising Hindutva star Tiwari with disapproval and plays an important role in preventing an inter-religious relationship from flaring out of control.
Using a mix of professional and non-professional actors, the Bhopal-set Turup creates a fascinating experience of neighbourhood rhythms and manners while also commenting on the toxic divisiveness that has poisoned everyday life. While the writers are Maheen Mirza and Rinchin, the direction has been attributed to the entire group. In an interview, they revealed the process through which Turup was created.
The idea of a collective is increasingly rare in a world that places emphasis on individualism. How did Ektara fall into place?
To a large extent, filmmaking is a collective process. In recent times there has been a very strong tendency to emphasise individuality – to talk of making an individual mark, to talk of one person and his/her struggles both in the content and in the making of art (in this case cinema). This growing exclusiveness comes out of cinema’s growing dependence on and execution through a capitalist structure and mode of functioning.
On the other hand, we all liked the process of filmmaking because it is very socialist in nature. The canvas is large – it allows for so many talents, skills and crafts to come and construct something with a common vision. A film cannot be made without the collective effort of so many people, but we all tend to call it one person’s vision.
However, every vision doesn’t have to be individual. Space can be created to accommodate everyone and to also share credit. The fact that so many people come together to work just for the love of filmmaking, telling a story and working together shows that a collective works.
What does the Ektara Collective hope to achieve?
The collective came out with the desire of many of us who shared a similar world view and politics to create a space for our cultural expression. Many of us had been involved in writing, street theatre, singing and filmmaking, and most of the work we did was through collaboration. So when we came together to make a film, doing it as a collective process was the most natural way for us to work.
Ektara has made and produced two short fiction films (Chanda Ke Joote in 2011, Jaadui Machchi in 2013). The collective started with two or three people and with each work, it keeps increasing. The larger group is fluid, and people come and go on a film-to-film basis, but as people start owning the space, the space expands.
The core group which has been there for all three films has Maheen Mirza, Rinchin, Sushil, Pallav Thudgar, Subramanya, Hassath, Maninder, Madhu Dhurve. There are others too, Kanak, Fareeda, Sanjay Raraiyya, Seema, Priyanka, Aaloka, Shivani etc.
How does a film get made by committee?
The process is of finding a story that we want to tell and then working on it through a process that has a lot of feedback. Once the outline of a story emerges and is tacked together, it goes back and forth through a series of titrations.
But a collective process means that we all keep getting feedback and towards the end, everyone has an idea about the core of the film. People may discuss a small part of the script or the general idea of a scene, while one or two people stitch these together, elaborate on them and smoothen them out. By the end, even if a person is doing crowd control and is not in the middle of where a shot is happening, she does with the confidence that the film will keep to the vision of what we all collectively want it to be.
How were the actors chosen for their roles?
Some came because they were interested, some we were interested in. The actors went through a series of workshops where they grew accustomed to their characters and each other. People learned to play chess. Those who were not from Chakki Chauraha hung around there to get integrated and used to the space and people, and vice versa. The crew also went through this exercise.
Most of the actors in the film are untrained. But we also did have people who had previous acting experience – Madhu Bhagat (Lata) is a theatre actor, as are Aakash Jamra (Naresh) and Deepak Nema (Sanjay). Anil Singh (Tiwari) has been part of street theatre. Other than that, Maulina Midde (Monika), Nidhi Qazi (Neelima), Sheela Rawat (Purnima) Kuldeep Arakka (Devkant), Hariram Darshyamkar (Deepak), Madhu Dhurve (runaway girl), Abinav Kumar (Varun) and many of the others were acting for the first time.
Several other people in the basti including Chakram dada (the local poet) were playing themselves. However, since the dialogues were scripted even though they were borrowed from real conversations, there was an element of acting displayed along with real life.
Are there actual chess clubs like the ones we see in ‘Turup?
Yes, there are many informal spaces in Bhopal, especially in the older part of the city where chess is played on a regular basis. Though we find these spaces decreasing and other things taking their place, the people who still play do it with much passion and engagement.
The form that the game takes on here is of trying to finish off all your opponents pieces in the shortest and fastest way possible. We did change the latter a bit to suit the script, but otherwise it was all there for the taking.
How much of the film was constructed and how much was improvised?
Most of the film is constructed and then reconstructed.
The more disorganised or roughly planned the scene, the more difficult people found it to give a shot and for us to take one. Communication between everyone was really the key to pull this off.
It also helped to optimise time and other resources. We had actors, performers and musicians who were daily wage workers; locations that needed to be used for other purposes. We couldn’t afford to lose time. Having said that, there were moments that suddenly presented themselves that needed to be captured. They were completely unplanned and unscheduled but when they appeared you knew they would do something unique for the film. It could be a dialogue, an expression, a passing rally or a cat walking by a chess board.
Although the film is clearly scripted, it has the look of a documentary.
The visual treatment and shot taking style emerged from the script, actual locations and the actors. Like the dialogues, the frames were constructed around the action that the actors decided to play out rather than setting frames and then squeezing the action in it.
Every sequence was choreographed between the actors and the camera. This lent a natural fluidity of movement and transferred control to the actors/characters within the shot. What plays out finally doesn’t seem forced or enacted, thus blurring the lines between fiction and non-fiction.
‘Turup’ is a sharply political film that says a great deal about the state of our nation. How important was it for the collective to present issues related to communalism, caste and inequality?
Almost all the people who are a part of the collective or are connected to it come from political positions and broader political work. We don’t think anything is apolitical or that art should be or even can be so.
Of course, we don’t believe in preaching, but for sure, the story and what it contains, the stand it takes reflects the political beliefs of the group. Cultural spaces are deeply political and we are not shy of expressing our political beliefs.
Yet, there is hope – a suggestion of negotiation rather than confrontation.
It’s not just about not having a confrontation, because the protagonists are confronting the situation in their own way in everyday living. The story ends on hope but also indicates the continuity of the struggle for all the protagonists with newer challenges that will come from the choices that they make. Neelima may realise that she cannot take these stands and also enjoy the safety of her wealth and marriage. Lata and Majid will also have to deal with their own issues. But that is true in all our lives and within the struggle, there are small victories.
In this deeply unequal society that is getting further polarised, we also find that resilience and subversiveness in small pockets and in the most unexpected places. And it is this that gives us hope.