‘Char… the No Man’s Island’ – In Conversation with Sourav Sarangi

Sourav Sarangi’s film Char is about life on an island in the middle of the river Ganga, where it forms the international border between India and Bangladesh. The island appears one day after the river has devoured the villages of people who live along its banks. Sarangi follows over many years, the life of a young boy, Rubel who migrates to the island with his family to make a home on no man’s land. The film was screened at Lamakaan in Hyderabad last month.

Sharanya: You have said that you made Char after you witnessed entire villages disappearing under the Ganga. That must have been quite an unsettling experience. Is it important for you to be deeply affected by something before you can make a film on it?

Sourav Sarangi:  I see every film as an important experience that makes me who I am. In a fiction film, you imagine what the characters go through. But a documentary film is realised fiction. It is an exploration of things that happen in real life. And my films are not about just giving information, statistics or providing solutions. I am not trying to explain things. So, it can’t be superficial. There is something that is deeply intrinsic, meditative and emotional about the process.

Before I made Char, I saw the river eat up the banks slowly and take away the lives of people she had cared for as a mother. I had initially made a journalistic film called Erosion documenting this process. But Char goes much beyond the erosion – into the politics of controlling river water, environmental issues, the past and the future of the people who live along the river’s banks. In Char, I found resonance with the conflict, struggles and politics of life on the island and I have just tried to recreate what I experienced.

J3PZTSQYDD5B7D8 Sharanya: As an outsider, how easy was it for you to connect with the people on Char, who have so little? What made you choose Rubel as the main character of your story?

Sourav S: It is not about being an outsider or an insider. It’s about how you approach another human being or society. You have to answer all their questions – Who are you? Why have you come here? You can’t be reserved. It’s about building a relationship based on mutual trust and respect. Then it is like talking to someone you know. The people of Char opened up to me about their tragic lives because they understood my trust for them. I was not a journalist out to get information from them. Ours was a conversation about life and emotions. We had some nice but hard times together.

About Rubel – we used to meet each other frequently on the island and we got friendly. He is a quiet and shy boy. When I met him along with all the other villagers, he stood like a rock, staring at the ground. Later, I took him away from the group and asked him to show me around the island. I knew about him – that he smuggled rice across the border. So, I talked to him as I would to an adult and he responded. I started filming with him half an hour into our conversation. Everyone in the village was surprised! No one knew he could talk so well. His silences worked very well on screen too. One doesn’t need to talk all the time to have good screen presence.

Sharanya: Your film has a lot of drama – police round up islanders in the dead of the night, we hear gunshots in the smuggled goods market, an old lady faints on screen. How do you capture the drama without intervening in what is happening around you?

Sourav S: The camera is an intervention and all the characters in my films are aware of it. They know that I am filming them and that it is my job to film them. I am not a social activist or a politician. I am not there to solve their problems. I am on their island to try and show their reality. If I lose a moment, I know that I can’t capture it again. And this is an island where the television crews and the print journalists never reach. So it is really important for me to do my job well. I have to control myself to make sure that I don’t control people’s lives when I am filming with them.

GT4PCMT4PL4PJF2Sharanya: Your film is about the river, its unpredictability and therefore the unpredictability in the lives of the people who depend on it. What keeps you going when everything is so unpredictable?

 Sourav S: The unpredictability gives me a kick. I could have made fiction films. But life in reality is more thrilling – people’s hopes, agony, their fears. Nothing in real life is scripted or structured. So, as a documentary filmmaker, I have to be very alert to capture the moment. I make sure that I shoot only when I am feeling connected to what’s happening around me. The placement of the camera, the lens, the angle of the shot, and the movement of the camera – everything has to be adjusted on the spot. You have to know how to observe life through the lens and for that you need to have an intimate relationship with what’s happening in front of the camera. Being able to do that well is a very satisfying experience.

I started shooting on Char in 2009. It was supposed to be a one year shoot – summer to summer. But there was a drought in eastern India that year. So, I had to shoot an extra year to capture the rains and how the level of water controls life on the island.

Sharanya: How big is your crew? Tell us about the editing process.

Sourav S: I got local boys on Char to assist me and help me with camera work. I gave them some informal training before that. There was no other option because it is very difficult for outsiders to survive on Char. The local boys knew the island well, understood what I wanted from them and were very efficient. I collaborated with a lot of international bodies for producing the film. But I couldn’t involve them during the shoots because a foreign crew would have attracted a lot of unwanted attention on the island. Also, the island is on the international border and there are a lot of rules that restrict access.  Post-production was a very different experience. We had a lot of international experts helping us with colour correction and sound design. So, we went from very a small and local crew during the shoots to lots of foreign hands touching the film during post-production.

Sharanya: How difficult is it to fund and find audiences for documentary films in India? What do you think can be done?

Sourav S: Indian documentary films are very successful in international film festivals but it is difficult to organise screenings in India.  We have to realise that documentary films cannot compete with mainstream cinema or television. The people who are making the policies need to realise that. The state has to realise that these films are archiving the contemporary history and thought process of the country and invest more money.

(Images courtesy: http://www.char.org.in/Stills.aspx)


Sharanya Nandini Gautam

Sharanya is an independent media professional based in Secunderabad. Her interests include the study of folk cultures, traditional knowledges and poetry. She is passionate about learning new languages, the Western coast of India and travelling by public transport. At present, Sharanya is working on projects focussed on primary education and child rights.

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