Once Gaurav Madan put aside the frustration over a failed film project – in which he had invested four years -, writer-director and cinematographer Sunny Lahiri set out for Varanasi. They reached the ancient city on February 12, 2019, in search of photographers, who are capturing the last images of the deceased brought to the Manikarnika ghat for cremation. Lahiri had met a few of these photographers on a trip to Varanasi earlier, and both were keen to explore the cinematic possibilities these unusual professionals held.
They settled into a dilapidated guesthouse near the ghat and spent the next three weeks roaming the city, researching locations, and most importantly developing Barah by Barah’s storyline. “It’s extremely difficult to write a movie about a place like Varanasi sitting in the cacophonous discomfort of a Bombay home. The story started to take shape gradually during our stay in Kashi, ”says Madan. Although familiar with the life and culture of Kashi, this was the first time Madan had imbibed his “filmmaker” atmosphere.
This time, however, Madan and Lahiri stumbled upon a single man, Indra Kumar Jha, who photographed the dead in the ghats, while other such photographers appeared to have opted for other means of making a living. Jha too, they discovered, was deliberating on moving to Dehradun to work with her brother-in-law.
Varanasi’s transformation – cultural, structural and political – became the central theme of the film. The tale of this changing holy city is the story of Barah by Barah protagonist Sooraj (tried by Gyanendra Tripathi), who goes through troubled times just like old Kashi, even as he gets a modern makeover with overflights and highways. The photographer is out of work thanks to smartphones equipped with cameras. But the film goes beyond Sooraj’s struggles to tell how the city’s culture and ethics are changing.
“The film is the portrait of a dilemma not only of one character, but of an entire city undergoing a cosmetic facelift. The eternal question is: in an effort to embrace modernity and development, are we ready to let go of our past? Madan says. The cast of the film also includes Geetika Vidya, Harish Khanna, Bhumika Dube and Aakash Sinha.
Since Varanasi is a very explored place and subject in Indian cinema, have they felt the pressure to say something new? Madan, by his own admission, was “quietly confident” that he had a distinct voice. He also trusted his protagonist – the photographer learning to cope with changes in lifestyles. “It was a tacit understanding between Sunny and I that we weren’t going to romanticize the ghats and the old alleys of the city too much,” says Madan.
They kept the writing process “organic” as they regularly changed roles between writers and technicians. “We did scouting in parallel with the writing of the screenplay,” explains Madan, who has already appeared in films such as Quick Gun Murugan (2009) and Barah Aana (2009). Although Madan and Lahiri wrote two other scripts beforehand, Barah de Barah was created first.
While developing the script, Madan and Lahiri decided to shoot the film on celluloid. “It was a purely artistic appeal. The story we wanted to tell was that of a photographer of death struggling to make ends meet with the advent of smartphones. Filming it on celluloid in the digital age seemed like a happy irony, ”says Madan. The decision launched a series of “soft challenges” and demanded “great discipline” on the part of the crew. “We rehearsed a scene at least 10 times before a take,” says Lahiri, cinematographer and co-writer.
Most of the scenes are long, carefully framed shots. Lahiri believes that framing a scene is part of the writing process. “The locations of the film were naturally suitable because we were in Varanasi to write the screenplay. Our only problem with the locations was that we decided early on to shoot in real locations, ”says Lahiri. Filming in the bustling old town of Varanasi, especially Manikarnika ghat, where they wanted to shoot scenes and not just edits, created a logistical hiccup. This, however, did not deter the Barah by Barah team.
“The stupendous mystery and mysticism of the place draws artists to ancient Kashi. It also attracted me. I call this place a “time paradise”. In Kashi, you can be young, old, and nonexistent all at the same time. So the last chapter of our film is aptly titled Death, Life Etcetera !, ”says Madan. The feature film’s screenplay, divided into seven chapters, was written in less than 20 days and was ready at the end of February 2019. Filming began on March 19 and ended in one month.
Its post-production, however, was delayed as manufacturers ran out of funds. Barah de Barah was screened at the Kerala International Film Festival, 2021, in the ‘Indian Cinema Now’ competition category. Its next stop is the Pune International Film Festival, where the film is part of the Global Competition section, which is likely to be held in April.
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