Each year in Maharashtra, competing mandals form complex, acrobatic human pyramids as part of the Janmashtami festival celebrations. Participants hoist teammates on their shoulders, maintaining a strong (if precarious) sense of balance to create multiple levels of human circles atop human circles to reach the dahi handi (a bowl of curd) at the top. It's dangerous; it's thrilling and competitive. One tentative misstep can lead to the entire pyramid crumbling inward, collapsing into a heap of human bodies. Young men, seasoned old veterans, chawl residents, old-timer chartered accountants, children with not even puberty on the horizon, they all take part. They look out for each other, work as a team, display unwavering commitment and dedication, trust, resilience, fearlessness, and no small amount of athleticism and skill. There's big money in there, with considerable political capital at stake thanks to the involvement of religious organisations and a large majority of locals. "As I keep saying, they're rockstars. They epitomise that," says Aakash Bhatia.
Bhatia, a 26-year-old filmmaker based in Mumbai (originally from New Delhi), directed Suburban King/Top Girl, a short film that traces the exhilarating ride of the mandal Jai Jawan Govinda Patha that beat its own 2012 Guinness World Record last year by creating the world's tallest human pyramid.
Except that it's not just another short film or documentary. Suburban King/Top Girl doubles up as a six-minute long music video for Disco Disco, a song off experimental electronic artist Donn Bhat's album Passenger Revelator. Bhatia sent the video as an entry for the Music Video Competition at South by South West (SXSW), the prestigious music and film festival/conference held in Austin, Texas, annually. And it was accepted. Nineteen music videos, out of a total of 600-650 submissions, made the final shortlist, and this was the only Indian entry on the list, the first ever Indian video accepted since the competition's inception. The film was screened at three different venues (including the Alamo Ritz) as part of an 81-minute programme featuring all the shortlisted videos played consecutively. "The city was sweating people. It was like Sarojini Nagar on a Sunday. Just to be there — the entire feel of it."
He may not have won — Daniel Wolfe's video for Iron Sky by Paolo Nutini took the honours — but Bhatia sounds delighted with the response: "I was amazed and humbled at the same time. They loved the idea of it being a documentary and a music video; the fact that we weren't doing 'poverty porn'. They connected really well with the characters; they saw the honesty."
The film looks at the stories of three participants in the mandal — Prapti Nilesh Desai, the small daredevil girl who makes it to the very top of the pyramid, blowing a kiss at the crowd with much aplomb once there; Vidyadhar Achrekar, who washes cars by day and turns into the star of the show by evening; and Sandeep, who has been coaching the team for 20 years. Bhatia is represented by Story-tellers.in, a production house in the city that helped him make the film. There were, as with any indie venture here, multiple production problems with crew changes and financial/logistical issues. The film itself was shot over a period of 10 days, but the post-production took some five or six months to complete. It was a complicated process — Bhatia edited the film along with Aneesh Malankar — which had to incorporate the gravitas (plus the underlying nonchalance and coolness) of the individual stories and the action sequences of training and the final pyramid itself, set to the precise dynamic pulses of the song.
"When I was making this documentary, it had to have a music video tenor. I wanted to escalate things to the point where I see the pyramid being made." Shooting the entire thing required painstaking attention — Bhatia's intention was to capture the fears and aspirations of the three main characters, placing that against the majesty of the sport. "We shot the pyramid five different times. We could only put one GoPro [a small portable camera used in extreme-action videography] in the frame; so three times it was on Vidyadhar — once on his head to catch the girl on his shoulder, once on his back — and twice on other people in the pyramid." Each shot, each frame had been storyboarded in the preproduction stage, detailing the precise visual narrative he had pictured.
Nineteen music videos, out of a total of 600-650 submissions, made the final shortlist, and this was the only Indian entry on the list, the first ever Indian video accepted since the competition’s inception.
Bhatia has had a colourful past as a copywriter, a dramatist, a discontent film student at Xavier Institute of Communications, Mumbai — "I realised you can't learn filmmaking in a class, you can learn how to be cool and talk about films," — and a fiction film writer/director, but he hadn't made any documentaries prior to this. As a result of an experimental approach to the craft along with his assorted influences and aesthetic leanings, the film is a slick, stylised production — with plenty of silky moments of technical brilliance — with a lot of heart. "I knew there were going to be plenty of dramatic elements — like the boy falling into the water [as soon as the pyramid collapses]." Suburban King/Top Girl is entirely about the mandal and its three characters, but Bhatia refrains from terming it a "point and shoot" film. "That's not how I tend to do things. When we were working with the characters, they gave us their stories. What was happening was all shot, but certain bits [such as the boy washing a car in a deserted area] were choreographed for a visual sense. I wanted to dramatise reality and do it with these guys, not take actors. To get them to perform themselves, to have real people doing real things. That mix of surrealism, it makes the real feel cooler."
It's an alternative way of looking at a music video, not just visually but thematically too, and he reveals how he conceptualised the project, right from its original treatment note, as a music video. More than experimentation with the form, though, he feels engagement is paramount. "I think filmmakers need to approach the medium first. If you sit and trace the history of it, in the 1990s and the 2000s, people were making music videos — Shaan, Patel Rap, Silk Route. Music was being made therefore there was a requirement for videos too. It was so niche and nuanced that it worked well," says Bhatia. As with all such things, Bollywood took over and the indie space sort of withered away, and young filmmakers didn't quite have the motivation to experiment in this terrain. However, with the recent rise of indie music as a semi-competent industry, the space has seemingly opened up again. "That journey from audio star to video star has to be dealt with properly. There are a few of us who think a music video is a good way of telling a story. More directors will come forward and engage with the medium and experiment. It's such a giving format; you can barely ever go wrong. People sit and judge you when you make a documentary or a film but, as long as a music video is enjoyable and creative, apart from being a fun, entertaining thing, it has done its job."
Bhatia remains clear that while independent filmmaking may be a demanding craft, the problems — funds, lighting, permissions, logistics, poor, "horrible" actors — are universal. "I've always been clear that money shouldn't define the kind of film I'm going to make, only the treatment. A handicap is a handicap only if you make it. I don't like to associate with people who sit and crib that they don't have money to make films. Nobody has money to make films. These are the personal creative challenges everywhere. If I'm very passionate about something, and I can't find the audience or participants... you start to doubt yourself. It's one of those challenges: to evoke and invoke the kind of passion you have in people you work with."