Praveen Morchhale makes films that are rooted in specific cultures and languages. He speaks to Murtaza Ali Khan about how cinema can make local themes universally relevant.
National Award-winning filmmaker Praveen Morchhale was recently in Panjim, Goa, as part of the 49th International Film Festival of India (IFFI), where his second feature film, Walking with the Wind, had it red-carpet premiere. The Ladakhi language film recently won the UNESCO Gandhi Medal at IFFI. His next film, Widow of Silence, is currently doing the rounds of the festival circuit.
In conversation with Guardian 20, Morchhale talks about IFFI, his filmmaking career, and the challenges of releasing non-commercial films in theatres.
Q. Walking with the Wind has already completed a dream run in the international festival circuit. The film has also bagged three National Awards. What is the reason behind the film’s universal appeal?
A. Walking with the Wind is a Ladakhi language film shot in the remote areas of Ladakh completely with the local people. So there are no professional actors. The film got some early recognition at the Camerimage 2017 in Poland. Subsequently, it won the top prize at the 21st Tertio Millennio Film Festival in Rome. Walking with the Wind has also won three National Awards: in sound designing, sound mixing and best film in regional language (Ladakhi) categories.
The film is about a child who accidentally breaks his school friend’s chair. He feels guilty about it and decides to bring the chair back to his village for repair. Through the film I wanted to show the lives of the people of Ladakh. The journey of the child reflects the social, economic and political issues of that region. It is for this reason that we also decided to make it in Ladakhi.
Cinema is not just about storytelling, it also documents the particular time of an era. The world should know what India truly is. How one corner of India is completely different from another. Some films are made purely out of commercial interests but their shelf life is very short. Hopefully, Walking with the Wind will prove to be a film that stands the test of time.
Q. What are your thoughts on International Film Festival of India (IFFI)? Has it managed to provide a good platform to regional cinema?
A. I believe IFFI is a platform where cinema from different parts of the country gets celebrated every year. This makes the festival a very important component of the yearly calendar for filmmakers as well as film enthusiasts. Over the years the festival has become more organised and structured. Earlier, it used to be more informal. With time everything changes. I think this is the change in accordance with the times. Among other sections, I believe the “Indian Panorama” section, in particular, has been instrumental in boosting Indian regional cinema.
Q. Other than the Indian Panorama Section, Walking With the Wind is also nominated for UNESCO Gandhi Medal competition at the 49th IFFI. Tell us about that. [A few days after this interview was conducted, Morchhale’s film was announced as the winner of the UNESCO Gandhi Medal.]
A. Walking with the Wind is nominated for the UNESCO Gandhi Medal as India’s representative, along with the Tamil film Baaram and 12 films from various countries around the world, including Sweden, Syria, China, France, Germany, Brazil and Russia among others. This medal is given to the film which best reflects the Gandhian philosophy as well as the ideals promoted by UNESCO. IFFI collaborates with the International Council for Film, Television and Audiovisual Communication (ICFT), Paris, to present this special award.
Q. Do you have any plans of releasing Walking with the Wind in theatres? If yes, when would it be out?
A. It is very difficult to release this kind of cinema in Indian theatres. Today, everything has become a business model and so I don’t think there are many distributors/exhibitors in the country who want to promote a film like Walking with the Wind. Perhaps they are more interested in 100-crore and 50-crore clubs. So I am really doubtful if we would be able to release this in theatres. But, yes, some online platforms, Doordarshan and other television channels, might want to show it owing to the various accolades that the film has received. So hopefully it will be able to reach a larger audience even without a theatrical release.
Q. Both Walking with the Wind and your third feature film, Widow of Silence, are shot by the renowned Iranian cinematographer Mohammad Reza Jahanpanah. Tell us about your collaboration with him.
A. Reza is a very humble person. I like working with him because we have a similar kind of vision when it comes to shots as well as the rhythm of the movie. So we aren’t required to discuss too much on the sets. We just sit once and read the script and that’s how we decide the best ways to shoot different scenes. I have never seen Reza complaining, despite working in very tough conditions. During the shooting of Walking with the Wind he badly twisted his ankle, but despite severe pain he kept climbing the mountains with the support of a stick. I would say that he gives soul to my cinema through his camera. It is always a treat to work with him.
Q. Tell us more about Widow of Silence. Why did you choose to make it in Urdu?
A. Widow of Silence is about the “half widows” of Kashmir who are suffering very silently for the last 25-30 years. It has already won the Best Indian Film Award at the Kolkata International Film Festival. Also, it has competed at the Busan International Film Festival and is next scheduled for the international competition at the International Film Festival of Kerala.
Now, “half widows” are those Kashmiri women whose husbands have disappeared. There could be many reasons for their disappearance but my focus is not on that. My film is about one individual journey of a woman, over a period of seven days, who has been waiting for seven years to get the death certificate of her husband through the legal channels and how the situation becomes very antagonistic to her. She is a victim of the situation and my film is a very personal story, but that lady is a portrait of so many other half widows in Kashmir. They are only demanding a dignified life in society which we have failed to give them. I hope my film brings the focus on these women, who have suffered so much over the years.
Kashmiri and Urdu are two languages spoken in Kashmir. The reason why I chose Urdu over Kashmiri was to ensure a greater reach for the film. I also believe that Widow of Silence has better prospects of a theatrical release than Walking with the Wind.
Q. Could you list some of your influences and inspirations? Also, tell us about your upcoming projects.
A. I don’t really watch many films. In my entire life so far, I have not seen more than 60 movies. Even when I come to festivals I hardly watch any movies. I believe observing real life is more important than watching films in order to make cinema. However, there have been a few filmmakers whose works have had a strong impact on me. Abbas Kiarostami, for example, brought in a new kind of inventiveness to cinema which gave rise to a whole new language. As a filmmaker I strive for such inventiveness but as per my own style and language of storytelling.
For my next project I am working on an idea about a film that revolves around the life of a gravedigger. I don’t think anyone has ever made a film on a gravedigger. It will be a very philosophical film about life and death.