YIDFF 2023 New Asian Currents

Flickering Lights
Anupama Srinivasan and Anirban Dutta (Directors)

Interviewer: Kusunose Kaori

The film’s setting—the characteristics of Tora Village

Kusunose Kaori (KK): Seeing the facial expressions and the mannerisms of the villagers and the children in the film gave me the impression that they are a very tranquil people. What is the size of Tora village, the film’s setting and home to the Naga people, in relation to the rest of India?

Anirban Dutta (AD): As you may know, India is a country rich in diversity. The northeast region is sparsely populated because it lies along the mountains and is scattered with small villages. The village of Tora is separated into two areas, upper Tora and lower Tora, each with about eighty households. In all, there are about one hundred and fifty households with three to four people living under one roof which is considered rather small for India. You won’t see children around most of the time because they attend school at a nearby village and stay at the school dormitory. Some of the adults also travel to other regions for work.

This village belongs to the Naga people, but there are a number of other ethnic minority groups who also reside here. Our film centered on an ethnic group known as the Tangkhul Nagas. Other ethnic groups live in the same village but their languages are all different, so much so that they are mutually unintelligible. They often use Nagamese as a shared language for communication as well as a spoken language that is a mix of Assamese and Bengali.

KK: In the film, you depict the long-awaited arrival of electricity. The infrastructural facilities necessary to everyday life in Tora village were delayed due to lengthy internal conflicts in the region. However, would discrimination of religion or their ethnic minority status also have contributed to this delay?

Anupama Srinivasan (AS): In the film, people mentioned that “there are no roads, no work, and no electricity,” but every region in the northeast has had delays in their infrastructural development and been left out of most of the rapid development in India proper for reasons such as the area’s distance from the capital in Delhi, the people’s status as an ethnic group as well as their difference in appearance. Our film was made to show this from the angle of electricity but really, this is just one aspect in which they have been left out. However, this is not because of discrimination over religion. You have to understand how India got formed after various princely states were taken into the union of India. The answer of alienation lies there. Since then, there has been conflict and tension between different peoples and a constant ebb and flow of conflict over the Naga’s strive for independence.

KK: Depopulation is a growing problem in rural areas of Japan. There seem to be many children in the village, but do the young people who leave for other towns to work eventually return to the village?

AS: There are those who do not return to the village but there are also those who never leave. This is because even if Tora Village is not economically prosperous, people there do not starve. In other areas of India there is no farmland, and in many places the soil is in bad shape and famine is a serious problem. However, in Tora Village you can create a food source because you can cultivate the land and plant crops, which in turn makes it possible to get married, settle down, and start a life in the village. It isn’t exactly depopulation. On the contrary, the young people from the village are sometimes discriminated against when they go off to big cities like Mumbai, Delhi, or Bangalore for work or university because of their appearance and differences in culture. That is the reason why they have feelings of not belonging to India very strongly, but at the same time they rely on India’s government for things like education and employment. This is a very complex issue and one that cannot easily be solved.

Filming the villagers’ everyday life

KK: In one scene, the children are being taught about numbers in English and this gave me the impression that there was a diverse group of people living in the village, such as those that return to the village after receiving an education outside or those who have left to the cities for work.

AD: All of the villagers are Christian so the church plays an important role in their life. Even without receiving a formal education, anyone here can read the Bible and numbers are taught in English. Parents with a little extra money, like Jasmine who we see in the film, can send their children to the boarding house attached to the school in the nearby town. They enter the boarding house when they are around five to six years old, so the only children left in the village are those younger than that. The older children we see in the film are either on Christmas vacation or their school is out because of some kind of political disturbance. The children all must go to Sunday School at the church and they must attend worship service on Sunday mornings, which is also offered in the evening. Worship services are also held in the afternoon and at night for the adults because they work on weekdays. They frequently sing hymns, which reflects just how strong the influence of Christianity is there.

AS: They write their language using the alphabet from the Bible since they do not have a written language. The Bible contains numbers, too, so they learn numbers from reading the Bible.

KK: There is also a scene where the women are excited while discussing what they want to do once electricity arrives. But there was one woman who mentioned “Who knows? We might not get time to watch TV at night.” After they received electricity, was there anything that made you feel that the villagers had sincerely experienced a change in their life?

AS: While I am happy that things are easier for them now that they have received electricity, I also feel that the matter is very complex and it is difficult to give a simple answer. For the villagers, having their meals in the dark was very depressing. Once they were able to do so with light their entire mood was brighter and they could live a fuller life. At the same time, at the beginning everyone would flock to the only house with a television but now that each house can have one, the people went from a collective behavior to more individual behavior. They can now use mobile phones and are able to do things such as play games online without speaking with their families. A few years after electricity arrived, there was political unrest in the region and, as a result, I have not been there since so I am not sure of the status of things these days.

KK: I was very moved by the facial expressions of Khamrang, the old man who appears in the film, when he spoke about his time fighting as a guerilla. When he talks with the other villagers, I felt like his facial expressions provided something like relief. How did you feel when you were shooting scenes with him?

AD: He was a man of few words. He was quiet and always had a joyous smile on his face. Whenever we would pass his house he would always ask, “Have you eaten?” with a smile on his face. Life in the village meant breakfast at 8:30 in the morning, a snack at 3:00 in the afternoon, and dinner at 5:30 in the evening. but nonetheless I could sense his consideration for us because he was always concerned if we had food. He was always sitting outside his house on a small chair set there. He had a chair inside his house too, and these were his two favorite places to be. He would always tell us, “If you really want to have a good conversation with me, you should learn the Tangkhul language.”

AS: He was ninety-eight years old when we were filming but would still listen to the news over the radio every day. He had a good memory of the things that happened in Naga’s past, could read and write, and could make a fire and cook for himself. It was admirable to see how he took care of his physical and mental well-being, living alone and independent even though his family lived nearby. When we were burnt out after filming, we would always stop by his house. He wouldn’t say much and we would sit with him and share a peaceful ten minutes or so together before going back to our home. This very tranquil relationship between us went on for some time.

AD: We brought presents for the villagers when we went there to film on Christmas and we got a shawl for him. He was so grateful to us for the present that he said he would bring it with him to his grave and we even heard that he had told his family to place it in his coffin. Our relationship with him was full of love.

The music and illustrations used in the film

KK: The music in the film, such as the folk songs sung by the villagers, was very impressive. Could you tell me about what you had in mind with this?

AS: Singing is a part of their culture. They sing when strolling down the road, doing construction work, or while working in the fields. Singing is one aspect of their everyday life. I wanted to show how their singing was rooted in their everyday life, for example, on Christmas they all come together to sing, when electricity arrived they sang a song of thanksgiving, and even when someone passes away they sing. Grandpa Khamrang would also sing very often and we used his singing at the end of the film.

AD: Music is very important in this film and is infused with many meanings, both in a way that is clearly visible and in a way that works on a deeper level. Music is used in the film as an expression of stopped time or as a bridge, and although it can be used just for the melody itself, it is also used to express dissonance, or something that gets in the way. The cello, which is the main instrument used in the film, can be played melodically, but depending on how it is played it can also be used to express something like a dystopian world. It can produce very deep sounds, be tapped or scratched, and express itself in many other ways. I had a very talented musician from Holland, Saskia Rao-de Haas, play the cello for this film. She was trained in Western music and studied Indian classical music when she came to India, so she can play the cello in both Western and Indian classical styles. Saskia understood our aesthetic ideas very well. We had given her recordings of music that was a part of the villager’s lives, and she even composed songs that were her own interpretations of the inspiration she felt after hearing them. Also, there is a Tangkhul Naga singer named Rewben Mashangva who collects Tangkhul Naga songs that are disappearing, and we used some of his songs in the film.

KK: What is the significance of the chalk illustrations on the wall that appear between each chapter?

AD: I drew those illustrations. When we were filming, we often had long periods of time in which we had to wait, shooting only about two hours a day. At those times, I used to make sketches of nothing. I saw my daughter taking something in front of her and then sketching it, and I thought it would be nice just to sketch something ordinary. I scanned and used my drawings as punctuation marks in the film, as a representation of the length of my waiting.

KK: Could I ask what each of your roles were in the film, since you both directed the film together?

AS: It was a very coordinated relationship, nothing like “you do this and I’ll do that.” We each followed our own interests and from there the division of our roles naturally developed. We did most of the shooting together, and since I liked shooting more I mainly worked with the camera. Anirban was more interested in lenses so we would often discuss which lenses to use for the shoot. He is also more interested in the sound, so I left all the recording to him. For post-production, I was in charge of video editing and he was in charge of sound, so our roles were naturally divided. However, we always talked with each other about things and would discuss and argue when we had to make a decision. I think the advantage of co-directing a film is that we can always question each other and can balance each other out. When one of us is feeling down, the other can encourage him or her by saying, “Let’s do our best,” and when one of us is feeling impatient, the other can calm them down.

AD: Shooting went on for quite a long time, and each time we would shoot for extended periods, so we were not together every time but we didn’t want to add personnel to the crew so often it was just the two of us who went together. She is very patient and sensitive to the nuances of the location. Even during editing, she would look at the whole picture and say, “Maybe I should express the people in the village this way,” or “Maybe this isn’t going to work.” So, for example, when she was with Grandpa Khamrang, I would spend time with Jasmine, and this was something that we could naturally achieve. I think we were able to do that because we trusted each other and believed in each other’s sense of beauty and philosophy.

Creating a bond of trust with the villagers

KK: You mentioned that the project spanned fifteen years, but how long was the actual filming?

AD: In 2005, I visited Nagaland and Manipur for a photography project, a photo book that was commissioned by the United Nations. It was then that I thought that I wanted to learn more about the region. Afterwards, I did workshops with young filmmakers in Nagaland and Manipur and went around to show the films from these workshops at the villages in that area.

At the end of 2015, I heard the announcement that electricity was coming to that area. I knew that there were many different ethnic groups and subtle political complexities in that area after visiting for ten or so years, so I wanted to tell that story as a film. I did not want to just take a camera and go out and shoot and be done with it. Before any of that, I wanted to gain a better understanding. Since I had spent ten years trying to understand the region, I thought now would be a good time to tell the story, so I started bringing in the camera for this film in 2015.

AS: What we wanted to do with this film was to create a bridge between mainland India and the inhibited northeast region. We wanted to show human connection through this film. We wanted to keep the complexity of the region intact but not leave any ill feelings, to make a film that would bridge the gap, which is how we started this project in the first place.

KK: I heard that you stayed at a villager’s house for the entire filming. Was it inconvenient for you because there was no electricity and you could not use your cell phone?

AS: In the hilly area you could sometimes get reception on your mobile phone. We also entrusted people going to town to pass on messages to our families. We also had to carry water for the toilets as well as bring our own food, which we bought in nearby towns and brought with us. But for us, it was extremely important to live in the same way as the villagers and to truly become friends with them. It wasn’t acceptable to have some people come from the city to make a film and leave. It was important for us to build a trusting relationship with them by living the same kind of life together.

AD: One of the people we spoke with got married, had children, and brought her family to Delhi to see me. That made me feel that we had built a relationship of trust not for the sake of the film but for our personal lives. That is the difference between fiction and documentary. The people who were involved when we made the documentary have stayed in touch with us.

Also, documentaries are rarely released theatrically in India. Some people are willing to see them at film festivals and free screenings, but the reality is that no one is willing to pay to see them. I was very surprised when I came to Yamagata and heard that Indian documentaries are being shown in theaters in Japan.

Compiled by Kusunose Kaori
Translated by Christopher Cabrera

Photography, Video: Sato Hiroaki / Interpreter: Tomita Kaori / 2023-10-10

Note: This interview was done for an online interview collection that was only to be in Japanese. Therefore, the text was prepared in Japanese based on a transcription of the words of the English-to-Japanese interpreter. When funds were found to create an English version, the Japanese text was then translated into English. Please thus be aware that the text above will not necessarily reflect the exact words spoken at the time of the interview.

Kusunose Kaori
Born in Higashiosaka. Since 2005 Kusunose has worked for the YIDFF Daily Bulletin. Between 2006 and 2016 she hosted YAMA-Docu in Osaka at the Visual Arts College Osaka and currently works for Osaka Cinema Center, Co., Ltd. She is also a member of a creative unit that unites participants of diverse genres called N.U.I.project.