Women have more powerful stories to tell, Indian director Praveen Morchhale says
Art and Experience: Indian director and script writer Praveen Morchhale, whose ‘Widow of Silence’ is competing at 37th FIFF in Tehran, believes that women have more powerful stories to tell, and cinema can play a role to improve their situation in the world.
Indian director, script writer, and film producer, Praveen Morchhale, is competing at the main competition section of the 37th Fajr International Film Festival in Tehran with his latest movie, ‘Widow of Silence’.
The film, which has recently snatched the Grand Jury prize for the ‘Best Feature’ at the 17th annual Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, for its depiction of “a condition that most of the world doesn’t get to see”, is the story of a woman named Aasia (Shilpi Marwaha) who is a ‘half widow’ in the trouble-torn Kashmir. ‘Half-widow’ refers to a woman whose husband, like many other men in this Indian-controlled region, was arrested and never returned. The movie, which, apart from the lead actress, uses non-professional local actors, shows Aasia’s struggles to obtain a death certificate for her husband as she goes through her work and the caring for her family.
Mr. Morchhale was present at the FIFF venue in Charsou Cineplex in downtown Tehran, and he was gracious enough to give some of his time for an interview with Mehr News that will follow. He was also accompanied by Iranian cinematographer Mohammad Reza Jahan-panah, who worked with him on ‘Widow of Silence’.
The Indian director attaches great significance to “the human aspect of the cinema, which is universal and can be seen and understood by anyone in the world.”
How were you introduced to Fajr International Film Festival?
I came here in 2015 as a guest for the festival when it was still held together with the national event. Later in Kolkata, my film was chosen by Mr. Esfandiari, who was a jury member in Kolkata where I won Best Film award. He told me to submit the film to Fajr and he would be happy to invite me. Beyond this introduction, I was also well aware of Fajr, since it is a very well-known film festival in Asia.
So, how does Fajr measure up to the other film festivals you have so far taken part in?
When comparing Fajr with other film festivals, one thing that immediately jumps to attention is the difference in the audience. Here in Iran, the festival goers are very knowledgeable about cinema, and I believe they have a deep understanding of cinema. Other than that, everything is well-organized here. The most important thing for any festival, though, is the selection of the movies, and I believe that Fajr’s lineup is very high-standard. So, if you take these three factors into consideration – audience, organization and film selection – then you can say that Fajr is perfect, and very special in comparison to other festivals.
You are very knowledgeable about the Iranian cinema, so my next question concerns that. Do you, both as a filmmaker and a participant at various film festivals, believe that the Iranian cinema – with its recent remarkable popularity around the world – is just a ‘festival-favorite’, or do you think that the productions also have what it takes to appeal to the taste of the general audience, for instance, those in India?
Nowadays, one can say with confidence that geographical boundaries no longer matter. Most of independent, high-quality films produced around the world are accessible to everyone on the digital platform and many other different mediums. In India, in particular, the Iranian cinema is held in high regard. It is a very ‘human’ and attractive cinema. On the other hand, it also depends on how you market your films. The independent cinema, for instance, needs a lot of money for a successful marketing, and in many cases, the filmmaker does not have that kind of money to publicize the film. But still, I think the Iranian cinema has been successful in spreading its influence throughout the world due to its high quality and appeal.
How do you compare the Iranian cinema to the contemporary cinema in India?
Discussing the Indian cinema, I believe, is a much wider topic, because Indian films are made in many languages, such as Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, and there are many different film industries, with Bollywood being only one part of it. But as long as the independent cinema is concerned, I think the Iranian cinema is much ahead of its Indian counterpart, if you look at festival participation. But in the past three or four years, the Indian independent cinema has come a long way and made very fast progress. Now we have Indian films in important film festivals around the world, such as Venice, Cannes, Busan, etc. We have different cultures, with different attitudes to cinema, and different stories to tell, so I think it won’t be fair to compare the Iranian and Indian cinemas together. Each has its own unique identity, and both are flourishing.
Let’s talk about your movie, ‘Widow of Silence’, which is participating at both the International Competition and ‘Olive Branches’ sections of this year’s Fajr festival. Tell me about how it came to be.
Around two years ago, I came upon a piece of news about the situation of half-widows (whose husbands have disappeared but are not yet declared dead) in India. It really hurt me and I was quite surprised, because I’ve lived all my life in India and I never knew about this issue. So, I started doing research on the topic. It is a very human story, and sadly nobody knows about it. Here are these women who are suffering, and their struggles and strength should be brought to the world’s attention. So, I decided to make a movie about it.
What were the challenges that you encountered along the way while making the movie?
I don’t really think of any aspects of making ‘Widow of Silence’ as an actual challenge. The project was handled with great passion, and when you do something with passion and dedication, you don’t perceive any aspect of the job as a challenge. Whatever is thrown at us, we face it happily and try to solve it. If you focus on the challenge, then it starts to feel like a ‘burden’, and you most likely won’t be able to enjoy the process of producing the film.
But there were physical challenges about the area where we filmed. At night, the temperature would drop to zero, and we had electricity problems, as well as logistic problems. There were no hotels, just very small guest houses, but despite all this, we were all very happy while making the film.
When we talk about Indian cinema, almost everyone just thinks about Bollywood, what with how imposing and profitable the industry is. What steered you away from that path and pushed you toward the independent cinema? What motivated you to take on such heavy subject matters, like the terrors of war and women’s plights?
Bollywood, as you know, is very commercial, and its basic parameters is how much money they can make out of a story. If making more money means twisting the story or even diluting it, by putting in songs and dancing scenes that serve no purpose but entertainment, they will happily do it. For me, what matters is the human aspect of the cinema, which is universal and can be seen and understood by anyone in the world. I wanted to tell the story as it is from a neutral point of view; show what these women are going through. And for that I had to be true to the story and the subject matter, rather than creating something superficial. Bollywood may touch the surface of any subject, but the real issue will be lost somewhere.
So, does that mean that you see yourself as a filmmaker with a mission? The kind that feels the need to uncover the hidden truths and bring to attention what has been concealed or ignored?
As a filmmaker, you have some responsibility. Your cinema can be without a theme or a purpose, for entertainment only, or it can have some soul in it, something that makes the audience to think, and for me the latter is more important. I believe that my cinema should leave an impact or a deep impression on the audience, make them think about the issue the narrative is talking about.
You chose to work with an Iranian cinematographer, Mohammad Reza Jahan-panah, on ‘Widow of Silence’. How was the experience?
It was a wonderful experience. Mr. Jahan-panah is very humble, very knowledgeable, and very thorough in his craft and art, and very aesthetic. The most important thing that makes working with him very enjoyable is that he is very down-to-earth, without the usual arrogance you see in the film industry. His creativity added a lot to my film, and gave it a very good flavor. He also made a lot of contribution to bringing my vision into life.
I look forward to working with him on future projects. In a few months, probably, we will be shooting a new movie together. The story is again centered in Kashmir, but it’s a very philosophical film, about life and death within a social and political community, from the point of view of a gravedigger. I hope the film will be a powerful representation about the situation in Kashmir, and that we will be able to commence the project very soon.
Women are at the center of your movie, ‘Widow of Silence’, as well as in several other films I had the opportunity to watch at this year’s festival. Do you think cinema can do something to help improve women’s situation in the world?
I strongly believe that women are being discriminated against everywhere in the world, even in the most developed countries in Europe. Women still don’t have the kind of rights and status that they rightfully deserve. I believe that cinema has a strong role to play to bring these issues forward, and that women have more powerful stories to tell; they have a more powerful emotional, social and rational attitude toward everything rather than the men. They can have a very strong impact on the society, and through cinema they can achieve it very fast.
How was the audience feedback to your film at Fajr?
I received a very good feedback from my movie’s screening the other day. I believe that the ‘half-widow’ phenomenon is very new to the audience in Iran, because it is a very particular aspect in Kashmir only. At the same time, I think this human story is easily felt by everyone around the world, regardless of how particular the situation is. The movie was screened in Europe, America, Asia, and I believe everywhere the impact was the same. People have the same deep feeling and sympathy for the lead character. I had people coming up to me after the screening, whether in France or in South Korea or here in Iran, telling me how much the film had made them think about the situation of the half-widows. My kind of cinema is not too fond of words and the language barrier. I prefer to show the situation by images rather than by characters talking. This, I believe, helps the audience to feel like they are in the middle of the story, experiencing the situation alongside the characters. I take long shots, and use very little dialogue and camera angles, in a minimalist approach, to help the audience engage more closely with the images and feel like they are right there in the story.
What kind of filmmaker do you consider yourself? The kind that introduces a problem and throws his characters into the conflict just to watch how they react, or the kind that also shows the characters, and by extension the audience who are sharing the experience, a way out?
Some filmmakers may wish to put forward a problem and leave the solution to the audience, or some may wish to also provide the solution to that dilemma. When the film focuses on a particular solution, it runs the risk of limiting itself to a particular point of view, which may be right or wrong. I personally try to steer away from making judgments, and leave it up to the audience to decide what the right solution might be. On the other hand, when you provide the solution, there is nothing left to provoke the audience to think for themselves.
How has your experience been in Tehran and with your interactions with Iranians?
I’ve had a very nice experience in Tehran. People are very friendly and knowledgeable here, both the ones I interacted with at the festival venue and those outside.