Utpal Borpujari

January 12, 2011

Christopher Mitchell: Inspired by India

After Super-30, a film on the eponymous coaching centre for economically-disadvantaged IIT aspirants in Patna, award-winning British filmmaker Christopher Mitchell is looking for more India stories to tell to the world. Mitchell, who as an independent filmmaker has continuously focused on the Indian Subcontinent and West Asia since 1988, is seeking stories of individuals through which he can portray intimate pictures of larger issues of the Indian society, ranging from communalism and caste and class conflicts to the impact of economic liberalisation on the country. The director, who has been a visiting lecturer at Oxford University, Goldsmiths College, the Royal College of Art, and the National Film and Television School in Britain, was recently in New Delhi to present a package of films on West Asia at the India International Centre. The maker of an earlier acclaimed documentary on Mohammed Ali Jinnah shares with Utpal Borpujari why India and West Asia have fascinated him as a filmmaker:

Your core interest areas have been West Asia and the Indian Subcontinent. Why these two geographies?

Both are endless sources of good stories. I think it is important to have special interests as a filmmaker, because if you move from subject to subject, for me it becomes a bit frustrating as you cannot acquire in-depth knowledge on a particular area. My first area of specialisation was India, because it is where I started making films. I came to India for the first time in 1987, as a researcher for a film on Salman Rushdie. India had such a profound impact on me right then, that in fact the very first film I directed in 1988 was in India, on the life of a very curious figure Shapurji Saklatvala, who was a Communist but was elected as a labour party MP in Britain in the 1920s. I was intrigued by how an Indian who was Communist got elected to the House of Commons. I made it for Channel 4 who at that time was very open to such quirky subjects. I quickly realised India was an endless source of interesting stories, and an incredible place to work. It’s very hard when you start filming in India, which has so many fantastic images to offer. When I say India, I mean the Subcontinent. I have worked in Pakistan as well where I made a film some years ago on Jinnah. I would like to work in Pakistan again.

When you say that you like to develop a deeper interest in an area, what are the areas that you find most interesting in India?

I would say recent, 20th century history. The Subcontinent’s history, for better or for worse, keeps drawing people like me towards it. It’s the history of my country’s involvement in India, which I think is ignored or forgotten in Britain, but which I think has impacted British society quite profoundly. The 20th century bit is a subject of abiding fascination. But also interests me is what’s happening in current India – my last film Super-30 was an oblique take on what’s happening in new India, very much about changing India. It was a way of looking at many of the changes happening. It was about ambition, about globalization, about new careers, about social mobility, about a lot of major phenomena that’s happening. It was a way of looking at many of those changes happening in India today, through a very particular prism, which was Ramanujam. I am told people are planning feature films on Ramanujam. I am going back to Patna to investigate the possibility of doing a follow up film, especially when now there are reports of fake Super-30 institutes coming up.

What about West Asia? How do you look at “the Middle-East”, as you call it, as a filmmaker?

As a source of human misery and suffering and grossest stupidity. It’s very difficult after making films in the Middle-East for a while not to start despairing at humanity. But it is the most volatile part of the world, and the epicentre of many of the world’s conflicts, be they religious, be they ethnic, be they geopolitical, be they resource based. If you choose the Middle-East as a focus area, you are not going to run out of stories to tell. It’s the cockpit of the world’s troubles in many ways, and it is also constantly changing. It’s a source above all of political stories. Most people’s lives in the Middle-East are in one way or the other are dominated by politics. If you are in Iraq or Iran or Palestine, or Lebanon, or Yemen, daily lives are completely saturated by political tension, political pressure, or political conflict. It’s inescapable. For any student of human affairs, such as documentary makers, it’s a huge area of interest. It’s a source of human drama.

You have brought in films from the West Asia to the IIC. Is it your way of taking the Middle-Eastern story to other parts of the world?

Not really. This is the only time I am doing it, as I find that Indian people are interested in knowing, debating these issues. These are films that are not broadcast on TV these days, and are not easily accessible. It’s a nice way to get these films seen and have a discussion around them. When I say “Middle-East”, it reflects more of my geographical orientation rather than any political prejudice.

Are you planning any other film in India  apart from the planned follow up on Super-30?

I am looking for stories. Most of the time these days, I work as en executive producer. I raise money for other people’s films, I supervise other people’s films, but I really miss directing. I would love to make another film on India, whether it is the Super-30 sequel or some other film, I don’t know as yet.

What are the areas that interest you about India of 2010?

That’s a very rich question. I am really not sure how to answer it, because there are so, so many facets that one would like to look at. On the one hand you have this image of India as an emerging power, and on the other hand you have these enduring fault lines, the fissures in India, the enduring communal problems, geopolitical problems, relations with Pakistan – these don’t show any sign of getting resolved. Generally, these days I tend to look for really rich individual stories which reflect on issues like, say, caste, which allows me to take a look at a wider issue. I am trying to look at the society through the story of an individual or through situations. Super-30 is a perfect example, because it was a very contained story, very geographically and temporally located, with very strong characters. I like to look for such subjects.

What role do you think Indian channels can play in promoting documentaries?

It’s a real shame that documentaries are perceived here as a minority taste. Perhaps it’s a minority taste but it’s a big minority and there will always be a place for it.  I think people engage in documentaries in a way they never do with news stories. The opportunity to see your culture, your country in the form of a high-quality documentary is comparable with nothing else. It’s a shame that more of the Indian networks don’t show documentaries. I wish they would.

(Published in The Hindu, http://www.thehindu.com, 09-01-2011)



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