By Utpal Borpujari
Acclaimed Kurdish-Iranian filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi last year made a film called No One Knows About Persian Cats. Premiered at the 62nd Cannes Film Festival in the Un Certain Regard section, the docu-fiction is a fantastic treatise on the underground music scene in Tehran, where probably hundreds of passionate music groups practice all kinds of music, all away from the prying eyes of the government’s moral policing against particularly Western music. With a wafer thin plot of a young couple in love’s efforts to get out of Iran so that they can practice music the way they want, the film is a fantastic documentation of some great musical styles practised by the eclectic bands.
Jaideep Varma’s Leaving Home: : The Life and Music of Indian Ocean is nothing like Ghobadi’s film in its scale and scope, but both have one thing in common – they elevate your soul, powerfully showcasing how believers in cultural practices will go to all possible lengths to do what they love to do, against all odds. Ghobadi’s film is highly political, unlike Varma’s focus on the very personal journey of Indian Ocean, one of India’s most popular and creative bands. But “Leaving Home” scores for this very reason – for being able to go beyond the label of a “rockumentary” and recreate the images of the blood, sweat and much more shed by the band members to reach an iconic status.
And yes, it has also entered the documentary hall of fame in India, for being the first Indian film of this genre to get a multi-city commercial release, after the earlier single city releases of Anand Patwardhan’s War and Peace in Mumbai and Supriyo Sen’s Way Back Home in Kolkata.
Be it Bandeh from Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday, Jhini that was used in Anwar Jamal’s National Award-winning Swaraaj – the Little Republic and many other gems, the 115-minute film is full of music, be it in the form of recordings of live performances, or of jamming and practice sessions at the 100-year-old house in Delhi’s Karol Bagh that has been the layer of the group comprising Susmit Sen, Rahul Ram, Amit Kilam and the late Asheem Chakravarty. In fact, the music part of the film is what will drag any uninitiated viewer into the subject, that traces the band’s history and evolution in ways that are sometimes fun and sometimes melancholic. Two aspects of the film particularly make it really melancholic for anyone who loves Indian Ocean’s music – the fact that the multi-talented Asheem Chakravarty, who would play the tabla and sing simultaneously, is there (he passed away towards the end of 2009) as part of the whole journey, and also the part in which former band member bass guitarist Indrajit Dutta regrets his choosing a “safer” career than music (two other band members, drummer Shaleen Sharma and bass guitarist Anirban Roy too have parted ways in the initial years).
Varma, who has made a feature film called Hulla in 2008, lends dignity to the subject by not resorting to sentimentality, and lets the band’s story roll by itself with all its intrinsic dramatic elements. And the mercurial Rahul Ram, the serene Susmit Sen, the eternally optimistic Asheem Chakravarty and the energetic Kilam create provide ample amounts of that to keep the story moving forward towards an end which does not really end with the film’s screening, as the music stays on in your mind. There might have been a niche, limited audience that has seen the film in Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Pune, Ahmedabad and Jaipur where it has been released in the first phase – and that is likely to be picture in all other places where it gets releases – but one thing is almost sure, and that is that once the film gets released in home video, it will be an immediate bestseller, just as most of Indian Ocean’s albums have been. According to Varma, the mixed response to the film has got to do to a great extent on the problem of awareness about such films. “It was always fighting the odds anyway – the inertia of these times is the toughest thing to break,” he says philosophically, as he is looking forward to the second phase of release in more cities.
Varma is quite aware about the realities of the documentary scenario in India to call the commercial release of his film as an aberration. “I don’t see this as a sign of great change yet. Unless people go and see the film in reasonable numbers, it will not change anything. In fact, it will vindicate conventional ways of thinking,” he says, obliquely referring to the widespread notion that documentaries have no viewership in India. He is also quite realistic enough to say that “Leaving Home” was picked for theatrical release because it does not have a controversial subject but is filled with “accessible and vibrant” music. “Half the film is just that. The other half is a vibrant narrative about a larger than life theme – holding on to one’s integrity. Together, they make it a very accessible and non-esoteric film. So, it feels less like a docu and more like a narrative film,” he says.
But going beyond all that, for Varma, memories of the making of the film will be something that he will hold on to for times to come. “The most poignant of them was the first minute of recording, when, deciding to do the interviews chronologically, I asked Asheem about his childhood. He was instantly in tears. The very first minute. It set the tone for how much he was willing to put himself out for the film. It was very moving and inspiring for me and my team,” he says. That is what actually is the film all about – as you walk out of the theatre, you have a zing in your feet and a lump in your throat. After all, the film, like the band itself, is purely an affair of the heart.